Monday, December 26, 2011

Monday, December 26 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

Since today is a holiday in Sweden I get a free blog Monday. Yay! It seems like more than two Mondays that I've been away and sadly it will be two more until I'm back. How will the Shakespeare world survive? Try to muddle through, friends....

  • Shakespeare sightings, quite a few this time since I've been offline. Anyway here they are –
    • An old one, actually, that I missed when it showed up: My dear beginner's English student GÄ wrote in an assignment about her mother in Poland who, in her 70's, still loves to read and one of whose favorites is Shakespeare. I'm pretty sure GÄ mentions it because I talk about Shakespeare a lot in class so it's kind of a prompted sighting.
    • In Harry Potter 6 – The Half-Blood Prince, one of the members of the Weird Sisters is at a party at Hogwarts and later, at the funeral at the end of the book.
    • In Harry Potter 7 – The Deathly Hallows, Harry is in Ginny's room for the first time and sees that she a poster on her wall of the Weird Sisters. Now since there probably won't be any more references to this famous band, it's time for a contest – who are the Weird Sisters and what play are they in? What is their most famous line? Great prizes for the one to answer correctly first!
    • In the book Slaget om Tammerfors (in the original Finnish Tampere Tulessa,in English The Battle of Tampere) which presents eyewitness reports to a significant part of the Finnish Civil War of 1918, the actor Jalmari Rinne, trapped in the Laterna Hotel in Tampere as the battle goes on, reports on March 26, “I don't know how many Shakespeare dramas I read while staying at the Laterna. But those which are less often produced, like the history plays, and the cannonades heard from the outside went very well together...” (rough translation).
    • In Sherman Alexie's short story “Can I Get a Witness” in his collection Ten Little Indians the main character wonders, after 9/11: “Men have walked on the moon and written Hamlet and painted the Sistine Chapel and played the piano like Glenn Gould...and other men still have the need to hang antlers and flags on their walls.”
    • The novel The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is called in one of the reviews the Romeo and Juliet story about the antagonism between Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the US during World War Two. I can't quote the review because I've returned the book to the library.
    • We have now completed our backwards Springsteen marathon and in his early songs there is a lot of Romeo and Juliet (he's such a romantic!). Here are the last two: Point Blank: “I was gonna be your Romeo you were gonna be my Juliet, These days you don't wait on Romeos, You wait on that welfare check” and Incident at 57th Street: “Well, like a cool Romeo he made his moves, oh she looked so fine. Like a late Juliet she knew he'd never be true but then she really didn't mind”. Hmmm, did I say romantic?
    • On one of the last episode of Flight of the Conchords Bret has fallen in love and is trying to describe his beloved to the skeptical Jemaine. He says she's like Shakespeare's Juliet and Jemaine says, “What? Thirteen?”
    • In the book The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter by David Colbert, the author writes of the nasty basilisks, used in The Chamber of Secrets, and points out that, “William Shakespeare even mentioned a basilisk in his play Richard III. The evil title character kills his brother then immediately flatters his brother's widow by mentioning her beautiful eyes. But she replies, 'Would they were basilisks, to strike thee dead!'” Contest 2: What's her name and who had Richard actually killed to inspire such a response from her? He did kill his brother too but that was later. Big prizes for the first right answers!

Further, these weeks:
  • Book order but not received: Fintan O'Toole's Shakespeare is Hard but So Is Life. It's been on my Bokus wish list for a long time so when I received notice that it was available I ordered it, but it was too late. By the time my order came in, it was sold out again.
  • Movies watched: Dead Poet's Society. This should have been watched in connection with A Midsummer Night's Dream since the movie is about it, so to speak, but we didn't have it then and I wasn't at the time aware of the connection. The last time I saw the movie it was long before my Shakespeare days. Anyway, a movie well worth seeing with or without Shakespeare.
  • Now reading aloud with Hal: Richard II.
  • Text posted on blog: “Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty – or Twenty-Eight– Adults vs Kids in Romeo and Juliet”.

Romeo and Juliet - Adults vs kids

Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty (or Twenty-Eight)
Adults versus Kids in Romeo and Juliet

I think Shakespeare should have stuck with his original plan and written Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, saving Juliet for a play more worthy of her. Oh, yeah, that's right, Ethel and her pirate dad are just pretend. But Juliet would probably have been better off with a pirate for a father. He couldn't have been meaner than old Pa Capulet.

I have trouble with this play. While reading it I kept saying, “But why didn't...?” and “But they could have just...” Etc.

Juliet does have some really powerful lines. While Romeo tends to succumb to “drippy passion” (Dromgoole p. 56), Juliet's eloquence soars, whether she is longing for Romeo (“Come, gentle night; come loving, black-browed night, Give me my Romeo”, Act 2.3), putting him in his place (“What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” Act 2.1), raging at his murder of Tybalt (“Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!” Act 3.2) or fearful of the friar's potion (“What if it it be a poison which the friar/ Subtly have ministered to me to have me dead...?” Act 4.3). In short, Juliet is magnificent, while the play is...not as good as she is.

What Shakespeare really has succeeded in doing is showing how painfully young these two kids are. And how cruelly they are treated by the adults. Romeo's parents aren't so bad but Juliet's are real tyrants, the father being among the worst of Shakespeare's dreadful dads. Being called “green-sickness carrion”, “baggage”, “tallow-face”, being told that she is, as an only child, one child too many, and being threatened with being thrown out on the street to “hang, beg, starve, die” (Act 3.5) is startling even for us who know how rotten Shakespeare's fathers tend to be. And her mother, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight, isn't much better. She does protest her husband's raging, but only lamely and when Juliet begs for comfort and support she only says:

Talk not to me, for I'll not speak a word.
Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee (Act 3.5)
and sweeps from the room.

A couple of parents more in need of parental guidance would be hard to find.

But what I find harder to accept are the two supposedly nice adults, the Nurse and the Friar. The Nurse is usually played for laughs and is actually called “one of the most entertaining characters”, “endearing” and “affectionate” in Soliloquy's advice on how to play the role (Early and Keil, p. 129-130). This seems to be the prevailing interpretation of the Nurse. Harold Bloom points out that she is an “audience favorite” (p. 89).

She's not mine. The Nurse troubles me from the start. In her first appearance in the play, in Act 1.3, in what seems to be interpreted by most as evidence of a deep affection for Juliet in her long speech about how old the girl is, I find it hard to ignore her meanness. She laughs about weaning baby Juliet by smearing her nipples with bitter tasting wormwood. But even worse, she repeatedly tells the story of how her husband had mocked and ridiculed the little Juliet when she fell and hurt herself quite seriously. Entertaining? The Nurse apparently thinks so.

Still she is funny and bawdy and affectionate and all that and she does go to a lot of trouble to help the young lovers meet. But why? She knows from the beginning that Juliet is to marry Paris. This is not a society in which a thirteen-year-old girl is allowed to have a romantic fling before marriage. There's nothing really wrong with Paris. He's young, wealthy and usually played by a good-looking actor so why shouldn't Juliet marry him? OK, I'm not a dimwit or a total anti-romance curmudgeon. Juliet falls in love with Romeo. But why did the Nurse so actively encourage it and, in fact, manipulate the situation? I really don't know.

