Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano de Bergerac How many ways are there to insult a man with a big nose?

“Solicitous: ‘But sir, how do you drink? Doesn’t it trail in your glass?’
Or else descriptive: ‘It’s a rock, it’s a peak, it’s a cape…No, not a cape, it’s a peninsula!’
Inquisitive: ‘Do tell me, what is that long container? Do you keep pens in it, or scissors?’
Twee: ‘How darling of you to have built a perch for little birds to rest their tiny claws’.”

These are Cyrano de Bergerac’s own words about his own nose and although it might seem from this that he can see the funny side, he is actually very sensitive about it. Because of his appearance he believes no woman could ever find him attractive – especially not his beautiful cousin, Roxane, the woman he loves.

The handsome Christian is also in love with Roxane but is afraid that he doesn’t have the ability with words to impress her. Cyrano, who is a talented poet as well as a great swordsman and soldier, comes up with the perfect solution: he will write love letters to Roxane and send them in Christian’s name. Not only will this help to further Christian’s romance with Roxane, it will also give Cyrano a chance to express his own feelings. The plan is a success, but who is Roxane really falling in love with – the man who is writing the letters or the man she thinks is writing them?

Edmond Rostand’s French play Cyrano de Bergerac (subtitled An Heroic Comedy in Five Acts) was hugely successful when it was first performed in 1897. The audiences must have loved the same things that I did: the action, the romance, the combination of comedy and tragedy, and the swashbuckling hero. I’m not fortunate enough to have seen a stage version of this play (or any of the film versions either) but I’m sure it must be great fun to watch, with its swordfights, battle scenes and witty dialogue. I enjoyed reading it on the page, but it’s not quite the same as being able to see it performed!

Rostand’s inspiration for the play was a real person, the novelist, playwright and soldier Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, but only a few elements of his life are included in the play; the rest is imaginary. And what a great imagination Rostand had! There are so many memorable scenes, ranging from Cyrano fighting a duel while simultaneously composing a ballad, to Roxane standing on a balcony listening to Christian declare his love for her while Cyrano hides in the shadows telling him what to say, to the play’s tragic and emotional ending.

Rostand is credited with bringing the French word ‘panache’ into popular use (at least with the meaning we know today i.e. style and flamboyance). There are many examples of Cyrano’s panache throughout the play – and it is even his final word (although some translators give it the literal translation ‘white plume’). The edition I read was the Penguin Classics one with a recent translation by Carol Clark. I know this is not considered one of the better ones, so I do plan to read a different version of the play at some point. Any recommendations are welcome!

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest This is the second play I’ve read this month as part of my personal challenge to read the three on my Classics Club list during June. I’m really regretting my previous reluctance to read plays because it has meant that until now I’ve been missing out on some great ones like The Importance of Being Earnest. It was silly of me to keep avoiding this particular play, because I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Canterville Ghost, A House of Pomegranates and two more of his short stories); why did I assume I wouldn’t enjoy this one too?

At the beginning of the play, Algernon Moncrieff is being visited at his London home by his friend, Jack Worthing, whom he has always known as Ernest. Jack is from Hertfordshire, where he is guardian to eighteen-year-old Cecily Cardew, whose grandfather found and adopted Jack as a boy. When Algernon finds a cigarette case inscribed to ‘Uncle Jack’ from ‘Little Cecily’, Jack is forced to admit that his name isn’t really Ernest – Ernest is a fictional brother he has invented so that he can escape from Hertfordshire from time to time with the excuse that his brother is in trouble and needs his help.

Algernon then confesses that he has also created an imaginary friend – an invalid called Bunbury who conveniently summons Algernon to his deathbed whenever he needs to get away from his responsibilities in London for a while. Leading double lives (which Algernon refers to as ‘Bunburying’) has so far been very successful for both men, but this is about to change when Algernon falls in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, and Jack falls in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen – two women who are each determined to marry a man called Ernest.

Things quickly become very complicated from now on, with the action moving to Jack’s country estate where a series of misunderstandings, deceptions and mistaken identities follow. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot than I already have because I’m sure there are other people out there who still haven’t read or seen this play and I would hate to spoil the fun for you. And this is a fun play to read. I think Oscar Wilde’s famous humour and wit come across particularly well in the play format; even when reading it on the page it’s easy to imagine the lines being spoken aloud.

Some of the best lines go to Lady Bracknell, one of the ‘formidable aunt’ type characters you so often find in fiction. Although this is the first time I’ve read The Importance of Being Earnest in its entirety, I do remember reading the famous handbag scene at school. I was looking forward to reaching that part and fortunately it is in the first Act so I didn’t have too long to wait; it was lovely to finally be able to read it in its proper context!

