Monday, December 4, 2017

December 2017

Approaching the Winter Solstice. It’s a good time to read Shakespeare and play the newly acquired Bard Game (see below). If we can figure it out.
In this dark (literally and figuratively) time, don’t let us forget to light candles, to hope and strive for equality and a strong healthy planet. Why not continue to find inspiration in Shakespeare?
Happy holidays to all!

As always, I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris. Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare Calling – the book is promoted by

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In Star Trek, season 1 (from the 60’s – the original!) Kirk and Spock are watching Arcturian Macbeth played by Kodos the Executioner. Then Lady Macbeth (a young beauty) quotes Antony and Cleopatra to Kirk. Later the cast does Hamlet for the crew of the Enterprise. Clever use of quotes throughout, including the episode title ‘The Conscience of the King.’ Come to think of it, this was one of my early exposures to Shakespeare, when I watched the series faithfully every week as a teenager in the 60’s.
  • Christopher Hill opens the epilogue of his The Century of Revolution with one of my favourite quotes: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
  • In Philip Roth’s American Pastoral Lou, the avid glove maker, refers to Romeo and Juliet and quotes, ‘See the way she leans her cheek on her hand? I only wish I was the glove on that hand so I could touch that cheek.’
  • In the last episode of Season Five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer they are off to fight the evil god Glory: Spike – ‘Not exactly the St Crispin speech’. Giles – ‘We few, we happy few.’ Spike – ‘We band of buggered…’
  • The entire film The Dresser with Albert Finney and Tom Courtney is full of Shakespeare references. Finney plays a grand old Shakespearean actor. Great film. See it!
  • In Peter Ackroyd’s Civil War he mentions that
    • it is believed that Shakespeare introduced the masque in The Tempest to celebrate the marriage between James’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick V of the Palatinate.
    • Frederick assumed the Bohemian throne and thus Bohemia became a concern for James though ‘it was a distant land of which he knew nothing, remarkable only for the scene of shipwreck in Shakespeare’s The Winter Tale, performed nine years before, in which it was miraculously granted a sea coast.’
    • The Tempest was performed before the king on 1 November 1611 and Ackroyd emphasises the importance of music to the play and to theatre in general at the time.

Further since last time:
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: King Lear
  • Wrote: ‘Nothing’ in King Lear
  • Ordered, received but not yet played: ‘Shakespeare – the Bard Game.’
  • Gave: my lecture ‘Why Shakespeare’ at the English Bookshop in Uppsala on Tuesday 7 November. A full house!
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: Two Noble Kinsmen. Some by Shakespeare, more by Fletcher. Quite a strange play but not without interest.
  • Have booked: a book signing event, Saturday 9 December, with my alter ego Rhuddem Gwelin at the local bookshop Klackenbergs in Sundbyberg, Sweden. We hope to sign many copies of Shakespeare calling – the book and the Merlin Chronicles. Do stop by if you happen to live in the area!

Posted this month
  • ‘Nothing’ in King Lear
  • This report

'Nothing' in King Lear

King Lear

Cordelia: Nothing.
Lear: Nothing?
Cordelia: Nothing.
Lear: Nothing will come of nothing.

     Cordelia’s ‘nothing’ is everything. Lear has already destroyed the two older sisters by his blatant favouritism and he has already brought strife upon his kingdom by splitting it then refusing to really relinquish his power. Cordelia’s ‘nothing’, which in Lear’s defence could be interpreted as he did, was just one more frightening shift in a world already in doubt of its identity.
     Friends of numbers will note that the word ‘nothing’ is used eighteen times in Act One and thirty-four times throughout the play. Lear loses his hold on reality, Gloucester loses his eyes, Edgar loses his father, Goneril and Regan have lost everything long ago but don’t know it yet. These individuals – kings and lords and princesses – are supposed to have power. From the first scene onward their power crumbles, their control over their lives and their world – the control they believed they had had – is wrenched from them and their world explodes in storms and madness.
     Lear who had the most and who is the cruellest loses everything but so do the daughters he has destroyed. His most loyal friends commit treason for his sake, those loyal to the kingdom are vicious villains.
     Never never never never never.
     That’s what this play leaves one with.
     I’m beginning to appreciate that. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

November 2017

It’s not quite blow, winds, rage blow but it is November and windy and often grey and dark but that’s a good time to read and give lectures on ‘Why Shakespeare?’ (see below) and listen to new CD’s with Shakespeare music (see below). Yes, I’m OK with November!

