Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday, February 27 2012

Not being an Internet genius it has taken me several months of blogging to discover an interesting little thing to click on called “stats”. Now I know what stats are of course but I thought it would just tell me how many hits the blog has had but lo and behold, it also tells what countries the visitors are viewing from and how many from each of the countries. To my delight I see that the blog has had viewers from Russia, Latvia, Germany, France, Romania, Australia, Slovakia... I'm so curious! How did you find the blog? Why were you looking? Please post a comment, all you Shakespeare people around the world! As I wrote in my intro in August, the purpose of the blog is to establish a network of Shakespeare enthusiasts, the more world wide the better.

So on to the Monday report.

From the Shakespeare Almanac:
  • February 19 (missed it last week) – On this day in 1608, possibly, Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth Hall was born.
  • February 24 – On this day in 1607 Monteverdi's opera Orfeo was first performed. Funnily enough, without knowing this, I played a bit of the opera for my history class the same day.
  • February 25 – On this day in 1598, Henry IV Part One was registered in the Stationers' Register and the famous Falstaff emerged. That's the next play in line after the one we started reading this week.

Another week of few sightings.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • Steven Pinker in his book Words and Rules continues to refer to Shakespeare.
  • In the novel Jellico Road, by Melina Marchettat, the high school students are studying Macbeth.
  • In Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure Shakespeare is listed as among the classics to be read by serious scholars. It doesn't say that Jude read him though.

Further, this week:
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: The Merchant of Venice. A complicated play if there ever was one!
  • Posted: “Caught in the Middle – Lady Blanche in The Life and Death of King John.”

Caught in the Middle

Caught in the Middle
Lady Blanche
The Life and Death of King John

The first time we read the play, a couple of years ago, I liked it. Now we've read it again and my first reaction was “Did I really like this play? Why?” Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noted that on the Monday report from February sixth I wrote, “Next step: figuring it out. I hope Bloom, Greenblatt and others will help.”

Well, Harold Bloom was no help whatsoever and Stephen Greenblatt didn't write the introduction in the Norton edition. However, Walter Cohen did and he helped immediately by pointing out that the play doesn't make a lot of sense and it wasn't meant to. Actually what he writes is that “the logic of the plot is to undermine logic” (page 1045). Thank you, Walter Cohen! So if I don't always follow, it's because I'm not meant to. He goes on to explain why it's a good play anyway and to remind me why I liked it. The BBC production helped too. So now I can declare: The Life and Death of King John is a good play.

It is not, of course, Shakespeare's most famous play so a short explanation might be in order. You've probably heard of King John. He's the king who signed the Magna Carta in 1215 giving the nobility certain rights. This is very famous in English history (all the little kiddies have to learn it, as if they care) and supposedly it makes John a good guy but of course he didn't do it voluntarily. They made him do it. The other thing he's famous for is being the bad guy in the Robin Hood legend, having seized the throne when his brother, good guy Richard the Lionhearted was off fighting the Crusades.

Well, Richard is talked about in the play but he's already dead, and Shakespeare makes no reference whatever to the Magna Carta or Robin Hood. So what is the play about? I'm not going to tell you much – look it up on Wikipedia or, better yet, read it, but I'm going to tell you enough to spoil it for you if you want it all to be a surprise (there are a few “Oh no's!” while reading). The main story is: war between England and France over who should be king of England (and France). How original, huh?

So if the story isn't interesting, what is?

Everything else, not the least of which is the conflict between the two Kings, John of England and Philip of France, and the church, the odd and somehow appealing character of the Bastard (the fictitious son of Richard the Lionhearted) who could be compared to Bolingbroke in Richard II, the two very strong women in the play - John's mother Queen Eleanor and Constance, his sister-in-law and mother of young Arthur who is, probably, the rightful heir to to English throne.

