Monday, January 28, 2013

Monday January 28 2013

Hamlet continues to dominate our Shakespeare activities and it’s accelerating.  We should finish reading it this week and then starts the hard part.  But that’s then and this is now and it’s Monday once again and there a few other things happening.

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On January 24, 1594, Philip Henslowe wrote in his diary that a new play, Titus Andronicus, had been performed at the Rose Theater and brought in three pounds eight shillings. The following week The Rose closed down because of the plague.
Shakespeare sightings:
·         Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory finds herself in the unusual situation of feeling sexual lust for a hunk named Zack. Slightly more socially competent than Sheldon she doesn’t just suggest to Zack that they engage in coitus, she suggests “making Shakespeare’s metaphorical beast with two backs.”  Unfortunately, Zack is not a Shakespeare enthusiast and this is not a turn on for him.  Poor Amy.
·         It’s been a long time since I did an English crossword but this week I did and came across the clue “King ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”  And the answer is…?
·         Getting back to Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought after reading other things for awhile I found that once again he brings up the definition of William Shakespeare as the man and also as his works.  He also quotes Hamlet to show how clever we are at climbing stairs and riding bicycles: “In form, in moving, how express and admirable.”  

Further, since the last report:
  • Continued reading with Hal: Hamlet. We’ve come to the scene with poor Ophelia passing out flowers.
  • Watched The Glass House, To Be or Not to Be and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. We only have one more movie about Hamlet to watch before we get to the actual Hamlet movies. Eight of them.

Posted this week:
·         Review of Gabriel Egan’s Shakespeare and Marx.
·         This Monday report

Egan Shakespeare and Marx

Shakespeare and Marx by Gabriel Egan, 2004.  Read in July 2010.

                      This is a compact and very useful little book and in fact I’ve used in several of my texts on this blog. Into four chapters Egan packs a wealth of analysis.
In the first chapter, “Shakespeare, Marx, Production and the World of Ideas”, Egan shows how two Marxist approaches can be applied to Shakespeare. One is to look at the working class characters in the plays and the other is to look at how Shakespeare’s plays depict historical change. Egan points out that the “genius of Marx is how he relates the individual to historical change and insists that, working together, individuals make their own history even though the conditions under which they make it are not of their own choosing. Shakespeare too is concerned with historical changes and many of his plays depict how large effects result from the actions of individuals“ (page 17).
One of the book’s emphases is to show how Marxist analysis has influenced our interpretation of Shakespeare.  Chapter Two shows this influence on authors before 1968, including George Bernhard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare scholar E.M.W. Tillyard and various liberal attacks against the Marxist approach.
Chapter Three offers views on Marxist influence on Shakespeare critics since 1968, dealing quite thoroughly with our friend Stephen Greenblatt and his emerging New Historicism through his groundbreaking Shakespearean Negotiations from 1988, and the British version of New Historicism, Cultural Materialism.  Pointing out the problems contemporary scholars have in finding new angles of literature to analyze, Egan ends the chapter with the words, “…this above all makes Shakespeare the primary place where a Marxist sense of the tension between inevitability and the human powers of intervention can be expressed in art” (page 97).
Chapter Four, “Shakespeare and Marx Today”, deals with various new takes on some of the plays in which the rising bourgeois class of Shakespeare’s time is now seen as part of the historical process rather than just a group of individuals in a static society.
And finally, in his short conclusion, “Marx and Genetics”, Egan makes an interesting parallel between the “meme” invented by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene: “One class of memes has proved exceedingly well suited to getting itself copied by generations of speakers, first in English and subsequently in all the major world languages: the Shakespeare plays” (page 141).
He concludes this thought-provoking and enjoyable book by intertwining Shakespeare’s and Marx’s shared humanism thus: “Representing two ways of expressing essentially the same phenomenon, we can read Shakespeare via Marx and Marx via Shakespeare with an optimist eye to the future not the past” (page149).
Highly recommended!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Monday January 21 2013

Hamlet is going to dominate the blog for quite a time to come, but he’s worth it, don’t you think?

