Short Story Contest

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Hello, my dear strangers!

I may have mentioned this before, but there was a short story contest at my Uni a few weeks back. I submitted my story, though I had no high expectations. There were probably about eighty other students entering the contest as well and all I really hoped for was some positive feedback or perhaps a chance to enter the final round. Enter the final round I did and, though I didn’t take home the winning prize, I have nonetheless won second place.

The announcement came during the first exam period of the summer, a very stressful time filled with textbooks and studying and despairing. It gave me a boost of confidence I sorely needed and reassured me that my work was up to scratch. The 1000-word-limit represented a bit of an obstacle, as I’m not very good with “showing and not telling” and require lots of detailed descriptions. I like to dissect emotions and then write down as much as I can about them, once I’ve broken them down into microscopic pieces. So, I decided to experiment a bit and tried my hand at writing in a minimalist style, which is something I’d never done before. And – it paid off!

Seldom do I show my work to other people, as I can’t stand the thought of having my baby criticised and butchered by others. However, I’m showing it to you, with the deepest hope that you’ll be kind with your constructive criticism. This story is something of a love letter to my parents, a way to say “Hey, congratulations, you raised a crazy kid and an autistic kid and you’ve still got all your marbles. You made it through to the other side and we couldn’t be more grateful for everything you’ve done for us.” Enjoy.

 

A day in the life of a woman, a man and a boy

 

“So, what happened today?”, the woman asked.

All of a sudden, his look turned distant. His smile receded. His hand clutched hers that much tighter. The woman sighed and looked away.

She knew she wouldn’t be getting an answer. She remembered reading once that children process grief and trauma much differently than adults do. There might be shudders within, but no more than a ripple on the surface. Besides, she had already grown used to the boy’s silence.

The principal had already told her about what had happened at school that morning. The story never deviated much. The boy’s strange ways and his innate desire to fit in often clashed with the norms, prompting his peers to distance themselves from him even more, labelling him as the other, the one whose behaviour could never be accepted. His inarticulate screams and puzzling hand gestures never were interpreted for what they really were – earnest attempts at reaching out.

“Sticks and stones”, the woman repeated her trite mantra.

“Zzzzz”, the boy hissed through his teeth. Besides an occasional ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, that was the only sound he had ever uttered.

The woman had noticed an almost imperceptible change in the boy’s demeanour. While he was usually ready to accept such statements with an unwavering faith of a child, he now seemed more sullen and dubious. The doctor had told her that was a good sign. It meant the boy was growing up and accepting injustice that came with being.

They slowly made their way home. The boy didn’t like public transportation. The woman dreaded it as well. There were too many disapproving stares, usually directed at her. She could read the tacit rebuke in the eyes of the elderly ladies.

“Eat your veggies”, the woman said once they had reached their small apartment, placing a colourful plate in front of the boy.

A quiet ‘zzzzz’ was his only comment of objection. He slowly raised the fork and tried to aim at the mouth. As usual, peas scattered everywhere.

The woman quickly gave him a spoon, then collected the peas and tossed them in the cat’s bowl. It suddenly occurred to her that she wouldn’t be able to make it to her high school reunion. The boy had a check-up the following morning, an event that required lots of preparation and soothing words. She wondered sometimes just how much of it he understood.

The doctor had told her it would get better. The priest had advised her not to lose hope. She smiled bitterly at the memory. There was nothing in the holy book of lies to alleviate her pain, nothing that would vouch for advancement. She used to be an aimless child of privilege, the entire world beneath her feet, ready for the taking. As the years went on, her options seemed fewer and fewer. Her idealism was caving under the pressures of responsibility, washed away by the waves of tomorrow.

She sometimes missed the boy. Even though they had lived under the same roof, she missed the illusion of what their relationship would’ve been like, had he been born a healthy baby.

Fear for the future crept back into her bones, yet she wouldn’t fight it. At times, it felt as though fear was the only thing she had. Without it, she failed all of life’s tests.