As always, I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris. Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare Calling – the book is promoted by

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel The Shining by Stephen King Wendy jokingly calls her author husband Jack ‘the American Shakespeare’ and some 300 pages later when things have started to go wrong she reflects that the untidy half-mad Jack resembled ‘an absurd twentieth-century Hamlet, an indecisive figure so mesmerized by onrushing tragedy that he was helpless to divert its course or alter it in any way.’
  • In the novel At Yellow Lake by Jane McLoughlin, Etta’s hard-living mother says when Etta expresses surprise that her mother might go back to college, ‘Yeah. College. Why do you sound so shocked...I finished a whole semester before I had Jesse…English Lit, that was my major. Shakespeare. Jane Austen…’
  • Dagens Nyheter informs us that the brilliant Shakespearean (and elsewise) actor Jonas Karlsson has received the O’Neill award for his ability to awaken sympathy for dark characters, citing his interpretation of Richard III as an example. Jonas Karlsson was quoted as saying that to celebrate he would be playing Richard III that evening.
  • In the film Gideon’s Daughter with Bill Nighy and Emily Blunt, an excerpt from Richard III (popular play!) is performed at the daughter’s end of term assembly.
  • In Love Actually (watched the next evening because we can’t get enough of Nighy)
    • Hugh Grant as the prime minister boasts to the American president, ‘We are the country of Shakespeare, Harry Potter and David Beckham’s right foot.’
    • Colin Firth, a mystery writer, as his pages blow into the lake: ‘It’s not Shakespeare.’
  • In Christopher Hill’s The Century of Revolution he writes
    • in his introduction: ‘Shakespeare had thought of the universe and of society in terms of degree, hierarchy; by 1714 both society and the universe seemed to consist of competing atoms.’
    • ‘Shakespeare’s historical plays illustrate the Elizabethan sense that a strong monarchy was essential to defend national unity against foreign invasion and domestic anarchy.’
    • of the ‘boundless individualism’ in Macbeth and King Lear, Coriolanus and The Merchant of Venice, and that in Hamlet ‘the conflict has entered the soul of the hero.’
    • that in the late 17th century: ‘Tragedy and comedy, which Shakespeare had integrated in his plays, are now as sharply distinguished as prose and poetry….’
  • In the modern version of King Kong one of the sailors says to screen writer Adrien Brody as he passes, ‘Excuse me, Shakespeare.’
  • In the novel Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig
    • Lottie is worried about her teen-aged son and her mother Marta says, ‘that way madness lies.’
    • Hugh, Lottie’s father-in-law, about her and her husband Quentin’s marriage problems: ‘Love is not love that alters when alteration finds or bends with the remover to remove.’ Which sonnet? Any guesses?
    • Quentin, when discussing problems in sleeping arrangements in the crowded house with Lottie, who protests that her son can’t sleep in her bed: ‘No, that’d be altogether too much like Hamlet. Jesus, Lottie!’
    • Hugh, who does not have a good relationship with his son Quentin, tells him: ‘I’ll come back to haunt you like Hamlet’s father.’ 

Further since last time:
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: King Lear
  • Ordered, received but not listened to: the 10-CD box Shakespeare in Music
  • Preparations made: for my lecture ‘Why Shakespeare’ at the English Bookshop in Uppsala on Tuesday 7 November

Posted this month
  • This report

Sunday, October 1, 2017

October 2017

There’s been a bit more Shakespeare action this past month, both in my little world, and out there in the big one. After much struggle I finished a text on that difficult play, Measure for Measure, which seems to become more problematic each time we read it. I’m not completely unhappy to leave it for this time, but what to choose next? A more pleasant problem!

As always, I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris. Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare Calling – the book is promoted by