But she does. She helps arrange the marriage and despite her grief over the death of Tybalt and anger with Romeo for killing him, she actually arranges for Romeo to come to Juliet to consummate the marriage. Why? Juliet is only thirteen, Romeo not much older. What adult in his or her right mind would encourage and maneuver and meddle and push a marriage the day after they meet no matter how passionate the love?
But meddle she does, married they get, and consummate it they do. Then comes the big confrontation between Juliet and her parents. Juliet and the rest of us can be forgiven for expecting more help from the Nurse, right? She makes a few feeble protests against the father's rage but instead of saying, “Don't worry, dear, I've managed things so far, I'll get you to Mantua to be reunited with Romeo” she, in fact, says:

Faith, here it is: Romeo
Is banishéd...
...Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,
I think it best you married with the County.
O, he's a lovely gentleman!
Romeo's a dishclout to him...
...I think you happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or if it did not,
Your first is dead, or 'twere as good he were
As living hence and you no use of him (Act 3.5)

What?! It's hard to say who is crueler to Juliet, Capulet or the Nurse. There's no question, however, that the Nurse's betrayal is far more unexpected and therefor by far the worse. Entertaining? Endearing? I don't think so! The Nurse is, as Prof. Bloom writes in a world-class understatement, “bad news” (p. 89). Juliet is more succinct when she stares after the Nurse in shock, seeing her as a “most wicked fiend” (Act 3.5).

Ahem. I told you so.

There is, of course, a reasonable explanation. The Nurse is not an independent character. She seems to have a lot of leeway in the Capulet home but in fact she is a hired servant. She has already – amazingly – gone against her boss, Capulet, and one could say that she suddenly realizes that she has put herself in danger. Thus her abrupt about face. Advocating bigamy is evidently less dangerous.

Friar Laurence, the other nice adult, is not in that kind of position. He's independent, he's respected, he's knowledgeable. Both Juliet and Romeo trust him and turn to him with their passions and problems, indicating that he's been a positive force in their lives previously.

And he does have a plausible reason for helping them. By uniting them in holy matrimony in spite of his wise advice of moderation in love, he hopes to end the violent feud between the two clans. The objection could be raised that children should not be exploited that way, but OK, his intentions are good.

So then why in the name of all that is sensible doesn't he simply help Juliet go with Romeo when he leaves? Failing that, why in the world doesn't he smuggle Juliet off to Mantua when the threat of marriage to Paris becomes an imminent reality? Why this ridiculous rigamarole of the knockout potion which anyone can see will backfire? And to top it all off he turns chicken in the tomb because of hearing some noise and abandons the newly bereaved Juliet with her dead husband and a lot of other corpses.

No. I won't have it. There's something here I'm not getting. Nobody's ever accused Shakespeare of being consistent or unfailingly logical but his characterization is usually flawless. Not the people themselves, of course, but the flawlessness of the credibility of their flawed characters.

But for me the Nurse and the Friar don't work. I'm missing something here. This time Shakespeare has me stumped.

November 2011
December 2011

Works cited:

  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Dromgoole, Dominic. Will & Me. 2007.
  • Early, Michael and Philippa Keil, editors. Soliloquy – The Shakespeare Monologues, The Women. 1988.

Films seen:

  • BBC, 1978. Director: Alvin Rakoff. Cast: Rebecca Saire – Juliet; Patrick Ryecart – Romeo; Celia Johnson – the Nurse; Joseph O'Connor – Friar Lawrence; Alan Rickman – Tybalt; Anthony Andrews – Mercutio; Michael Hordern – Capulet; Jacqueline Hill – Lady Capulet. Rebecca Saire is young enough and earnest enough to be convincing as Juliet. Patrick Ryecart is not a likeable Romeo, not worth dying for. It's fun to see the very young Alan Rickman who does a good Tybalt: there are even signs of a budding Snape. Everyone else does an OK job but are far too old for their parts.
  • “West Side Story”, 1961. Director: Robert Wise. Cast: Natalie Wood – Maria/Juliet: Richard Beymer – Tony/Romeo; Rita Moreno – Anita/Nurse (sort of); Russ Tamblym – Riff/Mercutio; George Chakiris – Bernardo/Tybalt. I'm not exactly sure if I saw this movie before seeing Zefferelli's version. Probably. I've seen it about six or seven times but this is the first time I've actually thought about it in relation to the play. There are more parallels than I would have thought, but why doesn't Maria/Juliet die too? Not that I wish poor Maria ill or begrudge her a long and happy life but the whole point of the tragedy is that they both die. Oh well, I won't be picky. What I don't like about the movie is that Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are hopelessly sweet and romantic. What I love about it are the gangs, the dancing and the incredibly clever lyrics in all of the songs except the love songs.
  • “William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet”, 1996. Director: Baz Luhrman. Cast: Claire Danes – Juliet; Leonardo DiCaprio – Romeo; Miriam Margolyes – the Nurse; Pete Postlethwaite – Friar Lawrence; John Leguizamo – Tybalt; Harold Perrineau – Mercutio; Paul Sorvino – Capulet; Diane Venora – Lady Capulet. My favorite version by far. The garish Catholicism, the off the wall MTV kitsch disco, the macho gang stereotypes are all so outrageous that they're just right and Danes and DiCaprio are miles ahead of all other Juliets and Romeos I've ever seen. They're funny, the adolescent, they're madly in love and completely grief stricken. And absolutely convincing. Shakespeare's words spoken by this wild cast are perfectly natural. Too bad major parts of the play were cut.
  • “Romeo and Juliet”, 1968. Director: Franco Zefferelli. Cast: Olivia Hussey – Juliet; Leonard Whiting – Romeo; Pat Heywood – the Nurse; Milo O'Shea – Friar Lawrence; Michael York – Tybalt; John McEnery – Mercutio; Paul Hardwich – Capulet; Natasha Parry – Lady Capulet. Flawed version with too much Hollywood beauty and sumptuous flowing costumes (which won both and Oscar and a Bafta, so evidently not everyone saw that as a flaw. ) Hussey starts out as a breathlessly giggly Juliet, which is annoying but still, Juliet is only thirteen years old and Hussey soon rises to the task and does a very creditable Juliet. In fact, all in all, it's a good movie. Visually pleasing, suitably dramatic and tear jerkingly tragic. A must-see actually.
  • “Romeo and Juliet”, Thames, 1976. Director: Joan Kemp-Walsh. Cast: Ann Hasson – Juliet; Christopher Neame – Romeo; Patsy Byrne – Nurse; Clive Swift – Friar Laurence; David Robb (uncredited) – Tybalt; Robin Nedwell (uncredited) – Mercutio; Laurence Payne – Capulet; Mary Kenton – Lady Capulet. This is a rather obscure version in the sense that it's hard to find information about it on the net. Oddly, some of the cast are not credited; I couldn't find anywhere who plays Benvolio. But if you have the chance to see it, do! Sadly the box it was packaged and sold in is no longer available. A pity because it could well be the best version. I still like Luhrman better but this is a close second. Hal says it might be the best film version of any Shakespeare play. I don't agree but it's certainly towards the top of the list. What's good about it? Faithful to original, minimalistic but evocative stage setting, sincere, nuanced and profound acting.
  • “Romeo and Juliet”. Ballet to Prokofiev's music, choreography by Rudolf Nureyev. Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris. 1995. Dancers: Monique Loudières – Juliet; Manuel Legris – Romeo; Annie Carbonnel – Nurse. I had been looking forward to this. Sadly I was disappointed. I'm not a fan of classical ballet but that's what this definitely was. Entirely too much tippy-toeing and leg-twitching for me. The story was changed in several totally unnecessary ways and it is way too long. It has some rather beautiful scene and costume work and the dancing was of course outstanding but I certainly would have liked to see what Pina Bausch could have done with this!
  • “8 Päivää Ensi-Iltaan”, which, in case you're not fluent in Finnish, means “8 Days to Premiere”. 2007. Directed by Perttu Leppä. Cast: Vilma (Juliet) – Laura Birn; Lauri (Romeo) – Micko Leppilampi. A lightweight but enjoyable offshoot about a professional theater company in Helsinki who is dong R&J. It's a love story (big surprise) and even has the ghosts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to help out when things get complicated. See it if you get the chance. Here's the link to a Finnish trailer:
  • “Romeo and Juliet”, no date available. Kirov Ballet. Music: Tchaikovsky. Choreography: Nataly Rizhenko and Victor Smirnov-Golovanov. Dancers: Juliet – Svetlana Semenova. Romeo – Alexander Semenchukov. Absolutely stunning! A much shorter and tighter ballet than the above-mentioned version. This too is classical ballet and very stylized but the stage setting is a mix of dark rich backgrounds and atmospheric dramatic ramparts, castle courts and seasides. The dancing is superb with the kinds of leaps and twirls one expects from Russian ballet. A big plus is the music. Tchaikovsky's R&J is much more dramatic than Prokofiev's. It helps that we're also much more familiar with it. A most worthy finale for our R&J session!

