Archive for the 'Shakespeare' Category

James Shapiro: 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

November 19, 2018

51+KGzVMCUL._AC_US218_I’d been aware of Shapiro’s two books looking at particular year’s in Shakespeare’s life and creativity cycle and have finally got around to reading the first of them. Shapiro shows us just how much the dramatist was a creature of his time – which isn’t surprising at all – but does manage to marshal and present a wealth of contextual background evidence. Unfortunately the major events of 1599 centre around all the scheming of the Earl of Essex and his adventures in Ireland, and is a little dull when presented in minute detail…

But 1599 was a key year in Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist as he was beginning to move away from the histories and comedies upon which he had built his considerable reputation, looking for new areas to work in: it was the year of Hamlet, for instance. And there is much on the complexity of the development and versions of the text of that play, which will be of interest to more academic readers: how do we know what was the version actually played at the time? Answer, we don’t, but it wasn’t any of the currently popular textual editions which are all far too long for the duration of Elizabethan theatrical time-slots.

We learn a good deal about the Tudor police state (I can’t think of any other way to describe it) and the myriad dangers of the times, the closing years of Elizabeth I’s reign, with no clear successor in view and various parties jockeying for influence. This helps to reveal just how political some of Shakespeare’s plays were – and even more so to his contemporary audiences who would pick up on allusions that go by us – and how carefully he trod the minefield of the times. We may ask ourselves whether in the end he was just safely fence-sitting, or extremely aware of the complexities of all the issues in play? We just need to pay careful attention to all that goes on and is alluded to in Julius Caesar to be aware of this question.

An interesting idea that had never occurred to me was Shapiro’s suggestion that the enormous popularity of the theatre at the time was because it was filling a gap that had been left by the extirpation of all the Catholic religious ritual and pageantry by the savagery of the English Reformation.

Much of what Shapiro offers in relation to Shakespeare’s life and career is necessarily speculative, but it’s valuable nevertheless in the ways it fills out a picture of the man in his times and places; the focus on a single year, which Shapiro also does in his other volume 1606, is interesting because it does give the reader a sense of being a part of all the events and among all the personages of the year.

All-in-all a worthwhile read, and I will read 1606 at some point, too. Although so much of Shakespeare’s life and adventures are unknown and now unknowable, it’s nevertheless fascinating to imagine oneself a bit deeper into the man’s life and times.

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On hubris

October 29, 2018

Warning: politics ahead…

As I’m in my sixties, I lived through the dangerous times that were the Cold War, old enough to have vague memories of my parents’ worried-looking faces at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, during my bedtime ritual, which always ended with Radio Newsreel at 7pm. I can remember being part of the enormous demonstrations against cruise missiles in the 1980s. And yet, I feel a much more profound sense of unease and anxiety nowadays at the state of the world: Gorbachev was an intelligent man, I tell myself, and Reaganonly’ had Alzheimer’s…

I struggle to think of a world leader worthy of any trust or respect nowadays, except perhaps for the redoubtable Angela Merkel, streets ahead of anyone else, but even today under threat from the rapidly changing political climate in Germany. And I wonder what on earth is going on in our world, that so many ordinary people do seem to have taken leave of their senses.

It was less than 30 years after the end of the Second World War when I was demonstrating against Reagan’s missiles; now it’s over 70 years since that war ended, and those who experienced those darkest days of Europe and the world are sleeping in the sleep of peace, unable to warn us any longer.

I’m not looking back through rose-tinted spectacles at the politicians of yesteryear; there were many then as vile and incompetent as most are now. But politics is now a money-making career more than anything else, it would appear, and the idea of serving the public, a nation or the world has gone out of the window. In a world in many ways more ‘connected’ than it has ever been, we are more disconnected from everyone else by technology; in a world where Amazon Prime and Netflix provide entertainment, millions can live for days, weeks even, without stumbling across the news, which one had to on terrestrial television; one can surf the web and live in a social media bubble in which no news need ever figure. How many people are aware of the unspeakable slaughter going on in the Yemen, for example, aided and abetted by British industry? And who reads newspapers? Once it’s possible to avoid knowing about what is happening in the world, all sorts of manipulation is possible.