The door opened and the man walked inside. He smiled and set down a rectangular parcel on the counter. A beam of light coming from the narrow balcony shone over his face and, for a moment there, he looked like he was twenty again, his face wrinkle-free, his shoulders unburdened. The woman smiled. She knew it was a folly. The arrow of time points in one direction only.

“I bought the cake”, he said and gave her a routine peck on the cheek, before going to the bathroom.

“I’ll get the candles”, the woman said.

Another memory snuck back into her thoughts. Shortly after the boy had been born, the man had offered to quit his job and stay home to look after him. The woman loved him for being ready to do it. But she could see that he would never be able to live with such a sacrifice. So, she had quit her job and stayed home instead. She never thought she could do something like that, but one way or another, she kept allowing for more. Her tolerance and the very notion of what was acceptable and what wasn’t perpetually kept expanding. She couldn’t figure out whether that had meant she was losing her principles or her innocence. In any case, day after day, she kept allowing for a little more reality.

The sun was beginning to descend. The woman quickly changed into a pair of old, bleached jeans and her nicest cashmere sweater. Her best friend had given it to her seven months earlier, when they had arranged a meeting in a busy cafe. Her friend had squeezed her in between two power lunches, regaling her with anecdotes from her travels and the successful deals she had closed. The dreaded question hadn’t been far off.

“So, what about you?”, her friend had asked, sipping her pricey cocktail.

The conversation had died down soon afterwards. Her friend had offered her a few sympathetic words of comfort. At the time, they had sounded genuine.

After putting on some light make-up, the woman went to the kitchen and quickly lit the candles atop a simple chocolate cake. She set it down on the dining room table and then peeked in the boy’s room. The man was helping him dress.

They came out shortly afterwards and the man seated the boy in a chair before the cake. They sang for him. They blew out the candles for him. They clapped their hands for him. The woman quickly brought a knife from the kitchen and began cutting the cake. The man knelt down beside the chair the boy was sitting on, embraced him and said: “Happy fourteenth birthday, son.”

“Zzzzz…”

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On Writing

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Hello, my darling strangers!

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On Writing has left me feeling excited, yet calm, blown away, yet strangely tranquil, as a person who’d just received some good news which they’d already anticipated. Something along those lines, not really sure how to put it to words. I read this book for three reasons:
1. I love Stephen King’s style
2. I wanted to learn more about his life, his childhood, his thoughts, beliefs and lifestyle
3. I wanted to pick up as many tricks of the trade as it was possible

I won’t go into many details concerning his writing style. Naturally, it differs from the one he uses when writing fiction, though not considerably. Simple, consistent and unassuming, yet packed with great vocab. It felt a bit like going back to a childhood favourite, rereading it and enjoying as that familiar warm sensation grabs at you all over again.
His life was an interesting one, spectacular at times, mundane at others. He writes clearly and truthfully about the more trying moments of his life, such as his addiction and his accident. At times, he seems almost like your average Joe, but then he writes something which makes you remember that he’s one of the great literary minds of our time. All in all, he seems like the perfect conversationalist, one you could sit down or take a walk with, spending numerous enjoyable hours talking with on a sundry of different topics. I’d like to meet him one day and get to have that conversation, although I’m not sure what I would say or if I could in fact avoid the Annie-Wilkes-scenario and just blurt out “I’m your number one fan!”
Now, as far as all the tips and pieces of advice go, I’m still not certain what to make of them. I agree with most of them and have already spotted the ones that represent my weaker points. The road to Hell is paved with adverbs, indeed. Yet, adverbs were created for a reason. They serve a purpose and sometimes you can’t avoid them. More than that, you don’t feel like avoiding them at all. You crave them. Perhaps that’s just my beginner writer mindset talking and perhaps adverbs really do represent crutches for desperate, unsure writers, but I simply don’t feel like parting ways with them. At least, not yet.