Seen on stage: Yes. A shortened outdoor version in the park at Drottningholm outside of Stockholm in about 2003. Actually the first Shakespeare play I've seen on stage. I don't remember it being tragic, I remember the cleverness of the stage setting and the zest of the characters playing multiple parts. I also remember freezing to death and stumbling through the dark back to our friend's car after the play.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Monday, December 5 2011

Still a bit of a limbo week. We've read some more critical comments on Romeo and Juliet and have seen a few more Romeo and Juliet movies (we have one take-off plus a short ballet version left to watch). I have also written my text but I need time to think about it and revise it so it won't be posted today, unfortunately.
And I can't promise when it will be posted. Sadly, this is my last Shakespeare Monday for awhile. Next week I go back up to full time for four weeks. However one of those Mondays is a holiday so I'll try to get something posted then. And I will be back on January 16 to resume my Mondays.
So it's a little early but Happy Winter Solstice!

  • This week's Shakespeare sightings –
    • At the end of Harry Potter 5 – The Order of the Phoenix, Tonks wear a T-shirt with a Weird Sisters logo.
    • In “Downton Abbey” when Daisy is reluctant to talk to her fiancé William, home from the war and dying, the cook Mrs. Patmore says, “It doesn't have to be Shakespeare!”
    • In Sherman Alexie's short story “Search Engine” in his collection Ten Little Indians the main character, college student Corliss, watches a young guy trying to seduce a young woman by quoting Auden. Corliss, herself a poet, “wondered if Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets only because he was trying to get laid?”
    • Fridays' crossword in DN. Clue: “More than one in Hamlet”. Dane? Murder? Sword fight? Sign of madness? None of the above. Answer: act. How mundane.
Further, this week:
  • Book received: Jean E. Howard's Companion to the Tragedies. I see that she's the editor, not the author. Too bad, but it still looks interesting.
  • Movies watched: Zefferelli's version of Romeo and Juliet, the Thames version of same, the Ballet de Paris version of same.
  • Text posted on blog: the next Book of Interest – Eric S. Mallin's Godless Shakespeare.

Mallin Godless Shakespeare

Godless Shakespeare by Eric S. Mallin. 2007. Read in April, 2008.

Many have noted that Shakespeare, at least judging by his plays, was not an overly religious person. Granted, he lived in a society in which the Christian church dominated, but it was also a society in which this powerful church had split in two and was battling for something much more concrete than the human soul – political power. So what else is new, you might well ask, and indeed, that has been the role of organized religion since its appearance X number of thousands of years ago and until our day.

In this short (119 pages of text) but dense book, Eric Mallin proposes that the pervasiveness of Christian belief in Renaissance times did not preclude atheism. In his introduction her writes, “Unbelief was clearly possible in the Renaissance, and, as staged by Shakespeare, it furnishes a rich contrast and a goad to religious certainty” (p. 7). He quotes George Santayana's “The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare” (pointing out that Santayana's words could apply to many writers of the 16th century): “...for Shakespeare, in the matter of religion, the choice lay between Christianity and nothing. He chose nothing; he chose to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and of death with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand” (p. 6).

Mallin then gives several examples of characters who, in situations where they could have been expected to resort to prayer or evocation of the Christian God, breathe not a word of the Christian doctrine. Juliet, in rhapsodizing over her Romeo, “speaks lines that have nothing of Christianity about them” and instead of glorying in a shared future in the Christian heaven when they die, she wishes Romeo to be cut up into stars that will shine down on everybody (p. 8).

Mallin goes on to divide his essays into three categories: “Hell”, “Purgatory” and “Heaven”. Citing such plays as Titus Andronicus, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Nights Dream, he shows how “[g]odlessness (or...counter-belief) passes the ethics test in Shakespeare that Christianity, religiosity, and self-conscious virtue so often and so glaringly flunk” (page 87).

He doesn't deal with the many examples in Shakespeare of pillars if the Church who are less than virtuous, (read: downright villains) but he has examples of heroes who do truly evil things in the name of religion, most notably Lucius in Titus Andronicus. (See further my text “The Nastiness of Lucius” on this blog. Mallin's take on Lucius was a big help in writing the text.)

In spite of such amusing references to such modern culture manifestations as South Park, Fawlty Towers and Randy Newman, this is not an easy book to read. Sometimes Mallin's reasoning is obscure and his point unclear. It is nevertheless a thought-provoking and very exciting read. Recommended!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday, November 28 2011

Having finished reading Romeo and Juliet but not having seen all the movies or read all of the analyses, this is kind of a limbo week. The thought of writing about the most famous love story in western literature is somewhat daunting. Added to that is the realization that I don't...dare I say it...??? don't really like this play so much and so far neither Greenblatt's introduction nor Bloom's analysis has made me change my mind. Luhrman's movie version, watched yesterday evening, almost did (as always) but still, it's going to be tricky to write about it. Nevertheless I've decided the subject though I haven't started writing. We've read the two above-mentioned analyses but have a whole pile of books left to look through. We've watched three of the eight film versions, so more than half left. All in all it will be awhile before we go on to the next play. Ah well, no rush, right?

  • This week's Shakespeare sightings –
    • In the rest of Jasper Fforde's novel The Eyre Affair there weren't so many Shakespeare sightings but towards the end we find the real truth about the authorship of the plays. Whew! What a relief!
    • In DN I see that choreographer Mats Ek is going to do a new “Romeo and Juliet” in the next season, to Prokofiev. Hope to see that one.
    • Still listening to Springsteen: in “Fire” Romeo and Juliet are listed among famous love pairs.
    • In Harry Potter 5 – The Order of the Phoenix we are told that one of the members of the rock band, the Weird Sisters, is getting married.
Further, this week:
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: Romeo and Juliet
  • Book ordered but not yet received: Jean E. Howard's Companion to the Tragedies.
  • Posted on my Facebook: a couple of books and movies. As always, technical glitches make it a picky job.
  • Movies watched: “West Side Story”, “Romeo and Juliet” (BBC version), “William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet” (Baz Luhrman version).
  • Text posted on blog: the next Book of Interest – Dominic Dromgoole's Will & Me.

