Monday, December 5, 2016

December 2016

As You Like It has been the project this month. As always we’ve enjoyed reading it but the film experiences have been mixed. This play deserves a really good stage or film production and my latest reactions to what we’ve seen have left me wanting something better. Maybe someday! But now to the monthly report. 

As always I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris. Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare Calling – the book is promoted by

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, one of the best space odyssey novels I’ve read, the very interesting and quite likeable spider characters have such names as Portia, Viola, Fabian…Subtle Shakespeare! More obvious are
    • A chapter title ‘Not Prince Hamlet’
    • Avrana, the sort of captain of the whole thing though in sort of suspended animation, reflects that she ‘had been in the giving vein, then. She had recognized them to be human enough to show mercy to.’
  • In the novel The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester the villain Lady Thorne blames her wayward daughter for everything and says, ‘”How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is - ’” and Frankie completes the quote, ‘”To have a thankless child.’” Snob Lady Thorne is appalled to hear Shakespeare in Frankie’s working class mouth.
  • Dagens Nyheter
    • Had a review of Ian McEwan’s latest novel Nutshell. It seems it’s based on Hamlet as a foetus; his mother Trudy is having it off with her brother-in-law Claude. I do like McEwan but frankly, this one does not sound so great.
    • Had a review of Romeo and Juliet at Stockholm’s City Theatre. I don’t think the critic liked it but I’m not sure. The review was long but didn’t say much.
  • In Ricky Gervais’ The Office, which we watched with a constant cringe – is it really like this in offices? Then I’m so glad I’ve never worked in one! –
    • On quiz night the tie break question was, ‘Which Shakespeare play has the character Caliban?’ The Boss David Brent (Gervais) and his team answer Macbeth. Tim (Martin Freeman) and his team get the right answer but the dreadful boss twists the rules so that he wins, as always.
    • David, in a later episode, mentions ‘The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and Shakespeare.’
  • In Peter Robinson’s latest Alan Banks novel When the Music is Over the characters have either played Juliet in school plays or are reading the sonnets or toss off quotes.
  • In Edna Ferber’s classic from 1926, Show Boat:
    • Schultzy, the director, tries to explain to the cast how to play the scene in ‘the ad lib. directions that have held since the day of Shakespeare.’
    • Schultzy’s beloved Elly leaves the show boat and him to pursue her dream of playing Juliet.
    • Magnolia loved the theatre: ‘Farce, comedy, melodrama – the whole gamut as outlined by Polonius…’
    • Kim finally achieves her dream of her own theatre where she can produce the plays she’s been longing to do, ‘Shakespeare even!’
    • Elly reappears and Kim says, ‘Mother tells me you played Juliet…’ 

Further since last time:
  • Watched:
    • The 1936 film of As You Like It with Laurence Olivier
    • Branagh’s 2006 production of same.
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: The Tempest 

Posted this month
  • ‘O Orlando! in As You Like It  
  • This report

O, Orlando! in As You Like It

O, Orlando!
As You Like It

     Orlando. One of those foolish young men Shakespeare is so good at portraying. But what is this? Do I actually like this one? I was so concentrated on Celia last time that Orlando slipped by me. Now I see that he’s not the same as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing who rejects Hero at the slightest hint (lie) that she is unfaithful, or Proteus from The Two Gentlemen of Verona who without a thought rejects his true love Julia for Silvia, or Orsino in Twelfth Night who threatens to kill Viola, or any number of other fickle, shallow, nasty young romantic heroes (or whatever).
     Orlando is…well, let’s take a look.
     He opens the play by lamenting to his old servant Adam that his older brother Oliver – who had been charged by their father with seeing to Orlando’s education – treats him worse than their animals and has allowed no education at all:

…there begins my sadness…This is it, Adam, that grieves me. And the spirit of my father, which I think is within me, begins to mutiny against this servitude. I will no longer endure it, though yet I know no wise remedy how to avoid it.’ Almost immediately Oliver appears. Orlando confronts him and answers Oliver’s violence with some of his own, declaring, ‘I am no villain…you shall hear me. My father charged you in his will to give me a good education: you have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities…give me the poor allotter my father left me by testament – with that I will go buy my fortunes’ (Act 1.1).

