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 Skarsg√•rd 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.