Will & Me Dominic Dromgoole

Will & Me – How Shakespeare Took Over My Life by Dominic Dromgoole. 2006. Read in May 2007, mostly on our bus trip to Rome.

This is a book I wish I had written, and in a way could have written (apart from the small fact that I'm not the director of the Globe Theater in London, like he is). This blog is my version, one could say.

Dominic Dromgoole writes in his foreword, “My story is of how I have stumbled, shambled and occasionally glided through a life with Shakespeare as a guide” (p. x). Unlike Dromgoole, most of my life has been lived without Shakespeare, but reading his book before my Shakespeare period had really begun, I could already feel the stirrings and this book certainly helped me on my way.

I was jealous of Dromgoole's background of having Shakespeare a part of his life since childhood. Imagine having Shylock, Hamlet, Falstaff, Jaques, Romeo (“with his drippy passion, which even then I found a bit disappointing beside Juliet's mental energy”, p. 56), Othello, Desdemona as playmates. On second thoughts, scary! Anyway, from childhood on, Dromgoole gives us details of his reactions and feelings upon meeting Shakespeare in various forms and one can easily see why Will was and is so important to him.

Dromgoole ends his book with a description of how he and a friend made the long seven-day walk from Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon to the Globe Theater in London. I would really like to do that! Footsore and weary, they saw on their last lap an ad for a camping store sale: “Now is the discount of our winter tents”. Now that's what I call a Shakespeare sighting!

I now see the problem with writing about the Shakespeare books I've read. I want to read them all over again. Immediately.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday, November 21 2011

It's been an eventful Shakespeare week so I'll get right to it.

  • Shakespeare sightings –
    • A review in Svenska Dagbladet of the modernized Othello at Lund's theater. The reviewer wasn't impressed, called it a Swedish TV detective story.
    • Watching one of our current favorites “The Big Bang Theory”, we came to the end of season one so watched the accompanying extra feature in which Kunal Nayyar, the actor who plays Raj Koothrappali, says that he'd like to play Shakespeare.
    • Listening to an old favorite, we heard Bruce Springsteen once again sing in “Tougher than the Rest” that he isn't a “sweet-talking Romeo”.
    • In Jasper Fforde's novel The Eyre Affair we are told on page 5 that “time is out of joint”. And that is the understatement of the millennium. Those of you who think you remember 1985, think again. What really happened was...well, let's say, time is seriously out of joint in this alternative version of 1985. The heroine, Thursday Next, is a cop in the LiteraTec offices of London and Swindon. Her job? To investigate crimes against literature - forgeries of original manuscripts, changing the ends of old classics, kidnapping and holding for ransom of characters in the classics, to name a few. Other cops have to quell the riots between Renaissance fanatics and, for example, the Surrealists, as well as mop up after shootouts at book buying deals gone bad. Thursday grew up begging her mom for coins to put into the Will-Speak machines, officially known as the Shakespeare Soliloquy Vending Automaton. There is a division of the police authorities dealing with all crimes regarding Shakespeare. People are annoyed when Baconians go door to door trying to convince them that Shakespeare's plays were really written by Bacon. When people refuse to listen, they politely ask if they can leave their pamphlets. Thursday easily quashes the arguments of the Baconian who knocked on her door. These are only some of the Shakespeare sightings in this really funny novel and I'm not even half-way through.
Further, this week:
  • Reading aloud with Hal: Romeo and Juliet
  • Book ordered but not yet received: Jean E. Howard's Companion to the Tragedies.
  • DVDs received: Two more offshoots of Shakespeare plays, mentioned in film book, and the last Harry Potter movie.
  • Posted on my Facebook: some of the photos from our trip to Stratford in July. More to come. Technical glitches make it a picky job.
  • Received with great interest – Kalle's brilliant comment on my blog text about A Midsummer Night's Dream. Don't miss it!
  • Text posted on blog: the first text on Books of Interest – Frank Kermode's Tha Age of Shakespeare.

The Age of Shakespeare - Frank Kermode

The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode. 2004. Read in March 2006.

This the first book I chose to read for the very reason that it was about Shakespeare. I read it a couple of years before the Great Shakespeare Mania began in my life, and it undoubtedly contributed to it via my old passion history more than my other old passion literature.

Kermode starts with a couple of chapters on the reformation and the succession problem when Henry VIII dies and Elizabeth ascends to the throne. Into Elizabethan London a young Shakespeare makes his way in chapter three. I actually didn't underline anything in this chapter, which dealt more than was interesting about whether or not Shakespeare was a Catholic (probably not, concludes Kermode) and the fact that we know almost nothing of this part of Shakespeare's life. The most significant sentence I found now while going through the chapter was, “It was in this age that the book became a familiar object, with incalculable consequences” (page 38). One of the bestsellers of the time was Shakespeare's epic poem Venus and Adonis.

The next two chapters deal with the Lord Chamberlain's Men and theater in general at the time. And the following chapter gets into Shakespeare's early plays, putting them in a context of the literary traditions of the time and to allusions of timely political events which the audiences would recognize. Kermode makes an interesting observation on Henry V (which I hadn't yet read at the time but had seen Branagh's film) in which a the foot-soldier Williams remained uninspired by the king's patriotic speech. Kermode notes: “the part of the surly Williams is so strongly written, his arguments so persuasive compared with Henry's that we are left querying our assent to the royal cause, however warmly solicited” (page 81). I made a note in the margin “see Milton justifying God”. Contemporary times and later eras have seen both Henry and God as the good guys but careful reading of Henry V shows (as history itself does) that Henry was the aggressor and invader, while Milton quite convincingly shows in Paradise Lost that Satan and Eve had very good reason to rebel against a tyrannical petulant God. Neither Shakespeare nor Milton have created simple jingoist characters in Henry and God, and their purpose surely was to show that these two, one a historical figure and the other a long-lived but never proven rumor, weren't the cardboard good guys some people would have them be. All in all, Shakespeare's Henry is more likeable than Milton's God.

The remaining three chapters deal with the Globe, the Shakespeare plays put on at the Globe and the Blackfriars. What I found most interesting as I read these chapters was Kermode's political history. He touches upon the question of republicanism and the ethnicity question of Othello and Caliban in an England that wasn't racist yet but had become involved in the African slave trade. Nobody in the the play, Kermode points out, resents that the general Othello is black, while recent interpretations of Caliban have made him a black slave in the Caribbean even though The Tempest is clearly set in the Mediterranean. The other point Kermode makes is to place the plays in the center of the turbulent times in which they were written. King Lear especially, but other plays as well, “reflect[s] the apocalyptic mood and the fear of the world's decay or decline” in “lines that...convey a real despair at the condition of humanity” (page 139).

The best line in the whole book, that sums up Shakespeare perfectly, is Kermode's comment to those who think that some of Shakespeare's plays are simple: “not even the word 'simple' is simple” (page 165). Something I've noted several times in some of my analyses.

This is a book that I can recommend highly to all history and Shakespeare enthusiasts and it is one I hope to find the time to read again soon.

PS After posting this, I saw on the net that Frank Kermode died at the age of 90 in August, 2010.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday, November 14 2011

Now it's ready to post, the text on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Finally! A play that I feel that I'm getting to know quite well and that many people have read or seen. It will now probably be several weeks before the next play analysis is posted but as I have promised before, I'm going to start writing about the various Shakespeare books I've read. But that's next week. This is this week. So on to...