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I have been writing for as long as I can remember. And, for as long as I can remember, my writing has primarily been in English and not my mother tongue. I couldn’t elaborate on that. It simply is the way it is. I’m in my early twenties, attending Uni (an English major, go figure, very original), volunteering, making sure I visit my Gran as often as possible, fighting my cat’s urinary infection, travelling, trying to spend decent amounts of time with my family and friends. It’s fair to say that, although reading takes up a decent chunk of my time and is an activity I could never give up, writing is somewhat neglected. The semesters are chaotic little three-month units packed with exams, tests, essays, presentations, classes, seminars and so forth. For fast learners, that presents no problem. I know people who pass all exams with flying colours, all while maintaining a healthy social life, cooking their own meals, going to the gym, volunteering, travelling and what not, the kind of people who learn 90% of what needs to be learned in class. Try as I might, I am not, nor will I ever be one of those people. My studies frequently leave me awake till the wee hours of the morning, studying till my eyes begin to bleed with a sort of stubborn determination one can only find in slow learners. I’m not trying to make excuses for neglecting writing, I’m just telling it as it is. Ok, I may be trying to make excuses just a little bit…

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Where was I going with this again? Not sure. Anyway, I’ve accumulated gobs of work in the past twenty years or so. My mum recently found a poem which I had written back when I eleven or twelve, consisting entirely of the word ‘kill’ repeated over and over again across three pages of her old recipe book. What can I say, mum, you raised a sociopath. Or maybe that’s just the mindset of any prepubescent girl? My work has never been published, since it’s almost exclusively in English, though a few stories of mine have found themselves on several writing sites. So far, my work has mostly been preparatory. Probably none of it is any good, but it’s been preparing me for what’s to come and has served its purpose in honing my skills. Some say your real good writing begins in your twenties, other say thirties, others still forties. Whatever the case, I feel like I’m ready to slowly put an end to the work I’ve been writing so far, finish everything that’s left to finish and tie all the loose ends before moving on to my ‘real writing’. It’s going to take some time, since I have several unfinished projects I can seldom afford to work on, but I predict it’s all going to be done and dusted before I graduate.
Anyway, another aspect I’m having a lot of trouble with is ‘show, don’t tell’. I’ve never believed in astrology and the behavioural patterns lurking behind horoscope signs, simply because I never behaved the way my sign is supposed to behave. When you think of a Virgo, what’s more – a female Virgo, your mind is probably already predestined to conjure up an image of a dainty creature, as perfect and as polished as an idealised anime girl, her organisational skills bar none, all neat and tidy and a bit too prim and proper. Being a self-proclaimed bull in a china shop, my room messy, my car messy, my hair dishevelled and afraid of the brush, my clothes ripped or smeared with yesterday’s meal, I’m the furthest thing away from a Virgo. Yet, as I grow older, I’m beginning to notice a few patterns that invariably remind me of the textbook example of a Virgo. My flat and car may be messy, the dishes in my sink may be reaching seven-dwarfs heights and I may not pay much attention to my clothes being all wrinkly even when I go out, but my mind is very much Virgo. I don’t make lists, yet my head is full of them. I have an analytical mind that’s always in the fifth gear. I’m the kind of person that likes explaining things thoroughly and that appreciates things being thoroughly explained to me. I suspect that’s why I’m having trouble with ‘show, don’t tell’. I show, but I do a Hell of a lot of telling as well. Just look at this paragraph and how much it has taken me to convey that simple fact. There’s another issue there – I like my style. I like it a lot. I suspect it suits the analytical, introverted, navel-gazing brats such as myself a lot. Others, not so much.

