Sunday, August 6, 2017

August 2017

We’ve finished reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and watched a few films. It took a while but the text is also now written (see below). We haven’t yet chosen our next play but will do so in a day or two.                               

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Shakespeare sightings:
  • Dagens Nyheter writes about Dani Kouyaté who has been nominated for the African movie academy awards in seven categories, including best film by an African living abroad, for his Medan vi lever (While we live), which it won. He is planning a film of The Tempest to be filmed on Fårö.
  • In the novel New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson:
    • The financial wizard Franklin, living in the flooded New York in the 22nd century, wonders how ‘do you invest in a mangled ambiguous zone still suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous tide flow?’
    • The two geeks called Mutt and Jeff, who reminded me from the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are once again doing the talking thing. Mutt asks Jeff if he’s read Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Jeff has not.
    • Amelia is dancing with Mutt and Jeff. They are all terrible dancers. ‘Some are born bad, some achieve badness…Mutt, the situation having been thrust upon him, moves in tiny abrupt jerks.’
  • In How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman we are told
    • that tennis was very popular and refers to the tennis balls sent derisively to Henry V in that play.
    • that the costumes used in Titus Andronicus were a lavish mix of Roman and Elizabethan.
    • that Shakespeare really is very funny’ (we knew that! But many still don’t) and that 1,700 of the words and expressions Shakespeare invented are still with us. Her examples: moonbeam, mountaineer, bedroom, submerge, lacklustre, hobnob, friended, as dead as a doornail, up in arms, all of a sudden, it’s a foregone conclusion. 
    • in the chapter about supper that women were often the ale brewers and offered their products in a simple tavern consisting of a bench outside their home. It was such a bench the night watchmen will ‘sit upon… til’ two’ in Much Ado About Nothing. Furthermore the singing of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste in Twelfth Night is typical alehouse behaviour.
  • In the TV series Grimm one of the villains, having placed the comatose hero Nick in a coffin, says, ‘Good night, sweet grimm, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’
  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer (yes, I am addicted to this kind of thing…) in Season 2, Giles says in planning with the others Buffy’s surprise birthday party, ‘Discretion is the best part of valour.’
  • In the TV quiz show Vem vet mest? Junior (Who knows the most – juniors) the question was, ’What was the surname of the author who wrote The Tempest and Hamlet?’ The boy didn’t know the answer and had never heard of Shakespeare! Another contestant was active in a theatre group but they hadn’t done any Shakespeare yet.
  • In Ian McEwan’s The Children Act the main character Fiona refers to ‘her infinite variety’ and other quotes from Antony and Cleopatra. She had played Enobarbus in an all-woman production when she was a law student.
  • Nicci French opens their (it’s a duo) latest Frieda Klein novel Sunday Morning Coming Down with a quote from Henry IV Part One:
    • Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man,/ But will they come when you do call for them? 

Further since last time:

Posted this month

'Thou painted maypole' Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream

‘Thou painted maypole’
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

     When I give my lectures on Shakespeare I often wear my T-shirt with the quote ‘Though she be but little she is fierce.’ Being short of stature myself I like to think this applies to me.
     The line is said by Helena about Hermia who indeed is little and fierce and an interesting character. Not, however, as interesting as the wonderfully, tragically, hilariously neurotic Helena.
     It’s only right that Shakespeare gave Helena this, one of the best lines of all the plays, after having given her one of the worst: ‘I am your spaniel… / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you’ (Act 2:1). What kind of awful line is that?!
     But, as noted, Helena is neurotic. She has zero self-esteem and is supremely envious of Hermia:

Call you me fair? That ‘fair’ again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair! (Act 1.1).