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel A Separation by Katie Kitamura the narrator compares her mother-in-law to Lady Macbeth. She’s not terrible fond of her mother-in-law.
  • In Stephen King’s massive It (1090 pages) he only manages two references to Shakespeare:
    • One of the characters is taking a writing course and the teacher asks, ‘Do you believe Shakespeare was just interested in making a buck?’ implying of course that he wasn’t. Well, he probably was, maybe not only but quite a lot.
    • When Beverly insists that it’s her husband who has all the talent, not her, friend Richie says, ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much.’
  • In Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies one of the thugs is called Shakespeare ‘because he was as verbose a thug as you could find.’
  • In the film Genius the author Tom Wolfe (Jude Law) considers himself Caliban, ugly and deformed, and his editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) exchanges some quotes with him.
  • Dagens Nyheter
    • had a long article about a children’s illustrated version of Hamlet by Barbro Lindgren and Anna Höglund. It’s called Titta Hamlet (Look Hamlet) and the first line is, ‘Look Hamlet. Hamlet not happy.’ The reviewer thinks it’s a small masterpiece. ‘This is not just a good start for those who want to meet Shakespeare for the first time, but a surprisingly strong interpretation even for those who have kept company with Hamlet for a long time.’
    • is selling tickets to Rickard III (with Jonas Karlsson, we saw it a couple of years ago – brilliant!).
    • had an article about great finds in used book stores and mentions William Shakespeare – comedies, histories and tragedies. Published according to the true original copies. The second impression.’ It’s the most expensive book on, printed in 1632 and sold for 2 440398 Danish crowns in the Aanehus Aarhus antikvariat.
  • The TV program Go’kväll also talked about the above-mentioned kids’ version of Hamlet and the reviewer said essentially that the kids she’s read it to love it.
  • In the YA fantasy novel City of Bones the author Cassandra Clare starts out with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘I have not slept. /Between the acting of a dreadful thing /And the first motion, all the interim is / Like a phantasm, or a hideous dream’. Sadly, though the novel is entertaining (somewhat), this quote does not make it great literature.

Further since last time:
  • Started reading: James Shapiro’s 1606 – The Year of King Lear
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: Measure for Measure
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: the Sonnets, then reading the Swedish translation by Walter Dan Axelsson, then listening to those that are on the CD From Shakespeare with Love (bought because David Tennant reads many of them). So far we’ve read up to 18 (‘Shall I compare thee…’). Sadly, I really don’t like many of these early sonnets.

Posted this month

Losers in Measure for Measure'

Measure for Measure

     What murky darkness plagued Shakespeare as he was writing this play? It’s called a comedy – they get married in the end and no one dies, thus fulfilling the requirement – but it is the least comical of all the plays. It’s twisted, it’s sick, it’s disturbing. Coleridge called it painful. Oh, yes.
     I have already written about how puzzlingly dreadful the characters of the Duke, Isabella and Angelo are in Shakespeare Calling – the book (pages 390-398). In this exploration of what other scholars thought of these characters and the play I applauded Harold Bloom’s assessment of ‘blasphemous’, and Katherine Eisamen Maus writes that viewers/readers must be aware of the Christian church’s fear and loathing of sex. Since this still has bearing on our society I would like to look at how the Duke, by playing God, and Angelo, by being a tyrannical hypocrite, they make like miserable for more than just the victims Claudio and Juliet.
     Times are hard in this Vienna. We see this when Mistress Overdone informs Lucio and the other gentlemen that she has witnessed the arrest of Claudio. He is to be executed in three days’ time and she laments: ‘…what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk’ (Act 1.2). In other words, there are fewer and fewer men to visit her bawdy house.
     It gets worse for Mistress Overdone. Enter Pompey who informs her that all the bawdy houses in Vienna’s suburbs will be closed in the new strictness. Mistress Overdone: ‘Why here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth! What shall become of me?’ (Act 1.2). Though Pompey reassures her that she will manage, she’ll find a new house, and though this scene is, I assume, usually played for laughs, and though in our day and age in some of our countries at least bawdy houses are seen as exploitive and oppressive of women, Mistress Overdone’s distress at the threat of losing her livelihood is very real. Starvation was never far away in her world.
     She is right to be worried. Two acts later she is hauled before Escalus who orders the officers, ‘Go, away with her to prison.’ She pleads for mercy, claiming that Lucio has informed on her despite her caring for his illegitimate child. To no avail. Escalus: ‘Away with her to prison. Go to, no more words’ (Act 3.1). And indeed, we hear no more words from Mistress Overdone.
     Lucio is an odd character, complex and often quite likeable. Upon the news of Claudio’s arrest, he’s disturbed. ‘But, after all this fooling, I would not have it so’ (Act 1.2). He is supportive of Isabella in her first encounter with Angelo. ‘Well said…thou’rt i’ th’ right, girl, more o’ that’ (Act 2.2).  He speaks shrewdly to the Duke, disguised as a friar, about Angelo’s cruel enforcement of the law: ‘Yes, in good sooth, the vice is of a great kindred; it is well allied, but it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down’ (Act 3.1).
     He’s not kind to Pompey, taunting him and refusing to help him as he’s hauled off to prison for being a bawd. Throughout the play Lucio jokes crudely about his exploits with prostitutes – not an admirable attitude – and he is an irritant to the Duke (amusing to the reader/audience) but the Duke, supposedly satisfied with the convoluted solution he has concocted to the Angelo-Isabella problem, is unnecessarily excessive in condemning Lucio for the crime of slandering a prince first to marrying the mother of his child then to whipping then hanging. It’s a comedy so possibly the Duke is jesting but this is Shakespeare’s England (never mind that the setting is Vienna) so probably not. Not terribly amusing in any case.
     Three more victims must be mentioned briefly. Pompey, an amiable fool, is as already noted imprisoned for bawdiness. Unlike Mistress Overdone, whose fate after imprisonment we are not told, Pompey, though snubbed and unaided by Lucio, lands on his feet. If he agrees to become an assistant to the executioner his prison sentence, including a whipping, will be cancelled. Not an enviable exchange, one might think, but Pompey approves the proposal: ‘Sir, I have been an unlawful bawd time out of mind, but yet I will be content to be a lawful hangman’ (Act 4.2). Hmmm, on second thought, this is indeed a step up on society’s ladder, so by rights I should remove Pompey from this list of losers.
     Nor does Mariana regard herself as a loser. She gets the husband she has longed for. How many times have we asked ourselves why so many of Shakespeare’s clever women are madly in love with such dreadful men? Surely Angelo is the most dreadful of them. Being married to him makes Mariana, without question no matter what she says, a loser.
     What Isabella thinks of her fate remains a mystery. Married to the Duke? No doubt seen by everyone else as a true prize. But Isabella, as cold and fanatical as she may be, is surely sincere in her aspirations to become a nun. By Shakespeare’s time there were few nuns left and in his fanatically Protestant England being a nun was only a step up from death as an acceptable fate for women, but Isabella is so very strong in her role as a novice that becoming a wife, no matter how aristocratic and wealthy, is to lose the independence, odd as it may seem, of being God’s servant. So, on my list of losers Isabella must remain.
     Shakespeare never makes things easy for us. Villains, heroes, winners, losers, they’re often one big muddle. Claudio and Juliet start out being the main losers in this play but they might just be – along with the unbearably smug Duke – the only ones who aren’t losers in this most troublesome of Shakespeare’s plays.
Works cited:
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.