  • Shakespeare sightings –
    • Still reading Herman Hesse's Under the Wheel and in chapter 4, the boy Hermann Heilner, refers once again to the comfort he gets from Shakespeare.
    • Coriolanus is being shown on Wednesday in the Stockholm film festival The other major daily newspaper Svenska dagbladet tells us that Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave are magnificent. The movie isn't being released until January. Oooh I'm tempted to go now.
    • This sighting and the next one are actually from last Monday's Dagens Nyheter but these days I read the paper at suppertime instead of breakfast so I saw them too late for the Monday report. Thus now: In the review of the third part of Haruki Murakami's trilogy 1Q84 the reviewer Jonas Thente emphasizes the novel's narration qualities and writes that “there are people who think that William Shakespeare's Hamlet is meaningless if they know beforehand that Hamlet dies in the end.”
    • Same day same newspaper: columnist Ingrid Hedström discusses being a language cop. She's all for changes and loan words but uses Ophelia to show how the word “character” is not the same as the Swedish “karaktär” and shouldn't be used that way. I do so agree!
    • Hal got Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom for his birthday (belatedly) and he showed me the quote from A Winter's Tale on the title page. I didn't recognize the quote partly because it's a Swedish translation and partly because I don't know the play that well.
Further, this week:
  • Reading aloud with Hal: Romeo and Juliet
  • Book ordered: Jean Howard's Companion to the Tragedies.
  • DVDs ordered: Two more offshoots of Shakespeare plays, mentioned in film book. Well, I had to order the last Harry Potter movie because it's going to be released on Wednesday this week, so I might as well take some more Shakespeare offshoots when the opportunity arises, right?
  • Text posted on blog: A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Midsummer Night's Dream - Love

Love Is Strange
Especially in A Midsummer Night's Dream

How can this play be about anything but love? The whole play oozes it, pretty much in every form. Even if the basis of the whole thing is the ambiguity between dreams and reality, this very ambiguity is manifested in the many facets of love. Some are extremely funny, some poignant, some heartbreaking, some ridiculous, some vicious, some violent. It's striking how so many interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream see only the amusing and happy-ending side of its love relationships. Take Harold Bloom, for example. He must be a real romantic at heart. Even though he writes that all the love in the play is “ironical” (p. 153), and Shakespeare's marriages never promise much happiness, he emphasizes the reconciliations and the marriages (though his focus is mainly on Bottom), and his quotes tend to include butterflies and cute fairies. This, of course, is not really true. I exaggerate. As always, Bloom gives a complex analysis which is very interesting, but the tone indicates that he is quite enamored by the play – as, in fact, am I! - and he is truly offended by critic Jan Kott's emphasis on the darker sides if the human sexuality portrayed in the play. I agree that Kott gets a bit carried away when he compares the play to Goya's Caprichos (I'm not going to supply you with a link, you'll have to look it up yourself) by using such words as “misshapen”, “repulsive”, “beastly, vulgar, ugly”, “whores”, “sluts” (Kott, pp. 229-230) but one really shouldn't ignore all the creepy crawlies and other icky things all over the place in the play. For example, “cankers in the mush-rose buds”, “spotted snakes”, “newts and blindworm”, “spiders...beetles black...worm and snail” (Act 2.2), all listed in a lullaby! These little fairies should get together with the weird sisters! Nor should the many instances of viciousness be ignored. I really truly love this play and agree with Bloom and most everybody else that it is one of the world's greatest masterpieces. But not in spite of the dark side. Because of it. Because the world's greatest theme – love – is so incredibly complex in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Unable in this analysis to give it the depth it deserves I will nevertheless touch upon the love between:

  • Theseus and Hippolyta
  • Titania and Oberon
  • Titania and Bottom
  • the four lovers.

Theseus and Hippolyta
These two open the play and it won't take long to analyze their love because there isn't any. As Colin McGinn points out in his book Shakespeare's Philosophy, this is a forced marriage and there is no mention of love between the two (p. 19). Indeed, Hippolyta has little reason to love Theseus who openly admits that

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries (Act 1.1)

The wedding, furthermore, will express “pomp, with triumph” (same scene), but not love.
So why should she love him? She was a warrior queen, now she's forced to marry down, a duke, not even a king! A duke who, we notice, effectively silences her with the above lines. Egeus enters (to push the play's second forced marriage) and Hippolyta is not given the chance to reply.

The next time we see them together, toward the end of the play, they are partaking in an odd discussion about dogs (how romantic is that?!). Theseus is bragging about the wonderful barking of his dogs to which Hippolyta rather distantly responds that she's heard better, in the company of Hercules no less. Her famous line in Act 4.1, “so musical a discord, such sweet thunder,” is not, as one might expect, about the tempestuousness of love, but about barking dogs! Sometimes Shakespeare is weird.

In Act 5.1, the now married couple shows no more love than before. They coolly discuss the strangeness of the two young couples' love but show no sign of “seething brains” nor “joy and mirth” themselves. If anything, Hippolyta exerts an impersonal form of resistance against Theseus by mildly complaining about his choice of evening entertainment and by showing boredom at the play until the sincerity of the mechanicals themselves win her over.

Nor does Theseus show any love for Hippolyta. He refers several times to the consummation of the marriage but more playfully than passionately. His part in the play ends with:

...Sweet friends, to bed.
A fortnight hold we this solemnity
In nightly revels and new jollity (Act 5.1).

Hippolyta makes no reply. What's there for her to say?

Titania and Oberon
The two royal fairies have that much more to say. Here we see plenty of passion, power struggle, and love, but it is certainly not lovey-dovey love. These two do not live in domestic wedded bliss.
When we meet them they are in the midst of a raging conflict – over the custody of an orphaned boy. There is so much to analyze in this “obscure” (as McGinn calls it, page 21) reason to quarrel that I will simply have to say, google it. For my purpose it's enough to point out just a few things about the relationship between the royal fairies.

In this power struggle, nature itself is in an uproar. Titania says at the end of her long monolog, describing the violence of the disturbances:

...this same progeny of evil comes
From our debate, from our dissension (Act 2.1)

No small lovers' spat, this! Oberon sees a simple solution:

Do you amend it, then. It lies with you.
Why should Titania cross her Oberon? (Act 2.1)

He doesn't exactly question the sexual politics of male domination and when Titania rather reasonably explains why she won't give in, he secretly, after she's left, threatens her: “Thou shalt not from this grove till I torment thee with this injury” (Act 2.1).

What then becomes one of the sweetest parts of the play is intended by Oberon to punish and hurt the woman he supposedly loves. When he drops the juice in her eyes he tells her to “wake when some vile thing is near” (Act 2.2). Vile, mind you, not silly or amusing or odd. Vile. Only when he gets what he wants, the boy, (I've never really understood this part. Surely Titania was under Oberon's spell when he took the boy from her? This is very unclear in the play) is he moved to feel “pity” for her “dotage” (Act 4.1). He breaks the spell, she rejects poor sleepy goodhearted Bottom and goes off docilely with her lord and master. Bloom rejects the view that this is “only another assertion of masculine authority” (p. 156) but really, what else can it be? Nature disturbances aside, one wishes that Titania would rise once again to her original power and eloquence but like Hippolyta she has been conquered and there doesn't seem to be much room for love. Exit Titania.

Titania and Bottom
This is the sweetest love story in the play. Maybe even the most sincere? It is Bottom's singing about birds (not beetles, toads and snakes!) that awakens Titania and she is in love even before she sees his grotesque form, in other words even before Oberon's eyedrops begin to go into effect. But as soon as she sees Bottom she is enthralled with what she sees too and she speaks perhaps the gentlest words of love in all of Shakespeare:

I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again.
Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note;
So is mine eye enthrallèd to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee (Act 3.1).