What am I worried about? Terrorism that isn’t called terrorism by world leaders unless it happens in Western cities and carried out by certain narrowly-defined groups: the world was not like this in the 1960s. Nuclear proliferation: now that the US and the Soviet Union don’t exert the control they did, who is developing nuclear weapons? Why is Israel allowed to pretend it doesn’t have them? In the crazy cauldron created by the West that is the Middle East, who can say what may happen? Climate change that doesn’t exist because it gets in the way of billionaires’ profits… The fragmentation of Europe, hastened and worsened by the maniacs behind Brexit, and many Europeans sleep-walking into it. A united Europe was built on the ashes of the last war, to ensure it never happened again. Memories are short.

What has happened? Memories of war are too distant in time. Economic chaos only affects a relatively ‘small’ segment of the population – the poorest, or ‘unimportant’ countries like Greece. The illusion of prosperity comes from shiploads of random stuff arriving from China at rock-bottom prices, along with unlimited credit and the pillaging of the environment; never mind, let’s ban plastic straws… and those of us with some money – which is the majority, and this is a democracy, after all — can and do carry on pretty much as before.

Collectively, we all must share the blame. We are living in very dangerous times: we think that everything is fine (more or less) whereas it may very well not be, and most of us are not prepared to think about the consequences of that. That is a very false sense of security. Equally the leaders of the world are at fault. Our system allows us to delegate power to those we elect and trust to make decisions on our behalf, which we lack the time, the competence and ability to make. We have been remiss too long, and we have been blinded by the media power of the wealthy, and allowed unsuitable people to lead us. And we have been taken in by the shiny-shiny offerings of big business and their mass media for so long that we are addicted. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad…

How do we get out of this mess? I wish I knew. Do you?

Confession time

September 16, 2018

Do you have a – perhaps guilty – secret? Is there a classic novel that all your friends adore and rave about which you can’t stand? Are there books you feel you ought to have read that you haven’t, and are ashamed to admit? Can you bear to confess now?

There is a certain reverence, respect attached to the classics, whatever they are. It may be just about OK not actually to read some of them, though we probably wouldn’t openly admit it. And we are likely to feel awkward, if not actually wrong, if we don’t like a particular novel, or writer. Why is this?

I always wanted my students to express responses and opinions about what they read, and felt comfortable encouraging them to openly dislike something, as long as they could explain what it was that they disliked, what turned them off. If you were one of those students, you will possibly remember my cry of ‘Evidence?’

I will make a few admissions now, no doubt horrifying some of my readers. I’d like to hear from you if what I say shocks and appals you, and you are welcome to try and persuade me that I’m wrong in my judgement.

I have just got rid of my copy of Wuthering Heights. I read it once, twenty years ago, and hated it. What was the point of that, I thought, and I do not have any spare eyeball time to go back to it. Although I had to study Tess of the D’Urbervilles at university, I’ve never re-read it since, and can’t see that I ever will: it’s too maudlin and fate-ridden to be truly convincing to me, and that’s the overall impression I’ve gleaned of Thomas Hardy, too. I bought Jude the Obscure a long time ago and thought I might read it; I got rid of it a while ago, unread. And Charles Dickens you can keep, too. I did actually enjoy Hard Times – again, compulsory study at university – and have gone back and re-read it. I enjoyed an adaptation of David Copperfield on the wireless as a child, and a no doubt bowdlerised version of Oliver Twist too. I haven’t read Great Expectations, although I did enjoy Peter Carey’s reworking of the story, Jack Maggs. It didn’t make me want to go back to Dickens, though.

I suppose those are my big admissions about the classics: Hardy the miserable and Dickens the verbose. I’ll admit to a pretty strong loathing for Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, too, even though I did see a very good theatre production in the sixth form, but all that magic and fairies gallivanting around I really can’t be doing with. One of my biggest mistakes as a teacher was to try and read it with a year eight class. I’m not sure which of us hated it more…

Along with active dislikes such as those I’ve mentioned above, there is then the whole raft of stuff I’ve read once, either because I had to as a student or because I mistakenly took a recommendation from someone. And the – rather fewer – books I started but gave up on. Time was when someone might have been able to be familiar with all of the canon of Eng Lit: not any more. Choices have to be made, time is short – especially when you realise you are getting on in years – and there is no law that says you have to like everything.

What’s your guilty secret?

August favourites #26: Shakespeare sonnet

August 26, 2018

73

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
    This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I’ve always really liked this one. Even in my younger years, I could see how the poet had captured the sense of regret and sadness about the inevitability of growing older – one of the tropes of poetry I know, but done better by some than others – and now that I’m moving on in years, it speaks to my condition more clearly still.