     What we see then from the beginning is a mild younger brother who wants a good education, who is chafing under the older brother’s unfair refusal to allow him his rights and who now rebels, shows an independent spirit willing to get on with a life of his own.
     A good start.
     In Act 1.2, when he is about to confront the mighty wrestler Charles, in what could be interpreted as a death wish, contrary to his interest in getting on with his life, Celia and Rosalind beg him to desist. In a very moving little speech Orlando expresses an appealing and profound sense of melancholy:

…if I be foiled, there is but one shamed that was never gracious, if killed, but one dead that is willing to be so. I shall do my friends no wrong, for I have none to lament me, the world no injury, for in it I have nothing. Only in the world I fill up a place, which may be better supplied when I have made it empty’ (Act 1.2).

     Had I been Rosalind I might have fallen in love with him myself. Why he falls immediately in love with her is harder to explain. So far we haven’t seen much of her.
     Nevertheless, he falls in a big way and manages to defeat Charles against all odds. He must thereafter flee to the forest with old Adam.
     Even before we see the extent of his silly infatuation with Rosalind we see his devotion to Adam. When their flight threatens to defeat the exhaustion and famished old man Orlando carries him to shelter and rushes off to find food. He confronts the Duke and his followers with clumsy and clearly not very frightening threats of violence. When he discovers that the group in Arden are not only not aggressive but kind and hospitable he reverts into his polite, gentlemanly self, fetches Adam and all is well.
     Only then does he start his frivolous poem-writing and tree adornment. Everyone mocks the poems and, yes, oh they are bad but they’re sweet.
     He is much cleverer in his encounter with the rude and melancholy Jaques. When they agree that they would both have preferred not to meet the other, Orlando subtly utters one of Shakespeare’s best insults: ‘I do desire we may be better strangers.’ I love him for this line alone! He also slyly turns the tables on Jaques’ declaration that he had been ‘seeking a fool when I found you.’ Orlando’s reply: ‘He is drowned in the brook. Look but in, and you shall see him’ (Act 3.2). Score another for Orlando!
     What follows are the series of exchanges between Rosalind and Orlando in which she as Ganymede talks him into the ridiculous game of him pretending to woo her/him in order to fall out of love with Rosalind. Since he doesn’t want to fall out of love with Rosalind it’s puzzling that he goes along with it. I’ve always assumed that he suspects from the start that it’s Rosalind but I won’t look closely at that, or their exchanges and daft lines in these scenes. Frankly I find Rosalind slightly annoying and don’t think she deserves her high-ranking position on the list of Shakespeare’s women. Orlando I find much more interesting. He challenges her, he neglects to follow the exact times she imposes upon him, he calmly repeats after each of her mocking denials of his love, that he does indeed love Rosalind, he shows none of the hysterical silliness of which Rosalind full of but remains steadfast and polite throughout.
     In the meantime he is good enough to rescue his nasty brother from the lion, being injured himself in the process. They become friends and in spite of his sadness at not winning Rosalind’s love (or so he believes) he is generous in arranging the marriage between Oliver and Celia.
     Well, as we know, the lover and his lass are united in the end, along with the three other couples. I think it should have been Orlando and Celia but Rosalind was right in one respect: love is merely a madness and what does it matter? It’s a wonderful play, filled with too many brilliant lines to count, presented so quickly in such lively exchanges that one cannot help but smile from start to finish, even at the darker melancholy side. It all feels good.
     And if for once I think the young man – the polite, gentlemanly, kind, clever Orlando with a thirst for education and justice – deserves someone better than the woman he ends up with, well, he seems happy. They probably have a better chance at a good marriage than most of Shakespeare’s couples. I wish them well.

Films seen this time:
  • The Globe production, 2009. Director: Thea Sharrock. Rosalind: Naomi Frederick. Orlando: Jack Laskey. Celia: Laura Rogers. Jaques: Tim McMullan.
    • It’s lively and enjoyable but with mixed casting. Orland and Celia are good. I didn’t like the interpretations of Rosalind, Touchstone or Audrey, and Jaques was a bit blasé, full of himself, snide rather than melancholy.
  • The BBC production, 1978. Director: Basil Coleman. Rosalind: Helen Mirren. Orlando: Brian Sterner. Celia: Angharad Rees. Jaques: Richard Pasco.
    • Helen Mirren and Richard Pasco are very good.
  • The 1936 version with Olivier:
  • The Branagh version, 2006:
    • I gave this film a very high rating last time. This time I was less enthralled (sorry, Sir Ken!). The two brothers were good as was Jaques but I find it harder and harder to accept Rosalind and this interpretation now felt shallow and giggly. Celia too. I really like this play and hope to see a stronger production of it one day! 

