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

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Shakespeare Miscellany

A good friend gave me a book entitled The Shakespeare Miscellany by David Crystal, a linguist and author about language; and his son, Ben, a Shakespearean actor.  Together they put together a collection of miscellaneous items about Shakespeare, everything from a comparison of the number of lines per character to a review of English history linked to the plays.  At first I thought it would be a book of cute factoids, but then after a few pages realized that I should have known better – the giver was from a Shakespearean family, and the authors were serious Shakespeare professionals.  There were most definitely USA Today-type entries (Some of the people who share the same birth and death dates as Shakespeare) The book was fascinating, especially the quotes from well-known Shakespearean actors, such as John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, who gave insights into the craft of playing Shakespeare, and I thought that I would excerpt some of the most interesting and offer some comments on them:

Orson Welles, in the book he wrote with Roger Hill, Everybody’s Shakespeare, wrote:

Shakespeare said everything.  Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man’s season.  His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and the moon.  He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats.  He speaks to everyone and we all claim him, but it’s wise to remember, if we would really appreciate him, that he doesn’t properly belong to us but to another world that smelled assertively of columbine and gun powder and printer’s ink and was vigorously dominated by Elizabeth.

Thornton Wilder said of this paragraph: “The greatest summation of Shakespeare’s genius ever written”.

I especially like the “tears, blood, and beer”, that mix of family tragedy, murders and battlefield massacres, and the taverns of Falstaff.  The reference to the other world of Elizabethan England reminded me of comments of the friend who gave me the book.  He insisted that in my readings of the poet I should not stop with a critical analysis of the plays themselves, but read the history of the time Shakespeare wrote, for it would illuminate the works.  Another friend, a former post-modernist, deconstructionist scholar went even farther – the works were not even reading unless they were interpreted only through the lenses of history, gender, sexual politics, and social structure and dynamics.  In his view, it was pointless to try to understand Othello unless one disaggregated the text and understood how, for example, the male and female worlds of Elizabethan England were configured, how the social oppression of women caused Desdemona’s downfall (and that of Ophelia), etc.

I, not surprisingly, am on the side of Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom, and others of the Canon who refuse to equate all texts, to strip them of their poetry and read them only as historical exegesis, and to study Shakespeare from this limited and narrowing perspective.  Of course the pulse of the time mattered.  The great revolutionary happenings of the late 16th Century were occurring as Shakespeare was writing – the Ptolemaic world was overturned, Machiavelli re-interpreted political life, Martin Luther’s own religious revolution had begun a few decades earlier, and discoveries of the New World had expanded English world view.  This situating of the plays within a dramatically new historical context – let alone within the internecine battles that were going on within Elizabeth’s England were of course important.  However this historical context only served to illuminate the drama being played out and the responses of the characters within it.

Kenneth Branagh commented on ‘Sacrifices” – how focusing on one element in a play is bound to detract from another, and therefore directorial decisions to place a play in another time may tie audiences closer to the play, but it may also distort meaning:

For me, working on Shakespeare is a search for meaning, and that can be expressed by being utterly real, using an accent, not using an accent, putting it in modern dress, not putting it in modern dress….It is very hard to get everything out of a Shakespeare play.  If you set Romeo and Juliet in war-torn Belfast, it puts a terrific focus on the feuding – but Shakespeare’s play is about a household feud, not a religious feud.

I have seen to Shakespeare productions recently – The Merchant of Venice which was set in early 20th Century New York City.  The Jews lived in the Lower East Side, the Italians in Little Italy, and Portia and her crowd on the North Shore of Long Island.  There was no point to the setting.  At least, had Romeo and Juliet been set in Northern Ireland, there would have been a point – family feuding against the backdrop of religious, sectarian feuding – and both might have been better exposed.  In this version of Merchant, the setting was incidental, a trifle, production trickery to gather an audience.  Richard III set in a 20th Century military dictatorship very much approximating Nazi Germany was powerful and haunting (this Ian McKellen version of Richard is by far my favorite).  The Much Ado About Nothing I recently saw at the Folger was set in Cuba instead of Italy, but the transposition was hardly noticed – two Latin cultures, don’tcha know.  Curiously, the Latino community in Washington complained about the names -.  Dogberry and Verges were changed to Jose Frijoles and Juan Tortilla (or something equally silly) to get veracity, but since have been changed back to English.

