Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday April 30 2012

Sadly, this will be the last Monday report for awhile. I've had to go back up to full-time in order to prepare courses for the fall term and to teach the intensive summer course in high school English in June. I'll try to make a quick appearance on May 28th and then I'll be back in July. Hal and I will continue to read the plays and on weekends I'll scribble as much as I can so there will be things to post when I get back. Until then, and always, Shakespeare lives!

From the Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On April 25 Shakespeare was both baptized (1564) and buried (1616).

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the TV comedy Högklackat (High heeled shoes) one of the characters finds herself at a party of English-speaking people. Knowing almost no English herself, she pretends by saying knowingly, “Brighton!”, and “Tottenham!” and, of course, “Shakespeare!” She fools no one....
  • In the Swedish book 101 historiska myter by Åke Persson and Thomas Oldrup, they blame Shakespeare for the myth that Julius Caesar said, “Et tu, Brute”.
  • In The Hunger Games the heroine Katniss and her on-screen if not true-life sweetheart Peeta are referred to as “star-crossed lovers”. Hmmmm, I wonder which play that's from...
  • Rufus Wainwright has released a new CD and in the reviews Dagens Nyheter refers to his renditions of Shakespeare's sonnets with the insulting words “monotone piano-pounding”. Hmrph. I love Wainwright's Shakespearean interpretations, especially
  • In the weekly “Faxtra”, a sheet of news notices produced for students of English and provided to me by my colleague M.H., we are informed that research shows that All's Well that End's Well was co-authored by Thomas Middleton. DN has a notice about this too. Didn't we know that already? Or am I thinking of other plays?

Further, this week:
  • Continued reading aloud with Hal: The Merry Wives of Windsor.
  • Ordered: Companion to Shakespeare: the Comedies. Edited by Jean E. Howard
  • Listened to: Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and pictured the Russian ballet performance we have on DVD the whole while.
  • Posted: A review of Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott.
  • Agreed upon: with James H.-S. of the Open Shakespeare blog to write an intro to The Merry Wives of Windsor.
  • Accepted as: “fully, totally, officially onboard with the world's most popular Shakespeare blog. “  My first post on Blogging Shakespeare should appear soon.

Kott Shakespeare Our Contemporary

Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott. 1964. Read in March 2009.

This book is one of the most important ever written about Shakespeare. First published in Polish in the 1960's it brought a radically new view of Shakespeare to Western literature analysis. As Peter Brook points out in the preface, Jan Kott, having lived in Poland in the turbulent 20's, 30's,40's, 50's and 60's, experienced personally many of the things Shakespeare wrote about. He could therefore, unlike almost all other modern scholars, consider Shakespeare his contemporary and unlike any other scholar I have come across so far, Kott succeeds in showing in his book why Shakespeare is not just some clever productive Renaissance author that we have to read because he's part of the canon, but that his plays are highly relevant to our lives today.

Careful readers of this blog will have noticed that I have often referred to Kott in my play analyses.
In his chapter “The Kings”, which I used in my texts on Henry VI, the Richards and Henry IV, Kott writes , “There are no gods in Shakespeare. There are only kings, every one of whom is an executioner, and victim in turn. There are also living, frightened people...The greatness of Shakespeare's realism consists in his awareness of the extent to which people are involved in history” (p. 19-20). Kott, himself a Polish Jew, a Marxist, a resistance fighter in World War Two, a literary critic leading the opposition to Stalin in the 50's (all according to Martin Esslin in the book's introduction), should know.

This book is not a cheerful read. Kott's experience and his academic depth find that in Shakespeare, and in life, “the abyss, into which one can jump, is everywhere” (p.146) and that, “[i]n Shakespeare's play [King Lear] there is neither Christian Heaven nor the heaven predicted and believed in by humanists” (p. 147). He shows throughout the book how Shakespeare avoids the absolute, in fact “the absolute has ceased to exist. It has been replaced by the absurdity of the human condition” (p. 137).

A prolific literary critic, Kott spent the last thirty or so years of his life in the United States. He died at the age of 87 in 2001. Since then Shakespeare Our Contemporary has remained one of the most influential books on Shakespeare and references to it can be found almost wherever one looks. I will certainly continue to refer to him. A grim book, yes, but very exciting. After all, what can be more exciting than the absurdity of the human condition? Nobody did it better than Shakespeare and nobody has so far made Shakespeare's connection to the 20th century better than Jan Kott.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Monday April 23 2012

Happy birthday, dear William! On this day in 1564 William Shakespeare was born and sadly also on April 23 in 1616 he died, only 52 years old. He had stopped writing plays some years earlier. He was born and died in Stratford.