 Films seen this time:
  • From Shakespeare Calling – the book, page 398:
    • ‘BBC, 1979. Directed by Desmond Davis. Cast: Isabella – Kate Nelligan; Angelo – Tim Pigott-Smith; the Duke – Kenneth Colley; Claudio – Christopher Strauli; Lucio – John McEnery; Escalus – Kevin Stoney; Pompey – Frank Middlemass; Mariana – Jacqueline Pearce. 
    • A straightforward interpretation that seems to miss the essence of the play.  The cast is for the most part earnest, except for Lucio who is silly when he should be sardonic and cool.  The disgusting absurdity Shakespeare is trying to show us is not presented as an outrageous comedy, but as a … I’m not sure what.  Still I enjoyed it quite a lot until the final scene when Isabella smiled and took the Duke’s hand.  That kind of ruined everything.’ I agree with my earlier assessment.
  • The Globe, 2015. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Cast: Isabella – Mariah Gale; Angelo – Kurt Egyiawan; the Duke – Dominic Rowan; Mistress Overdone – Petra Massey; Pompey – Trevor Foxe; Claudio – Joel MacCormack; Lucio – Brendan O’Hea; Mariana – Rosie Hilal; Juliet – Naana Agyei-Ampadu
    • Seriously flawed version. O’Hea interprets Lucio as a limp-wrist fop – awful! The farcical aspects completely destroy the comic elements of this tragic comedy. Egyiawan as Angelo is good though, and Gale does a serious Isabella though she’s a bit one-note weepy.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

September 2017

Maybe the quietest Shakespeare month ever! We’ve started reading Measure for Measure but that’s about it. So let’s get started.

