"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Genius of Shakespeare

The Guardian online has published a series of reflections by Shakespearean actors on what the playwright has meant to them.  Over the last two years, after a lapse of many decades, I have returned to the greatest writer in the English language.  I will excerpt some of the thoughts made by the actors, and discuss how they have resonated with me.

For me, it was particularly important to hear what actors have to say, because my re-immersion in Shakespeare has been almost exclusively reading, often accompanied by the workmanlike BBC archive productions.  Other screen adaptations have been memorable and/or powerful – Laurence Olivier as Othello and Richard III; Paul Scofield as Lear in Peter Brook’s bleak black-and-white landscape of northern Denmark; Emma Thompson as Beatrice, Ian McKellen as Iago and especially Richard III (a twisted, chain-smoking, evil dictator who more than any other actor conveyed through his physical performance the twisted but powerful inner character of Richard), Kenneth Branagh as a triumphant (although less introspective and devious than the play demands) Henry V, and Al Pacino as Shylock. 

The stage productions I have seen in the last two years have been unmemorable.  The Blackfriars (Staunton VA) Company director played Hamlet as a comedy, and I walked out after Hamlet tossed off “To be or not to be” like a vaudevillian actor.  The Merchant of Venice by the Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company was a miserable attempt to ‘modernize’ the play.  The settings were Little Italy (the Italians), the Lower East Side (the Jews), and North Shore Long Island (the WASPs).  All were caricatures.  All of Shylock’s venom was squeezed out and he was nothing but a comic foil.  It was horrible. Much Ado About Nothing was done by the same director, and he chose to set the play in Cuba, of all places. 

Last year at a Shakespeare conference, I saw a presentation by a director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the country’s largest.  His lecture was on acting Shakespeare’s plays, and he talked about the lesser-known contribution of Stanislavski to theatre.  In addition to ‘The Method’, Stanislavski developed ways that actors could break down passages and phrases into meaningful pieces, and insisted that they use both internal and external cues to guide their performance.  He focused on key words which would give the actor insight.  In the famous “To be or not to be? That is the question”, the actor is required to decide which is the most important words.  Is it ‘be’; or perhaps ‘not’; or perhaps even ‘that’.  It was his attempt to get actors to disaggregate critical passages, then to internalize that unique meaning, focus on someone or something in the audience, and speak.

To illustrate this, he asked one of his colleagues, and actor from Oregon, to read a passage by Constance from King John.  This is a very powerful and emotional soliloquy and expresses both a mother’s love, her ambition for her son, and her anger at being dismissed as a cranky woman.  The actress, after a few attempts and guidance from the director, found her voice and the passage’s meaning, and gave such an emotional reading that she began to cry, as did I.  For the first time ever, I realized the power of a live theatrical performance, and was finally freed from the confines of the text.

Which is why I was anxious to read the comments made by Shakespearean actors.  They know, more than we the readers or the many critics who have parsed every line for the past 400 years.

Shakespeare tells such universal stories that all you have to be is a mother, or a father, or a lover, or a child, or a politician (or a monarch) to understand the worlds he creates. He speaks for us all. He understands the beating of the human heart so well that it's there not only in his language but in the very rhythm of his poetry. (Thea Sharrock)

I recently taught a course in theatre at the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, MS.  I wanted to discuss some of theatre’s dynamic couples – Antony and Cleopatra, George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), and Maggie and Brick (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) – less from an academic point of view than from a personal one.  Who hadn’t been in a difficult relationship with shifting balances of power, differing needs and expectations, different psychological cultures?  The worlds of these plays were our worlds, and our own experience would be perhaps the most important lens through which to understand the playwrights.  Shakespeare’s insights into human nature and the human condition are staggering.  In a relatively short period of 23 years, he wrote 37 plays each one different from every other.  Some are about leadership or governance, others about the ebb and flow of empire and power, others about psychological drama and tragedy, others about the always contentious nature of the relationship between men and women. All are relevant today.

What I take away from Will is a blessing. It's an extraordinary grasp of patterns of human behavior, because he had an almost cosmic vision. I look for scripts that show the bigger picture, just like he did.

Academics are trying to kill him. Shakespeare was guided by his appetite and feelings. We shouldn't teach Shakespeare – we should perform Shakespeare. (Ben Kingsley)

I started re-reading Shakespeare after my long hiatus and started with the Histories.  I has become frustrated with actually reading history and following current events which all seemed to be predictable in motivation and outcome.  It was more interesting to identify the common elements of each historical period and to decipher what lay beneath them all.  I decided that historical fiction, and particularly the works of Shakespeare would provide greater insights than those I had gotten from academia. 

Shakespeare’s Histories, of course, are chronicles of Roman, Italian, and English history; but more so they are dramatic stories of human beings playing out the same basic needs – self-preservation; and the extension of power, the acquisition of territory and wealth, and the expansion of dominion to assure it.  While not life played out on a ‘cosmic scale’ as Kingsley suggests, it was life played out on a variety of different stages, with the same cast of characters, with the same desires, and with the same outcomes.  Far from repetitious or boring, these plays gave an insight into the raw human nature that underlies all historical events.

Shakespeare and his work will always be relevant. He wrote those pieces hundreds of years ago and we haven't really changed as humans, have we? We have to deal with love, honour and adultery now – people were the same then, too – that's what's so wonderful and powerful. (Michelle Dockery)

Shakespeare taught me everything I know about love. Its vibrancy. How afterwards your life seems darker. And everything I know about power, too – about the selfishness of ambition. We haven't changed in 400 years. (Paterson Joseph)

I have always been amazed at the female characters created by Shakespeare.  There are so many, and so varied.  There are the villains– Tamora, Dionyza, Volumnia, Goneril,and Regan.  There are the passionate and powerful women who demand their rights – Margaret (Henry VI), Constance (King John), the mothers of Elizabeth and Richard (Richard III).  There are the innocents – Juliet, Ophelia,Desdemona, and Lavinia.  The manipulators of men – Rosalind, Beatrice, Viola, Lady Macbeth.  The complex women – Gertrude, Cleopatra.  The list goes on. 

