Archive for the 'Shakespeare' Category

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 3

October 4, 2021

The nobles continue their bloody wrangling over the rival claims of the houses of Lancaster and York to the throne; battles and bloodshed become ever more frenzied, driven by Henry’s ambitious and demented queen and the overweening kingmaker Warwick. Some of the most horrific battles in English history took place at this time.

There are still many static scenes where characters merely stand and declaim, with much repetitive and redundant speechifying. Interestingly, Henry’s lengthy soliloquy on time, just before one of the battles, seems to foreshadow the much more famous one given to Richard II (a play yet to be written, though earlier in real time). Shakespeare certainly knew how to reuse and recycle his material… Another scene reminded me of the well-known scene with the gardeners, also in Richard II.

The horrors of civil war are brought powerfully home in the cameo of the son who unknowingly kills his father in battle, but this is then overdone immediately with an identical one where a father kills his son.

The main theme of this play, though, is the emergence of the evil genius of the man who will become Richard III; he is given more soliloquies where he can gradually reveal his scheming to the audience. It’s fascinating to see the processes through which Shakespeare seems to have developed as a dramatist, as he realises the potential in the soliloquy form, but has not yet attainted the succinctness and power which he gives to these in the later tragedies.

There is also more of a sense of pace to this play, particularly as it moves towards its end, Warwick changing sides again and eventually getting his comeuppance, and Edward taking the throne for the house of York after Richard has murdered Henry, but there is still no resolution or end to the bloodshed, as we know what Richard’s as-yet unrealised plans are…

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 2

October 3, 2021

More factional infighting between the nobles supporting the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to the throne continues and worsens, gets even more complicated and tiresome. So many conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and subterfuges, none of it helped by a weak and wet king and a scheming queen. All my prejudices about royalty and aristocracy are confirmed…

It’s a bit less monotonous than part 1, as there is some suspense and Shakespeare gains dramatic effect of a kind from switching from one side to the other in fairly quick-moving scenes, even though there’s a lot of posturing speechifying too. We now get soliloquies – and do we need them! – to help us follow all the plotting and double-crossing, the deviousness and the treachery.

The best bit is Jack Cade’s popular uprising, which is partly comic and partly deadly serious as Shakespeare shows how completely anarchy can take over when those of a higher degree do not do what their social status requires of them. Ordinary folk take control; of course, at that time they have to make a total hash of things, but then, so do their supposed betters.

The further I got, the more I realised how skilfully Shakespeare was creating the lasting impression of a country in a state of anarchy, a non-stop series of plots, murders, battles and rebellions… utter chaos, and completely flying in the face of the natural order of things as he conceived it. There is an utterly hopeless and ineffectual king who just watches chaos developing; he can do nothing to sort it out. In a lot of ways it’s beginning to remind me a little of the state of the UK at the moment, but let’s stick with Shakespeare. We end in medias res once again, with the Yorkists victorious in battle. Part 3 beckons.

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 1

September 30, 2021

I always feel a little outfaced whenever I tackle Shakespeare’s history plays, because so much background information is needed to follow them in any detail, and there are so many characters – and I’ve never been wildly interested in the historical periods he brought to life, and the squabbling, entitled upper classes. But I try and remind myself of context: the relatively recent end of decades of civil wars, as well as the chaos of the Reformation, and Shakespeare telling a national backstory which for him ends up with the relative peace and quiet of his present, and the ongoing emergence of England as a power on the international scene. It reminds me quite a bit of our own, current messy situation and the wish of so many people who ought to know better, to live on our past glories, empire days, and ‘winning’ the Second World War…

Here, in the first part of Henry VI, Shakespeare contrasts the divided and factious England, with its squabbling nobles and interfering bishops after the death of the great hero Henry V, with the French, united and rebellious and inspired by Joan of Arc, determined to throw off the English yoke. It’s pretty much a hotchpotch of random scenes and events with no real thread except the background of the Hundred Years’ War, and the only unity coming through the character of Talbot on the English side and Joan on the fRench. We can see the Wars of the Roses shaping up in the future.

It’s interesting that the English immediately picture Joan as a witch, a whore, in league with satanic powers; towards the end of the play Shakespeare confirms this in a bizarre scene where she calls upon various devilish powers for assistance as her campaign finally unravels.

Shakespeare’s inventiveness is restricted by the actualities of history, and his chronicle sources. I find the language fairly pedestrian, and the tone pretty monotonous, to be honest; there’s little sense of drama or suspense: it feels like a school history lesson. Necessarily it ends without a resolution: there is more chaos, more warfare ahead, and the audience can easily see that the leading characters’ fine words are just that. But the dramatist is just setting out on the road to his present, showing a real nation emerging from all this chaos at the end of Richard III

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

September 29, 2021

The induction is a practical joke by a bored nobleman, in which a poor yokel’s world is turned upside down; in my attempts to make sense of this play, especially its problematic ending, I’m reflecting on whether the whole thing is about the world turned up side down.