One of the most interesting aspects of the play, Cohen points out, is that King John himself plays a rather small role in the action, which is to a large extent propelled by Queen Eleanor, Constance and the Bastard – women and an outsider, “personages generally peripheral to dynasty history” (page 1047). Queen Eleanor promotes the Bastard to official status as her grandson and entrusts him to lead her armies in the war against France. Constance passionately battles against anyone who doesn't support Arthur as the rightful king of England. And the Bastard, after hovering around the edges, muttering snide asides for a few scenes, brings everything together in the end by proving himself the only true Englishman.

Even more peripheral to the action, however, are young Arthur himself and the essentially anonymous Lady Blanche. Arthur is a likeable lad who eloquently and lovingly talks King John's henchman Hubert (well-played in the BBC version by John Thaw of Morse fame) out of blinding him (on John's orders) with a hot poker, only to die tragically in a fall while trying to escape back to France from captivity in England.

Lady Blanche is another pawn in this game of kings and popes and though we learn almost nothing about her she has what I see as the most heartbreaking scene in the play.

Lady Blanche enters the stage at the beginning of Act Two when King John and his gang arrive in France to confront the strident King Philip and Constance who are, as previously mentioned, demanding that John cede the throne of England to the boy Arthur. What Lady Blanche is doing there, or even who she is, we are not told. In the cast at the beginning of the play she is listed as “of Spain, niece of King John” but in the play itself she is essentially anonymous. She witnesses the dispute and she is allowed one saucy remark to the saucy Bastard who has just taunted the Duke of Austria, slayer of Richard the Lionhearted (the Bastard's father, remember?) with the threat of tearing the symbolic lion's skin the duke wears as a memory of his deed. To which Lady Blanche retorts, for no obvious reason, not having uttered a word to anyone so far:

Oh, well did he become that lion's robe
That did disrobe the lion of that robe! (Act 2.1)

It is in fact interesting that one outsider connects with another outsider and this brief exchange (the Bastard answers her back) does establish Blanche as a feisty young woman with a mind of her own. Just being there with the combatants shows that she's not a passive stay-at-home-and-keep-quiet young woman. Quite rightly. Women of the nobility in the Middle Ages generally weren't.

Still she wanders wordlessly off the stage with the rest of them for the duration of the battle then wanders back on and listens silently while the warring sides argue about who won and then agree to destroy the town of Angers, outside the walls of which they are all gathered, for not accepting the rule of either side.

The quick-witted citizen of Angers comes up with what seems like the perfect solution to establish peace and save his own skin and that of his fellow citizens:

The daughter there of Spain, the Lady Blanche,
Is niece to England. Look upon the years
Of Louis the Dauphin and that lovely maid.
If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,
Where should he find it fairer than in Blanche?
If zealous love should go in search of virtue,
Where should he find it purer than in Blanche?
He is the half part of a blessèd man,
Left to be finishèd by such as she;
And she is a fair divided excellence,
Whose fulness of perfection lies in him.
This union shall do more than battery can (Act 2.1)

More than a page of discussion among the others – kings, queens, Louis himself and the Bastard with his snide asides – takes place before Blanche is allowed to give her opinion, and then what option does she have but to say, “If Uncle John wants me to, OK, I will.” What is interesting in her acceptance speech is that she doesn't immediately declare herself madly in love with the prince but says candidly
I will not flatter you, my lord,
That all I see in you is worthy love,
Than this: that nothing do I see in you
Though churlish thoughts themselves should be your judge,
That I can find should merit any hate (Act 2.1).

She then replies to her uncle John that she is

...bound in honour still to do
What you in wisdom shall vouchsafe to say (Act 2.1).

Not exactly Romeo and Juliet but look at how things turned out for them. The match between Blanch and Louis is much more realistic and extremely practical on the face of things. Everybody's happy. Well, except for Constance and a few others...

So next time we see Blanche in Act 3.1, stage directions have a bunch of people entering including “Blanche, [married; Queen]. That went quick.