Last week's Monday report was a bit hasty because of my distraction with the text on H4:1 (posted today). I missed a few Shakespeare sightings so I will included them below. But first...

From the Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On April 20, 1610, Simon Forman, physician and astrologer, saw a performance of Macbeth and wrote about it. This is one of the first (and few) eyewitness reports of seeing a Shakespeare play in his lifetime.
  • On April 22, 1597, Shakespeare probably attended a party for the year's new Garter Knights because his patron Lord Chamberlain was one of them.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In Svenska Dagbladet there was a long article on April 11 about silence in Shakespeare's plays. A worthy subject!
  • Cleaning out my email box at work a couple of weeks ago I found an old email from a former student who sent me a link to one of the biggest on-line selling sites, Blocket. The seller was offering “Shakespeare, his complete works, in a very fine edition...”. In Swedish, so it was quite an offer. The complete works are no longer available in bookstores or on-line bookshops!
  • In Twilight, which I just finished reading to see if it is worth using for gender analysis in my advanced English class (it most definitely is, rather depressingly so...), the highschoolers have Shakespeare on their required reading list.
  • In the Swedish book 101 historiska myter (I think you non-Swedes can figure that out) by Åke Persson and Thomas Oldrup, they blame Shakespeare for the myth that Cleopatra killed herself by letting a poison asp bite her.
  • In the Swedish novel Sjö utan namn (that's less obvious so here's the translation: Lake with No Name) by Kjell Johansson, the author tells us that there is a statue of Puck in the Stockholm suburb Midsommarkransen (Midsummer Wreath). I'll have to go take a look some day!
  • In today's Dagens Nyheter a theater group of pensioners is mentioned. They have put on a production of Macbeth.

Further, this week:
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: The Merry Wives of Windsor.
  • Posted: “Language, Lies and Truth” in Henry IV Part One.

Henry IV Part One Language Lies Truths

  Language, Lies and Truths
Henry IV Part One

Shakespeare is known for his language. Among other things of course, but ask anybody what they know about him and the answer will probably include his linguistic brilliance.

What is maybe less obvious, but clearly there if you look for it, is how Shakespeare, through the characters themselves, reflects upon the question of language. In Henry IV Part One that's one of the aspects (along with the juvenile delinquency of the future Henry V, in this play known as Hal or the Prince of Wales) that I find most fascinating.

I'm going to explore three examples here. First, a scene in which the characters don't understand each other's language at all, realize it and don't care. Second, a scene in which the character claims to understand but doesn't. And third, a scene in which the character reinterprets an overused word and turns the play upside down. So to speak. I am referring to Mortimer and his nameless Welsh wife, to Prince Hal, and to Sir John Falstaff.

To begin with the first: in the unusual Act 3.1 we see an odd little group, the Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr, his daughter Lady Mortimer, her husband Mortimer, Henry Percy (known as Hotspur) and his wife, Lady Kate. The scene is unusual because all five partake freely in the discourse, odd because in spite of the language situation they all seem to understand each other. Furthermore, within the play as a whole, the conversation itself is significant in that the two wives play an active part. In her introduction to the Norton edition, Jean E. Howard points out that there are no wives or girlfriends in Henry's court and thus Act 3.1 gives us more insight into the rebels' world than we get into the king's (p. 1181-82). Welsh women were earlier mentioned in the play in the report of the rebellion attacks on English soldiers upon whom Welsh women were claimed to have committed atrocities ( Act 1.1) but in Act 3.1 we are given another picture. Yes, Lady Mortimer would rather go to war with her husband than stay home weeping - “She'll be a soldier; she'll to the wars,” says her father but for love, not viciousness. She openly shows her love for her husband, and this brings us to the question of language. She speaks no English, her husband no Welsh. And yet a tenderer love scene can hardly be found in all of Shakespeare.

