Posts Tagged ‘Othello’

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.

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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.

Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

January 29, 2017

516lgrk3f0l-_ac_us200_Antony and Cleopatra is a later play than Julius Caesar; it’s also longer and more subtle, and it has real human interest: the characters and the characterisation draw us in and engage us. The infatuation of Antony with Cleopatra is convincing, as is their flirting and their quarrelling: the portrait of an ageing man torn between duty and pleasure, between resolve and weakness, is brilliantly drawn. Beautiful poetry, haunting images support and enhance the pair’s relationship, fleshing out character, and their entourages further develop the picture: Cleopatra’s women, and Antony’s close friend Enobarbus are an integral part of the play.

The other thing that’s hard to notice unless you are aware of it and deliberately look out for it – and it will be clearer in performance, I’d imagine – is how little the pair are actually together onstage. In Shakespeare’s time, Cleopatra’s role would have been played by a boy, of course (she refers to this in one of her final speeches when she imagines the horror of being part of Caesar’s triumph in Rome) and the last thing that Shakespeare would have wanted would be for his couple to look ridiculous. So, the passion is largely created by what the two say about each other when they are apart – it’s then that their feelings for each other are strongest, whereas when they are together the relationship is stormy, to say the least – and through what other characters say about them and their relationship, particularly Antony’s friend Enobarbus. When you look out for the way Shakespeare has managed it all, you have to agree the achievement is brilliant.

And it’s also perhaps through the storminess of their relationship that Shakespeare is most successful: it’s not puppy-love at first sight, as with the teenagers in Romeo and Juliet; this is mature love between two people who have, to put it mildly, been around a bit, and Cleopatra (who is 38) is clearly worried about being past her beautiful best, in comparison with Octavia…

In their political and military defeat, the ties between them, and their love, grow stronger in spite of their mutual recriminations; now they only have each other, and are inseparable, even by Caesar, for this is another twist Shakespeare adds to the power of their relationship: how calculating is Cleopatra? is she playing a double game? will she come to a deal with Octavius? As an audience, I suggest that we desperately hope not: we are involved, and we want this to be real love, and love to die for, which in the end it is. And Shakespeare produces some of his most sublime poetry to show it.

Students used to ask me which was my favourite Shakespeare play. They never got a straight answer, because I usually found that my favourite play was the one I was currently teaching. Now that I can take a step further back, as it were, I think I can be clearer: though Othello comes a close second, I really do think Antony and Cleopatra is my favourite. (For now.)

My A-Z of Reading: X is for XXXX (censorship)

December 26, 2016

I have always had the impression that a great deal of swearing goes on in the armed forces. There is the story that NCOs were forever yelling at squaddies, “Get your f***ing rifles!’ but they knew that if one yelled, “Get your rifles!” then the situation was for real, deadly serious, and reacted accordingly. And so, a play set in the trenches during the First World War will be full of expletives… or not. Journey’s End, by R C Sherriff, a play I know extremely well from my teaching years and from the study guide I wrote about it, contains no bad language at all. Until the nineteen-sixties, all plays staged in Britain had to be passed for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, and profanity was not permitted. You can even find examples, comparing different versions of Shakespeare’s plays, where the language had to be toned down after James I inveighed against bad language onstage…a look at the textual variations in Othello is quite interesting.

More serious, of course, is the censorship of undesirable ideas. Graphic descriptions of sex (among other things) restricted publication of such classics as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (now utterly toe-curling); would-be British readers had to smuggle such books in from France! And there was the hilarious court case about Lawrence’s novel in the early 1960s when Penguin Books first published it in this country. Political correctness now demands censorship of some American classics such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, even To Kill A Mockingbird, because they all contain a certain word beginning with ‘n’. Grossly offensive though that word is, I’ve always felt that the shock effect of actually meeting it in a novel, and the brief discussion that could ensue when a class did meet it and realised that the word used to be ‘acceptable’ in the past, was better than neutering the book.

In the days of the USSR, many entire books went unpublished. Writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, knowing that their manuscript would have to stay in their desk. And they wrote anyway. Vassily Grossman was told by a KGB officer that it would be at least two hundred years before his novel Life and Fate could possibly be published. The effect of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch being published in a Soviet literary magazine was like that of an earthquake; none of his other novels was allowed to be published and he was eventually driven into exile and obscurity, like a number of other dangerous authors.

Books and ideas can be very dangerous to established power. The Catholic Church maintained its Index Librorum Prohibitorum up until a generation or two ago, and books can still be shunted into a religious limbo by being denied the official imprimatur of the Church. A small plaque in the Bebelplatz in Berlin marks the site of the Nazis’ public book-burning. And in Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell saw the advantage to the state of controlling everything in print, of rewriting the past, and of manipulating the language itself, far more clearly than anyone else has done. Ray Bradbury eliminates print and writing totally in the society of his novel Fahrenheit 451.

I have always regarded censorship as a very dangerous thing. And yet, I have also always felt a profound unease with the simplistic idea of the free speech argument: why should one allow free speech to those who would use that very ability as part of their struggle to destroy that very free speech for everyone? That’s a circle I’ve never managed to square for myself; I think we must acknowledge that we live in a very imperfect society and that ownership and control of the means of publishing and disseminating ideas is not neutral in itself.