As always, I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris. Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare Calling – the book is promoted by

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
    • Peter, who is told that Oberon wanted to keep the beautiful child from Efrra,  (the river god and goddess of the Thames, fairies if you will) thinks: ‘She never had so sweet a changeling,’ and remembers that he had been the third magic tree on the left in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was twelve.
    • In describing ‘Southwark as the oldest bit of London proper’, Peter reminds us that ‘Shakespeare got pissed on a regular basis in Southwark.’ Well, we don’t know that for sure, but it’s quite possible.
  • In Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece Never Let Me Go when young Tommy has one of his temper tantrums he is described as ‘rehearsing his Shakespeare.’
  • In the Norton Anthology English Literature Volume 1 I’ve come to the mystery plays. We are told that The Chester Play of Noah’s Flood was still performed when Shakespeare was a boy.
  • In Season 4 of Grimm a detective describes an old triangle murder case as Shakespearean.
  • In Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the English class is discussing Othello and Buffy, who is temporarily a mind reader, gets the answers right (for once) since she can read the teacher’s mind. 
  • Jacqueline Winspear begins her novel Journey to Munich with a quote: ‘The wheel is come full circle, I am here,’ from King Lear. 

Further since last time:
  • Finished reading: James Shapiro’s 1599 - a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: Measure for Measure

Posted this month
  • This report

Sunday, August 6, 2017

August 2017

We’ve finished reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and watched a few films. It took a while but the text is also now written (see below). We haven’t yet chosen our next play but will do so in a day or two.                               

As always, I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris. Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare Calling – the book is promoted by

Shakespeare sightings:
  • Dagens Nyheter writes about Dani Kouyaté who has been nominated for the African movie academy awards in seven categories, including best film by an African living abroad, for his Medan vi lever (While we live), which it won. He is planning a film of The Tempest to be filmed on Fårö.
  • In the novel New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson:
    • The financial wizard Franklin, living in the flooded New York in the 22nd century, wonders how ‘do you invest in a mangled ambiguous zone still suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous tide flow?’
    • The two geeks called Mutt and Jeff, who reminded me from the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are once again doing the talking thing. Mutt asks Jeff if he’s read Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Jeff has not.
    • Amelia is dancing with Mutt and Jeff. They are all terrible dancers. ‘Some are born bad, some achieve badness…Mutt, the situation having been thrust upon him, moves in tiny abrupt jerks.’
  • In How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman we are told
    • that tennis was very popular and refers to the tennis balls sent derisively to Henry V in that play.
    • that the costumes used in Titus Andronicus were a lavish mix of Roman and Elizabethan.
    • that Shakespeare really is very funny’ (we knew that! But many still don’t) and that 1,700 of the words and expressions Shakespeare invented are still with us. Her examples: moonbeam, mountaineer, bedroom, submerge, lacklustre, hobnob, friended, as dead as a doornail, up in arms, all of a sudden, it’s a foregone conclusion. 
    • in the chapter about supper that women were often the ale brewers and offered their products in a simple tavern consisting of a bench outside their home. It was such a bench the night watchmen will ‘sit upon… til’ two’ in Much Ado About Nothing. Furthermore the singing of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste in Twelfth Night is typical alehouse behaviour.
  • In the TV series Grimm one of the villains, having placed the comatose hero Nick in a coffin, says, ‘Good night, sweet grimm, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’
  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer (yes, I am addicted to this kind of thing…) in Season 2, Giles says in planning with the others Buffy’s surprise birthday party, ‘Discretion is the best part of valour.’
  • In the TV quiz show Vem vet mest? Junior (Who knows the most – juniors) the question was, ’What was the surname of the author who wrote The Tempest and Hamlet?’ The boy didn’t know the answer and had never heard of Shakespeare! Another contestant was active in a theatre group but they hadn’t done any Shakespeare yet.
  • In Ian McEwan’s The Children Act the main character Fiona refers to ‘her infinite variety’ and other quotes from Antony and Cleopatra. She had played Enobarbus in an all-woman production when she was a law student.
  • Nicci French opens their (it’s a duo) latest Frieda Klein novel Sunday Morning Coming Down with a quote from Henry IV Part One:
    • Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man,/ But will they come when you do call for them? 

Further since last time:

Posted this month

'Thou painted maypole' Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream

‘Thou painted maypole’
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

     When I give my lectures on Shakespeare I often wear my T-shirt with the quote ‘Though she be but little she is fierce.’ Being short of stature myself I like to think this applies to me.
     The line is said by Helena about Hermia who indeed is little and fierce and an interesting character. Not, however, as interesting as the wonderfully, tragically, hilariously neurotic Helena.
     It’s only right that Shakespeare gave Helena this, one of the best lines of all the plays, after having given her one of the worst: ‘I am your spaniel… / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you’ (Act 2:1). What kind of awful line is that?!
     But, as noted, Helena is neurotic. She has zero self-esteem and is supremely envious of Hermia:

Call you me fair? That ‘fair’ again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair! (Act 1.1).