There’s obviously a lot more I could have said about this wonderful play, about its themes, its characters and its use of language, but I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping this post short. I have another play to go and read!

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Dr Faustus As I mentioned in my post on May’s reading and my plans for June, I have challenged myself to read the three plays on my Classics Club list this month. They are The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, and this one, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.

I had several reasons for including this particular play on my list for the Classics Club, not least because it is one of the few plays (apart from the complete works of Shakespeare) that I actually have a copy of on my shelf. Not having studied English Literature at university, I feel there are whole areas of literature I’ve missed out on; I have read very few plays (again apart from Shakespeare) and almost no Elizabethan literature (yet again, apart from Shakespeare). It was obvious that I needed to venture away from Shakespeare! Also, and this may seem a silly reason, having come across Marlowe several times as a character in historical fiction I thought it was time I actually read some of his work.

Marlowe’s play, written in blank verse, is based on the German legend Faust which is about a man who sells his soul to the devil. Doctor Faustus is a scholar who believes he has reached the limits of all traditional types of knowledge – logic, law, medicine and divinity. When a friend tells him “The miracles that magic will perform Will make thee vow to study nothing else,” he decides to turn his attention to magic instead and begins by summoning the demon Mephastophilis. Through Mephastophilis, Faustus makes a deal with the devil Lucifer, the “arch-regent and commander of all spirits”: he will allow the devil to claim his soul in return for twenty-four years of service from Mephastophilis.

Having gained the powers he has dreamed of, Faustus fails to put them to good use, wasting them on practical jokes and frivolous magic tricks instead. Despite his pact with Lucifer the opportunity for repentance is still there, but Faustus repeatedly rejects the chance of salvation…until the twenty-four-year time period begins to draw to a close. Has he left it too late to be redeemed?

Doctor Faustus is thought to have first been performed in 1594 and published ten years later in a form now referred to as the A Text. A second version, known as the B Text was published in 1616 with extra lines and altered wording. It seems that there has been some controversy as to which is the closest to the play as originally written by Marlowe; the book I read (a New Mermaids edition) uses the A Text but also includes the additional scenes from the B Text as an appendix.

There are obvious lessons to be learned from Doctor Faustus – the corruption that can come with power, the dangers of wishing for what we do not have and seeking knowledge beyond our limits – and throughout the play we hear the thoughts of a Good Angel and an Evil Angel who fill the roles of the two conflicting sides of Faustus’ conscience. It’s also quite an entertaining story, although you have to remember that it was written to be performed and I think it’s probably a play that I would have enjoyed watching more than I enjoyed reading. There are some scenes, such as the one where the Seven Deadly Sins appear to Faustus, that I found difficult to visualise just from the text.

I’m not going to attempt a deep analysis of Doctor Faustus here, but will leave that to others who are more familiar than I am with Marlowe’s work and more comfortable discussing plays (novels are definitely my own comfort zone, which you may have guessed from my blog title). I’m pleased, though, to have finally read something by Marlowe – and such an important and influential play. As a side note, I hadn’t realised that the famous description of Helen of Troy as “the face that launched a thousand ships” came from this play.

My June play-reading project is off to a good start! I hope to have another one to tell you about next week.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble!

Earlier this year I re-read Macbeth as part of a Shakespeare reading challenge, but never got round to actually posting about it. And so, in honour of Halloween I decided to share ten of my favourite quotes from the play. Enjoy!

***

“Tis safer to be that which we destroy, Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”

***


“I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.”

***

“Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.”

***

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

***

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”

***


“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!”

***

“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.”

***

“Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”

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“Come what come may, time and the hour run through the roughest day.”

***

“Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble!”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

This year I’m taking part in a reading project hosted by Risa with the aim of reading twelve of Shakespeare’s plays, one every month during 2012. I have not actually studied Shakespeare since I was at school and although I’ve read a few of his plays since then I’m not sure I completely understood them so this seemed like a good reading challenge for me to participate in.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was January’s play. This is not the first time I’ve read this play; the last time was two years ago in 2010 when I read it as part of my own personal Shakespeare challenge (which was a complete failure, by the way, as I never actually got around to reading any more of his plays that year!) but I liked the idea of reading it at the same time as other people, so I was happy to read it again. This post is an updated version of my original post from 2010, with some new opinions and observations as I picked up on different things this time round than I did on my previous read.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is thought to have been written around 1594-1596 and is classed as a comedy. There are three separate storylines woven into the plot. The first involves the upcoming wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. A group of craftsmen (known as ‘mechanicals’) are rehearsing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play they are planning to perform at the wedding.