To which the startled but dignified Bottom replies with the profound words of wisdom:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays (Act 3.1).

As Jan Kott points out, the love scenes between Titania and Bottom are often “played for laughs” (p. 228) and of course they are funny. But unfortunately they are often played for cruel laughter and they should not be. Bottom is often cast as fat and foolish. In the first place, why should fat automatically be equated with foolish, implying unworthy of being loved? In the second place, I'm not sure Bottom is even described by Shakespeare as being fat (correct me if I'm wrong, I could simply have missed it) but no matter. Regardless of his appearance, Bottom is kind, he's wise, he's enthusiastic, he's intelligent. Bloom describes him wonderfully as “unfailingly courteous” (p. 161). So why shouldn't Titania love him? That her love for Bottom is foolish may be true but who among us isn't like Bottom, astounded that someone wonderful can love us in spite of our big ears? She'd be far better off with him than with the vain and cruel Oberon. It's a shame the spell was broken.

The lovers
Hermia and Demetrius, Helena and Lysander. No, no, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius. This was not a writer's ploy, I promise. I really did, as always, get them mixed up. No wonder. Almost everybody points out that the two guys are interchangeable. As often with Shakespeare's love stories, one can't help wondering what these two young women even see in them.

But to repeat Bottom's wisdom – reason and love etc. Love them they do.

What I find surprising – although of course I shouldn't – is the men's viciousness. It is somewhat understandable that Demetrius repeatedly tell Helena to go away – her persistence and doggish (literally! - the spaniel scene is positively painful!) devotion would drive anyone crazy, and sad though it might be, most of us at some time in our lives learn to live with unrequited love whether we are the lover or the lovee.
But in the first encounter between them we see that he actually threatens her with violence:

Tempt me not too much the hatred of my spirit;
For I am sick when I do look on thee...
...I'll run from thee, and hide me in the brakes
And leave thee to the mercy of the wild beasts.
...If thou follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood (Act 2.1)
...Stay on thy peril (Act 2.2).

Lysander is even worse. Instead of just redirecting his love from Hermia to Helena under the spell of the love potion, he turns downright mean. To Helena he says:

Content with Hermia? No, I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
...a surfeit of the sweetest things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings (Act 2.2)

That's bad enough but to Hermia herself he says:

Why seek'st thou me? Could not this make thee know
The hate I bear thee made me leave thee so`?
...Hang off, thou cat, thou burr; vile thing, let loose,
Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent.
...Out, tawny Tartar, out,
Out loath'd med'cine; O hated poison, hence.
...Get you gone, you dwarf...(Act. 3.2).

A simple “Sorry, I've met another woman” is clearly too tame for the mile-wide mean streak in Lysander.

Poor Hermia. Her love for Lysander is the most straightforward and unwavering in the whole play but even she has her limits. This scene in the forest between the four lovers is among my all-time favorites in Shakespeare (I could write a book...). It is hilarious, tragic, poignant and profound. It should definitely not be played as slapstick, which unfortunately it often is. Here, I will have to limit my analysis to the observation that Hermia loses her temper, prompting Helena to tell the guys that “though she be but little she is fierce” (my favorite line in all of Shakespeare). Unfortunately she turns her anger onto Helena, with some wickedly funny insults (“canker blossom”, “painted maypole”).

And Helena, this unhappy misfit with the least self-confidence in the world, finally fights back. In the handbook Soliloquy the editors point out that Helena throughout the play “suffers from her physical passive woe” and though there is a sense of defeat in whatever she says, “there is a lyrical stoicism” in her that leads finally to her being “overcome with rage” (p. 111 and 116).

Again, it's too bad she turns her anger from the guys (she's actually been doing pretty well at protesting against what she sees as their scorn) to Hermia but it still makes a great scene.

So the women hurl insults at each other, the men challenge each other to a duel and then they all fall asleep and wake up in love with the right person.

All a bad dream. And funny though it all was, if we really read the play, the whole play and not just the fun parts, we might see that the the dream was more of a nightmare for everybody except Bottom.
We must observe that much of the play takes place in a forest at night. To me that's scary, to Shakespeare undoubtedly even more so. Kott points out that the “romantic tradition, unfortunately preserved in the theatre through Mendelssohn's music” (p. 225) has often prompted directors to cast the forest as some kind of Tinkerbell Garden of Eden. In fact Shakespeare gives us “a forest inhabited by monsters and lamias” (Kott, p. 225 – lamias are monsters, demons and vampires, says my dictionary) and “a place of queasy shifts and disturbing fantasies, capricious and tyrannical” (McGinn, p. 21). Not a place conducive to sweet young love, or any other kind.

Which brings us back to the subject of this essay. Love. Which is undeniably strange in all its manifestations, beginning with its total absence in the two forced marriages, one consummated (Theseus and Hippolyta), the other avoided (Hermia and the man her father insists she marry, Demetrius). McGinn compares these two examples of sexual relationships with that of Titania and Bottom (possibly, or possibly not consummated). While Titania's sexual lust may be foolish and Bottom quite uninterested, it “is not evil” like the “legalized rape” in the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta and even more so (maybe) in Egeus's command that his daughter marry the man he's chosen, or die (p. 28).

Nor is the marriage of Oberon and Titania, as we have seen, based on mutual love, companionship or respect.

One hopes of course that the marriages of the young lovers will be happy after all, in spite of the “emotional violence and masochism, the betrayal of friendship, the radical fickleness of desire..the cruelty, indifference and rage” (Greenblatt in the Norton introduction, p. 844). It was after all a bad dream, wasn't it? They really do love each other in the end, don't they? Oh, Shakespeare, why can't you ever make things easy for us? Why can't you have them say to each other, “Oh darling, I'm sorry and I promise to love you forever and be nice to you too”? Well. Frankly, because that would be boring, wouldn't it? Instead Hermia says:

Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When everything seems double (Act 4.1).

And Helena says:

So methinks,
And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,
Mine own and not mine own (Act 4.1).

That's all they have to say about their love for their sweeties. And of the two sweeties, only Demetrius admits to feeling love for Helena, but speaks wonderingly of “it”, not “her”, the love itself, not the woman he loves:

The object and the pleasure of mine eye
Is only Helena...
...Now I do wish it, love it, long for it,
And for evermore be true to it (Act 4.1)

Aha! Not even love? Maybe just lust?

Oh the twists and turns! Love? Desire? Lust? Hate? Repulsion? Reconciliation? It's all quite breathtaking. As indeed is the whole play. What a brilliant cacophony of conflicting passions. And what an outpouring of reactions the world has expressed towards it. Yes, this is a “humane and wise drama” (Bloom, p. 148) but “the prevailing notions that sexual violence and bestiality are at the center” (Bloom again, same sentence) cannot be totally dismissed, indignant though Bloom and the rest of us might feel about it. And no, though we cannot deny “the pungency of the dialogue and the brutality of the situations” (Kott, p. 218), this really isn't about “animal eroticism” or “pure animality” (Kott, pp. 232-233). It is a wonderful homage to the human imagination and what nightmares and miracles it can create, sometimes at the same time. And neither miracle nor nightmare can be ignored in the play. “Those who see A Midsummer Night's Dream as lighthearted entertainment must somehow laugh off this darkness; those who wish to emphasize the play's more troubling and discordant notes must somehow neutralize the comic register in which such notes are sounded” (Greenblatt, p. 844).

