Sunday, January 31, 2016

February 2016

The new year progresses apace. Shakespeare is all about us, as always. Preparations are being made round the world to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Keep an eye out on this blog in April. For those of you in the Stockholm area things will be happening. A hint: The English Bookshop, SEST (Stockholm English Speaking Theatre)…
Meanwhile, Hal and I are in the Henry VI plays. I’ve decided to wait until we’ve read all three before writing an analysis of Henry’s long life. We only have the BBC box version of the plays to watch so it won’t take so long.  I wish The Hollow Crown series would hurry up and release their Henry VI! I see that Tom Sturridge will be playing Henry and Sophie Okenedo will play Margaret. Should be very interesting indeed. Alas, not this time.

Now the February report:

Shakespeare Calling – the book
Available on
or Adlibris, CDON or Bibliotekstjänsten
Please help promote the book by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it!
Once again, thank you all for visiting the blog throughout the years and for supporting this project.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
  • William was for centuries after the Norman conquest the most common English name though by Shakespeare’s day it was in second place after John. The name is used in Henry IV Part 2 and As You Like It, in very small parts. This item was included in the January report but interestingly, since then it has been reported that William was the most popular name for baby boys in 2015 in Sweden.
  • Windsor is about 20 miles west of London. It’s been there a long time. William the Conqueror built the castle, or at least fortified it. Legend has it that King Arthur and his knights met there. In Shakespeare’s day the Tudors expanded the castle. Windsor is mentioned in the Henry plays and of course The Merry Wives of. 

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf Louis tells Addy that he had wanted to be a poet when he was young and memorized some of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
  • On Facebook the group ‘The Front against racism and growing fascism’  had a post about the sharpened border controls in Denmark under the heading ‘Någonting är ruttet i den danska staten’ (something is rotten in the state of Denmark). Sadly not only in Denmark…
  • In the novel Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley cheeky young Aza, who is dying of an unexplained condition but refuses to be sentimental about it, tells her English teacher that she was thinking about The Tempest because of the drowning twins. Her teacher points out that that was Twelfth Night which she finds a bit embarrassing. Later her friend Jason points out, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,’ and she reminds him that she’s not Horatio and her hallucinations are due to her medicine. He replies, ‘Hamlet is all about hallucinations and meltdowns and early death.’
  • In the novel The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers an aging priest and nun, who had been childhood sweethearts, ran off and eloped, like Romeo and Juliet. Later, Abbé Paul reflects, ‘Words, words, words, as the afflicted young prince said, what were they worth?’
  • There was a big review in Dagens Nyheter of the King Lear production at the Uppsala Municipal Theatre. Flat, empty, far-fetched ideas and zero instruction, the Fool has evidently taken a Sabbatical, failure, clichés, so near a catastrophe it’s possible to be. Ouch.
  • Swedish TVs Kulturnyheter was a bit kinder. Marie Göranzon, playing the title role of Lear was said to be good but the symbols used throughout the play meant…what? The critic’s reaction was generally tepid.
  • In the novel Like by Ali Smith Amy’s daughter had played Ophelia well and Ash’s father told her he had done a lot of reading, including Shakespeare, on the ship during the Second World War.
  • In the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Edward tells Baby Jane that his father was a serious Shakespearean actor.
  • Dagens Nyheter had a review of the new film Macbeth and seemed to agree with me but gave it a higher rating (see below).
  • The Royal Dramatic Theatre was going to perform Hamlet but the whole project has been cancelled at the last minute because of the illness of the director Jenny Andreasson.
  • In Love Actually, watched recently in memory of Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant’s charming Prime Minister stands up to the creepy US President Billy Bob Thornton by pointing out that Britain is ‘a small country but a great one, the country of Shakespeare, the Beatles, Harry Potter and David Beckham’s right foot.’ 
  • Dagens Nyheter reports that there will be several new translations into Swedish of Shakespeare plays.
  • The Heart Goes First, Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, is a bit obsessed with sex and a group of gay men are going to do an all-male erotic production of A Midsummer Night’s Scream. The whole novel is a parody of sorts. 

Further since last time:
  • Seen at the cinema with Hal: Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. A disappointment! See my review
  • Read aloud with Hal: Henry VI Part One.
  • Seen with Hal: BBC’s version of Henry VI Part One.
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: Henry VI Part Two. 

Posted this month
  • This report

Monday, January 4, 2016

January 2016

Happy New Year! I hope your holidays have been good and the new year has opened well.
In spite of the turbulence in the world and the rise of forces that go against equality, humanism and solidarity – much of what we see in Shakespeare’s plays – there is reason for optimism. Shakespeare would no doubt be puzzled by our world but were he given time to study it he would, I think, see that his plays have given us much to feel encouraged and carry on the growing grass root movements to defend democracy, equality, the environment and humanism. Remember – ‘Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to Heaven,’ (All's Well That Ends Well) and ‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’ (Julius Caesar).