     She goes on to exclaim over Hermia’s beauty and the fact that Demetrius loves Hermia while she, Helena, loves Demetrius. We learn that Demetrius had in fact loved Helena until he met Hermia and in her monolog Helena astutely observes the eternal and universal, ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind’ (Act 1.1).
     It is then in the forest, where upon Helena’s conniving Demetrius meets her, that her ‘spaniel’ words are spoken. One cannot help but pity Demetrius who tries in vain to rid himself of the clinging love-mad lass, who in her raving of love for him once again manages to produce a line of wisdom, an observation of the gender roles of her society:

We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wooed and were not made to woo (Act 2.1).

     Later comes the line even more neurotic than the spaniel line: ‘Stay, though thou kill me. Sweet Demetrius’ (Act 2.2). No, no, no, Helena!
     So symptomatic of women/victims throughout the ages: a sense of worthlessness.  Mourns Helena: ‘I am as ugly as a bear… a monster…’ (Act 2.2). When, only seconds later, Lysander, under Puck’s misplaced enchantment, awakes and falls in love with her she doesn’t believe it:

Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born?
When at your hands did I deserve this scorn?
Is’t not enough, is’t not enough, young man,
That I did never, no, nor never can,
Deserve a sweet look from Demetrius’ eye,
But you must flout my insufficiency? (Act 2.2)

     She is astute enough to recognise that Lysander’s love for her is not true. Sadly for her she gets the reason wrong. She believes she is worthy of no man’s love. She believes that her friends merely mock her. Even her beloved Demetrius who now claims to love her:

O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment…
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too? (Act 3.2)
     Poor, poor Helena! How dreadful to feel this way. Amongst all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, surely Helena’s pain is as heart-rendering?
     And what follows is so very funny. So awful and so funny. The four lovers hurl insults at each other.  Thou cat, thou burr, you canker blossom, vixen, dwarf, thou painted maypole.
     What a beautiful insult! Maypoles are, after all, beautifully flowered, a celebration of light and life.
     Maybe this penetrates Helena’s psyche and gives her the oomph to flee this disastrous encounter: ‘My legs are longer though, to run away’ (Act 3.2). And run she does.
     All is not yet well however. Alone in the forest, darkness again descends upon her:

O weary night, O long and tedious night,
Abate thy hours! Shine comforts from the east,
That I may back to Athens by daylight,
From these that my poor company detest;
And sleep, that sometime shuts up sorrow’s eye,
Steal me awhile from mine own company (Act 3.2).

     Who has not felt such despair, alone in the dark, longing for sleep? Poor, poor Helena!
     Well. We know she gets her Demetrius in the end but this is Shakespeare. All is not love and joy. There is doubt. When the four lovers awaken in the morning and Hermia notes that everything seems double, Helena replies:

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

     Still undeserving. Still uncertain. But Helena’s last line is interesting. As the lovers’ eyes and minds clear they start to see those who found them. The duke. Hermia’s father. And, as Helena observes, ‘And Hippolyta’ (Act 4.1).
     Not to make too big a point of this, Helena sees the Amazon queen. Maybe she draws a bit of strength from that?
     Helena plays the role of many of Shakespeare’s fools, offering us nonsense sprinkled with wisdom. But Helena does it with so much more pain than the fools, such depth of feeling. Helena reaches out to us from the heart of a real, suffering person.
     Shakespeare’s characters are all a part of us. Helena more than most?

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

Films seen this time:
  • BBC, 1981. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Helena: Cherith Mellor.
    • Cherith Mellor as Helena is very good. Helen Mirren is always good. One of BBC’s best productions.
  • 1999. Director: Michael Hoffman. Helena: Calista Flockhart.
  • RSC, 1996. Director: Adrian Noble. Helena: Emily Raymond.
  • 2014.The Globe. Director: Dominic Dromgoole. Helena: Sarah MacRae. Hermia: Olivia Ross.
    • An unsubtle interpretation with little of the depth of feeling the play offers, though Hermia and Helena do better at times. Otherwise it’s hammy, especially the Mechanics, especially Peter Quince, who overdoes it completely. They all shout too much, but they all have their moments as well. Flawed but entertaining and the beginning and finale are impressive.