Jan Kott has had the last word on these modern transformations – by all means ‘modernize’ the plays, but only if it makes sense.

I recently attended a Shakespeare conference in Staunton, Virginia; and many of the papers were on the staging of productions – number of actors, length of play, use of props, etc.  In this passage by Anthony Sher on Richard III, he comments:

Terry [Hands]…believes it is the play in which Shakespeare made all his mistakes.  ‘For a start, he doesn’t give Richard a rest.  Macbeth has the whole England scene, Hamlet has all that Ophelia stuff, Lear’s got the whole Edmund sub-plot, but Richard is on throughout.  With all the terrible physical strain, of course, of sustaining a crippled position all evening…it’s a little known historical fact, but apparently after the original production Burbage said to Shakespeare ‘If you ever do that to me again, mate, I’ll kill you’

Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist, said:

People sometimes say that actors give us their own Hamlets, and not Shakespeare’s…In point of fact, there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  If Hamlet has something of the definiteness of a work of art, he has also all the obscurity that belongs to life.  There are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies.

This is a particularly fascinating interpretation and gets to the very nature of Shakespeare’s genius – not only can the part be interpreted differently by each actor who plays him (witness, Olivier’s, Branagh’s, Burton’s for starters), each of us in the audience see Hamlet differently, interpret why he does what he does differently, and come away with a very different conclusion than that of our neighbors.

Antony Sher, commenting on Richard III said,

Unable to get back to sleep, I find my copy of the play and have a proper look at the the speech.  “Now is the winter of our discontent…”.  God.  It seems terribly unfair of Shakespeare to begin his play with such a famous speech.  You don’t like to put your mouth to it, so many other mouths have been there.  Or to be more honest, one particularly distinctive mouth.  His poised, staccato delivery is imprinted on those words like teeth marks.

I sit in shock, in the middle of the night, staring at the text.  ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’God.  It’s as hard as saying ‘I love you’ as if you had just coined the phrase for the first time.

Again Anthony Sher,

Reading Shakespeare is sometimes like looking through a window into a dark room.  You don’t see in.  You see nothing but a reflection of yourself, unable to see in.  An unflattering image of yourself blind.

Here is Julie Taymore, on why make a film of Titus Andronicus

In its day, it was the most popular Shakespeare, the absolute pot-boiler of this period.  I showed it to inner-city high school students early on.  They went crazy over it.  They said, ‘Move over, Schwarzenegger, here comes Titus

I loved Titus, although I couldn’t make any sense of it within the entire opus of Shakespeare’s work.  It was not a particularly good or eloquent play; the character of the evil Aaron was never central, and not as subtle as Iago or Edmund; there was no reason for the operatic baking of the Goth Queen’s sons in a pie or the terrible mutilation of her daughter; but it sure was fun.

This bit of history I already knew – Richard III was written in part to support the Tudor claim to the throne, and the earlier quote about understanding that Shakespeare wrote very aware of the political views of Elizabeth

The Richard III Society was formed in 1924 in England….and its aim was to promote the ‘real’ Richard, asserting that he was a good king and not the evil tyrant portrayed in the play. 

The biased account presented in Shakespeare, it is claimed, comes from Holinshed, whose source was Thomas More’s The History of Richard III.  More, who was still a child when Richard died, was writing under the Tudor dynasty, which wanted to support the claim to the throne of Richmond, the man who deposed Richard in 1485 and became the first Tudor king, Henry VII.

The Society argues that Tudor writers exaggerated Richard’s villainy and portrayed him in the worst possible light, such as making him a hunchback – something that writers in the 1480s never mentioned.

Does this historical insight dim our enjoyment of the play? Corrode our appreciation of Shakespeare’s Richard as his most ‘evil’ villain?  Not in the least.  This is fictionalized history, after all, with no necessary allegiance to actual facts; and there would have been no play at all if Richard had been portrayed as Mr. Nice Guy,.

Peter Brook has written about Hamlet

If we try to pull at a rich text to make sense of it too quickly we will simply end up with shreds.  We have to be aware that Hamlet is more intellectual than the greatest intellectual, more in love than the greatest lover before or since, more angry than the most violent man there has ever been, and the most important thing is that Hamlet gives expression to it all.

On that note, that elegy to the greatest of English playwrights, I will end.

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