Posts Tagged ‘Oxford University Press


Shakespeare – Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraAnthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Oxford World Classics, edited by Michael Neill

Okay, so let’s start with the obvious. Anthony and Cleopatra is a Shakespeare play, which means that it’s generally very good, sometimes a little confusing and very much a work a fiction.

Essentially, the play follows the final months of the second Roman Civil War, the one where Anthony was defeated at Actium and Octavian assumed control of the Roman Republic, essentially turning it into the Empire and setting the stage for a good 300 years of perpetual dictatorship. You know, season two of HBO’s Rome. The play plays fast and loose with the facts – Stacy Schiff has noted Cleopatra was likely a good deal more savvy  than Shakespeare plays her, for example – but even now, this play has tremendous influence; when was the last time you heard Anthony called by his proper name, Antonius?

As for the play itself, I’ll restrict myself to a few loose thoughts. I’ve never seen it in performance, but I imagine it works a great deal better here than it would on stage. Yes, Cleopatra, Octavian and Anthony are all fascinating characters, but the staging and pace of this thing is hard to figure out: Act 5, for example, has a confusing scene where Anthony’s body is taken to Cleopatra: was it lifted or taken off stage and brought around? There are others, including a triumph scene and Enobarbus’ death, which seemed a deal hard to picture in my head.

Still, it’s a fun read and one I enjoyed thinking about, especially the political scenes where Anthony and Octavian talk in formalities as they plot the other’s downfall; I’m currently reading a book about Nixon’s first term of office and I can’t help think of the similarities. Anyway, it’s Shakespeare. You’ll probably like it.

So the focus here is in this specific text, the Oxford edition first published in 1994 (and currently in it’s third edition). It weighs in a hefty 400 pages, with a lengthy introduction and notes by Michael Neill. In a novella-length intro, Neill writes about the textual history of the play, it’s performance history and looks at it in the context of it’s times. He makes some interesting observations about parallels between it and an earlier play and to North’s translation of Plutarch (see here and here for stuff I’ve written about Plutarch). There’s also a lengthy analysis of the different themes of this play, which I found occasionally interesting but mostly over-my-head or pedantic. I suppose students studying this play in a classroom would get more from that than a casual reader.

Thankfully, Neill spends a lot of time on the play’s performance history; how it wasn’t staged for many years, then staged with archaeological trappings: whatever the current trend for how Roman Egypt looked was how the play was staged. I suppose it’s interesting, but truthfully, I was more interested when he describes how different performers played their characters to different effect. For example, Patrick Stewart’s Enobarbus gave the play a different feeling than Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra. There’s an interesting bit on the lack of black casts for this play, which does go out of it’s way to describe Cleopatra in similar language as Shakespeare describes Othello. It’s all interesting stuff; going back to it after reading the play helps set the scenes you just read a little better, too.

The book is packed with notes, too. They can seem overwhelming, especially when they dominate the page, but they’re almost always helpful. Sometimes they explain an obscure word or point out how it’s the first recorded use of one. Sometimes they offer textual commentary: why he added or dropped a word from the manuscript or other editions. Occasionally, they help explain a scene and how a reader should interpret it, like this note to scene 2.6, a confrontation between Anthony and Octavian:

“The veiled ironies of this scene are nicely caught in Peter Hall’s note to his actors at The National: ‘this scene is about politicians who never say what they are thinking… conceal your hostility beneath a veil of utmost charm. Make it sound perfectly genuine. The art is to show now nice you can be.’ ” (pg 204)

Generally, I found myself reading each scene twice. Once straight through, then a second time going back and forth between the text and notes. I usually didn’t have any trouble; unfamiliar words usually explain themselves in the play’s scenes. But the notes helped too, especially on the second reading, since they explain what’s happening on stage or what various editors (from Dr. Johnson right up to Neill) think Shakespeare was getting at.

A final note: I find that when reading Shakespeare, or any play for that matter, it’s worth remembering it’s meant to be read out loud, like poetry. If you’re passive when reading his work, it’s easy to fall into his verse and never come out; phrases that seem hard to follow on paper are a lot easier to keep track of when read out loud.

I don’t have this play in another edition, so I can’t compare it directly to Arden, Pelican, Norton or other editions, but generally Oxford seems about the same with Arden’s long introduction and heavy annotation. It doesn’t have the critical appendixes Norton’s usually does – just an abridged version of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Antonius and a section on pronouns – but it’s more specific than I usually find Pelican editions to be: no general intro on Shakespeare and his life, no long discussion of The Globe or etc, but a detailed and specific intro to the play.


A Masterful Biography of A Masterful Talent: James Joyce by Richard Ellmann

James JoyceJames Joyce by Richard Ellmann

A detailed look at James Joyce’s life that doesn’t really try to hide some of his negative aspects, Richard Ellmann’s biography is a blast, a book that’s both drenched in detail and a compelling read. And it just may change your opinion on one of the best writers of the 20th century.

Most people know Joyce for writing a couple of really dense books, a handful of stories and a book that’s almost intentionally unreadable. But there was a lot more to him than such an easy description: he was a talented poet, a gifted writer and a hell of a smart guy: he was fluent in something like a half-dozen languages, for example. He pushed himself and his prose into new territory, taking literature in a place not on anyone’s map.