Absolutely. But why must we choose? I, for one, love both sides of this madly flipping, glittery, shadowy coin. A Midsummer Night's Dream and the very strange, sweet and scary love flowing and erupting throughout it, is simply a masterpiece. Revel in it!

November 2011

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Early, Michael and Philippa Keil, editors. Soliloquy – The Shakespeare Monologues, The Women. 1988.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).
  • Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary.1964.
  • McGinn, Colin. Shakespeare's Philosophy. 2006.

Films seen:
  • BBC, 1981. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Cast: Helen Mirren -Titania; Peter McEnery – Oberon; Brian Glover – Bottom; Nigel Davenport – Theseus; Estelle Kohler – Hippolyta; Pippa Guard – Hermia; Robert Lindsay – Lysander; Cherith Mellor – Helena; Nicky Hensen – Demetrius; Phil Daniels – Puck.

    A fine mixture of the dark and the light in the play. Helen Mirren is as always superb and Estelle Kohler and Cherith Mellor do the best Hippolyta and Helena I've seen.
  • RSC, 1996. Director: Adrian Noble. Cast: Lindsay Duncan - Titania; Alex Jennings – Oberon; Desmond Barrit – Bottom; Alex Jennings – Theseus; Lindsay Duncan – Hippolyta; Monica Duncan – Hermia; Daniel Evans – Lysander; Emily Raymond – Helena; Kevin Doyle – Demetrius; Barry Lynch – Puck.

    A visual masterpiece. Exciting minimalist (in spite of all the color) stage settings. Some very good acting though often too slapstick. Why use the silent narration of the boy? The play doesn't need it.
  • “Shakespeare Retold”, 2005. Director: Ed Fraiman. Cast: Sharon Small - Titania; Lennie James - Oberon; Johnny Vegas – Bottom; Bill Patterson – Theseus; Ismelda Staunton – Hippolyta; Zoe Tapper – Hermia; Rupert Evans – Lysander; Michelle Bonnard – Helena; William Ash – Demetrius; Dean Lennox Kelly – Puck.

    An entertaining but completely lighthearted remake, placing the whole thing at an engagement party in a recreation camp. Very good cast.
  • The bicycle version, 1995. Director: Michael Hoffman. Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer -Titania; Rupert Evert - Oberon; Kevin Kline – Bottom; David Straithern – Theseus; Sophie Marceau – Hippolyta; Anna Friel– Hermia; Dominjic West – Lysander; Calista Flockhart – Helena; Christian Bale – Demetrius; Stanley Tucci – Puck.

    An entertaining version, amusingly updated to the turn of the last centuriy, newfangled bicycles and all. Some very good moments, and Kevin Kline is the best Bottom of the four, but all of the darker sides are ignored, smiley romance dominates all the relationships and the Mendelssohn backgrounds the festivities making it one long carnival. Enjoyable but Shakespeare deserves more!

Seen on stage: no.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday, November 7 2011

Well! There, I've just finished scribbling my text on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sorry to say, it won't be posted today. It has to be revised, but next week for sure. That'll give you time to read through it and refresh your memory!
So on to this week's...

  • Shakespeare sightings –
    • Reading Herman Hesse's Under the Wheel (I'm guessing the English translation of the title Unterm Rad since I'm reading it and discussing it with friend, colleague and Shakespeare follower Mediha in Swedish), I find in chapter 3 that the boy Hermann Heilner, a scholarly melancholy figure, likes to declaim the monologues of Schiller and Shakespeare.
    • The author of the Millenium Trilogy Stieg Larsson liked Shakespeare's Sisters, according to his life-long companion Eva Gabrielsson in her book about their life together Stieg and Me. She doesn't mention whether or not he liked Shakespeare.
    • Another crossword, this time in English. Clue: Iago to Othello. Answer: Nemesis. I had to get some of the letters in that one before I figured it out.
    • And reported from follower Eija: “… in Johnny Depp’s (or perhaps it is Tim Burton’s…) Corpse Bride: “Murder most foul…” Thank you, Eija!
Further, this week:
  • Read aloud with Hal: several scholarly analyses of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  • Movies watched:
    • Adrian Noble's version of same
    • The “Shakespeare Retold” version of same.
    • The Michael Hoffman-Kevin Kline-Michelle Pfeiffer version of same.
  • Book completed: Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film.
  • DVDs ordered:
    • Orson Welles' “Chimes at Midnight”, known in the US as “Falstaff”. Finally, I might add, we've been looking for that for awhile.
    • Three offshoots of Shakespeare plays, mentioned in film book, each one probably sillier than the next. One of them is a Star Trek, believe it or not. Supposedly based on Hamlet, believe it or not.
  • DVDs received from the RSC: a Hamlet, a Macbeth a Twelfth Night (with Kenneth Branagh) and a Shakespeare Sessions. Thank you, Ben at the RSC online shop, for helping me sort out my credit card goof-up.
  • Text posted on blog: Not this week.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween. What does Shakespeare say about Halloween, does anybody know?
With today's posting of my text on Love's Labour's Lost I'll have caught up with all my texts. No more unposted ones in storage. So from now on, on Mondays when I don't post a play analysis I'll be doing short book reviews on books I've read about WS. I'm looking forward to that. But that will probably be in a couple of weeks because next week I hope to post something on A Midsummer Night's Dream (see below).
  • Shakespeare sightings –
    • Having now reached The Goblet of Fire in our Harry Potter marathon we have been to the Yule Ball for which the talented Weird Sisters provide the music. Actually in my versions of Macbeth they're called witches. But that works too in this context!
    • According to DN the production of “Marat/Sade” at the Royal Shakespeare Theater (or Theatre, I suppose I should spell it) in Stratford, is getting distinctly mixed response. It seems one either loves it (standing ovations) or hates it (walks out in the middle). What they hate is the the insanity, nudity, torture and violence. Hmmmm sounds like a Shakespeare play...
    • In the science fiction novel Extras by Scott Westerfeld Othello is quoted: “Reputation is an idle an most false imposition...”
    • Ho hum, another mention in DN of that movie, you know, the one in which Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare. Evidently in the movie he's a thief, a killer and a swindler. No wonder he didn't have time to write his plays! According to this little notice someone's going to sue, though it doesn't say whom or for what exactly. More appropriate, I think, is the second suggestion mentioned, that the director be locked up in the Tower.
    • In Agnes Gray, by Anne Brontë, Agnes tells us, “As I cannot, like Dogberry, find it in my heart to bestow all my tediousness upon the reader...” So, new contest! In which play do we find Dogsberry and in which way is he tedious? Wonderful prizes to the first one who answers correctly!
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  • Movie watched: The BBC version of the same
  • Book still being read: Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film.
  • DVDs not yet received from the RSC: a Hamlet, a Macbeth a Twelfth Night (with Kenneth Branagh) and a Shakespeare Sessions.
  • Text posted on blog: Finding...a Few Things in Love's Labour's Lost.

Love's Labour's Lost - Finding

Finding...a Few Things
in Love's Labour's Lost

This is a strange play. It confuses me. It's too fast for me. The analyses I've looked at so far seem to be about some other play. Even dear old Professor Bloom doesn't provoke me. No “aha, so that's what this is about!” No “Are you crazy?” Just a “Hmmm, yeah. Well, OK...”