For instance, I experienced a lovely moment with a fascinating young man a couple of weeks ago. He hugged me. I know it doesn’t sound very spectacular, but it was his child-like innocence, refreshing idealism, a positive outlook, the conversation leading up to it and his overt interest in me that had made that moment memorable, even magical. It had taken me roughly two and a half hours to retell that scene to my friend later on. I kept digressing into minor details, the weather conditions of that particular day, his views on equestrian sports, the skirt that I had been wearing and so forth. And while I’m certainly not in love, not even infatuated with him, and have already placed him firmly in the friendzone (sorry, H.), I definitely found that moment very adorable and lovely and felt like telling it. Only, it didn’t feel as if I was retelling a scene from my own life to my friend. It may have seemed like that to her, but what I was actually doing was narrating. I was telling a story, kind of detached from it, as if it had happened to one of my characters and not to me. I kept digressing so much that she could barely keep up with me. I could barely keep up with my own thoughts and frequently made brief pauses in order to remind myself of what it was that I was actually trying to say. You can spot that clearly in one of the paragraphs above. I had a point, I just know I had a point I was trying to get across in that passage, yet I kept digressing so much that, in the end, I lost it.

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And therein lies the greatest problem when it comes to my writing. I’ll digress again. 🙂 A couple of weeks ago, we were asked to write a short story for our grammar class. I decided to take a different approach and experiment with a minimalist style, not only for the sake of experimenting and challenging myself to write in a way I wasn’t accustomed to, but also because we had a thousand word limit to work within. Our grammar professor graded the stories based on grammar, tenses, conjunction and vocabulary and our literature professor graded it based on the stories’ literary quality. Sounds reasonable. They later got together and agreed upon a final grade. I got a ten. Both professors lauded my story in front of the entire class, simultaneously making me blush and making me vaunt (internally). Yet, beneath the smiling veneer, I felt somewhat uneasy. I wondered how my story would have been graded and how much it would’ve been praised, had I decided not to experiment with minimalism and kept to my usual style.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like my story. I like the end result. I like reading minimalistic works. But, that style… It’s just not my cup of tea when it comes to writing. I had to work against myself a lot to finish it and submit it the way it was. I would never opt for minimalism if given a choice. And that brings me to the final and most torturous issue that reading On Writing has raised for me. What if my work will only get to enjoy success and appreciation of the readers if I write against myself? If I follow the well-established rules and ignore my innate desire for over-description and digressing? Should I follow the rules which will supposedly help me grow as an author or follow my heart and my instincts, even though that may lead to my work being considered bad or of lesser quality? And, mind you, these are not just Stephen King’s rules; ‘show, don’t tell’ is an age-old rule which writers have been advocating since forever. Maybe I am capable of producing better-quality work, but simply don’t enjoy all the rules that come with that. That is certainly one of the topics I’ll discuss with Mr. King if I ever get to meet him and somehow persuade him to take a stroll with me.

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I feel like I may have focused entirely too much on the craft part of this book, while largely downplaying the importance of its first part, the so-called C.V. in which King weaves the tale of his life. Perhaps because the craft part is the freshest in my mind. As I’ve already mentioned, parts of his life were spectacular, while other parts were mundane. But, none of them were ever boring, at least not to me as a reader. I especially enjoyed that phase before the breakthrough success of Carrie, while Stephen and Tabitha were juggling kids and jobs and struggling financially. Though I’m sure they didn’t enjoy living through such trying times half as much as I enjoyed reading about them. There’s something about success after a period of struggling that I’ve always appreciated. Call it ‘the underdog syndrome’ or a ‘rags to riches’ story. It’s not even about money and the financial aspect of the story, but about your hard work being appreciated and rewarded.
I just remembered another aspect I’d like to discuss, regarding showing and not telling. Some people have called my characters too self-aware. I know they are and I’m proud of them for being that way. Has it ever happened to you that you’re watching a movie or reading a book in which a character says something along the lines of “I don’t understand what’s happening to me?”, all the while showing classic signs and symptoms of something? I don’t want my characters to be that daft and when I see other people’s characters acting that way, I invariably ask myself – have these people ever heard of Stockholm syndrome? Depression? Survivor’s guilt? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Menopause? Mid-life crisis? Quarter-life crisis? Well, my characters have. They’re well-read, or at least informed enough about this world to figure out what’s happening to them without a doctor’s note specifying it. For example, I hate depression. Not the state (although there’s lots to hate about it), but the word ‘depression’ itself. I feel like it is being thrown around way too lightly. There are real people out there suffering from real depression, so, no – you do not get to use that word just because you’re on your period, or your team loses a match or, God forbid, your favourite literary character dies. But, there are times when your characters truly are depressed. Hey, it happens, nothing you can do about it. I will not be telling you that they’re depressed. They are going to tell you themselves. I don’t consider this a transgression of the sacred ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. I simply believe in my characters enough to trust that they can figure out what’s happening to them and read all the signs and symptoms for themselves. In today’s world, you don’t have to be a genius to know what’s going on. You just need access to the internet. Or, at the very least, a well-stocked medical library.