Monday, November 7, 2016

November 2016

Life has generally been filled with things other than Shakespeare this month but we have read As You Like It and enjoyed it as much as ever. We’ve watched two of the four films we have of it and will watch the others next weekend.

As always I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris. Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare Calling – the book is promoted by

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In Bernadette Robinson’s teaching memoirs Please Miss she comments on the poetry of one of her very young students: ‘Not Shakespeare, maybe, but a start for a budding actor.’ Which he went on to become, and sometimes played in Shakespeare’s plays which, according to Robinson, he did ‘with aplomb’.
  • In an extra feature about the making of Doctor Who an observation was made that there wasn’t much nuance in the voice of a Dalek. You wouldn’t see a Dalek playing Hamlet. It couldn’t be (in a mechanical Dalek voice): ‘…or…not…to…be…’ Hmm, don’t be too sure. They did it in Klingon…
  • Peter Ackroyd, in his History of England Volume II Tudors
    • Describes the background to the friendship between Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer and notes, ‘It has all the makings of a stage play which, from the pen of Shakespeare, it eventually became.’
    • In the later conflict between Queen Mary’s Catholicism and the Protestants, many fled England and Ackroyd tells us, ‘The religious refugees left a more enduring legacy with their Geneva Bible, the text for which Shakespeare had an abiding affection.’
  • Monty Python carries on. Eric Idle is a man who garbles everything he says: ‘Ta the mnemot I’, working on The Mating of the Wersh by Malliwi Rapesheake, Two Nettlemeg of Verona, Twelfth Thing, The Chamrent of Venice, and he quotes, ‘Thamel: Be o tot bot net ot, that is the noestqui,’ and ‘A shroe! A shroe! My dingkom for a shroe!’ There has also been an episode called ‘Hamlet’ which starts with Hamlet on a psychiatrist’s couch. He pops up now and again throughout the episode and there are a few scattered quotes.
  • In the novel Still Life by Louise Penny CI Gamache is talking to psychologist and bookshop owner Myrna and replies to her comment that people can only save themselves: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.’
  • In the mini-series Unforgotten the ex-alcoholic, ex-racist Lizzie had in her new life taken her prodigy Curtis to see Hamlet
  • In Doctor Who season 1 with Christopher Eccleston Charles Dickens says, ‘What the Shakespeare is going on?’ Good one, I’ll have to remember to use that! Later the young maid reprimands the Doctor with the words, ‘There are more things in heaven and in earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Doctor.’
  • In Branagh’s Cinderella the evil stepsister sings a dreadfully out of tune version of ‘It was a lover and his lass…’

 Further since last time:
  • Read aloud with Hal: As You Like It
  • Watched:
    • The Globe production from 2009. A mixed pleasure. Orlando and Celia were very good, the others less so.
    • The BBC production from 1978. Enjoyable with an appropriately melancholy Jaques and a young Helen Mirren.
  • Read: the very strange fantasy novel Ill Met by Moonlight by Sarah A Hoyt in which the recently married Will, a schoolteacher in Stratford, has to rescue his wife and daughter from the kidnapping fairies…I cannot in honesty recommend it. 
Posted this month
  • This report

Monday, October 3, 2016

October 2016

The Comedy of Errors time. We’ve watched the films, I’ve written the text. We’ve chosen the next play to read but haven’t started yet. Instead we’re taking a detour back to the Henrys (and a Richard) since the second series of The Hollow Crown has been released (see below).