In the first quatrain, the developed image is a comparison of the poet with autumn, in the second twilight moving into nightfall, and in the third a fire gradually burning out. All three are powerful images of a gradual yet inevitable ending; all three are addressed to the loved one, who the poet imagines having feelings that are stronger because the object of love will soon be gone. Comforting, sad, predictable in a sense but no less moving because of that.

And when you look at the actual words, the pictures themselves, they are especially effective: you can see the autumn leaves gradually falling, picture the ruins – actually of the monasteries trashed by Henry VIII’s henchmen a few years before – and the absence of birdsong. Night is pictured as a little death, and a foreshadowing of it, and then consider the complex image of the fire, nourishing at the same time as it inevitably consumes and hastens its end…

Although I feel there are poets who are ‘better’ than Shakespeare as a poet, and sometimes his sonnets feel a trifle hackneyed when you casually flick through 154 of them, to attain such a level of mastery consistently is a supreme achievement.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Jeremy Black: Mapping Shakespeare

August 22, 2018

51g9Yxn9jjL._AC_US218_A combination of Shakespeare and my enthusiasm for mapping and cartography is likely to be a sure-fire winner with me… and so I really enjoyed this book.

It’s a good deal more than a coffee-table book. Written by a historian, and gathering together a wonderful collection of old maps, organised thematically around Shakespeare’s times and his work, it is a delight. Black’s commentary and analysis is detailed and carefully written, and fully linked to a vast range of geographical references in Shakespeare’s plays. Some countries, especially his own, the dramatist was knowledgeable about and accurate, others he was rather more cavalier about, such as giving Bohemia, one of the most landlocked nations in Europe, a coastline, as he does in The Winter’s Tale, for instance. And some places he knew almost nothing about – such as China and Japan, reflecting the relative state of knowledge in his times – and so they do not get more than passing references, if that…

Shakespeare was as un-PC as some are in our own times, and far less likely to be challenged: Moors, Turks and Africans were a short-hand for exoticism, sometimes barbarity and cruelty (consider their presentation in Othello and Titus Andronicus; Spaniards and Italians were a by-word for scheming, plotting and politics (in the underhand, Machiavellian – another Italian! – sense). Look at the national stereotypes revealed in Portia’s listing of her suitors in The Merchant of Venice.

As the book’s scope broadened, I sometimes felt that the links with Shakespeare became a little more tenuous, but overall I got a very good picture of how the world was seen, known and interpreted in Shakespeare’s time, and his and his audience’s responses to it.

August favourites #22: Essayist

August 22, 2018

Ask a school student about essays, and it’s likely their face will betray dread, or at least mild dislike, for it now suggests an imposition, an enforced piece of writing for assessment of some kind. In less Gradgrindian times, it was not so: an essay was a discursive, non-fictional piece perhaps on a single topic, perhaps wandering around the houses through several, perhaps referencing previous writers on the topic, especially from the classical past or the fathers of the church. Perhaps Montaigne, who wrote towards the end of the sixteenth century, was the father of the genre. He produced three volumes of essays which total more than a thousand pages; I have to admit that, although I did read late mediaeval or early modern French when at university, I tackled Montaigne in English…

He ranges widely. Perhaps, to his English readers, the one essay familiar will be On the Cannibals, which Shakespeare is thought to have read in a contemporary English translation, and which influenced the writing of The Tempest, and particularly the creation of Caliban. What I liked most about Montaigne, what endeared me to him, was his humanity, his decency and his sense of tolerance, characteristics perhaps not easy to sustain in the troubled and turbulent times in which he lived. And he loved his cat. I often think of him as I craft my modest pieces, and wish I could write that well.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #4: Shakespeare

August 4, 2018

When I was teaching, my students used often to ask which was my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, and my honest answer was almost always that it depended on what I was teaching at the time. For some reason, I never liked Hamlet enormously. King Lear I studied at A level myself, and I cannot watch it without tears at the end, so powerful is it. Othello, for the power of passion and the torment at having one’s love destroyed, as well as the sheer evil of Iago, was always one of my favourites, but I think now that my preference has settled on Antony and Cleopatra, as a picture of the power of love in later life, and how that emotion wins out over everything else in a person, even though that entails the loss of everything. For me, that means that there is something great in being a human. Antony has ‘kissed away kingdoms’: what a marvellous line! And Cleopatra, in the final act, is matchless…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

 

Jan Kott: Shakespeare our Contemporary

May 31, 2018

downloadThere are times when I get cross with myself for not having read a book sooner: this one has been on my shelves waiting since 1995, and another reminder of it at my recent Shakespeare week finally convinced me to take it down and read it.