In the second thread we meet Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. Titania has a new little servant boy and Oberon is jealous. He and the fairy, Puck, come up with a plot to distract Titania while Oberon takes the boy away from her.

The third storyline follows Hermia (who is in love with Lysander), Helena (who is in love with Demetrius), and Demetrius and Lysander (who are both in love with Hermia). Confusing? Yes – and it gets even more complicated when the four of them get mixed up in Puck and Oberon’s scheming!

In Act I Scene 1, Lysander tells us “the course of true love never did run smooth” (one of those quotes you might have heard without even having read the play; Puck’s line, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” is another) – and one of the central themes of the play is love and its difficulties. Here is one of my favourite quotes on the subject of love, spoken by Helena:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

The play begins and ends in Athens but the majority of the play is set in the nearby woods, a place free from Athenian law where anything can happen. There are a lot of allusions to the moon, fantasy and dreams which help to create a magical, dream-like atmosphere for the play and hint that the action that follows may be taking place in a fantasy world, rather than in reality. The references to the moon also suggest that the important events of the play are going to happen at night by the light of the moon (I love the way Hippolyta describes the moon as ‘like to a silver bow, new bent in heaven’).

With some of Shakespeare’s plays I find it difficult to get a real sense of the time and place, but with this one I have no problem picturing the characters running through the moonlit woods on a warm midsummer’s night while the fairies dance around them weaving their magic. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the way much of the action takes place while various characters are sleeping. Here Oberon describes the bank where Titania sleeps. Isn’t the language beautiful?

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;

As in several of Shakespeare’s plays there’s also a theme of doubling and symmetry with Theseus and Hippolyta mirroring Oberon and Titania, and the two men Lysander and Demetrius being balanced by the two women Hermia and Helena. The conflict is caused by the fact that although Hermia and Lysander are in love, Demetrius also loves Hermia, leaving Helena on her own. The balance needs to be restored by Demetrius falling in love with Helena before the story can come to its conclusion. But as this is a comedy rather than a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet, it’s all very lighthearted and after all the misunderstandings have been cleared up, Shakespeare ends with the play-within-a-play (Bottom and his friends’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe) and finally, these words from Puck…

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

I enjoyed my re-read of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and will be reading Macbeth later this month.

Thoughts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A few months ago I mentioned that I would like to revisit a few of Shakespeare’s plays, but for one reason or another I haven’t had time to do that until now. I thought this would be an appropriate time of year (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, of course) to look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As I’m not a Shakespearean scholar and haven’t actually tried to write about one of his plays since I was at school, this is not going to be an in-depth analysis. As the title of this post suggests, I am just going to give some of my thoughts on rereading the play.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is widely performed on stage, making it one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The play is thought to have been written around 1594-1596 and is classed as a comedy.

There are three separate storylines woven into the plot. The first involves the upcoming wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. A group of craftsmen (known as ‘mechanicals’) are rehearsing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play they are planning to perform at the wedding. In the second thread we meet Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. Titania has a new page boy and Oberon is jealous. He and his servant, the mischievous fairy Puck, come up with a plot to distract Titania while Oberon takes the boy away from her. The third storyline follows Hermia (who is in love with Lysander), Helena (who is in love with Demetrius), and Demetrius and Lysander (who are both in love with Hermia). Confusing? Yes – and it gets even more complicated when the four of them get mixed up in Puck and Oberon’s scheming!

In Act I Scene 1, Lysander tells us “the course of true love never did run smooth” – and the central theme of the play is love and its difficulties. Here is one of my favourite quotes on the subject of love:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

The play begins and ends in Athens but the majority of the play is set in the nearby woods, a place free from Athenian law. With some of Shakespeare’s plays I find it difficult to get a real sense of the time and place, but with this one I have no problem picturing the characters running through the moonlit woods on a warm midsummer’s night while the fairies dance around them weaving their magic. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the way much of the action takes place while various characters are sleeping. Here Oberon describes the bank where Titania sleeps:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;

As in several of Shakespeare’s plays there’s also a theme of doubling and symmetry with Theseus and Hippolyta mirroring Oberon and Titania, and the two men Lysander and Demetrius being balanced by the two women Hermia and Helena. The conflict is caused by the fact that although Hermia and Lysander are in love, Demetrius also loves Hermia, leaving Helena on her own. Only when the balance is restored by Demetrius falling in love with Helena can the story come to its conclusion.

If you’d like to read the play online you can do so here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few words from Puck…

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.

*The picture at the top of this post shows “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849 (in the public domain)