So Shakespeare goes on. And as always I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris, CDON or Bibliotekstjänsten

Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare Calling – the book is promoted by

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel High Dive by Jonathan Lee
    • The Irish resistance coordinator Dawson likes ‘a bit of Shakespeare.’
    • Dawson tries to encourage his supporter Dan to read Shakespeare.
    • Hotel manager Moose tells his colleague Marina whose husband had lacked ambition, ‘Well, you don’t want a Macbeth in your head.’
    • Later Marina tells Moose’s daughter, ‘I’ve been seeing a Shakespearean,’ but she’s broken off the relationship because his toenails scratched her in bed and he was too pleased with himself.
  • In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere:
    • Super villain Mr Croup says to his evil partner Mr Vandermar, ‘If you cut us, do we not bleed?’
    • Hero Richard says to the (probably) villainous abbot, ‘Well, lead on, Macduff.’ When Richard has been swept away, not likely to survive the ordeal, the Abbot says to Brother Fuliginous, ‘It’s ‘lay on, Macduff’ but I didn’t have the heart to correct him.’
    • Old Bailey, who pops up now and then, has just brought the Marquis back from the dead again and says, ‘After all I done to bring you back from that dread bourn from which there is no returning. Well, usually no returning.’
  • Peter Ackroyd, in his History of England Volume I Foundation, continues to refer regularly to Shakespeare:
    • The craft guilds were responsible for many miracle or mystery plays, ‘the most important aspect of English drama in the age before Shakespeare.’
    • King John has been considered a rival to Richard III as an evil king. Ackroyd points out that neither were any eviller than most kings but that Shakespeare ‘defined the image of John to posterity.’
    • The line in The Tempest ‘wheat, rye, barley, fetches, oats and peas’ is a paraphrase of a medieval folk song about ‘oats, peas, beans and barley.’
    • As we get to the period in history in which the history plays took place Shakespeare is mentioned in connection with each of the kings, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III and Henry VII.
  • In the novel The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, Caroline says on the subject of selling old manor houses, ‘They say you can get an American to buy any old bit of black timber, just by telling him it comes from the Forest of Arden, or was sneezed on by Shakespeare, or something.’ Later she says about having a party in her own run-down manor house that her brother thinks ‘throwing a party with the house the state it’s in now will be like Sarah Bernhardt playing Juliet with one leg.’
  • The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter
    • Had an advert for Özz Nüjen as Richard III at Riksteatern in Stockholm.
    • Had a long article about Macbeth at the Maximteatern with Swedish bad-boy actor Mikael Persbrandt in the title role.
    • Had a review of the wonderful Sven Wollter and Evabritt Strandberg playing the aged Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, the reviewer didn’t like it, saying that Shakespeare’s play disappears.
    • Had a review of Othello at Orionteatern in Stockholm. The critic liked the gender-bending acting in this dark production in which ‘reality is altogether too close.’
    • Had a review of another Othello at Teater Påfågeln in Stockholm which was described as ‘scaled down without magic.’
  • In John O’Farrell’s novel The Best a Man Can Get the narrator, the rather unpleasant Michael Adams, watches a TV program about pregnant women shouting Shakespeare quotes at their unborn children to get them started early. He later tells how he as a fifteen-year-old had screwed up a school outing to see Hamlet, managing to ruin everything so they didn’t get to see it.
  • In Doctor Who with David Tennant (you know, Hamlet), the 10th doctor:
    • The Doctor and his new companion Martha, having recently visited Shakespeare’s London, are now in New York in the 1930’s helping dance girl Tallulah defeat the monsters. When Tallulah says to Martha, ‘C’mon, have you ever been back stage before?’ Martha replies archly, ‘Oh, you know, a little Shakespeare.’ Tallulah: ‘How dull is that! C’mon!’
    • In a later episode when the Master is planning to take over the Universe, Martha, who is going to save the world, tells her guide that she’s been in space. He’s impressed. ‘Anything else?’ Martha: ‘I’ve met Shakespeare.’
  • On Monty Python we see in a hospital for overacting a ward for Richard III actors. Eric Idle says sweetly (as only he can),’A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.’
  • The film The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone opens with the aging and mediocre Mrs Stone trying to do Juliet. It is a flop.
  • In Deborah Moggach’s novel In the Dark Alwyne, blinded in World War I, quotes Hamlet’s lines about Gertrude’s sensuality to young Ralph who is upset because his widowed mother has remarried. 