While Hotspur makes nasty comments about how awful Welsh sounds – Howard tells us that to English ears of the time the language was considered barbarous and the Welsh were seen as rebellious (page 1179) (which they were) – Shakespeare, for reasons that would be very interesting to explore, elevates the language to poetry. He writes not a single word of Welsh but gives very clear directions – most unusual for him – not once but six times: “The lady speaks/sings Welsh”. Though her father translates everything for Mortimer and for us it is almost unnecessary. Mortimer understands:

I understand thy looks. That pretty Welsh
Which thou down pourest from these swelling heavens
I am too perfect in, and, but for shame
In such a parley should I answer thee. The lady kisses him and speaks again in Welsh
I understand thy kisses and thou mine,
And that's a feeling disputation...;

Furthermore he promises to learn Welsh:

But I will never be a truant, love,
Till I have learned thy language, for thy tongue
Makes Welsh as sweet as ditties highly penned,
Sung by a fair queen in a summer's bower,
With ravishing division, to her lute...

And when he doesn't understand, he expresses frustration: “O, I am ignorance itself in this!” His father-in-law explains that she wishes Mortimer to lay with his head in her lap while she sings to him and he replies, “With all my heart, I'll sit and hear her sing.” In spite of the annoying Hotspur, she sings and Mortimer listens until Glyndwr is compelled to interrupt:

Come, come, Lord Mortimer, you are as slow
As hot Lord Percy is on fire to go (all quotes Act 3.1).

Neither Lord nor Lady Mortimer appear again in this play but this scene of love in the face of great odds contrasts sharply with the petty but violent rivalry of the English lords in the rest of the play.
And these two very minor but unusually likeable characters, with their language problems, contrast sharply with one of these violent men, the Prince of Wales (how ironic is that!), Hal, who is not likeable at all and who claims to understand languages not his own but who probably doesn't.

Prince Hal, to his father's dismay and the amusement of the rebels, is a carousing wastrel. He hangs out with drunken thieves. His character has often been analyzed and it as often been shown how Hal is simply preparing for his takeover of the crown when his father Henry IV dies. No arguments there. Hal is a calculating and manipulative rogue. He runs around with the workers and with petty criminals not because he likes them but because he can make use of them in the future. And he makes no bones about one of the ways in which he is building up power: language.

We see this in another odd scene (which is, in fact, cut from the BBC version, unfortunately), Act 2.5 in which Hal brags that, “I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life.” This to further his claim that, “When I am the King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.” What follows is an unpleasant display of power. In a jocular tone, Prince Hal teases the hapless apprentice Francis by first exclaiming how oppressive apprenticeship is: “Five year! By'n Lady, a long lease for the clinking of pewter”. With these words he is also belittling the skill demanded of a tinker and he goes on to prod Francis to rebellion: “But Francis, darest thou be so valiant as to play the coward with thy indenture, and show it a fair pair of hells and run from it?” Knowing full well that this isn't an option for Francis, Prince Hal continues to tease him for awhile but finally tires of it and dismisses him with, “Away, you rogue. Dost thou not hear them call?” and exits. Poor Francis, Shakespeare tells us explicitly in his stage directions, “stands amazed, not knowing which way to go” (all quotes from Act 2.5).
Stephen Greenblatt places this small exchange into a much large picture of language and power in his chapter “Invisible Bullets” from his book Shakespearean Negotiations. Unfortunately the scope of this essay is too limited to further connect to Greenblatt's analysis of language and power within the historical context of the emerging colonialism of the Renaissance world, but relevant here is how Hal claims to master his future subjects' vernacular only in order to exploit it, and them.

A figure who is not so easy to exploit and who hopes to benefit by Prince Hal's slumming is Sir John Falstaff. There is much to be said about the fat knight, and much has indeed been said, written, analyzed, ridiculed and loved about the bigger-than-life rambunctious, obnoxious and loveable character. His friendship with and betrayal by Prince Hal is one of the masterpieces of literature. Even within the confines of the subject of language much could be written about Falstaff. Harold Bloom idolizes him and goes to such lengths to convince us of Falstaff's superiority as a character that one has the inclination to disagree (which I did frequently when Bloom scoffed, as usual, at other Shakespeare scholars) but I must agree with his assessment that, “If you love language, you love Falstaff” (p. 289).

In this essay however I will limit myself to one monolog, Falstaff's famous reflection when Hal tells him that he owes God a death then leaves him alone on stage:

'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism. (Act 5.1)

This is spoken on the battlefield. Noblemen are killing each other and common foot soldiers for no good reason. Prince Hal has more or less just told Falstaff to go and get himself killed. And suddenly Falstaff isn't a buffoon anymore. He's the speaker of a profound truth. Honor – that word that so many have killed and died for – is just that, only a word. It cannot mend, it cannot be enjoyed by the dead, it can easily be lost by the living. It is worse than useless. It is harmful. Falstaff decides wisely to “have none of it”.

