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Act I of The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde Read-Along, organize by Wallace.

It’s not often that my underlining pen is used this often. From the first few moments this play has been a delight and on every other sentence I’m stumbling into one of Wilde’s immortal maxims – “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

I suspect that for the single purpose of showing off his wit, Wilde creates a completely unrealistic plot and characters that talk like no normal person would, but contrary to what would usually happen, I’m ok with his smart-assery. He’s very clever, he’s funny, he’s cheeky, he wants to entertain me, and I’m more than willing to be thus entertained.

Although I loved the mischievous Algernon (this is only the second time in my life I’ve seen the name used, the first being in Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon), I’m not so sure about Jack. While Algernon’s Mr. Bunbury sounds like a bit of naughty fun, Jack’s secret is more sinister. He’s creating an imaginary brother to be able to be morally lax in town while being the epitaph of rectitude in the country. It’s a bit creepy, if you really think about it. At least Algernon is openly mischievous!

My favorite part in the Act was how cleverly Algernon trapped Jack into disclosing the truth behind the cigarette case. Slowly and surely. Poor Jack never had a chance. Did you notice that by reading the play you get a bit of spoilers because although Jack is introduced as Ernest, the text still says “Jack:“?

Favorite quotes:

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” – Wilde making a bit of fun of himself and his ludicrous plot.

The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.”

My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces false impression.


(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

How exactly do you “review” Macbeth? Especially if it’s only the second Shakespeare play you’ve ever read? Surely every original thought about it must have already been published, built-upon, attacked and defended.

Now that I’ve read it, I can finally understand the fuss. If you just want a good story you’ll take great pleasure in the spooky atmosphere and the bloody scenes, if you’re a philosopher you can revel in the Grand Issues like free will, ambition and leadership and if you’re a language buff  there’s lots of passages to underline.

Just like with A Midsummer’s Night Dream, I took great pleasure in the words, even though they were more archaic and harder to follow (it’s after all a historical play, set in the 11th century). Here are some great examples, the kind you want to memorize and use to impress people at parties:

Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold

I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full of growing

Start, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires

Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets

Macbeth is the story of a great and respected warrior that once upon a time comes across three witches that give him a vision of the future: he will be King! Macbeth believes them and starts making sure that history bends to this prophecy. Thus begins a bloody chain of events, which starts with regicide, but certainly doesn’t end there.

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

It’s so spooky that it became a sort of theater-Voldemort: in the acting business it’s only referred to as “the Scottish play”, never by its name, which is said to be CURSED *cue high-pitched violins*.

The play also has the potential to sparkle great conversations, the type I remember having with friends after watching Donny Darko: would have Macbeth been King, if he didn’t take matters in his own hands? Why didn’t he just sit and wait for the crown to fall on his lap? Was the prophecy just an excuse to bring out everything that was mad and evil in him? What about the Lady Macbeth, another Eve figure, that tempts her man into sin?

Lady Macbeth is an interesting one. She’d also like to be Queen, but knows she doesn’t have the cold blood that’s needed to kill those in her path. And she’s right, because shortly after helping to cover Macbeth’s crime, she rapidly descends into madness and commits suicide. Still, she has the best speeches, my favorite being the creepy scene where she asks the spirits to maker stronger, colder… and less womanly:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!

(credits: Kate Beaton at Hark, a Vagrant!)

As Macbeth himself becomes insane and more brutal, his speeches also become more frantic, and even more spectacular:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek

There weren’t as many insults as in Midsummer’s Night Dream (only “rump-fed ronyon”, “shag-haar’d villain” and “lily-liver’d boy”), but there were many little expressions that I immediately recognize. It was such a great experience to think “So that’s where it comes from!” Examples:

that shalt be king hereafter

King Hereafter” is the name of a novel by Dorothy Dunnett, about the life of the Scottish King that lightly influenced Macbeth’s story.

To wear a heart so white

A Heart so White”, is a novel by Javier Marias, which my bookclub read a few years ago.

The weird sisters, hand in hand

The Weird Sisters”, recent and very popular novel by Eleanor Brown

Something wicked this way comes

Same title as a Ray Bradbury novel.

One last thought (and a question): I thought it was very cleaver the way Shakespeare made the prophecy make sense. It’s certainly the same level as most Hollywood twists. Was he the first one to use a “literary quibble“?

This play, as well as all others by Shakespeare are available for free on Project Gutenberg and on LibriVox and Wired for Books (both in audio). This post will also be published at the Project Gutenberg Project.


I’ve read Macbeth for Risa’s A Play a Month Project. Next month: Henry V.


Other thoughts: Joy’s Book Blog, Becky’s Book Reviews, Rebecca Reads, A Literary Odyssey, A Room of One’s Own (yours?)

I know it’s early days, but I’ve had a good first month of 2012 reading resolutions. I’ve started War and Peace (which I’m surprisingly really enjoying), and read my first ever Shakespeare play.

Risa is organizing A Shakespeare Play a Month event and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was elected for January. I’ve never read Shakespeare in school and apart from the usual spin-offs like 10 Things I Hate About You or West Side Story, I’ve only came across the canon by watching Romeo + Juliet at the movies and Macbeth at the theater, and although I got the gist of it, most of the language nuances were lost on me. But way back then I didn’t read much in English, and what I read was mostly modern novels, so clearly I wasn’t ready to face The Bard.