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What about you? Are you a fledgling writer yourself? What’s your best quality as an author? What’s your worst? Any heartbreaking rejections or criticisms of your work? Go on, share, embarrass yourself in the comments section, it builds character.

Keep writing, my dear strangers 🙂

Shakespeare Month: Macbeth

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Hello, my dear strangers!

I gave Macbeth five out of five stars. Justly earned, too! Definitely, definitely, definitely the best WS play I’ve ever read! I loved it so much! I don’t even know where to start.

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Macbeth, our flawed protagonist, is a man of great potential. His prowess on the battlefield is one of his most striking features. The battlefield is where he feels at home the most. He was born to be a warrior and to die being a warrior, serving his king in the manner best suited to him. However, he rose beyond himself. With great desire come great temptations. Macbeth is a play with no easy answers. There are a lot of loose ends and unchecked assumptions left by its end. Scholars have been trying to decipher them for centuries, but ultimately, it’s all left for the reader’s own interpretation of the events.
For instance – the witches. They represent the ominous portents of fate and things beyond human comprehension, yet my own interpretation is slightly different. I don’t believe that their role was to profess the future, but rather that their aim was to meddle with humans for sport. They already possess an innate understanding of human psyche and are quite aware of what’s going on around them and they use that knowledge to spur on weak souls, again – for sport. They knew that Macbeth had received the title of thane of Cawdor much earlier than he did and they used this to make him believe they could see the future. Everything else, in my opinion, happened because humans did it and the witches knew they’d do it, not because they’re psychic, but because they possess a profound understanding of the human psyche.

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Take Banquo. I don’t believe his son will ever become a king for two reasons – firstly, he knows nothing of the witches’ prophecy and secondly – he has no desire to take the throne. Banquo could have acted differently upon hearing the prophecy. He could’ve taken steps to insure that his children would take the crown. But, he didn’t. It was a conscious choice. Macbeth, on the other hand, never would have dreamed of taking the crown, had it not been for the witches. Yes, ambition did linger in his heart, but he never would’ve acted on it. That is the crucial difference, in my opinion. The witches’ prophecy does set in motion the play’s plot, not because it’s an accurate reading of the future, but because the characters themselves chose to pursue it or ignore it, respectively.
Lady Macbeth is one of the most remarkable heroines of Shakespeare’s to grace the stage. Her strong presence, intense ambition and ever-so-shakeable psyche are superbly portrayed. One might argue that the Bard was a bit of a chauvinist, given his slightly misogynistic portrayal of female characters within the play. After all, it is women who initiate the play’s chaotic chain of events and it is women who demand that they persist till the bloody end, spurring on male characters and providing encouragement and support when they waver. Misogynistic or not, Lady Macbeth’s nature is still a compelling one. As a woman living in a certain age when a sundry of societal norms exist to limit her desires, Lady Macbeth acts the one way she can and uses the only weapon available to her – manipulation. She openly defies her husband, mocks him, berates his manhood and manliness, provoking him and challenging him. Her ambition is even greater than Macbeth’s. So is her guilt. Her earlier statements that it only takes a bit of water to wash their hands clean of Duncan’s murder are later countered by her heavy conscience. She begins sleepwalking, hallucinating, blabbing on about their crime, slowly descending into madness until the breaking point when she decides to take her own life.