I especially enjoyed Ellmann breaking down Joyce’s major works and putting them into a context. It’s especially so with Finnegans Wake, which he almost always opens chapters with, but he touches on the other books and plays as well.

Ellmann isn’t blinded by Joyce. he wasn’t an especially nice person: he was pretty loose with other people’s money, was an arrogant young man and wasn’t always great to Nora. He burned through friendships by the time he died, he was only on casual terms with his brothers and sisters. He was irresponsible, left debts in his trail and for a long time, kept his family in dire poverty thanks to a reckless attitude and a drinking habit. One of his roommates almost shot him as a young man and Joyce, who never forgot a slight, turned it into a memorable scene in Ulysses. He was a gifted writer, but he could be petty, too.

It was interesting to compare it to Brian Boyd’s two-volume biography of Vladimir Nabokov, which I read back in December. The big problem I had with Boyd was how focused he was on Nabokov’s novels, constantly interrupting his story to spend a whole chapter focusing on each book in detail, breaking down the plot, language, allusions, etc. It slowed the narrative down to a crawl, making the biography hard to get through unless you’re more than familiar with every single thing VN wrote.

Here, Ellmann was able to keep himself from devoting page after page to dissecting each book, instead weaving the inspirations into it. Usually it’s something like pointing out how a chance remark was reflected in Wake, then quoting that passage as a footnote. I can only think of a couple of places where he stops everything to explain something (Ulysses, The Dead) and even then, he does it in a way that doesn’t feel it’s grinding the book to a halt. I like this approach.

One thing I didn’t like was Ellmann’s casual dismissal of Nora Joyce. While she’s often in the story, he never focuses on her. By book’s end, I almost felt like I knew Joyce’s son Giorgio and brother Stanislaus better than I knew the woman he spent most of his life living with. Maybe it’s because she was a private person but maybe it reflects Ellmann’s attitude to someone who never bothered reading any of Joyce’s novels. But I felt like he missed an important part of the picture; Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora may help to fill in these gaps (I’ll visit it in a future review).

Rating: 9/10. On the whole, it’s a blast of a biography. Recommended, especially if you’ve always thought of Joyce as one of those writers that’s too hard to get into to bother reading. I’m sure reading Wake is anything but a breeze, but damn, Ellmann makes it sound like a blast.

Related: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce


The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari

The Lives of the Artists

When we think about artists, especially from the Renaissance, we generally think of old men with beards, painting religious pictures and sometimes portraits. Not exactly riveting stuff. That’s what makes books like Cellini’s autobiography so exciting: they blast away those images in a vision of Cellini going wild and pissing off the pope.

But Cellini’s just one guy and maybe a minor one at that. If you want to know about the heavy hitters, the people with names everyone recognizes, turn to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. They’re a series of mini-biographies of Renaissance artists and both a fascinating look at a major period of art history and wild source of gossip and rumour.

Composed something like Plutarch’s lives (I wonder if he was an influence?), Vasari tells about the rise of painting, sculpture and architecture in Italy in a series of biographies that range from everyone from Giotto (1266-1337) to Michelangelo (1475-1564). It’s basically a who’s who of the classical art world. A lot of the artists have the same origin story: they lived on a farm or in poverty and were discovered when their native talent for doodling was discovered by a patron or someone with connections in that world. From there they apprenticed and eventually create a few major works.

Arranged chronologically, Vasari’s lives cover the rediscovery of Roman and Greek sculpture and literature, improvements in painting and technology, the creation of several seminal works of art (like the Sistine Chapel) and the progression of art to where it’s more or less recognizable now. It’s interesting in this sense. But it’s a blast in how it contains tons and tons of gossip.

Vasari’s utter indifference to sanitizing the past pushes his lives as more than just a secondary source and into valuable history. There’s the feuds between Raphael and Michelangelo, the time Filippo Brunelleschi was kidnapped by pirates and ransomed his way out by drawing portraits and plenty of jealousy, backstabbing and (as he alleges) even murder. It’s colourful history, even if he’s wrong more than few times. Make sure you get a well-annotated edition that points out his inconsistencies.

Another important, if less interesting, part of Vasari’s lives are his steps toward what we now call art criticism. In his day, this was a field that didn’t exist; Vasari sometimes struggles to describe works in terms other than beautiful or bad, sometimes more the reflection of his tastes. But it’s a big step from just history: he did more than just recount dates, paintings and major events, often explaining why he felt one work was more successful than another. It’s not criticism, really, but in it’s 16th century context, it’s fascinating.

Rating: 8/10. The Oxford World Classics edition is abridged down to one volume, having 34 of the dozens of lives Vasari wrote. It’s well annotated, with close to 90 pages of footnotes, and includes many of the major lives. And I thought the translation was decent: it didn’t stand out as particularly dry, wordy or obscure, which means it did it’s job. Recommended for history buffs, especially those with an interest in art. Make sure you read it with a laptop handy: you’re going to want to Google these paintings as you read.