Compared with the Two Gentlemen of Verona, the plot is a good deal more complicated, with layers of subplots; we can see the master’s progress as a dramatist, perhaps. There’s more humour, though still a good deal of over-the-top wordplay and punning, and there’s more of a sense of a dramatist and a play with ideas to explore here.

The problem is the ending, and specifically Katherina’s “submission” speech: what does it say, what does it imply? I’ve always found it rather hard to judge that she is playing a game in that speech, that she has somehow won and is putting one over on Petruchio and the others. It’s a play of its time, and there was a hierarchy of people in the famous Elizabethan world order, and no evidence that Shakespeare ever really challenged or went against this. So Kate has a place, a status, and it’s below her husband’s.

And yet, it’s Shakespeare, and entertainment, and so it seemed in the twentieth century that there had to be an explanation or interpretation that would make the ending acceptable somehow to a contemporary audience. The Arden Shakespeare second series is now regarded as pretty old, but it has always been my go-to text, and the introduction, which comes from the 1980s, is quite interesting on this issue and I recommend it to any others who may be puzzling in the same way as I have been.

What we need to notice is the love that has emerged between Katherina and Petruchio, more than anything else, and to remember that for Shakespeare, real love is paramount in so many of his plays, as opposed to pretences. So there is a solid base to their relationship in sixteenth century terms, which will probably not be played out in the simplistic dominance/submission trope implied by a superficial reading of the speech. Equally, I found myself remembering my comment to students that Shakespeare does not offer simple and clear-cut solutions or endings: there are often several strands/ideas/opinions being played out, as one might expect from a dramatist of his calibre. There are several different balls being juggled here, and you can’t necessarily keep your eye on all of them at the same time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not up there… and I found that helpful.

Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

September 29, 2021

The wit and wordplay of early Shakespeare nowadays feels over-contrived and overdone, tiresome even, and it’s certainly the case for me in this play. And the wooing is stylised, not really reflecting any genuine feeling or conviction. To me it’s as though Shakespeare is ‘getting there’ in what’s probably his first play, but hasn’t quite got the measure of how he will succeed…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining enough, light and frothy with plenty of misunderstandings, contretemps and confusions. What struck me most strongly on this re-read, is just how much of the later Romeo and Juliet is foreshadowed in Two Gentlemen, even though this is a comedy, not a tragedy, and this is because of his source material, apparently. There are similar love tropes, there’s a plotted elopement using a rope-ladder, there’s the need for a lover to flee because he has been banished, there’s a scheme for passing letters to-and-fro, there’s even a Friar Laurence. But it is predictable, light-weight, geared to a comic ending; there’s no seriousness here.

Another thing is how easy early Shakespeare is to read, on the page, for me: I fairly rattled through this one. The more tortuous language and syntax of the later plays is by no means as straightforward. I had decided that it was time to do some revisiting of the plays after my encounters with the sonnets over the summer. I’m not offering any academic analysis, just a personal reaction to my readings…

Sonnets, sonnets, sonnets

September 12, 2021

     I’ve come across a couple of good ideas – which of course I borrowed – during the various states of lockdown over the past year and a half. Someone wrote about listening to all the Bach cantatas, one a day, an excellent idea even if, as in my case, some days it was none and other days playing catch-up… And then someone was reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets one a day. I’d never read them all, just the usual dozen or so well-known anthologised ones that were important in teaching literature and criticism.

My reading of the sonnets was never one a day, either, just like the Bach cantatas weren’t. But it was an interesting exercise, now that I’ve reached the end. I’m glad I’ve done it, and I intend, if and when I can find the time, to spend more time studying them carefully. It’s hard to frame an overall response, really. There are a lot – 154 – too many? The sameness is rather daunting, the same structure and rhyme-scheme, apart from the single curious twelve-line one, and I’ve often used that as a way to be somewhat dismissive, especially when I’ve set Shakespeare alongside his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred for its variety of form and astonishing boldness and inventiveness.

But this reading has had me reflecting. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a tour-de-force because there are 154 of them, and even within the restrictions of that form he is both incredibly inventive, and also far wittier than I’d ever expected… again, this had been one of the areas where I’d compared him unfavourably with Donne, whose wit I still find matchless. There’s variety in Donne, but there’s an amazing number of variations on a theme in Shakespeare, which becomes captivating after a while. And then there is the inventive interplay between and among the sonnets themselves…

The other thing about the writer who set me off on this, was that they read the sonnets out loud. I loved this idea (in the privacy of my study), and parsing them as I read so that they scanned correctly and made sense was a serious challenge, which this retired English teacher rose to and enjoyed.