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:
  • Nothing this week
Shakespeare sightings:
·         In Katherine Anne Porter’s classic novel Ship of Fools one of the many Nazis or Nazi sympathizers on the ship, Professor Hutten, glares at the rude Cuban students on board who have taken “in vain the name of Goethe…[b]esides lesser yet still vulnerable names such as Shakespeare and Dante.”  This thoroughly disgusting person, who shouldn’t speak Shakespeare’s name aloud, is one of many in this dark and pessimistic but totally fascinating novel.
·         Mats Strandberg, in his odd novel Halva liv (Half a Life), has one of his narrators consider her sham marriage to her brother’s gay lover with the words, ”Nåja. Några Romeo och Julia var vi då sannerligen inte.” (Well. Romeo and Juliet we certainly weren’t.)
·         In Dagens Nyheter on January 17, there was a long article about the Blackfriar Theater in Staunton, Virginia, the only copy in the world.
  • In Dagens Nyheter yesterday, the 20th, there was an ad for a package tour to southern England.  It includes the quote – in English - from Richard II: “This happy breed of men, this little world,/This precious stone set in the silver sea…/This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”  Of course the tour goes to Stratford. If we didn’t already have our trip to London in June booked this would be very tempting indeed.
  •  Is it a Shakespeare sighting if it’s deliberately sought out?  Last week I didn’t include the Hamlet quote from the film Withnail and I because we watched the whole movie just to hear it. That and other such movies will be included in the list of Hamlet films at the end of the text I’m going to write eventually. Well, on Saturday we watched Star Trek VI: The  Undiscovered Country for the sole purpose of seeing its connection to Hamlet.  And what I really can’t wait to share with you is one of the best movies quotes and Shakespeare movie references ever: “You can’t really experience Shakespeare until you’ve read it in the original Klingon.” Ha ha! that’s a good indication of what’s to come. But even more to our surprise, in the extra feature about Shakespeare in the movie we found not only that an entire language of Klingon has been created but that Hamlet has been played in it.  This is just too bizarre for words. But here it is, “To be or not to be” in Klingon…

Further, since the last report:

Posted this week:
·         This Monday report

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday January 14 2013

Happy New Year! After an unofficial blog visit on Twelfth Night I am now back on the regular Monday schedule until the end of April. I hope the year has started well for you all.  After three weeks away there’s been a whole lot of Shakespeare going on, so let’s get to it.

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On December 30, 1460, Richard of York (father of Richard III) and his son, the Duke of Rutland, were killed by the Lancastrians.  Shakespeare immortalized this in Act 1.4 of Henry VI Part Three.
  • The Thames was completely frozen over in the beginning of January the year Shakespeare was born, which he didn’t notice, and again in 1608 which he probably did.
Shakespeare sightings:
·         In the classic Gothic novel Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu from 1864, Shakespeare lurks here and there:
o   Among the many weird characters, one of the women, cousin Monica, refers to herself and two of the servants as the weird sisters.
o   Again, upon meeting a band of gypsies, the weird sisters are referred to.
o   A frustrated cousin Milly cried “Why the puck don’t you let her out?” and a note tells us this is an archaic expression making use of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
o   Said Milly was described as her father, Uncle Silas as a rustic Miranda, more suited to Caliban’s company than to that of an old sick Prospero.
o   Falstaff’s billet-doux is referred to in connection to a cad who is wooing the heroine and another lady at the same time.
·         Ian Rankin, in his Impossible Death, has one of his policemen claim that discretion is the better part of valour.
·         In Dagens Nyheter on December 28, there was an article about Richard Burton’s diaries in which we are informed that he made his first mark on the world as a Shakespearean actor.
·         In the Downton Abbey Christmas Special, which you know by now ended more dramatically than we would have wished, the butler Mr. Carson declared in his inimitable voice, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown…”
·         In the second Sherlock Holmes movie, Game of Shadows, poor Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is convinced by Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr) to get back into action in spite of being on his honeymoon and sighs, “Once more unto the breach…”
·         In Alice Munro’s short story “Dimensions”, child killer Lloyd quotes, “To thine own self be true” thinking it’s from the Bible. 
·         A seer in Jacqueline Winspeare’s third Maisie Dodds novel, Pardonable Lies, speaks of one of her clients now deceased as having “shaken off this mortal coil.”
  • The father in the teen sci-fi novel Across the Universe by Beth Revis has had himself put in deep freeze for the three hundred year journey to a to-be-colonized planet and among his treasures he takes the works of Shakespeare.
  • In Dagens Nyheter there was a letter to the editor which mentioned Shakespeare but to tell you the truth I had no idea what he meant so I won’t quote it.
  •  January 12 there was an article about death in literature.  The journalist Lotta Olsson writes: “Sometimes they die in droves, like at the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. At that point I feel like laughing, thinking that maybe Shakespeare just got tired of the whole gang and didn’t know what to do with them.  Although he solves it very well, of course.” And in her list of recommended books about death, Olsson includes Macbeth and writes: “Dumb Macbeth! He shouldn’t have been so happy when the witches told him he was going to be king. And he shouldn’t have told his wife.  Death snaps at Macbeth’s heels, he kills and sees ghosts, and believes himself immortal because no man born of woman is supposed to be able to kill him.  When it is well acted (which you can see in the film by Orson Welles from 1948, still unbeatable) it’s Shakespeare’s best.”
 Further, since the last report:
  • Wrote: “What To Do About Hamlet” and sent it to Blogging Shakespeare.
  • Started reading Wilson Knight’s classic (from the 30’s) The Wheel of Fire. It’s fascinating! But I have quit reading it for awhile because it’s hard to concentrate on analyses of other plays while reading Hamlet.
  • Posted: “And the Winner Is” on Twelfth Night.
  • Started reading with Hal: Hamlet!!! Finally.
  • “Can You Do That to Shakespeare?” has been posted on Blogging Shakespeare
  • Joined: Twitter on the advice of blog follower AnneliT who says it will noticeably expand the reach of the blog. Hmmmm, I haven’t really learned how to use it yet but maybe she’s right!
  • Watched: Withnail and I, the first of several films with a connection to Hamlet.  I remembered that one of the characters quoted Hamlet, but I was beginning to doubt my memory when the film was ending and so far no quote.  However, the very last lines where spoken by the unhappy Withnail: “I have of late and wherefore I know not lost all my mirth…” And so on. It was, in fact, a perfect ending to quite a good movie.
 Posted this week:
·         This Monday report
·         “What to Do About Hamlet” under Ruby’s Reflections.