It was published in the early 1960s when Kott, formerly critic and professor of literature and drama at Warsaw University had left for the West. A foreigner’s perspective on our national dramatist is always very interesting, and Kott’s was an eye-opener, coming from a man who had experienced (and initially supported!) Stalinism, as well as a man from a country with serious links with Shakespeare. It’s known, for instance, that in the 1590s when London theatres were closed because of the plague, Shakespeare’s company toured Europe, including Poland – it’s not known that Shakespeare was with them – and after the construction of the replica Globe Theatre in London, there was a major project, recently completed, to construct a replica theatre in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast, where any ship would have docked in the sixteenth century, and which hosts a Shakespeare festival of its own each summer.

Kott offers first of all a convincing and unified vision of the History plays, with echoes and parallels in twentieth-century history. Then he considers the atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia at state level in Hamlet. His analysis of the play, and particularly of the role of Fortinbras, is quite chilling and reflects the police states and secret police he knew so well, in this ‘drama of political crime’. This vision comes across strongly in Kozintsev’s stunning Russian film of the play from the same era.

Kott sees characters devoid of free will and the ability to choose, and playing parts imposed on them by outside mechanisms. His approach, attitude and style of analysis are most definitely not English, and this is a collection of essays that could only have been written after the Second World War, and by someone who had lived under Stalinism; his is a very dark perspective on the world and on human beings. The essays on Macbeth and Othello I found particularly thought-provoking. Overall, his knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare and his relevance in the modern world is masterly, and his scope wide-ranging.

There’s also a fascinating exploration of androgyny through the cross-dressing heroines of the comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It in particular, along with the subjects of the sonnets, strong and perceptive on the ambiguity, as well as considering the link between the need to use boy actors and the way Shakespeare framed his female roles. However, in some ways this section feels dated, particularly because of the old-fashioned, coded language when writing about homosexuality and homoeroticism in the early 1960s and from the background of a communist state… Approaches to Shakespeare generally have developed enormously in the intervening half-century, sparked by critics like Kott.

The book concludes with an essay on The Tempest which sees parallels between Prospero and Leonardo da Vinci, and focuses on the circularity of the play which for Kott ends where it begins; it’s an essay which could not have been written pre-Hiroshima either.

So, an eye-opener for me, a book to go back to, a book which I wish I’d read while I was still teaching, and a reminder not to let books sit on the shelves unopened.

On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?

Romeo & Juliet at the RSC

May 21, 2018

I was rather disappointed by this production, having expected rather better from the RSC

The two main issues were the two main characters who, whilst each convincing enough as individuals – Romeo especially – never managed to come across as a pair, a couple head-over-heels in love with each other. Added to this was a tendency to deliver their lines rather too quickly, slipping into a gabble occasionally, which is no substitute for making an audience feel the urgency of their passion, and you have quite marked flaws in a production. This, of course, raises a more general, and perhaps insuperable issue for this play: you need young actors in many of the roles for them to be credible, and young means (relatively) inexperienced, therefore unable to do what is required to make the role work…

It can be done, however: I went to this performance with two first-rate productions in mind that I had seen over the years, an excellent one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse a good many years ago now, where the entire stage was centred on a gigantic double bed, and an equally good and more intimate production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The RSC didn’t come up to either.

There were interesting touches. Sometimes gender-role changes are gratuitous, but here the female Mercutio managed the difficult task of making the Queen Mab speech work well, although she wasn’t consistently good throughout. Benvolio and Capulet were good: for me the touchstone is how Capulet carries off the scene where he loses his temper after Juliet has declined to marry Paris, and here he was superb. For most of the group, though, it was the outstanding performance of the Nurse – a role that can be really tiresome if played wrong – that won the day.

The fight scenes, usually made much of, were here underplayed, and I could not see how the casting of Tybalt, who is supposed to be ‘the prince of cats’ was supposed to work. And the idea of bringing all the dead back to life to walk around the stage at various points contributed nothing, other than cluttering the stage. In the end, I think, the director had too many ideas to try and impose on the text and they got in the way rather than enhanced the performance. The set was brilliant, though…

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