RSC: The Winter’s Tale

April 26, 2021

I’ve only ever taught The Winter’s Tale twice, I think; it’s one of those rather difficult plays for a modern audience in that it clashes with our expectations of how a drama works and unfolds. Some of my regular readers may recall that I had – pre-COVID – been in the habit of attending a Shakespeare course and seeing plays at the RSC in Stratford each spring, and in 2020 was expecting to see both The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors. Now, the former play has been rehearsed and filmed under the COVID restrictions in force, and shown on BBC4. And what a treat it was: I’d lost sight of the sheer power of Shakespeare and the wonders of the RSC over the last year or so. Though it was very strange to catch an occasional glimpse of the empty seats in the auditorium during the performance, and I was also reminded of the limitations of television, in that when you are seeing a close-up shot, you cannot see what the other characters onstage are doing, and this can be very telling…

The Winter’s Tale is, alongside Othello, a very powerful play about the effects of sexual jealousy; in both plays the effect is shocking, but in The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy is completely generated within himself: there is no villain like Iago there to engender it. This makes the madness different, and puts the focus more sharply and squarely on Leontes. He was very effectively played, and I got a very strong sense of ‘it’s all about me’ from both the situation and how he developed the role.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s later plays which are sometimes grouped under the heading ‘romances’ because despite potentially tragic situations developing, Shakespeare brings about a happy ending of sorts, involving marriage. In the Tale, our credulity is stretched to the limits as the dramatist engineers a sixteen-year gap in the action in the middle of the play, and ultimately has us believe that Hermione was not dead but alive all that time, concealed by Paulina… and one of the things that struck me most powerfully in this production was that the immense emotional shock on Hermione of the entire horrific business became stunningly evident – and more effective because of TV close-up – in the final reunion scene, where her face showed the strain and she could not look at Leontes…

I said it’s a difficult play for a contemporary audience: there is an incredibly long comic scene (the longest scene in any Shakespeare play) with rustics and dancing, involving the courtship of Florizel and Perdita, which to us seems very incongruent sandwiched between the jealousy scenes and the staged reunion and happy ending. Shakespeare was giving his audiences what they were used to, and what they wanted, and, towards the end of his writing career, what was now possible in the newer types of theatre coming into existence. We may find it weird, and we just have to accept it. Here, using an almost hippy setting for the scene, and a strong female Autolycus, the RSC made it work very well.

I’ve long been impressed by what the RSC has done about inclusion in terms of its actors: gender is no longer determinant in roles, and actors with disabilities are regularly cast; in this production actors with speech disabilities took part. I suppose what I’m saying is that I briefly notice these casting choices and then I don’t, for the production is a production with all the actors together and it works, and that, surely, is what really matters. And I’m really grateful to the RSC for sharing the performance – it would have cost more than £50 for my theatre seat last year – and cheering me up immensely.

Lockdown activities

April 6, 2021

I’ve used a couple of good ideas originally mentioned by someone else to focus myself and renew pleasures during lockdown. Somewhere, I read about someone who had decided to listen to a Bach cantata a day, and someone else had decided to read aloud a Shakespeare sonnet every day.

I’ve finally reached the end of listening to all the cantatas now; it’s taken me since the beginning of November and there are about 200 of them. I haven’t listened to one a day regularly or religiously; sometimes I did, sometimes I forgot or didn’t find the time, and other times I binged, but it has been very interesting renewing my acquaintance with them. I took the opportunity to compile a list of my favourites and a list of the ones that really didn’t do very much for me. The whole exercise has made me want to go back to the list of my favourites and listen rather more carefully, with the texts alongside, and deepen my understanding and appreciation of the music and the words.

I’ve had a working knowledge of probably a dozen of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a teacher; they came in useful when teaching the open-ended Love Through The Ages unit at A-Level back in the day. Now I’m working my way through all 154 of them, and I’m about a third of the way. It was interesting how hard I found reading them aloud initially, getting the phrasing and pauses right, and sometimes needing a couple of attempts; now I’m really into the rhythm, and I like the way I can wade in confidently and deliver a classroom-ready rendition straight off…

What I’m actually discovering, reading all of them for the first time, is how dull, pedestrian and same-y a lot of them are: there are only so many ways in which you can re-work a fairly hackneyed trope in a fourteen-line poem, The good ones are powerful because of their originality; that’s the key. But I have also renewed my intention of studying at least some of them in rather more depth once I have finished this read-through. And I came up with an original project of my own, too: I would like to re-read all of the plays, in chronological order of their writing (insofar as that’s known). How far I’ll get with that resolution before I’m side-tracked by something else, I don’t know…

And somehow these two activities have got me thinking again about the nature of genius, because in my mind J S Bach and William Shakespeare represent two examples of that kind of person. Sometime, there will be a post on that subject.