What To Do About Hamlet

What to Do About Hamlet

                      Hamlet is scary.
                      How in the world can I write about this play, this incomparable giant in the world of English literature?  What can I write that others more knowledgeable and scholarly haven’t already analyzed inside and out? Googling Hamlet, I get 54 million hits.  Googling “analyzing Hamlet”, half a million hits come up. I’ll get lost in the jungle!
How can I possibly approach the immensity of Hamlet’s cynicism, pain, bitterness, and enthrallment with death? How can I delve into the depths of the characters of Ophelia or Gertrude or Claudius?
                      I already have a relationship with Hamlet of course.  Anyone growing up in an English speaking world can recite half the play by heart without knowing it, simply by saying the hundreds of quotes that have become everyday expressions: Neither a borrower nor a lender be; to thine own self be true; something is rotten in the state of Denmark; the time is out of joint; what a piece of work is man; to be or not to be; to sleep, perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub; get thee to a nunnery; the lady protests too much, methinks; I must be cruel only to be kind; alas, poor Yorrick. I know him, Horatio; the readiness is all; the rest is silence; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead; of death put on by cunning…etc. etc. Whole books have been written about the “To be or not to be” soliloquy alone!
                      I have read the play in its entirety at least twice, once in Swedish. I have seen Branagh’s film five or six times and at least as many other versions once or twice.
                      So my awe in facing the monumental force of Hamlet is not for lack of familiarity. On the contrary. That is one of the problems. I’m all too aware of the enormity of the play.  I can’t even say, “OK, I’ll just write about my first spontaneous reactions” because they were many readings/viewings ago.
                      But come on! It’s just a play! It won’t bite! Just choose one of the five million aspects of the play that are fascinating and write about it! Never mind that everyone else has already written about it – it will be Ruby’s take on it and therefore relevant enough.
                      Hamlet is like the universe. It can absorb whatever is thrown at it. It can survive whatever nonsense or profundity is offered.
                      So just do it. Come on, it won’t hurt.  Well, yes it will, but it will feel good when it’s done.
There. Hamlet, here I come.
I’m…ready for you.
                      Yeah, right.  