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Macbeth, ironically, ends his back in his rightful place. He used to be a warrior. Then he became a king. Nevertheless, he suffered a warrior’s death, hacking away at enemies on the battlefield, until being slain. The play begins and ends with him as a warrior, a position he never should have abandoned. In reaching too high, in placing blind faith in the words of three haggard witches, Macbeth seals his own fate. He could’ve been a great man. Hey, a thane of Cawdor, that’s not a bad title at all! However, his potent ambition ironically proved to be his demise.

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Another excellent theme of the play which I find extremely interesting is the one of gender roles. Lady Macbeth is described as woman with manly qualities. She gets what she wants by poking fun at her husband’s manhood, equating his hesitation to commit murder with impotence. Note how this royal couple has no children. In a similar manner, Macbeth manipulates the assassins to slay Banquo – by questioning their masculinity. In many of the characters’ eyes, being a man equals being ruthless and violent. Even Banquo, a character many see as grounded and sensible, uses his last breath to urge his son to avenge his death. Not to forgive, not to forget, not to make deals, simply to “act as a man” and solve his problems with violence. Lady Macbeth herself notes that she would like to be “unsexed”, so that she could murder on her own, without having to rely on a hesitant husband. In some ways, the play may even be interpreted as liberating to women, since it at least acknowledges the limits women were expected to live within. Lady Macbeth’s frustration at being trapped in a dress is a strong echo of thousands of female voices who have felt just as trapped and frustrated throughout history.
Yet, there is one character out there who doesn’t equate manliness with violence and bloodshed. And, interestingly enough, it is a male character. Upon hearing the news of his wife and children’s deaths at the hands of Macbeth, Macduff experiences a sort of pain no one wishes to feel. Malcolm, the young heir to the throne, urges him to take it as a man and channel his grief into ire, yet Macduff answers that he must first feel it as a man. Obviously, there’s more to being a man than simply spilling enemy guts. A profound loss such as one Macduff experiences simply has to be processed, no matter how primitively and harshly within the bounds of an earlier, tougher era. To become a man, a boy must first learn to feel. And that is one of the greatest lessons that Malcolm, the future king of Scotland, learns.

And that concludes my Shakespeare month. Hope you enjoyed. Keep reading 🙂

Shakespeare Month: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Hello, my lovely strangers 🙂

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I think it’s fair to say I did not enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream very much at all. Comedy, one might argue, has gone through drastic changes over the centuries and what pleased people in the Elizabethan era can hardly please modern audiences on the same level. Even so, there shouldn’t exist such a vast discrepancy between genuine laughs and polite smiles. I know this is the Bard we’re talking about, but this is a fourth comedy of his that I’ve read and mostly disliked. While the fairies’ incessant meddling in the lives of humans and the craftsmen’s baboonish attempts at assembling a play can indeed be interpreted as funny, there is a long way to go before I can truly enjoy Shakespeare’s comedies. Comedies, I believe, are not his strongest suit.
The intricate love story between four young Athenians takes a backseat here to farce and absurdity. Their melodramatic mini dramas are complemented by the frivolous concerns of the craftsmen on one side and the magical world of fairies on the other. Shakespeare introduces a typical love triangle with a twist in the form of an ostracised young woman who doesn’t belong in this triangle, yet desperately wants to win back the heart of one of its core members. Lysander loves Hermia, Hermia loves Lysander, Helena loves Demetrius and Demetrius loves Hermia. Add to that a whole bunch of other characters, starting with Theseus and Hippolyta who found love on the battlefield, Hermia’s stern father Egeus, Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairy realm, their mischievous servant Puck and a few clueless lower class men and you’ve got yourself a real jigsaw puzzle. The premise has loads of potential, but the plot seems very simplified. The characters are paper-thin and one-dimensional, seamlessly blending in with one another, not one of them strong enough to jump out of the pages and truly grab your attention.
Now, some experts may disagree with me, stating that Puck greatly adds to the play with his humorous mischief and honest mistakes, that Bottom the weaver’s arrogance and blundering behaviour elevate the play’s coarse humour even higher and that Helena and Hermia represent well-rounded characters, but I just don’t buy it, especially not when it comes to the female characters. Helena is desperate to win back Demetrius, no matter how bad he treats her or how many times he insults her and rejects her. She is insecure, desperate and has no real plan carved out for her future, other than to chase Demetrius through the woods.