     She goes on to exclaim over Hermia’s beauty and the fact that Demetrius loves Hermia while she, Helena, loves Demetrius. We learn that Demetrius had in fact loved Helena until he met Hermia and in her monolog Helena astutely observes the eternal and universal, ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind’ (Act 1.1).
     It is then in the forest, where upon Helena’s conniving Demetrius meets her, that her ‘spaniel’ words are spoken. One cannot help but pity Demetrius who tries in vain to rid himself of the clinging love-mad lass, who in her raving of love for him once again manages to produce a line of wisdom, an observation of the gender roles of her society:

We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wooed and were not made to woo (Act 2.1).

     Later comes the line even more neurotic than the spaniel line: ‘Stay, though thou kill me. Sweet Demetrius’ (Act 2.2). No, no, no, Helena!
     So symptomatic of women/victims throughout the ages: a sense of worthlessness.  Mourns Helena: ‘I am as ugly as a bear… a monster…’ (Act 2.2). When, only seconds later, Lysander, under Puck’s misplaced enchantment, awakes and falls in love with her she doesn’t believe it:

Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born?
When at your hands did I deserve this scorn?
Is’t not enough, is’t not enough, young man,
That I did never, no, nor never can,
Deserve a sweet look from Demetrius’ eye,
But you must flout my insufficiency? (Act 2.2)

     She is astute enough to recognise that Lysander’s love for her is not true. Sadly for her she gets the reason wrong. She believes she is worthy of no man’s love. She believes that her friends merely mock her. Even her beloved Demetrius who now claims to love her:

O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment…
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too? (Act 3.2)
     Poor, poor Helena! How dreadful to feel this way. Amongst all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, surely Helena’s pain is as heart-rendering?
     And what follows is so very funny. So awful and so funny. The four lovers hurl insults at each other.  Thou cat, thou burr, you canker blossom, vixen, dwarf, thou painted maypole.
     What a beautiful insult! Maypoles are, after all, beautifully flowered, a celebration of light and life.
     Maybe this penetrates Helena’s psyche and gives her the oomph to flee this disastrous encounter: ‘My legs are longer though, to run away’ (Act 3.2). And run she does.
     All is not yet well however. Alone in the forest, darkness again descends upon her:

O weary night, O long and tedious night,
Abate thy hours! Shine comforts from the east,
That I may back to Athens by daylight,
From these that my poor company detest;
And sleep, that sometime shuts up sorrow’s eye,
Steal me awhile from mine own company (Act 3.2).

     Who has not felt such despair, alone in the dark, longing for sleep? Poor, poor Helena!
     Well. We know she gets her Demetrius in the end but this is Shakespeare. All is not love and joy. There is doubt. When the four lovers awaken in the morning and Hermia notes that everything seems double, Helena replies:

So methinks:
And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,
Mine own and not mine own (Act 4.1).

     Still undeserving. Still uncertain. But Helena’s last line is interesting. As the lovers’ eyes and minds clear they start to see those who found them. The duke. Hermia’s father. And, as Helena observes, ‘And Hippolyta’ (Act 4.1).
     Not to make too big a point of this, Helena sees the Amazon queen. Maybe she draws a bit of strength from that?
     Helena plays the role of many of Shakespeare’s fools, offering us nonsense sprinkled with wisdom. But Helena does it with so much more pain than the fools, such depth of feeling. Helena reaches out to us from the heart of a real, suffering person.
     Shakespeare’s characters are all a part of us. Helena more than most?

Works cited:
William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.

Films seen this time:
  • BBC, 1981. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Helena: Cherith Mellor.
    • Cherith Mellor as Helena is very good. Helen Mirren is always good. One of BBC’s best productions.
  • 1999. Director: Michael Hoffman. Helena: Calista Flockhart.
  • RSC, 1996. Director: Adrian Noble. Helena: Emily Raymond.
  • 2014.The Globe. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Helena: Sarah MacRae. Hermia: Olivia Ross.
    • An unsubtle interpretation with little of the depth of feeling the play offers, though Hermia and Helena do better at times. Otherwise it’s hammy, especially the Mechanics, especially Peter Quince, who overdoes it completely. They all shout too much, but they all have their moments as well. Flawed but entertaining and the beginning and finale are impressive.