Thus in one of the shortest and most brilliant monologs in all of Shakespeare, one of the most loaded and misused words in any language, is revealed to be ridiculous. Still, it is deadly. Hotspur is soon killed by it and Prince Hal takes a great stride towards the power he has had his eye on all along Falstaff, as we will see in Part Two, ends up the loser.

But he has uttered a profound truth and for the time being, decidedly chooses life over honor. In the words of the Polish scholar Jan Kott, Falstaff “will not not let history take him in. He scoffs at it” (p. 49).
Love, power, honor. Understanding, lies and truth. In this play with the less than eloquent title Henry IV Part One, the language plays its own part and with great eloquence, subtlety and sometimes startling clarity it weaves in and out among the contrasts between peace and war, amiability and aggression, death and life itself.

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.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations.1988.
  • Howard, Jean E. Introduction in The Norton Shakespeare, see above.
  • Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. 1964.

Films seen:
  • BBC, 1979. Director: David Giles. Cast: Prince Hal – David Gwillim; King Henry – Jon Finch; Falstaff – Anthony Quayle; Hotspur – Tim Pigott-Smith; Mortimer – Robert Morris; Lady Mortimer – Sharon Morgan; Owain Glyndwr – Richard Owens. This is a well-done production. Jon Finch is very good as Henry, Quayle is a convincing Falstaff and the others are generally very good too. The only question mark is Gwillim as Hal, probably because I saw Branagh as Henry V first. Gwillim was better the second time (or was it the third) that we watched the play, but for me Hal will always be Branagh.
 Seen on stage: No.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday April 16 2012

This will be a quickie report because I'm in the middle of a mad scribble of my text on Henry IV Part One, hopefully to be posted next week. So here it is:

From the Shakespeare Almanac:

  • On April 9, 1413, Henry V was crowned.
  • On April 12, 1606, the Union Jack was created.
  • On April 13, 1930, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing, when my mind is agape and red and hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed, and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal, and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine...Why then should anyone else attempt to write? This is not writing at all. Indeed I should say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.”
  • On April 15, 1569, Shakespeare's sister Joan was baptized. She outlived William by thirty years.

Shakespeare sightings:

  • An ad in Dagens Nyheter for the Royal Theater about a play called Miranda, based on The Tempest. Might be interesting.
  • Not really a sighting but an article, also in DN, about Matilda the Musical being done by the Royal Shakespeare Society. So, is that a sighting or not? Just because the RSC is mentioned...

Further, this week:

  • Watched: The BBC version of Henry IV Part One.
  • Read aloud with Hal: Some of Harold Bloom's analysis of H4:2 but gave up because it was so silly. As usual, though some of it was interesting so I might use it, who knows?
  • Wrote: most of the rest of the rough draft of my text.
  • Posted: Just this.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Monday April 9 2012

What an interesting week. Here's a report on some of it:

From the Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On April 8, 1828, Sir Walter Scott visited Shakespeare's grave in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • Looking up something on the website of the English department of the Stockholm University I saw a portrait of Shakespeare in an announcement of the current courses being offered.
  • In DN there was a long article on the Family page congratulating Kent Hägglund, board member of the Swedish Shakespeare Society, on his 65th birthday. Happy birthday, Kent! I'm looking forward to the next issue!
  • In the movie Inside Daisy Clover from 1965, an old favorite recently acquired, young Robert Redford speaks of “orisons” and explains to the even younger (at least in this role) Natalie Wood that it's a quote from Shakespeare.
  • In the movie Little Women one of the sisters in their actor guises claims “The play's the thing” and later when Jo meets her future sweetheart Friedrich, he tells her that the only thing he brought with him to America were his books, including Shakespeare.

Further, this week:
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: Henry IV Part One.
  • Finished reading: Shakespearean Negotiations by Stephen Greenblatt. Will use it in an analysis soon!
  • Worked on: a text for another blog. Link will be provided when it's uploaded.
  • Started (barely): a text on H4:1.
  • Posted: A report on Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer.

Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer, 2007. Read in March 2010.