In the following dramatic exchange between King John and Cardinal Pandolf, John is excommunicated and poor King Philip has to decide whose side he's on, that of his new friend and in-law John, or the pope. Son Louis advises him not to risk the “heavy curse of Rome” but rather “choose the easier”, i.e. “the light loss of England for a friend” (Act 3.1). Blanche rather enigmatically says, “That's the curse of Rome”. Does she mean it's better to suffer the curse of Rome than lose the friendship of her uncle John? Brave words in a world dominated by the church and the fear of eternal damnation.

Constance, who hated the marriage between Blanche and Louis because it ruined her chances for son Arthur to become king, begs Philip to obey the cardinal and break with John, and Blanche says to her husband of a few minutes:

The Lady Constance speaks not from her faith,
But from her need (Act 3.1).

It seems that Blanche isn't terribly religious.

But none of her reasoning helps. Philip falters and wavers. Louis licks his warmongering chops and shouts, “Father, to arms!”

And Blanche's tragedy, and that of the French and English people, begins. She cries:

Upon thy wedding day?
Against the blood that thou hast marrièd?
What, shall our feast be kept with slaughtered men?
Shall braying trumpets and loud churlish drums,
Clamours of hell, be measures to our pomp?
[She kneels]
O husband, hear me! Ay, alack, how new
Is “husband” in my mouth! Even for that name
Which till this time my tongue did ne'er pronounce,
Upon my knee I beg, go not to arms
Against my uncle. (Act 3.1)

Constance begs the Dauphin to follow heaven's plans and go to war. Blanche uses the only argument she has left:

Now shall I see thy love: what motive may
Be stronger with thee than the name of wife? (Act 3.1)

Louis ignores her and wonders why his father still hesitates. But Philip hesitates no longer. He breaks with England and war is imminent. With Blanche stuck in the middle:

The sun o'ercast with blood; fair day, adieu!
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both, each army hath a hand,
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They whirl asunder and dismember me.
Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayst win. -
Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayst lose. -
Father, I may not wish the fortune thine, -
Grandam, I will not wish thy wishes thrive.
Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose,
Assurèd loss before the match be played. (Act 3.1)

Her husband, Louis, who it seems has much in which she could find which would merit hate – and in fact he becomes more and more vicious as the play progresses – says only, “Lady, with me thy fortune lies,” (Act 3.1).

As indeed it does. What can she say but, “There where my fortune lives, there my life dies,” (Act 3.1).
And we hear not a word more from her.

The play goes on for awhile. John worries about losing the throne. Eleanor, Constance and young Arthur die. Some nobles desert John and join France. John and the Pope make up. Peace is made but war is urged by the alpha males Louis and the Bastard. Lots of soldiers on both sides die in shipwrecks. (Cohen writes: “The war itself is marked less by climactic battles than by both sides' careless habit of losing their armies at sea “, page 1045). The defecting nobles are shocked to learn that the Dauphin is planning on slaughtering them when the war is won so they redefect back to John who dies, having been poisoned by monks and his young son Henry shows up to become king. The Bastard makes a speech about internal strife being more dangerous to England than foreign enemies. And that's it.

So what's the moral of the story? I have no idea. What happened to Blanche? Who knows? Even Googling doesn't tell us anything about her fate so I guess we have to assume she stayed married to nasty Louis and lived her life the best she could.

Why did Shakespeare write this play? I still don't know. But I'm glad he did.

February 2012

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Cohen Walter, in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).