Shakespeare really understood women. The emotions, twists and turns that Cleopatra goes through are phenomenal.(Judy Densch)

I always am reminded of Tennessee Williams’ reaction to a critic who said that he understood women because he was one.  He replied, genteel as always, that the comment demeaned him as a playwright.  He was an observer of people, he said, men and women.  If he had a poignant, accurate, and sensitive understanding of women, it was because he paid attention to them, listened to them, and watched how they lived, loved, and survived. It was ignorant and ill-informed of anyone to suggest any different.

Shakespeare understood women, and understood how they had to manipulate men to get what they wanted.  They were no less aggressive or acquisitive as men, but only had to resort to more devious and often treacherous ways.  Although it has been suggested that a close reading of the Sonnets suggests that Shakespeare had a homoerotic relationship with someone, the ‘Fair Youth’ of Sonnet 20 (never conclusively), this in no way is relevant to his creation of female characters in his plays.  He, like, Tennessee Williams, simply understood women – and men – and most importantly, people.

There's a thing Freud says, that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the same person. All the things Macbeth worries about happen to Lady Macbeth. I have completely flipped the genders: my Lady Macbeth is manly, and my Macbeth sounds like Delia Smith. (Alan Cumming).

‘Gender-flipping’ is a 21st century read on Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth, and his works. Although no scholarship has ever suggested, as Alan Cumming writes below, that any sexual ambiguity or bi-sexuality animated Shakespeare’s plays, of course it may have.  The point is that – like Williams – however he was able to craft such real, powerful, complex, and intriguing women, he did it.

There's a thing Freud says, that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the same person. All the things Macbeth worries about happen to Lady Macbeth. I have completely flipped the genders: my Lady Macbeth is manly, and my Macbeth sounds like Delia Smith (Alan Cumming).

The variety of themes in Shakespeare – governance, love, sexual politics, palace intrigues, psychological drama – only suggest at the richness and diversity of his work.  Where did Titus Andronicus come from?

I don't like it when Shakespeare is represented as bucolic – this image of the sweet England poet among the lovely British green fields. He has people eating their sons in pies, men with their eyes gouged out, and merciless sexual jealousy. There's as much ugliness as there is beauty. (Simon Russell Beale)

Critics have commented that Titus is Shakespeare’s final throwing off the yoke of Christopher Marlowe – a playwright who in Tamburlaine wrote about the bloody exploits of the Mongol predator, and who had influenced Shakespeare in his pre-Nietzschean philosophy of total will, Supermen, and action beyond good and evil.  In any case, it was yet another exploration of the very perimeter of human nature and its violent and aggressive side.

I think Shakespeare says the things about us that need to be said, and constantly said, but he doesn't judge easily. He gives people rope to hang themselves, sure, but there's tolerance of human frailty, and that's why he's survived at the top of the tree. (Simon Russell Beale)

Jacob Needleman, a political philosopher from San Francisco State talked about human frailty and leadership in a recent interview on NPR (On Being).  He was unhappy with our adulation of our political leaders, and then our quick dismissal of them when human failings common to us all are revealed; or when revisionist history condemns our former heroes for actions which are now considered unacceptable.  Does the sexual libertinage of JFK, MLK, or LBJ neuter their significant political contributions?  More to the point, asks Needleman rhetorically, aren’t these leaders better able to lead because of their peccadilloes and insufficiencies?  Henry V may have indeed been a better king because of his carousing with Falstaff, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol; and thanks to his discussing the politics of war with the common soldier.

This comment by Beale is perhaps the most perceptive of all; because human frailty is at the heart of all his Tragedies.  The men in the Comedies are often silly, love-struck, and immature, but aren’t we all? Othello misjudges Desdemona and probably all women, but aren’t we all constrained by our narrow experience? Only in the Histories does Shakespeare stay on message – that there is no such thing as frailty.  Men and women act out their preordained (by human nature) destinies according to their strengths or weaknesses, and there is scant room to dwell on them.  Richard II, Henry VI, and Henry V reflect on the nature of kingship, the precariousness of the throne, and the insignificant outer differences (ceremony) which distinguish kings from the common man; but they simply proceed to conquer, defend, and acquire.

I have always admired actors.  I have acted only once in my life – a minor role in a local amateur production of Anouilh’s Antigone. What I thought would be a relatively simple task, was as difficult as anything I have ever done.  I was as unable to get into the mind of the guard that I played or more importantly the mind of the playwright, as I was to do advanced mathematics. 

The actor will always have a different understanding of Shakespeare's words from everyone else, because they say every line repeatedly. Stephen Greenblatt, the academic, once inscribed a book: "To Simon, who knows the parts from the inside" and he's right – there's no escaping them. (Simon Russell Beale)

Shakespeare has been my life for the last two years.  Every day I look forward to re-reading another play, watching a film, signing up for a conference, or subscribing to a new academic website.  I would have loved to be able to attend the special Shakespeare Celebration in London this year where all 37 plays are being performed in 37 different languages.  I have always thought that Shakespeare was untranslatable – or at the very least the translations would take the very juice and fiber out of the plays – but would have loved to see how the Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, and French (my principal foreign languages) present the psychological dilemmas of Hamlet; or juggle the wordplay of As You Like It

Most of all, it would have been a treat to see these plays live, at the Globe, in the country of Shakespeare’s birth.  Another day, perhaps, if I am lucky.

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