Further since last time: 
  • Finished the text of: The Comedy of Errors
  • Watched:
    • The BBC production of The Comedy of Errors
    • The Globe production of The Comedy of Errors
    • The Hollow Crown Henry VI Part One 

Posted this month
  • ‘The bad brother, the not so bad brother and the quite nice brothers, in The Comedy of Errors
  • This report

The Comedy of Errors - The bad brother, the not so bad brother and the quite nice brothers

The bad brother, the not so bad brother and the quite nice brothers
The Comedy of Errors

     That was going to be the title of this text because while reading the play I took a dislike to Antipholus of Ephesus. He calls his wife a strumpet and a harlot, at the least bad temper he’s off to the town courtesan, and he beats his poor servant Dromio.
     Well, so does Antipholus of Syracuse, but he’s friends with his Dromio as well, jokes with him, talks to him.
     Having just watched the BBC production from 1983 I’m at a loss what to think, what to write. Michael Kitchen as the Antipholi is extremely likeable in both roles. Amiable, kind, melancholy, well-spoken in love as Antipholus of Syracuse. Sarcastic, funny, justifiably withering in comments against those he believes have wronged him as Antipholus of Ephesus. Roget Daltry is adorable (sorry, soapy word, but he is!) as the Dromios, so I still like them both.
     Right. We have the Globe production from 2014 to watch. Judgment pending until then. Back soon.
     Well. That helped not at all. Many of the Globe’s productions are slapstick and so is this one. Often very funny but not subtle in the least, making no use of the many emotional nuances that make this play (and all of Shakespeare’s comedies) so much more than zany. It’s enjoyable and colourful and there’s a lot of shouting and waving about of arms and running about the stage, but none of that clarifies my dilemma. Is Antipholus of Ephesus mean? Is Antipholus of Syracuse less mean? Are both Dromios nice?
     The answer, if there is one, might be found – oh revolutionary thought! – in the text.
     I’ll start with Antipholus of Ephesus. Before we meet him we learn from his wife Adriana and her sister Luciana that Antipholus spends much of his time away from home. This pains his wife but seems to his sister-in-law completely natural. Since this is an amusing but disturbing exchange about the role of wives in relations to their lords and masters, the husbands, it opens the path to a man who in his first line when we encounter him in Act 3.1 calls his wife ‘shrewish’ but is having a gold necklace made for her. He then calls his servant an ass, but that’s not too great an insult, one to which, along with beatings, Dromio is accustomed. That Antipholus shows irritation at being locked out of his own home is not surprising but when he says, ‘I know a wench of excellent discourse’, and proposes to give her the chain, ‘Be it nothing but to spite my wife - ’ that’s when I start to dislike him.  Because I already like Adriana. He then sends Dromio for a rope to ‘bestow / Among my wife and her confederates’ (Act 4.1). To whip them? Tie them up? Hang them? He later calls Dromio (of Syracuse), who doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, a madman, a peevish sheep and a drunken slave, but entrusts him with the key to his treasure chest at home. When his own Dromio comes with the rope, Antipholus beats him and Dromio complains at length of all the beatings he has had to endure from his master. Who then beats him again. He also beats Pinch, the doctor and conjuror and calls Adriana a minion (servant) and by calling her companions ‘customers’ accuses her of harlotry. When Adriana denies that she locked him out and swears that he dined at home with her he calls her, ‘Dissembling harlot…with these nails I’ll pluck out these false eyes…O, most unhappy strumpet!’ (Act 4.4)
     OK, he’s not Macbeth or Lear or Richard III or any of those other of Shakespeare’s real villains, but he’s not an endearing character either.
     His brother? We see a lot more of him. When we meet him he and Dromio have just arrived in Ephesus. He is ‘weary with long travel…stiff and weary’ and he tells a merchant that Dromio is

A trusty villain, sir, that very oft,
When I am dull with care and melancholy,
Lightens my humour with his merry jests (Act 1.2).

     When left alone to wander the town at his content he contemplates:

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth –
Unseen, inquisitive - confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself (Act 1.2).

