Posts Tagged ‘Oxford World’s Classics


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.


Candide and Other Stories – Voltaire (Translated by Roger Pearson)

Candide and Other StoriesCandide and Other Stories by Voltaire (translated by Roger Pearson)

A compact collection that pairs Voltaire’s most famous work with a handful of lesser known stories, the Oxford World Classic’s edition of Candide is an interesting read but one that left me wanting a lot more.

A short tale and infamous almost right after its publication, Candide follows a the titular character through Europe, the New World and a couple of places not exactly on the map, showing up philosophers and organized religion everywhere he goes. He’s a guy with a cheerful sort of naïveté, always looking on the bright side of things as his life goes into the shitter.

It’s an interesting story, especially the more one digs into it and the philosophical arguments of Voltaire – “we must cultivate our garden,” as Candide says in the book’s final line – and it’s something I’m not sure I feel too comfortable digging into too deeply. I enjoyed it enough, but kept finding myself flipping back and forth at a vertigo-inducing rate to the notes at the back. And even those weren’t always enough.

Don’t get me wrong: Roger Pearson has included tons of notes with his translation, about a dozen pages worth, and some are helpful for the average reader on everything from Jansenism to the German philosopher Robeck, who preached about the absurdity of living. I assume he have been a fun person to have at parties. But I still found myself looking up places and names, always with the feeling I was missing something.

Then again, as Martin tells Candide, this world was created “to drive us mad.”

The other stories are an interesting bunch. Micromegas, a sci-fi story where two giant aliens hop around the solar system looking for signs of life; Zadig, a 1,001 Nights-styled story where the guy who tries to do the right thing always ends up punished; The White Bull, which satirizes the Old Testament; The Ingenu, which goes at melodramatic fiction (and Jansenism); What Pleases the Ladies, a verse takeoff of Chaucer.

Personally, I enjoyed The White Bull the most of the bunch: it follows a princess, a sentient bull and a king’s attempts to keep them separated, plus several cameos from Old Testament. Here, Voltaire plays the more fabulist aspects of the books against Greek and Roman mythology, especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses, playing up the fantastic elements. It’s an effective technique, much more so than his more direct snipes in the other stories.

Conversely, I enjoyed The Ingenu the least: it follows a native (at one point given a Christian name of Hercules, but generally without a name) through a winding story of intrigue, corruption and spoiled virtue. It plays with several clichés of this style of fiction – A noble savage who’s above the petty disputes of civilized society! His love must sacrifice her virginity for him! There’s a long deathbed scene! – but they didn’t do anything for me, feeling more like Voltaire having a laugh than the pointed satire of his other stories.

Generally, I enjoyed Pearson’s translation, which includes a lengthy introduction and a handful of notes, although I question Oxford’s decision to label an 18-year old translation as new; according to the editorial material was first published in 1990, nearly two decades before my 2008 edition. That’s a minor matter, though.

The notes are a little more: some are inserted in the text, others at the back of the book. A couple of them are printed in both places, for some reason. More frustrating are Pearson’s occasional editorial comments. As noted above, some of his notes are helpful, but others are a little pedantic, like the lengthy one about Jesuits and St. Anthony (which also has a bit of conjecture, too!) all from a chance remark of a character.

In another note, Pearson mentions a man named Gordon who was actually imprisoned like a character in the story The Ingenu, but notes “There is no evidence Voltaire actually knew this, although the parallel suggests he may have.” Well, if you say so.

Rating 8/10. As a whole, it’s a nicer collection than some of the others floating around out there. Penguin has Candide published on it’s own, with Zadig and The Ingenu in a separate volume. And with a list price of $8, it’s cheaper than a Norton Critical Edition (which also doesn’t include other Voltaire stories). For people who want to read Candide, you could do a lot worse. But people who really want to get into the story and the philosophy behind it, might not find everything they’re looking for.


A Fresh Take On Aesop

Aesop's FablesAesop’s Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs

With so many different versions of Aesop’s Fables, it’s probably futile to say one is the one to get. But still: if you’re only going to get one collection, you can’t go wrong with the Oxford World Classics edition.

For starters, it’s about as complete as you’re going to get. It collects 600 fables, taken from sources as diverse as Ancient Romans like Babrius and Phaedrus to Medieval manuscripts by Ademar and Odo of Cheriton. It’s a much wider cross-section than other collections (Penguin, for instance, has less than 400 fables in their “complete” collection). It has all the ones you remember, from the boy who cried wolf to the tortoise and the hare, but it has dozens most are likely unfamiliar with.

Here’s where this collection’s second strength comes in: the editorial work of Laura Gibbs. Not only has she translated all 600 fables into clear and modern English, but she’s gone a step further and organizing them by subject. All the fables about gratitude are lumped together, separate from ones about judges and ones about foolish gods. As a result, it’s a less haphazard read and makes it easier to navigate, especially if you’re looking for one in particular. She’s also supplied each with it’s Perry number, making it easy for people who want to compare it to Perry’s untranslated Greek and Latin edition. She’s also provided some useful footnotes and a nice introduction.

What about the fables themselves? They’re a blast, running the gamut from witty to instructive. Most offer at least some practical lesson – it’s not hard to see why so many people become familiar with them as children – but nearly all of them have a clever little turn of phrase or joke in them. Indeed, there’s a few sections included here of Aesopic jokes. One of my favorites has Diogenes getting insulted by a bald man and replying :

“Far be it from me to make such insults. But I want to complement your hair on abandoning such a worthless head.” (pg 268)

There are others I enjoyed, like Aesop and the Soothsayers or The Fox and The Stork. And there’s a ton you’ll recognize: the story of two pots, the snake and the farmer or the one about the goose who lays golden eggs.

The big drawback here comes from it’s sheer bulk. There’s so many fables that reading it cover to cover makes them all feel kind of samey after a while: some are variants, others just touch on similar themes. I found that reading them in a row led to some of them all blending together after a while. This is book that’s better read piecemeal, dropping in here and there for a fable or two.

Rating: 8/10. Even though they can blend together, this is as good a collection of Aesop as I know of. It’s bulk blows the Penguin and Signet editions out of the water, it’s translation never feels watered down or meant for children and it’s cheaper than the Loeb edition.  Recommended!


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.