    Films seen:
  • BBC, 1984. Director: David Giles. Cast: Lady Blanche – Janet Maw: King John – Leonard Rossiter; the Bastard – George Costigan; Queen Eleanor – Marry Morris; Constance – Claire Bloom; Hubert – John Thaw: King Philip – Charles Kay; Louis the Dauphin – Jonathan Coy. One of the best in the box. The entire cast is convincing and each of these rather odd characters are brought to life.
Seen on stage: no.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monday, February 20 2012

In the midst of my feverish scribbling on my text on King John (to be posted next week, I hope), I'm taking a break to cool down and write this Monday's report. One of the things accomplished this week was to start reading The Shakespeare Almanac, compiled by Gregory Doran, for the third time. It was a gift from our dear friend MR a couple of years ago. We started reading it aloud a date at a time and have now done it twice. The book contains a wealth of information about the life and times of Shakespeare. In the Monday reports I will henceforth note some of them. So this week's notes are:

  • February 15 – On this day in 1564 Galileo was born, two months before William Shakespeare.
  • February 18 – On this day, two months before Shakespeare was born, Michelangelo died.

It's lucky there was something to report from the Almanac because there haven't been so many sightings and some of them are a bit odd:

Shakespeare sightings:

  • Steven Pinker in his book Words and Rules continues to refer to Shakespeare and his language and he astutely notes, among other things, that, “We do not speak like Shakespeare (1564-1616), who did not speak like Chaucer (1343-1400), who did not speak like the author of Beowulf (around 750-800)” (p.47) He's not just stating the obvious, he's making a point against language police who don't want language to change.
  • In the movie Bobby, about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Anthony Hopkins' character says to Harry Belafonte's character about their daily chess game, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” Anthony Hopkins has undoubtedly said these very words on stage in their original context in...well, which play? Contest time! First to comment correctly on the blog gets the big prize!
  • In the old sci-fi novel The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep upon which the classic movie Blade Runner was based), an obscure reference to Shakespeare is made and I quote: “Commit suicide by drowning himself on an ocean voyage? Maybe I ought to do that. But here there was no ocean. But there is always a way. Like in Shakespeare. A pin stuck through one's shirt front, and good-bye Frank” (p.35). There, did you get that? I didn't. Please explain if you can!

That's it for this week.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday, February 13 2012

Another between-play week but we've read analyses of King John and we watched the BBC production so it's been a good Shakespeare week. With several unusual sightings so here they are:

  • Shakespeare sightings:
    • In the DN extra theater section for the coming spring season we see that Hamlet is going to be played in Norrköping in April. That might just be worth a train trip! A Midsummer Night's Dream is going to played too but out in the sticks outside of Gothenburg so we'll have to give that one a miss unless special travel arrangements were to be made.
    • Having watched the film classic “Shrek” we also watched the extra material in which Shrek gave an interview. He said, “Was it Shakespeare or was it Kermit who said, 'It's tough being green'?” Gee, I don't know, do you??
    • Rereading the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan, countless references to Shakespeare emerged, not noticed the first time (having read it six years ago before the Great Shakespeare Period started). Most interesting: main character Robbie played Malvolio when he was a kid.
    • Tomas di Leva, perpetual New Age flower child, has – we were informed by the second play-off program of the Swedish Melody Festival – played Hamlet. The mind boggles.
    • Steven Pinker in his book Words and Rules quotes Shakespeare on page 2: “What's in a name? A rose by any other name...” That's not even going to be a contest. It would be too easy.
    • In DN today, some actor whose name escapes me, was quoted as saying that acting one does together, but singing is done alone, like playing Hamlet. Hmm, the comparison is a bit shaky if you ask me but OK, it's a sighting.

Further, this week:
  • Read aloud with Hal: Several analyses of The Life and Death of King John.
  • Watched: the BBC production of The Life and Death of King John.
  • Finished reading: A Companion to Shakespeare's Works – The Tragedies.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Monday, February 6 2012

A little more happening this week. Having finished a play we now have the BBC movie and various analyses to look forward to.
  • Shakespeare sightings:
    • Danny Boyle will be in charge of the opening Olympics ceremony in London this summer and will be using The Tempest, Caliban's “Isle of Wonders” speech. This was actually in DN last week but I missed it last Monday.
    • More funny references in Saturday Night Fry
    • a notice in DN of the last performance of Reflexteatern's Twelfth Night
    • in a collection of the satirical and political cartoons “No Comment” from the 1980's, found on the bookshelf one night when I was having trouble sleeping: “When the Patriot News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, announced it would drop “Dick Tracey” because of excessive violence in the comic strip, creator Max Collins protested, 'You might as well ban Shakespeare and the Bible'.” I agree, no comment needed.