     From the start then Antipholus of Syracuse reveals himself as a melancholy, contemplative, lonely seeker who regards his servant almost as a friend. That he then beats and later chides Dromio (the other one) over the misunderstanding about the money shows their master-servant relationship but still, he doesn’t accuse Dromio of thievery. Instead he blames ‘some device or other…Dark-working sorcerers…soul-killing witches…’ (act 1.2). Unlike his twin, he doesn’t immediately believe the worst of others.
     Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse return easily enough to their bantering and when confronted by Adriana, who addresses Antipholus as husband, he is unfailingly polite, though confused, and in all innocent confusion he falls in love with his supposed sister-in-law Luciana. He romantically woos her, in spite of her dismayed requests that he turn his devotion to his wife, not to her.  He says:

Thee will I love, and with thee lead my life;
Thou hast no husband yet, nor I no wife:
Give me thy hand (Act 3.2).

     Ah, sweet Antipholus of Syracuse! I’m half in love with him myself.
     Nevertheless, he’s upset by what he continues to regard as witchcraft and determines to leave Ephesus immediately which doesn’t, I suppose, make him a very constant and true lover.  On the other hand, she hasn’t responded positively to his short courtship so maybe he can be forgiven.
     He never succeeds in leaving and in the final scene where the muddle is all explained he remains kind and polite and his last words are to his Dromio: ‘Embrace thy brother there, rejoice with him’ (Act 5.1).
     What a nice man!
     And the two Dromios? One continually beaten by his master but in love with the fat cook. The other a merry and clever wordsmith who gives as good as he gets in wordplay with his master. These two are charming and delightful. They carry the play.
     Bad, less bad and quite nice. I think I’ll change that to: not at all likable – Antipholus of Ephesus. Quite a deep character for whom I feel great affection – Antipholus of Syracuse. And two lovable rascals – the Dromios.
     All in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

Monday, September 5, 2016

September 2016

Hamlet is now done for the second time. I’ve just posted the text. We’re read The Comedy of Errors and we have two films to watch so that text won’t be until next time. Things move slowly sometimes, mainly because, in spite of everything, life happens alongside of Shakespeare, believe it or not.

Shakespeare is at the centre of everything, though, right? So I will once again mention to visitors of this blog that Shakespeare Calling – the book is available for purchase. Please help promote the book by buying it, of course, and telling your friends about it, by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it.  Thank you. Your support is needed to keep this project alive.

or Adlibris, CDON or Bibliotekstjänsten

Or contact the publisher

Shakespeare sightings:
  • Monty Python’s Flying Circus has a lot of Shakespeare:
    • ‘The Poet’s Board’ promotes a poet in every home, and shows Shakespeare in the kitchen
    • Beethoven can’t get the first bars of the Fifth Symphony right with his wife nagging about jam spoons etc. He says, ‘Shakespeare never had this problem!’ Shakespeare pops onto the screen and says, ‘You wanna bet? Incidentally, it’s ‘ta-ta-ta-daaaa, ta-ta-ta-daaaam…’ Beethoven: ‘You’re right! Incidentally, why not call him Hamlet?’ Shakespeare: ’Hamlet! I like it much better than David. Michelangelo, you may use Davis. I won’t sue…’ And so on.
    • Now in performance: the first underwater version of Measure for Measure.
  • Helene Hanff in her England journal The Duchess of Bloomsbury:
    • Visits Stratford, and, warned that it has become a commercial tourist trap, is prepared for the Judith Shakespeare Wimpy Hamburger Bar. It bothers her not at all.
    • In Stratford she sees Much Ado about Nothing ‘at the shiny modern theatre, very conventional, not very well acted.’
    • Ends the book with her thoughts on the plane back to New York: ‘Bits of Prospero run in my head’ and then the ‘Our revels now are ended’ monolog.
  • In the novel London Falling by Paul Cornell, about detectives and ghosts and things in London, one of the detectives sees ‘a man dressed like something out of Shakespeare…with his head tucked under his arm.’
  • In Jodi Taylor’s second Chronicles of St Mary’s series, A Symphony of Echoes:
    • Historian time traveller Max reminds us that last year they found some sonnets and a hitherto unknown play called The Scottish Queen about Mary Queen of Scots becoming Queen of England as well, indicating that something has gone very wrong in history.
    • The sonnets had been buried in the past so that Max and her team could find them in the present. Max replants them so the future St Mary’s, which is threatened with bankruptcy, can find them and solve all their monetary woes.
    • Then they have to go back to the time of Mary Queen of Scots and fix that, thus nullifying the Shakespeare play…
  • On the Swedish TV quiz show Vem vet mest? (Who knows most?) the question is what’s the Latin word for skull. The host says, ‘To be or not to be’ and the answer is cranium.
  • In the novel The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron a book dealer, used to scams, tells the young protagonist Daniel that he knew of a man who bought a copy of Hamlet signed by Shakespeare in ballpoint.
  • In the novel Half Broken Things by Morag Joss the main character Jean reflects upon memories of her childhood: ‘Men were deceivers, ever. Shakespeare, but I can’t remember where from.’ From Much Ado about Nothing, Jean…
  • Peter Ackroyd, in his History of England Volume I Foundation writes of the time before the Roman invasion when there were about fifteen large tribes in England. One of them, the Catuvellauni, was led by Cunobelinus who ‘has since entered English mythology as the Cymbeline of Shakespeare’s play.’
  • The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter has reviewed a German production at the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Richard III, calling it ‘raw and uncompromising’ but also super theatrical and a bit of a ‘yawn’. Mixed, in other words. 