Shakespeare Calling – the book
Available on
or Adlibris, CDON or Bibliotekstjänsten
Please help promote the book by liking and sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Bokus…. And please encourage your local book shops and libraries to buy it!
Once again, thank you all for visiting the blog throughout the years and for supporting this project.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
  • Westminster, in what we today consider the centre of London, is and always has been an entity separate from the city itself. The abbey was first built in the 11th century.  D&F tell us that the towers didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s day. Westminster is mentioned in Henry VI Part 2 and the Abbey in Richard III and Henry IV Part 2.
  • William was for centuries after the Norman conquest the most common English name though by Shakespeare’s day it was in second place after John. The name is used in Henry IV Part 2 and As You Like It, in very small parts. 

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the book Tusen år i Europa band 1 1000-1300 (A Thousand Years in Europe, Volume 1:1000-1300) by Kim Bismark and Brian Patrick Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice is mentioned in connection with the chapter about Jews in the society.
  • In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South Chapter XXVII is headed by ‘For never anything can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it’ (Midsummer Night’s Dream). Later Margaret and Mr Bell compare themselves to the contemplative Hamlet, though Mr Bell points out, ‘But as my mother has not murdered my father, and afterwards married my uncle, I shouldn’t know what to think about…’
  • On The X Files, season 4, the quote from Henry IV Part One Act 5 Scene 1 is used at the beginning of the episode: ‘For nothing can seem foul to those that win.’
  • On The Last Tango in Halifax, on Kate and Caroline’s wedding day, Caroline jokes that her poem to Kate will be ‘Shall I compare thee to my Jeep Cherokee?’
  • In The Perks of Being a Wallflower the English teacher asks the class which novelist had invented the paperback, the serial novel and the expression ‘cliff-hanger’. One of the students (who in the credits was called ‘the Shakespeare girl’) guessed Shakespeare and the kind teacher says, ‘Good guess but Shakespeare wasn’t a novelist.’ The answer (which the main character and I knew) is Dickens. A few minutes later the teacher said, ‘If we’d gone to a Shakespeare play in his time it would have cost us 4 pennies.’ 
  • In the novel Among Others by Jo Walton fifteen-year-old Morwenna reports in her diary that her English class will be reading The Tempest and they will be seeing the play on a school trip. She’s happy because she has never seen The Tempest, she’s seen Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her friend hates Shakespeare after seeing The Winter’s Tale and Richard II. Morwenna thinks the company must be awful ‘because Richard II at least should be terrific acted. “Sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”.’ Her reaction to The Tempest: It was all wrong to cast Prospero as a woman, she liked Ariel and Caliban. Morwenna herself can do magic and knows fairies and thinks Shakespeare must have too, about which she has quite an interesting discussion in her diary. In the end she is rescued from danger by spears turning into tress – ‘Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane’ – and on the last page she promises to keep reading and to use her magic well: ‘I’ll never drown my books or break my staff.’
  • On The Third Rock from the Sun Harry defends aliens from being portrayed as evil: ‘If you prick an alien do we not say “Ow”?’
  • Also on The Third Rock from the Sun Tommy asks Dick to direct the school production of Romeo and Juliet so that he can get the part of Romeo and do heavy make-out scenes with his girlfriend.  Dick watches a version of Hamlet and is inspired by ‘this Laurence Oliver’ (sic). He also explains to the frustrated cast that Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare and has nothing to do with a horny teenager and his girlfriend.
  • In Stephen Fry’s film Bright Young Things James McAvoy’s character, a journalist, reports to his scandal sheet editor that Emily Mortimer’s character was heard to have misquoted Lady Macbeth at a party.
  • In Vera Brittain’s memoirs Testament of Youth she remembers her earliest school as leaving little scope for reading Shakespeare. She must have read him somewhere however since a few more references are made throughout the book. 

Further since last time:

Posted this month
  • This report
  • ‘A pot of ale and safety’ in Henry V

PS For some reason this blog spot does strange things with the layout, changing the settings and sizes. There seems to be nothing I can do about it. Sorry.

'A pot of ale and safety' in Henry V

‘A pot of ale and safety’

The Life of Henry V

     ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ – what a glorious line. And Henry is, if nothing else, glorious in war. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends.’ Oh, he stirs them into patriotic action and against all odds this ragamuffin English army defeats the grand nobles of France. It’s history. It happened. It’s happened in other places, other wars.
     For what? Who cares if England or France had the crown of England or France but for a few macho aristocrats?
     The play can be done as a farce, as did the Globe. It can be done as war propaganda, as did Olivier. It can be done as a grim portrayal of war, with its valour, heroism and brutal pointless violence. As in the Hollow Crown and Branagh versions.
     It doesn’t demand a very sharp eye to discern the stark thread of reality throughout the play’s tapestry of patriotism and piety. Not everyone is all fired up to conquer the French, using flimsy historical hereditary labyrinths as an excuse.
     As England heads for war Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Mistress Quickly and the boy are more concerned with their own quarrels and with the death of Falstaff. ‘The king,’ Mistress Quickly mourns, ‘has killed his heart’ (Act 2.2). True. As we saw in Henry IV Part Two, the king did not start out heroically.
     We see none of Henry’s farewells as he leaves for France, nor any of his lords as they leave their families, but we see Mistress Quickly and her new husband Pistol part, and Bardolph, Nym and the boy as they leave their friend Nell behind. It can and should be played as a sorrowful scene as it is in the Hollow Crown and Branagh versions. It is not a happy or glorious parting, this going to war.
     Ah. Once more unto the breach, dear friends. An apt quote when we have a difficult task in front of us. For Harry and his soldiers, it likely means injury and death. But off they go. Except for the clear-sighted Nym, encouraged by Bardolph:

Pray thee, corporal, stay; the knocks are too hot, and for mine own part, I have not a case of lives (Act 3.2)

     Pistol tries to be philosophical:

Knocks go and come, God’s vassals drop and die
And sword and shield,
In bloody field,
Doth win immortal fame (Act 3.2)

     To which the boy replies, in one of Shakespeare’s most poignant lines:

Would I were in an ale-house in London: I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety (Act 3.2).

He then vows to leave them, as ‘their villainy goes against my weak stomach’ (Act 3.2).
     The boy’s longing to be in Eastcheap and quit his villainous friends is paralleled later as King Henry wanders incognito amongst his foot soldiers the night before battle. Before Harry arrives Bates has said to Williams, ‘We have no great cause to desire the approach of day’ (act 4.1). Indeed, they don’t - it is not their war. The Chorus has told us that, ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire’ (Act 2), a phenomenon all too familiar in our own day. Bates and Williams were perhaps among the fired up youth but the realities of war have jarred them into their senses. When Harry comes and tries to convince them that the king is just a man, like others, Bates and Williams are not impressed. Bates says, perhaps bitterly,

…as cold a night as ‘tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here (Act 4.1).

When Harry assures him that the king would not wish to be anywhere but right there Bates retorts:

Then I would he were alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved (Act 4.1).

     If Harry isn’t shaken by this, he should be. But he is the king and convinced that any soldier ‘could not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable’ (Act 4.1)
     How many times have the leaders of invading armies said that throughout the centuries?
     Williams: ‘That’s more than we know’ (Act 4.1).
     What a simple line. What a short sentence. And it turns the patriotic play upside down.
     Harry must assume his cause is just. He has enough conscience not to start a war otherwise but the doubt of these two soldiers in the justness of that cause also ‘expose the cracks in the king’s armour’ (intro RSC edition, p. 1028, about another scene but appropriate here as well). That doubt is succinctly expressed by Williams:

…if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’ – some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it – who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection (Act 4.1, my italics).

     There are few die well who die in a battle…  If these men do not die well it will be a black matter for the king.
     The doubt has been raised and cannot be unraised. The blame has been brought to the king’s door and no pious prayers to God or St. Crispin’s band of brothers can chase it away.
     Harry has described the brutalities of war wrought upon families outside the gates of Harfleur but that speech was a threat, an expression of power.  Williams describes them from the soldier’s point of view, the soldier who does not die well in a battle, who leaves behind a poor wife and children.
     History is written by the winners. Harry wins his battle, justly caused or not.  He goes down in history as a heroic tragic king. Everything he gained through inheritance and battle and extortion his successors lose through incompetence.
            And the soldiers?  Bardolph, hanged. The boy, presumably killed. Pistol, returned to England to a dead wife. Williams, pardoned and enriched by a magnanimous King Harry, but not necessarily convinced that Harry’s war was a just one. No doubt he returned to England, plagued as soldiers are by memories of war.
     Patriotism and piety. The play is full of them. What stays with me are two lines:
     ‘I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.’
     And: ‘there are few die well that die in battle.’
     Could this be Shakespeare’s best play? Not because of the patriotism and piety but because the boy, Williams and the others reveal how cracked and faulty patriotism and piety are?

Works cited:
  • William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
  • Introduction. William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

Films seen:
  • The Globe, 2012. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Cast: King Henry – Jamie Parker; Chorus – Brid Brennan; Mistress Quickly/ Alice – Lisa Stevenson; Pistol – Sam Cox; Nym – David Hargreaves; Boy/ Princess Katherine - Olivia Ross; Bardolph – Paul Rider; Bates – Beruce Khan; Williams – Chris Starkie
    • I love the Globe but this is a real disappointment. It’s mostly slapstick and the few moments of depth disappear in the cheap laughs. Starkie is good as Williams, though.
  • The Hollow Crown – Henry V.  Director: Thea Sharrock. Cast: King Henry – Tom Hiddleston; Chorus – John Hurt; Mistress Quickly – Julie Walters; Pistol – Paul Ritter; Nym – Tom Brooke; Boy – George Sargeant; Bardolph  - Tom Georgeson; Bates – John Dalgliesh; Williams – Gwylim Lee
  • Henry V, 1989. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: King Henry – Kenneth Branagh; Chorus – Derek Jacobi; Mistress Quickly – Judi Dench; Pistol – Robert Stephens; Nym – Geoffrey Hutchings; Boy – Christian Bale; Bardolph - Richard Briers; Bates – Shaun Prendergast; Williams – Michael Williams

Seen on stage: No