Further, this week:
  • Received: Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negotiations and Renaissance Self-fashioning. Sooner than expected! And since receiving the order, I've read in other books about how important these two books are in Shakespearean scholarship of the 80's and later.
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: The Life and Death of King John. Next step: figuring it out. I hope Bloom, Greenblatt and others will help!
  • Still reading: A Companion to Shakespeare's Works – The Tragedies.
  • Posted: Review of Colin McGinn's Shakespeare' Philosophy - Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays.

McGinn Shakespeare's Philosophy

Shakespeare's Philosophy – Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays by Colin McGinn. 2006. Read in November, 2009.

This is the kind of specialized book I like. Colin McGinn has been a philosophy teacher at such universities as Oxford, Rutgers, Miami and University College of London. He has also written lots of books. He is, to use his own words, “a professional philosopher with an interest in Shakespeare, not a professional Shakespeare scholar with a passing interest in philosophy” (p. viii).

He starts out by introducing general themes and placing Shakespeare within the philosophical framework of the Renaissance, a time for which “[q]uestioning is the spirit...and [there is] a sense of shifting foundations” (p.3). He adds, “The questions were being asked...but no clear answers seemed forthcoming” (p. 5). He mentions the influence the French philosopher Montaigne's “personal, lively and pungent“ essays (p. 6) had on Shakespeare, whose importance in the developing the role of the self as “interactive and theatrical” has been noted by many scholars, especially Harold Bloom. McGinn also shows how Shakespeare deals with the question of causality, why things happen the way they do, and he asserts that Shakespeare “sees causation as unruly, unpredictable, unintelligible, blind, weird, and even paradoxical...To this extent his worldview is atheistic.. The bleakness of his tragic vision is principally a matter of rejecting the notion of an immanent rational order...That is why his plays are so disturbing and challenging to comforting myths about how the world operates. Shakespeare shocks us out of our casual complacency” (p. 15). Again he connects Shakespeare to Montaigne in the conclusion of his introduction in which he writes that in both “there is a kind of appalling, but exhilarating candor. And some of the ruthlessness is philosophical: the determination to expose reality for what it is, to undermine dogma and complacency” (p.16). This bodes well for the book!
In which he then proceeds to analyze several of the major plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream (which I used in my text earlier on this blog), Hamlet, Macbeth and several others. Each of these analyses is so exciting that I can hardly wait to get to these plays so I can use this book.

He also has interesting things to say about Shakespeare and gender - “for Shakespeare, there is something irreducibly theatrical about gender identity” (p. 155); about Shakespeare and psychology - “he is making a point about human psychology – that it is infinitely various” (p. 173); about Shakespeare and ethics - “He is pained by humanity, also amused by it, but he wishes it well” (p.180) – perhaps my favorite line in the whole book.

In his final chapter McGinn deals with Shakespeare's genius, no small question, that! He gently takes issue with Harold Bloom's claim that Shakespeare invented the human by pointing out that human nature was already there but that Shakespeare discovered its importance to literature, he clarified it by investigating and articulating and exhibiting and dissecting all the aspects of the human. McGinn concedes graciously that Bloom is right that in doing all of this Shakespeare helped form humans as we are now. McGinn says, “humanity may have imitated Shakespeare's imitations of humanity. Thus, in this sense, Shakespeare created human nature as it now exists, at least in some measure. So pervasive has his influence on the culture been...that we cannot help but be shaped by his works...He told us how the world looks from the perspective of itself. And the world never looked the same again” ( pp.203-204).

McGinn makes a big deal of Shakespeare. Therefore I'm happy to make a big deal of McGinn. Read this book!