Further since last time:

  • Finished the films and text of: Hamlet
  • Read aloud with Hal: The Comedy of Errors
  • Watched:
    • Branagh’s Hamlet
    • Gregory Doran’s Hamlet with the brilliant David Tennant
  • We’re now finally watching the David Tennant Dr Who box and have become completely addicted. We’re going through it so quickly that we’ve already reached the Shakespeare Series 3 Episode 3 ‘The Shakespeare Code’. The Doctor and his new companion Martha go back to 1599. They go to the Globe where Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost has just been performed. Martha cries, ‘Author! Author!’ then asks the Doctor, ‘Do they say that in this time?’ When the audience shouts, ‘Author! Author!’ the Doctor says, ‘They do now.’  Shakespeare steps onto the stage and the Doctor says in the deepest respect, ‘The most human human there’s ever been…Beautiful words…’ whereupon Shakespeare says, ‘Ah, shut yer big fat mouths…’ And it goes on from there. Funny, clever, exciting (like all of the episodes) it’s a great homage to Shakespeare from the amazing Shakespearen actor, David Tennant. I’m in awe. 

  • Posted this month
    • ‘The Queen of Denmark – Gertrude in Hamlet’.
    • This report

The Queen of Denmark in Hamlet

The Queen of Denmark

     ‘Gertrude. The Queen of Denmark. It is important to remember that. She’s not only a mother and a wife but a head of state’ (Jand, page 349).
     I’m quoting myself here. This is what I wrote in my text ‘Who’s There?’ after reading Hamlet last time. I noted further that Gertrude is troubled by the paradox she must live as sexless widow and sexy wife. ‘She is well aware of the Christian view of women’s sexuality as evil and sinful contrasting with society’s bawdy acceptance of lust…Her ‘heart is cleft in twain’ as indeed is unavoidable in a society (like our own) that demands that a woman be sexy and sexless at the same time’ (Jand, page 350). As for Gertrude’s questions, ‘What shall I do?’ I write that ‘she is asking herself, what do I do now with this cruel mad hurtful son?’ (Jand, page 350).
     Shakespeare’s characters, as we know, can be and are interpreted in many different ways but I think Gertrude is one of his most interesting characters most often and so badly acted.
     We didn’t watch all of our Hamlet films this time and what we have is but a fraction of those that exist. While watching, though, I paid special attention to Gertrude.
     What did I see? Film by film I saw this:
  • First a Swedish version from 1984 with Stellan Skarsgård as Hamlet. The renowned (in Sweden) Mona Malm plays Gertrude and things start out badly when both she and her Claudius are aging jolly sexpots. Wrong! But she’s quite good in the bedroom scene as a haughty queen and then a puzzled unhappy mother. Let’s say 2 * of 5.
  • Next Peter Brook’s version with Adrian Lester as Hamlet. Natasha Parry does Gertrude and oddly I didn’t like her performance at all when we watched it the first time, finding it dull and emotionless. This time I saw her as low-key, earnest and uneasy although too smiley with Claudius. In the bedroom scene she is puzzled, impatient, despairing over her son’s madness. It is that which has cleft her heart in twain, not guilt. 4 * of 5.
  • In Laurence Olivier’s version Eileen Herlie is simply dreadful. For a start she’s younger than Olivier and her Gertrude is incestuous, seductive and cajoling from the beginning. In the bedroom scene she is weepy, shrill and pathetic. Her monolog about the drowning of Ophelia is flat and without emotion. 0* of 5.
  • In the BBC production from 1980, with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, Claire Bloom is a mixed Gertrude. She starts out admirably with an aloof, gracious and regal air and in the beginning of the bedroom scene she is angry but calm and firm. She is appropriately aghast at the murder of Polonius but then, after a moment of reawakened grief when confronted by the two portraits, Bloom loses control of her character and allows her to become weepy and clinging. When she whimpers, ‘What shall I do?’ she is appealing to her son, having given in to wild accusations and accepted the guilt he throws at her. She rallies and does a deeply moving ‘there is a willow’ monolog. Claire Bloom is a great actor and some of her Gertrude is finely done. 3* of 5.