Simon Palfrey: Doing Shakespeare

January 17, 2021

     Here’s a book which I acquired shortly before I retired from teaching and finally got around to reading. But I couldn’t really deduce the who the target audience was meant to be. Not school students, perhaps undergraduates, maybe English teachers quite early on in their career? I tried really hard to engage with it, but found myself frequently skimming rather than reading intently, as I gained the impression that here was someone trying hard to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. And I recognise that to find it over-thought and over-explained was more than a tad unfair…

Palfrey writes from the perspective of a reader of Shakespeare, rather than a watcher of the plays, and tries to make the case for that approach: I can accept that far more people may read him rather than enjoy the plays in the theatre, but we live in an age where recorded performances of many kinds are now readily available. From his premise flows the argument that the reader can, and does, focus more closely on Shakespeare’s use of language, and an insistence on the reader focusing in more depth on how the playwright uses words; I can’t argue with this last point. But writing a general work on how to read Shakespeare more closely does not seem to work very well, and I frequently had the impression of a man trying to nail jelly to a wall.

As the book progresses, the clarity of the author’s focus on the details of how Shakespeare uses language so effectively does develop usefully, supporting the obvious point that in the pace, flow and audience involvement in a performance of a play so much will inevitably be missed. And there is the important idea that a Shakespearean audience would have listened differently from ourselves nowadays, and have tuned in to a great deal more of the vast range of wordplay and wit; it’s useful to be reminded of this and have it exemplified. But four pages to unpick the ranges of meaning in one line from Macbeth is over the top, I feel.

Palfrey is constantly shifting between what I found to be revelatory insights, and the blindingly obvious; in the end, what he’s on about is the multiplicities of meaning available in Shakespeare’s plays, which I knew already. And so I come back to my original two points: who is the book for, and my unfairness in this piece.

I earned my bread and butter teaching Shakespeare in schools for the best part of 30 years, and found that it was possible to awaken students to the variety of Shakespeare’s language and its intensity, and some of the levels and shades of meaning, but that this was always in the context of studying the totality of a single play, reading it several times, and watching it in the theatre or failing that, in a recorded performance. It was a strange exercise, rather like removing the layers of an onion, in the sense that the better they knew and understood a play, the more the students would be tuning into its language along with so many other facets.

Perhaps it’s the attempt to show all of this, using so many of the plays, in one book, that I found most frustrating.

Lockdown Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

May 3, 2020

Last year I saw a radically different The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford, in which all the genders had been swapped; it was a very uncomfortable experience for men in the audience, this one included, and raised all sorts of questions about this most dubious of Shakespeare’s plays.

So I decided to watch a more traditional version yesterday afternoon: the BBC Shakespeare one, from 1980, with John Cleese as Petruchio. Now the BBC Shakespeare has always seemed a very strange kettle of fish to me: a prestige project to film all of the plays as theatre performances, with some very well-known names, and in ‘traditional’ costumes and settings, almost as an archive for all time. It now seems more like a museum: the productions and performances are stilted and frozen in time, and not in a good way, it seems to me. And this one was another of those. I have to say that the only thing worth watching was what Cleese brought, sometimes in a Pythonesque way, to a traditional performance. The hysterics of the women and the fopperies of the men were just about tolerable. Then watching the famous Act 5 ‘submission’ speech, not believing my eyes and ears.

A number of Shakespeare’s plays are regarded as ‘problem’ plays, for different reasons; some just don’t work in our age, I have come to feel. The anti-semitism of The Merchant of Venice can be challenged at various points in the performance and some occasional sympathy can be elicited for Shylock, but he is a pretty dreadful character, considered as a whole; I have seen a couple of performances that worked well. But the outright sexism, the male chauvinism, the vileness of father and suitors, the treating of women as chattels and objects to be sold to the highest bidder? I do not see how these aspects of The Taming of the Shrew can be made palatable or acceptable, and I’ve yet to be convinced that after two hours and more of this, that that submission speech may be delivered in a twentieth-century, would-be feminist manner, acceptable to a contemporary audience. The BBC version ended with the characters singing a hymn together, which lauded the traditional virtues of a wife!

I’ve sometimes wondered about the bardolatry, the hagiography of our national playwright: can he do no wrong? Even today? He was of his time, and pace Ben Jonson, not always and in everything for all time. I’ve regularly found Shakespearean comedy difficult, rarely enjoyed teaching it, with the exception of Twelfth Night. Seventeenth-century audiences found different things funny and entertaining; they enjoyed public executions, for goodness’ sake… for me, a play like The Taming of the Shrew may have been a good play, a successful play in its time, but I think it’s not one that can work today. Back with last year’s gender-swapped production: if it had me squirming and feeling uncomfortable, then how many women spectators will have been appalled at previous performances? Suspending my disbelief was not really an option: the play is now offensive.

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