Some friends warned me that Shakespeare is better experienced by listening to it, but I found that reading the book and then watching the movie worked well. I was able to go back, re-read and look online for definitions. I was able to understand turns of phrase such as “a mile without the town” or “come, recreant; come thou child”. If I’d seen it without reading it first, I’d probably miss just how visual and evocative one of my favorite lines really is – Titania describing how she got the little Indian boy:

When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind

It also gave me the opportunity to witness what a marvelous “insulter” Shakespeare was. I had heard rumors, but now I’ve seen it for myself and am very much tempted to use it in my day-to-day (not that I often insult people, but you know, just in case): “You minimus, of hind’ring knot-grass made”, “O me, you juggler, you canker-blossom, you thief of love!”, “Farewell, thou lob of spirits”.

I haven’t said much about the plot because it became a bit secondary when compared to the words. That’s why you have re-reads, right? Next time around I’ll pay more attention to the comments on relationship’s balance of power or the loss of individual identity, but just this once, let me appreciate only the language.

Ay me, for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth.

Lysander says this to calm Hermia, after her father forbade them to marry and the King threatened her with death if she disobeyed. Lysander’s basically saying that for as long as there has been true love, there have been difficulties, and I found that strangely comforting.

Bottom & Co.’s play: loved it. How very meta-fictional of Shakespeare (or maybe it was a common gimmick at the time and I’m giving him more credit than he deserves), and how funny their keenness to make sure the audience was not scared by the lion (it’s just a man playing a lion!), or of the scene where Pyramus gets killed:

(…) and for the more better assurance, tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus but Bottom the weaver: this will put them out of fear.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

Watching the movie adaptation after reading was a good idea. It not only made me better understand the comings and goings of the characters, but it was also fun seeing how often the actors used a tone different from the one I used when reading by myself.

My initial plan was to only join Risa for a couple of the plays, but this one was such a rewarding experience that I think I’ll try to do all 12.

This post is also my contribution for Allie’s Shakespeare Reading Month.






Other thoughts: tale of three cities, Becky’s Book Reviews, things mean a lot,  Educating Petunia, All-Consuming Media, Bloggers [heart] Books, Back to Books, Once Upon A Bookshelf, Trish’s Reading Nook, An Armchair By The Sea (yours?)

As far I remember, Pygmalion is the first play I’ve ever read. I’ve been tempted by Oscar Wilde, but Pygmalion was also at the top of the Ugly-Duckling – Makeover Stories list, so it got the honor. It’s a short play and it works well in audiobook because you get to listen to all the accents and the story is all about the accents.

Phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets he can teach Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle to pass for a duchess at an upcoming ambassador’s party. His theory is that an impeccable diction is the most important thing about being perceived as gentility.

Although being packaged as a romantic comedy (Shaw himself called it “A Romance”), he actually seemed to go for anti-romance. All readers expect Eliza to fall in love with Higgins and she does, but then she begins seeing him for the hyper-rational, egomaniac he really is. And all readers are expecting Higgins to fall in love with Eliza, but we’re never sure if he ever does.

I found Higgins a surprising and unexpectedly feminist character. Although he has the tact of a door nail, the man is at least honest and consistent! Eliza starts out as a strong character, pro-actively deciding to take lessons and improve herself, but then becomes completely dependent on Higgins’s approval. Bad idea.

Here’s Higgins at his best (after Eliza leaves his house):

HIGGINS: (…) If you come back I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering’s.

LIZA: That’s not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.

HIGGINS: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.

… and another after Eliza asks for a bit of kindness on his part:

LIZA: Don’t sneer at me. It’s mean to sneer at me.

HIGGINS: I have never sneered in my life. Sneering doesn’t become either the human face or the human soul. I am expressing my righteous contempt for Commercialism. I don’t and won’t trade in affection. You call me a brute because you couldn’t buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers and finding my spectacles. You were a fool: I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers is a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch your slippers? I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face. No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave? If you come back, come back for the sake of good fellowship; for you’ll get nothing else. You’ve had a thousand times as much out of me as I have out of you; and if you dare to set up your little dog’s tricks of fetching and carrying slippers against my creation of a Duchess Eliza, I’ll slam the door in your silly face.

It’s also only when Higgins’ manages to rouse Eliza’s temper that she returns to her old  vigorous self and shows her claws. She threatens to set up her own diction business… Higgins congratulates her!

(after Eliza makes her threat)
HIGGINS: [wondering at her] You damned impudent slut, you! But it’s better than snivelling; better than fetching slippers and finding spectacles, isn’t it? [Rising] By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this.

LIZA: Yes: you turn round and make up to me now that I’m not afraid of you, and can do without you.

HIGGINS: Of course I do, you little fool. Five minutes ago you were like a millstone round my neck. Now you’re a tower of strength: a consort battleship. You and I and Pickering will be three old bachelors together instead of only two men and a silly girl.

Higgins’ a insensitive rascal, but no one can accuse him of dishonesty. What you see is what you get.

Pygmalion was the basis for the 1964 movie My Fair Lady and I’ve also re-watched it for the “Read the book, See the movie” challenge. It seems a remake is in the works with Daniel Day Lewis and Keira Knightley – still not sure how I feel about it. No matter how much I try to avoid it, KK always seems to pop up in the book adaptations I really want to see: P&P, Atonement, Silk…

MFL is almost a word-by-word like the play, except of course, for the musical bits. As expected, it was “Hollywoodized” to satisfy people’s hunger for an unmistakable happy-ending (it’s open to debate in the play). Because of this we see Higgins walking home after the final confrontation has an epiphany (wasn’t there something similar in Gigi?). Small side note: isn’t it incredible after almost 50 years, Eliza’s ball dress is still gorgeous and fashionable? I wantssss it!

One of my favorite scenes in the movie – it’s great visually, love the irony in the lyrics and the dialogues are hilarious:

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