  • Ethan Hawke is the best sullen teen-aged Hamlet I’ve seen but Diane Venora is a disappointment in Almereyda’s film. She did the best Ophelia I’ve ever seen in the Kevin Kline production but as a chic and brassy Gertrude, well, it could have been all right if she hadn’t smiled so much, been so lovey-dovey with Claudius, so happy and clinging and flirtatious. She is not the regal queen she should be, she is a celebrity who glories in the glitzy spotlight. She is vampy and sexy. In the bedroom scene she weeps and kisses Hamlet and submits to his accusations and demands. She plays the role well. It’s just that it’s the wrong role for Gertrude. 2* of 5.
  • It is no secret that I think Branagh’s is the best Hamlet film made yet but also one of the best films made…ever. Julie Christie is one of the reasons. From her solemn sad tremulous smiles in her first scene she is the perfect Gertrude. She speaks earnestly to Hamlet, dances frantically at the Wassail ball, receives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern graciously and performs her responsibilities as a ruling monarch with dignity. In the bedroom scene she starts by being just indignant enough. She is strong in her remorse and grief. She is never frightened by Hamlet but sorrowful and worried. Her heart is cleft in twain by his madness and the murder. Pitch perfect in this scene, she’s uneasy and distressed throughout the play.  Exactly as a recently widowed monarch with heavy responsibilities, a new marriage and a mad son should be. 10 * of 10.
  • Nothing can top Christie as Gertrude or Branagh’s film as a whole but Gregory Doran’s version with David Tennant comes close at times and Penny Downie has some very strong moments. Though too smiley and adoring at times she is also regal and concerned. In the bedroom before Hamlet arrives she is smoking and drinking whiskey and removing her sumptuous wig (this Hamlet is set in modern times). She’s too accepting of the guilt Hamlet dumps on her but she is also concerned and powerless before his madness. Her ‘What shall I do?’ is spoken to herself as it should be and her almost harsh and unexpected laugh is startling and very effective. With Ophelia she is haughty and repelled but also kind. Downie is not completely successful as Gertrude but she is very strong and her portrayal of a complex and at times inscrutable Gertrude is intriguing. 4 ½ * of 5. 
     Playing the role of Gertrude is no easy task. Rebecca Smith, in the anthology of essays in Hamlet, contemporary Critical Essays, has given her essay the title ‘The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude.’ A dilemma she is.  Tina Parker in her Women of Will reminds us that old Hamlet has kept Gertrude on a pedestal while Claudius not only loves her but respects and needs her ability as a co-ruler.
     Dilemma, complexity, authority in one woman. To do Gertrude justice all this and more must be done by any actor playing her. Shakespeare’s women have throughout the ages been mistreated by the societies in which gender roles have forced women into the Madonna-whore dichotomy.  It’s high time that she be treated with respect. It gladdens me that some productions are now doing that.

Works cited:
  • Jand, Ruby. Shakespeare Calling – the book. Vulkan. 2015.
  • Packer, Tina. Women of Will. Alfred A. Knopf. 2015.
  • Smith, Rebecca. ‘A Heart Cleft in Twain – The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude’ in Hamlet Case Studies. Palgrave Macmillan. 1992.
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.
Films seen this time: The above as well as Hamlet Goes Business, The Empress, and the Prince of Jutland.