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Hermia is slightly more developed and real, stepping out of the cardboard conventions of meek, obedient female characters and firmly going after what she wants. She is feistier than Helena, openly defies her father and the Athenian law and fights for the life she has planned out with Lysander. Once Lysander gets “poisoned” into thinking he actually loves Helena, Hermia is ready for a fight, though a lot of her own insecurities surface, shallow as they may be, such as her own short stature compared to Helena’s height. Even so, Hermia remains a very flat character.
There are several subplots accompanying this main thread of the play, oftentimes separately, but overlapping with each other in the play’s most climactic scenes. There’s the ensuing wedding of Hippolyta and Theseus, Oberon and Titania’s feud and his subsequent revenge, the craftsmen’s attempts at putting up a play for the wedding and the play itself, whose plot strongly resembles that of Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers and which may have even influenced the story of the unlucky Verona lovers.

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Speaking of love, even though there are plenty of couples in the play, the plot still doesn’t revolve around them as much as it does around the comedy. Even so, Shakespeare gave us one of the most beautiful lines about love: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” That one simple line was enough to make my day.
All in all, I gave A Midsummer Night’s Dream two and a half stars. I have decided to follow Puck’s prudent piece of advice and pretend that reading this play was just a dream.

Keep reading, my dear strangers 🙂

Shakespeare Month: Richard the Third

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Greetings, my dear strangers!

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Yes, I realise that April is traditionally considered Shakespeare Month, but I’m going in a bit early with this. Let me start off by saying that I’ve never been a great fan of the Bard. That’s not say I don’t like his works, simply that he was never one of my favourite authors and that I’ve seldom given his works more than 3 stars. Maybe that’s because I was born in an era when understanding and appreciating his genius has become more difficult than ever, maybe because I’m simply not up to par with that level of literature. Whatever the reason, during my Shakespeare month, I plan to write honest reviews in which I’ll give a bit of historical context, present a few deeply ingrained notions and widely accepted interpretations of his works and my most candid opinion. I won’t lie or say that I liked a play I didn’t like, no matter how highly acclaimed it may be. Therefore, true to my word, I give Richard III three and a half stars (out of five).

Richard the Third is one of Shakespeare’s most widely read historical plays. Historical may be a treacherous term here, as the famous playwright was heavily influenced by another, earlier work of art which demonised Richard. Moreover, he lived and created during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a descendant of the king who’d defeated Richard in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field and could hardly write nice things about him, regardless of his own opinion. Furthermore, the great Tudor myth played a huge role at the time, which may have prompted Shakespeare to further embellish the monarch’s sordid deeds. History remembers Henry III as a ruthless tyrant, mostly due to his presumed involvement in the killings of two young boys with claim to the throne, but once things are put into perspective, we realise that Henry was no worse and no better than the preceding and subsequent rulers.

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Anyway, during the first few acts, Richard’s character can widely be interpreted through the medieval character of Vice, a one-dimensional character originating in the medieval drama which had, by Renaissance, developed into two archetypes – the mischievous prankster and the embodiment of evil. You can guess which version Richard represents.