I have a pile of books here with various analyses and someday I really will do my own intelligent analysis of some very obscure but vitally significant detail from the play (it's full of them!) but this time I'm going to take a vacation from analysis and simply write about a few things that I like about the play. Because in spite of the wary attitude expressed above, I do. Like it. So no analysis, just a list of superb quotes on the subjects of:
1.Education and reading
2.Some really funny language
3.The commons putting the nobility in their place
4.The women winning

1. As a teacher and book-lover, I have to love the mockery and irony of the role of education and reading. The whole idea of four young men locking themselves away from women and the world for three years of constant study reminds me of some of my earnest young students who promise that this time they really are going to complete the course with the highest grades. It could be them saying the following:

Biron: What is the end of study, let me know.
King: Why to know which else we should not know.

But of course my dear students often fail to live up to their oaths, just as our four heroes do. The difference being that my students are more likeable.

Anyway, Biron contradicts himself constantly throughout the play:

Biron: Study is like the heaven's glorious sun,
That will not be deep searched with saucy looks...
King: How well he's read, to reason against reading!
Biron: So study evermore is overshot
While it doth study to have what it would,
It doth forget to do the thing it should;
And when it hath the thing it hunteth most,
'Tis won as towns with fire – so won, so lost. (Act 1.1)

In other words, Biron points out that studying destroys what you want to learn. Still he signs on.

His oath, of course, is soon broken, as Shakespeare's oaths usually are. He and his three friends fall in love with the four Frenchwomen immediately and Biron conveniently explains:

O, what have we made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have foresworn our books. (Act 4.3)

“Books” here being the women's eyes, says the note in Norton. What he's saying is, “OK, guys, forget studying, what we really want to learn about is women and love.”

What I like is the dilemma – school or real life? What's the difference? What's “real” about “real life” (especially the way Biron and friends regard love, as if their love is real...)

Maybe I'll analyze all this with the many more appropriate quotes from the play next time. But to end this section I just have to include a quote I love which shows Holofernes' contempt for the uneducated in his diatribe against an incorrect description of a deer:

...his undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather unlettered, or ratherest unconfirmed, fashion, to insert again my 'haut credo' for a deer” (Act 4.2)

I wouldn't want to use a word inaccurately around him! But it's another example of Shakespeare's expertise at insults and leads nicely into my next point.

2. The language of this play, everyone seems to agree, is unsurpassed in English literature. It will take a lifetime of studying to appreciate it but here are a few of my favorites:

the wordy amiable Spaniard in talking of his love for the country wench Jaquenetta: “ still drum; for your manager is in love; yea, he loveth. Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme, for I am sure I shall turn sonnet. Devise wit, write pen, for I am for whole volumes, in folio” (Act 1.2). A little gentle self-mockery on Shakespeare's part?

In response to Holofernes' expression of indignation (above) over the misuse of various words for “deer” (he says further, “O thou monster of ignorance, how deformed dost thou look!”), Nathaniel, the curate rather gently explains:

Sir, he hath never fed the dainties that are bred in a book.
He hath not eat paper, as it were, he hath not drunk ink (Act 4.2)

Nathaniel and Holofernes make fun of Armado with a great long harangue – in itself worthy of study – to which Mote, Armado's page, and Costard, the clown, note

Mote: They have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps.
Costard: O, they have lived long on the alms basket of words. (5.1)

A few minutes later Armado enters the scene. His speech throughout the play is filled with lines consisting of dozens of words when one would suffice. Here an example: “...the posteriors of this day, which the rude multitude call the afternoon” (Act 5.1).

And finally, after two pages of this kind of babbling exchange between Armado and Holofernes, the latter turns to Constable Dull and says, “Via, Goodman Dull! Thou hast spoken no word all this while.” To which Dull replies, “Nor understood none neither, sir” (Act 5.1). I know the feeling!

I've chosen my examples from the exchanges of the commoners. The nobility in the play are no less wordy and in several instances their use of language is just as funny and/or absurd but that will have to wait. My point is that in all of this, the four noble heroes of the play turn out to be not so noble after all.

3. In his introduction to the Norton edition of the play, Walter Cohen points out that one of the strengths of the play is that the “upper class learns its manners from the lower” (page 773). The best example is at the end when Costard, Nathaniel and Holofernes bravely attempt to present a pageant on the Nine Worthies (Pompey, Alexander the Great, Judas Maccabeus, etc.) only to be taunted by the young lords, to which Holofernes replies with quiet dignity: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble” (Act 5.2). Unfortunately the the nobles do not listen. Their insults continue.

Still they get what they deserve in the end. They don't pay attention to the rebuke of the commoners but they can't ignore the rebuke of the women.

4. There's a lot of talk of love in this play. It's all spoken by the men. The women don't fall for it. Throughout, the women make fun of the men, mock them, play tricks on them and with clever and cool awareness of men's general shallowness and untrustworthiness when it comes to love, and evade them from start to finish. No romantic, dewy-eyed ending here. The Princess (now Queen of France) tells the king:

Your oath I will not trust, but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage
Remote from all the pleasures of the world.
There stay until the twelve celestial signs
Have brought about the annual reckoning (Act 5.2).

If he does, she'll accept him. If not, she won't.

Catherine tells Dumaine:

Come when the king to my lady come
Then if I have much love, I'll give you some (Act 5.2).

If, you'll notice. No promises here.

Marie tells Longueville:

At the twelvemonth's end
I'll change my black gown for a faithful friend (Act 5.2).

And finally, Rosaline, knowing exactly how much (or little) value there is in Biron's ceaseless flow of mocking wit and linguistic flights of fancy, banishes him:

You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches, and your task shall be
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the painéd impotent to smile (Act 5.2)

In a rather chilling realization of his own shallowness Biron protests that, “Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.”

Rosaline responds at length, saying essentially, “Exactly. You finally figured it out.” Like her three friends, she says that if he manages to stick it for a year, there might be a match, If not, too bad for him.

The four men reluctantly agree but Biron's last words, that a year is “too long for a play,” don't really give much indication of an and-they-lived-happily-ever-after ending (what Shakespeare play does?) No, what happens is that the four women “ride off into the sunset without their men” (Cohen, p. 773). Or, as Bloom puts it, “no one gets married, and...we are more than free to doubt that a year's service or penance by the men (unlikely to be performed) will bring about any unions” (Bloom, p. 143).

Hmmmm. I think I'm beginning to like this play. Next time around, I'm going to have to give it some serious thought!

October 2011

Works cited:

  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Cohen, Walter. “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).

Films seen:

  • BBC, 1984. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Cast: Mike Gwilym – Biron (or Berowne); Jenny Agutter – Rosaline; Maureen Lipman – Princess of France; Paul Jesson – Costard; David Warner – Don Armado; John Kane – Mote (or Moth); John Wells – Holofernes. Quite a straightforward interpretation. Lipman was best as the Princess of France.
  • The Kenneth Branagh version, 2000. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Kenneth Branagh – Biron; Natasha McElhone – Rosaline; Alicia Silverstone – the Princess of France; Nathan Lane – Costard; Timothy Spall – Don Armado; Anthony O'Donnell – Moth; Geraldine McEwan – Holofernes (Holofernia). I love this film. Set in the 30's just before WWII breaks out, it's a musical using old classics by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin. This is such a hokey movie and totally romantic. In other words, except for the rather effective use of the war as a sober backdrop, this version is so shallow and sweet that I should hate it. But Branagh is just so good, the cast are obviously having so much fun, the soppy ending is actually believable, the songs and lyrics fit in so perfectly and I'm a sucker for musicals so I fell for it immediately. This is the third time I've watched it but certainly not the last.

Seen on stage: no.