Legend has it that the marriage between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway was not a happy one. Reasons for this interpretation of scant documentary material are usually given as: she was several years old than him, they lived much of their life apart, he left her only a measly bed in his will. It is an old legend, fed by such modern supporters as the wonderful movie Shakespeare in Love and top-notch Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt.
Then along comes Professor Germaine Greer and turns the legend on its ear by presenting evidence to show that Anne Hathaway was not an abandoned invisible unloved wife at all but played a strong and active role in hubby William's life all along.
It's not necessarily so that Greer presents new evidence but that she interprets the documentation of the times and the little direct Shakespeare documents with different eyes. By meticulously studying sources of the time Greer suggests that while William was off creating a rather disreputable name for himself as a playwright and actor, far from a respected career in Elizabethan England, Anne was coping very well as a capable businesswoman at home in Stratford. Greer points out that “many Tudor wives...did not see their husbands for months on end” (page 143) so Anne wasn't even unique in enjoying “a measure of economic independence that would not be equaled until our own time” (page 162). Shakespeare returned to Stratford frequently during his London years and there seems to be no evidence that he lived apart from his wife on those occasions. And of course he retired to Stratford and died there, most likely expertly (women of the time were generally as knowledgeable as male doctors on medical care) treated and cared for by Anne.
And the infamous will? Unlike earlier interpretations of the fact that little was left to Anne, Greer shows that the complicated inheritance practices of the times are more likely to show that as an independent woman of some means, Anne would not be specifically named and that their surviving children had claims that did not make the question straightforward. Nor is the question of the bed a simple one and Greer offers the reasonable alternative interpretation that in order to ensure that his beloved wife receive a cherished piece of furniture upon his death William added instructions to that effect in his will.
Greer does not make rash claims in her book and she is actually quite snide towards authors who have done so, including Greenblatt. Readers of this blog know that I greatly admired Greenblatt but in this case I do find Greer more convincing. By placing the small bits of evidence from Shakespeare's and Hathaway's lives within the framework of the vast amount of research done of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, she presents a picture of two strong and fascinating individuals who chose to live their lives together as much as circumstances permitted. I like that picture.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday April 2 2012

This will be a short report. Not much has been happening this week.

From the Shakespeare Almanac:
Nothing of interest!

Shakespeare sightings:
Only one! A review in Svenska Dagbladet (one of the two major Swedish dailies) of the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the small town of Helsingborg on Sweden's west coast. The reviewer called it “friendly and easily digestible” - not really a compliment. Evidently this version emphasizes the love stories in the play.

Further, this week:
  • Still reading aloud with Hal: Henry IV Part One.
  • Still reading: Shakespearean Negotiations by Stephen Greenblatt. Still very interesting!
  • Posted: A report on Shakespeare and Music by Julie Sanders.

Shakespeare and Music by Julia Sanders

Shakespeare and Music – Afterlives and Borrowings by Julie Sanders, 2007. Read in February 2010.

Shakespeare and music touched me early in my life, as mentioned in the introduction to this blog, without me being aware of the connection to Shakespeare, or indeed to much awareness or interest that something called Shakespeare even existed. The first was the 1950's soundtrack to Kiss Me Kate that my parents bought and I listened to. The second was probably the pop song “Just Like Romeo and Juliet” from the early 60's followed by Donovan's “Under the Greenwood Tree” and then “What a Piece of Work is Man” from Hair.

Not all of these are mentioned in this book but this is the kind of things it deals with. It starts with a chapter on jazz with such examples as Duke Ellington and Cleo Laine. That a lot of classical music has Shakespeare connections comes as no surprise nor is Shakespeare in ballet and opera unknown to most of us.

However I wasn't aware of how many musicals have been done on Shakespeare's plays. West Side Story is probably the most famous but rock musicals have been made of Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Othello. Those I would like to see! Sanders didn't especially like Kenneth Branagh's musical treatment of Love's Labour's Lost – she isn't alone on that, but it's one of my favorites and I think she misses the undertone, admittedly subtle but nevertheless there, of seriousness in the movie. She's less negative to the use of rock, jazz and pop music in three of my other favorites: Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, Taymor's Titus and Loncraine's (Ian McKellan's) Richard III.

There is a chapter about symphonic scores to Shakespeare films and she mentions the Shostakovitch scores for Kosintsev's Hamlet and King Lear, the Kurosawa versions and others but she also spends quite a lot of time with the Patrick Doyle score for Branagh's Hamlet. She doesn't like this either, and once again we disagree. The dramatic build-up of the scene in which Hamlet stands on the icy plain at the end of Act 4 Scene 4 ending with “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” is, according to Sanders, overdone, while I never fail to be deeply moved by it.

Disagreements aside, I found much of interest in the book and will undoubtedly refer to it from time to time.