Third-Tier Shakespeare


I recently finally got around to reading a few of what I call the “third tier” dramas of Shakespeare. If Hamlet and Lear and Romeo And Juliet and a few others may be considered “first tier,” and perhaps King Henry V, Julius Caesar, and some others can be held to occupy the “second tier,” then the ones I would list as “third tier” would include: Antony And Cleopatra, Coriolanus, King John, and Cymbeline— all of which I have recently read for this blog.


Of the four plays I’ve just read, I have to say I most enjoyed King John. Not because it was all that good, but because the language on the whole is snappier, which makes the play seem to move at a quicker pace. I am one of those who thinks– though Shakespeare was far better than most of his contemporaries at pacing and at the unification of the parts toward a climactic whole– he still basically sucked when it came to these aspects. King John, however, skips along relatively well.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to King John is that it has no great character for actors and audiences alike to cherish. Constance, monomaniacally obsessed with making her son king, is probably the choicest role for drama-queens, but Shakespeare cannot lift her to the heights of, say, a Lady Macbeth.

Shakes often has in his dramas at least one character to serve as comic relief, usually more than one, and he will not hesitate (often to the play’s detriment) to give the spotlight to a couple of banterers so that he may indulge his obvious passion for wordplay. In King John, the Bastard largely serves this purpose, but– although his first scene is funny and displays potential for a great comic character– he does not deliver much mirth for the remainder of the play, and in fact his supposedly comic interpositions fall flat and seemed wedged into the action of the play.

To me, the most comic character of the play is actually King John, himself, due to his vacillations and ineptitude.


In the play Antony And Cleopatra, the character of Mark Antony only misses by a handsbreadth the achievement of greatness that would have raised him to the altitude of, say, Macbeth. I enjoyed the character of Mark Antony– a man of natural bravery and possessing a lust for life. He is neither conniving nor treacherous (in the play, that is), but simply pursues his desires with childlike innocence and a robust sense of gusto. He is infatuated with Cleopatra, though I hesitate to call it love simply because of his apparent immaturity.

Cleopatra, for her part, seems a bit less in love with Antony, though she does appear to enjoy playing with him as a cat a mouse. Considering that Shakespeare is a playwright who has given us some of the greatest female roles of the stage, I was underwhelmed by his conjuring of the Egyptian queen. She comes off as shallow, manipulative, fickle, and quite focused on sex. So basically, a lot like a modern– nevermind…

Octavius is the third-ranking character of the play, but he merely assumes the role of sanity and reason, standing opposed to Antony and Cleopatra’s unwise passions and reckless enthusiams. Anthony’s soldier Enobarbus plays a role combining the typical Shakespearian wiseacre/second-banana with a sort of commonsensical sage.


The title-character of Coriolanus is a majorly tragic figure– who nevertheless does not achieve Hamlet-like mega-proportions. I was trying to figure-out what holds him back from greatness, and I came to the conclusion that it is because, unlike Hamlet, who is a thoughtful, sympathetic character grappling with questions to which we all can relate (the mysteries of life and death; conflicting familial loyalties) — Coriolanus is a conceited brute focused on his own superiority. Personally, I find Coriolanus a very amusing character, what with his air of superiority and his frank detestation of the stinking, ignorant, and nose-led rabble.

Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, turns out to be a marvellous role for a mature actress. She is hard and proud, and yet simultaneously motherly, and she proves far wiser and more reasonable than her haughty, battle-loving son (though, one must admit, it seems pretty obvious that he turned out the way he did precisely because of the upbringing she gave him).


Similar to Julius Caesar (rumored to have been written by the same playwright), the title-character of Cymbeline plays merely a supporting role in the play (though, at least Cymbeline does make it over half way through the play without dying).

For centuries, it was common to consider that a play must fall into one of two categories: Tragedy (sad ending, probably multiple deaths) or Comedy (marriage ending, or at least a happy ending– if those two things are not mutually exclusive). Though Cymbeline is a far lesser play, it does remind me of Romeo And Juliet in that it actually doesn’t fit either category very well. As you’ll recall, Romeo And Juliet is a love story (which normally would have put it in the Comedy category), but also ends [SPOILER ALERT!] tragically. And in truth, Romeo And Juliet contains more laughlines than Cymbeline on its best night.

Cymbeline is full of arguing and plotting and the deceits common to Comedy, but it’s slight on humor.  Even worse, what humor is present would not strike most moderns as funny at all; indeed, the jokes were more often painful than pleasant.

But the number one problem of the play is its length. This is not an uncommon problem in plays of the day, and indeed, it appears that– at the time– it was not a problem at all, for if such long plays were not popular, then I think we can assume that they would not have been (semi-) continuously produced. Even my favorite play of all time, Hamlet, should be read by producers and directors with a pair of scissors in hand.

In a sense, there are two plays combined into one in Cymbeline. The main story is that of the star-crossed lovers Imogen and Posthumus (a once alternative-spelling Shakes used). Imogen’s father, King Cymbeline, rejects Posthumus as a match for his daughter. Also working against the young couple are a plotting Step-Mother (the Queen) and an Iago-type character attempting to convince Posthumus that Imogen is an unfaithful wench.

I won’t tell you about the second storyline of the play, not because it’s all that exciting, but because –though he foreshadows it– I don’t think Shakespeare wants you to know for sure ahead of time about the second story. It’s difficult to even hint at without giving it away, but I’ll just say that it has to do with a falsely accused traitor and his revenge.

There’s also a background story in which Rome demands that England re-commence paying tribute Caesar. I was surprised at what Shakespeare apparently considered to be a happy resolution to this dilemma.

— — — — —

I was going to include in this post numerous quotations form the various plays to support my contentions (and I certainly took enough notes to do just that), but I am so behind on my reading list, I’ve decided not to. When I started my blog, 2 1/2 years ago, I did not realize that the non-reading part of the job I had signed-on for (note-taking, outlining, writing, posting) would actually take more time then the reading, itself. Reading three hundred books in three years would have been a piece of cake– if I had not also promised myself to write an intelligent response (if I do say so myself) to each and every book completed. This very often took the form of multiple posts per book, some of them pretty in-depth and time-consuming to produce.

But alas, for the remaining seven months or so, I feel compelled to tilt a bit more toward the reading, and a bit less toward the responses. It may make for a worse blog, but hopefully will also make for a more rounded human being (yours truly).


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