Saturday, January 5, 2013

And the Winner Is...Orsino in Twelfth Night

I know Twelfth Night has nothing to do with Twelfth Night but today is Twelfth Night so I couldn’t resist…

“And the Winner Is…” Orsino
Twelfth Night or What You Will

                      In Jasper Fforde’s third Thursday Next novel The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday attends the ceremony for the Book Genre Awards. Othello has been nominated for the Dopiest Shakespearean Hero. I would nominate Orsino.         
                      Granted, Orsino starts out the play with one of Shakespeare’s best lines, “If music be the food of love, play on,” but that’s about the last good thing he says.  Among Shakespeare’s many stupid romantic leads, Orsino can certainly hold his own.
                      It may seem whiny to write about Orsino in this play which is one of Shakespeare’s best and most beloved but there is something grand about dopey guys amongst Shakespeare’s fabulous women.
                      So how can Orsino go from the sublime “If music be the food of love, play on,” to being a dope? I don’t know but he does and being a jury of one, I’ll give you the two scenes upon which the award is based.
                      The first is in Act 2.4. So far he’s been moping around, moaning and groaning about how lovesick he is and now he tells Viola/Cesario that he is a true lover:

For such as I am all true lovers are
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved…

                      In telling Cesario a few lines later that women should love men older than they are he rationalizes it with

For women are as roses, whose fair flower
Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.

Nice. Whoever he marries is going to get too old immediately by that reckoning.  What’s he going to do about that? Summon and abuse a series of 18-year-olds on the side for the rest of his life?  Probably.
                      Interestingly, the song he wants Feste to sing at this point is all about death, the lover having been killed by his sweetheart:

Come away, come away death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fie away, fie away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

                      How romantic is that?  But then he tells Viola/Cesario that only men can really love, what women feel is only lust. Huh?! That’s not what they said in the 19th century.  But this is the bawdy England of the 16th century and Orsino claims:

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.
Alas, their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment, and revolt.
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much. Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

                      To his credit Orsino – after this spout of pomposity – does listen to Viola talk of the “sister’s” love and this is after all a comedy and the scene can be played in such a way that Orsino comes off as the arrogant but the essentially harmless silly lovesick fool he’s known as.
                      But in the final act, Act 5.1, he turns really scary.
                      Having come to confront his beloved Olivia himself and being turned down once again he turns into the kind of guy that women who have been beaten, stalked and killed by their husbands and lovers throughout the ages probably have a hard time laughing at.  He says:

Like to th’ Egyptian thief, at point of death
Kill what I love – a savage jealousy
That some time savours nobly. But hear me this:
Since you to non-regardance cast my faith,
And that I partly know the instrument
That screws me from my true place in your favour,
Live you the marble-breasted tyrant still.
But this your minion, whom I know you love,
And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,
Him will I tear out of that cruel eye
Where he sits crowned in his master’s spite.
[to Viola] Come, boy, with me.  My thoughts are ripe in mischief.
I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love
To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.

                      In plain 21st century English: I should kill you for refusing me because I have the right to you but since I know that it’s partly your love for this boy that’s stopping you from loving me, I’ll kill him instead.  Come on, kid, let’s go so I can kill you.
                      Never mind dopey.  Orsino is one seriously sick dude. Or just a normal spoiled aristocratic guy in a patriarchal society.
                      And Viola says, “OK”.  But that’s another story and we’ve seen it before.  Bright, courageous, witty, sharp women fall for Orsino, Proteus, Demetrius, Claudio – who are all jerks.
                      The question is why do they fall for them, why does Shakespeare keep doing that?  The answer is: I don’t have a clue.  The next question is: after making wild and savage and categorical claims against said admirable young women, how can they suddenly be marrying them and saying (sort of) that they love them? Same answer.
                      Whatever. Orsino does it too. As soon as the twin thing is revealed he says:

Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds.
Here is my hand. You shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.
…when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy queen.