Using his physical repulsiveness and deformity as a cause and an excuse for his behaviour, Richard from the very first lines lets us in on his wicked plans to take over the throne. His speech makes us his accomplices, his spectators, his confidants. His demeanour completely changes once he’s around other characters, notably his brother Clarence, whom he tries to console and comfort, even though we, the audience, are well aware that Richard is in fact to blame for the existing bad blood between his brothers and Clarence’s subsequent imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Throughout the play, Richard manages to break many characters. He bends them to his will almost effortlessly, it seems. After his ascension to the throne, Richard mainly uses violence and unhidden terror as a means of dealing with his opponents. However, during his climb to power, he primarily relies on his superior language skills, even though he doesn’t shy away from violence and atrocities either. Many readers feel that certain characters whom he deceives, such as Lady Anne, his brothers and Queen Elizabeth are simply too obtuse to see through his lies and schemes. Perhaps they are, especially from our modern viewpoint. But, let’s not forget that these characters do not have the same insight into Richard’s private thoughts as we, the audience, do. Those lines depicting his sly victories are put there for a reason. That reason is not to make other characters appear foolish, but to convince us, beyond any doubt, that Richard is indeed a supreme orator and that his most powerful tool is his golden tongue.

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Even though Richard can be interpreted as an extension of the medieval Vice for the better part of the play, he evolves into a somewhat more complex character during the final two acts. We see panic, paranoia, maybe even remorse developing within him and it all starts to form the minute he places his arse upon the throne. That’s when another earlier notion creeps into the play, the notion of Fortuna, the Goddess of Fortune, in whose hands a wheel can be found. She is tasked with perpetually turning the wheel of fortune, so that those once mighty fail and, vice versa, those once on the bottom prosper. This continual cycle can best be spotted in the literature preceding the Renaissance, most notably in Beowulf whose steady rise quickly begins dropping once he reaches the top, the imaginary ceiling that no hero, no matter how honourable, strong or vile may transcend. At least, not without some heavy repercussions. And, the higher they rise, the harder they fall.

One of the most interesting characters in the play and the one I was deeply disappointed not to see whilst watching the movie version last night, is Margaret. She is not a very active character, per se, yet she does our foreshadowing for us. Her character can be described as this bitter, lingering creature of sorrow and wrath, skulking about the hallways of the castle, murmuring heavy words under her breath, forced to live with the murderers of her kin. Her curse in the early acts of the play comes to fruition later on, so much so that the other two women who’ve experienced Richard’s brutality ask her to teach them the art of cursing as well. Hers is a lingering presence of great danger. Her words, at first dismissed as rants of an embittered old lady, soon prove to be extremely potent, capable of overpowering kings, taking down entire dynasties and even changing the course of history… within the limits of literature, of course. However, even though her character proves to be powerful and dangerous, she is still a creature that invokes pity, for her life has now been reduced to a lonely, desperate, morose existence.

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Finally, a few thoughts on the movie. I saw Richard the Third last night and I highly recommend it. This is the 1955 version, starring Laurence Olivier, an amazing Shakespearean actor. I’m a visual type and watching the movie helped explain some scenes a lot more clearly. While reading the play, I was left puzzled by Lady Anne’s quick and sudden defeat, yet the movie portrayed a very convincing seduction scene that leaves no room for doubts as to Richard’s highly advanced oratory and manipulation. Mr Olivier acts with such an ease, it almost seems like this evil, tyrannical frame of mind comes naturally to him. He relishes in his own wickedness, unapologetically and convincingly. He frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience during Richard’s soliloquies and with a sly smile informs us that his eyes bear no remorse in them. Another powerful scene is when Richard is on the battlefield, crying that he would gladly exchange his entire kingdom for a horse and a better chance of survival.

Keep reading 🙂