                      And so the play ends.  What Viola thinks of all this Shakespeare doesn’t tell us.  As usual the most interesting character is silenced half-way through the last scene. And even a peek into the future marriage of Orsino and Viola is hard to manage, and we don’t really care to know because “she won’t be the Viola we’ve come to know, who is essentially a linguistic being, a speaker of blank verse and rhyme, a quick-witted wordsmith” (Gay, page 429). Shakespeare is probably once again reminding us that marriage was not always a great thing for women in the olden days (for him, of course, the now.)
                      A final mystery. Well, two.  Why do we put up with these stupid – and nasty – guys in these brilliant plays populated by the likes of Viola and Olivia?  And why did I choose Orsino when almost everybody else – certainly the two women as well as Feste, Malvolio, Antonio, Maria, Aguecheek – is so much more interesting?
                      The answer to both: because he is essential to Shakespeare’s – and our – conviction that romantic love is absurd and illogical but (and?!) created by the absurd and illogical and patriarchal society in which the characters – and we, more than we sometimes like to admit – live in. Orsino, alone in his ivory tower of romantic nobility really doesn’t interact with anybody, even Viola who is mostly just a willing recipient for his narcissistic love ramblings until the end, but the dopiness of Orsino is a sharp and necessary contrast to the brilliance of Viola (when she’s not with him).  That he comes around in the end (sort of) and she fades into nothingness, does not diminish the power of the play.  The zany and wildly funny – and deeply sad – shenanigans of Twelfth Night would be so much less piquant without Orsino.
                      And so, ladies and gentlemen, I am seriously happy and proud to present the award for the Dopiest but Essential Shakespearean Hero to…

Works cited:
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
Gay, Penny. “Twelfth Night: ‘The Babbling Gossip of the Air’” in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, The Comedies, ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. 2003.

Films seen:
BBC, 1979. Director: John Gorrie. Cast: Orsino – Clive Arrendell; Viola – Felicity Kendal; Olivia – Sinead Cusack: Feste – Trevor Peacock; Malvolio – Alec McCowen; Sir Toby Belch – Robert Hardy; Maria – Annette Crosbie; Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Ronnie Stevens; Sebastian – Michael Thomas; Antonio – Maurice Roeves; Fabian – Robert Lindsay.  A well done enjoyable production.  The cast is very competent but sadly Felicity Kendal is just too sweet and girly to make a convincing Cesario. I have a hard time seeing Trevor Peacock as anybody but Talbot but he’s OK as Feste.  Best is Robert Lindsay (Benedick in BBC’s Much Ado About Nothing and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)  He might have been better as Feste here.
1996. Director: Trevor Nunn. Cast: Orsino – Toby Stephens (Maggie Smith’s son); Viola – Imogen Stubbs; Olivia – Helena Bonham Carter: Feste – Ben Kingsley; Malvolio – Nigel Hawthorne; Sir Toby Belch – Mel Smith; Maria – Imelda Staunton; Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Richard E. Grant; Sebastian – Steven Mackintosh (known from Our Mutual Friend); Antonio – Nicholas Farrell; Fabian – Peter Gunn.  This production starts out slow and muddled but really pulls through in the second half to become the kind of masterpiece Trevor Nunn is known for.  Helena Bonham-Carter is so good as Olivia that one wonders how anyone else has ever been considered for the part.
1988. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Orsino – Christopher Ravwnscroft; Viola – Frances Barber; Olivia – Caroline Langrishe: Feste – Anton Lesser; Malvolio – Richard Briers; Sir Toby Belch – James Saxon; Maria – Abigail McKern; Sir Andrew Aguecheek – James Simmons; Sebastian – Christopher Hollis; Antonio – Tim Barker; Fabian – Shaun Prendergast. One of Branagh’s earliest film efforts, it already shows the greatness that he soon became known for.  Anton Lesser is the perfect clown, rough, subtle, sad and very funny, not to mention very good-looking in his rags and dreds.  James Simmons is the perfect Aguecheek – dumb, sad and funny.  Christopher Ravenscroft makes a great Orsino although he’s a bit too dignified.  Wonderful music by Patrick Doyle.  My only complaints – I don’t like Frances Barber as Viola - too teary and weepy and uncharismatic.  Best laugh: Aguecheek entering on snowshoes.

Seen on stage: twice
Theater in the Park at Steninge Castle outside of Stockholm in June, 2005. A fun production. What I remember most is the name of Toby Belch’s friend the knight Blek af Nosen which translated directly means “pale of snout”.  I thought that was so funny and not having read the play yet I had to check out what the original was – Aguecheek.  Sometimes the Swedish translation is even funnier than the original!
At the Stockholm Theater, March 12, 2011. A very colorful – Olivia wore an enormous very red gown most of the time – lively, musical and thoroughly delightful production.