My A-Z of Reading: R is for Realism

December 9, 2016

The ability to superficially capture an exact and accurate image – a photograph, a film, a recording of any kind – seems to have created the idea that ‘realism’ is a thing, a ‘reality’ as it were, and one that is important, if not paramount, in many aspects of our culture. And yet, the ability to film or to photograph has not eliminated other kinds of representational art: they may have changed and developed in response to the new challenges, but they are still very much there.

And there is the unconscious expectation on the part of most people that literature shall pay tribute to the realist fallacy. (Here I must deliberately exclude science fiction and fantasy, which are, of course, minority interests anyway, in the greater scheme of things.) And we never really go on to ask ourselves what we want or expect from ‘realism’…

True to life? In how much detail? Do people clean their teeth, cut their toenails, wipe the kitchen worktops in novels? We ordinary mortals do such things most days… James Joyce had Leopold Bloom sitting on the toilet, reading and enjoying doing what one does there, in Ulysses, and shocked many people… realistic, though.

What I’m driving at is that ‘realism’ is in many ways a myth. I used to have fascinating discussions about this with students. Writers are creators and manipulators: they choose situations, characters, events to write about, they choose storylines, they leave out and include stuff as they see fit, because the novel or story is theirs, created by them… and we must take it or leave it. Think of the times you have reached the end of a story and thought, “But they can’t leave it like that!” or “That’s the wrong ending!” or just “No!” Why not? Characters may act in physiologically or psychologically plausible and true-to-life (whatever that means) ways, but so much is not done, not said, not included.

When we move back in time – let’s say, for the purposes of illustration the time of Shakespeare – things become both clearer and less clear. Students were prone to exclaiming that such or such train of events ‘wasn’t realistic!’ in any number of his plays. And they were right. Once it was pointed out to them that ‘realistic’ didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, that audiences didn’t have the same expectations as us, things made more sense to the students: what Shakespeare was interested in showing his audience was certain characters in certain situations, how they behaved, and the consequences of their actions. And to do that, the situations didn’t need to be narrowly ‘realistic’. Thus, Othello is about sexual jealousy and its corrosive effects, which we know in our minds can lead to violence. That the time-scheme of the play seems to suggest Othello becoming insanely jealous within a day or two of his marriage, and suspecting Desdemona of committing adultery a thousand times in that time-frame, is neither here not here; if we waste our time thinking about such details we miss the point of the play, and the dramatist’s greatness…

Story – novel or play, film or TV show – is largely about manipulation of the reader or audience, for certain effects, and we are aware of and complicit in that manipulation to a greater or lesser extent, or completely unaware of it, because we crave the escape, the emotional stimulation, the excitement or whatever the writer or director is offering us. And thinking about what’s actually going on – as I’ve tried to outline above – can enhance our experience and enjoyment.

How good is Hamlet?

June 1, 2016

Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s best-known play, most famous play, even. The hero’s role is a target for young actors to play while they are still young enough to convince an audience. The hero is possibly a likeable hero, more so than Othello, Lear, Macbeth or Mark Antony. But I have found myself wondering a number of times whether the play is really Shakespeare’s best

A youthful hero, plus some love interest – depending on how well the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is hinted at and played. Surely Othello, and Anthony and Cleopatra are in with a chance here?

Shakespeare has a lot of themes up in the air in the play: a man’s duty (or not) to revenge his father’s murder. And yet, perhaps not so relevant today? A corrupt country, full of spies and surveillance. A hero who delays action, who is indecisive – perhaps an idea that many would be able to identify with. A hero with a very complex relationship with his mother, though this is also perhaps less in the foreground since Freud went out of fashion. A play about mental states, instability and madness; a play about acting, pretending and dissembling… Certainly there is a great deal here.

And yet, I find that others of Shakespeare’s major tragedies have even more to say, move me even more deeply. Othello explores sexual jealousy and its consequences; although many of us have perhaps experienced this feeling, we have not responded in like manner. King Lear looks at the duties of children towards their parents and shows us ingratitude. Macbeth explores ambition: if we are ambitious, presumably we have not gone as far as he did, to achieve our goals? Love or infatuation in older age and the messes it can get one into: Antony and Cleopatra.

But those are only ideas, you may object: what about the characters, and their relationships, presented to us on stage? Hamlet and his mother, Hamlet and Ophelia, for me pale before the power of the entanglement of Othello and Iago, his tortured relationship with Desdemona, and the touching closeness between Emilia and Desdemona. I think there’s a closer exploration of relationships between father and children with King Lear and his daughters, and it’s counterpointed by the pairing of Edmund and Edgar. And I find the interplay between Antony and Cleopatra, between Antony and Octavius, between Cleopatra and her women all quite riveting in different ways.

Is it Hamlet’s youth that grips us, the young man with an impossible dilemma, the burden placed on his shoulders that he cannot cope with? Is it just that the play is too familiar that I feel it’s over-rated, that I feel a little jaundiced about it, in comparison with the other plays I’ve mentioned? Is it because I’m older than Hamlet and can no longer relate to his cause?

Feelings at the end of the plays: usually I feel a sense of loss at the end of Hamlet. I feel overwhelmed at the end of Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. Only Macbeth leaves me uninterested.

I’d be very interested in others’ thoughts on this one. It nags at me, won’t go away and I’m unclear what to think. At the moment my verdict is good, but by no means the best.

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.

51uUn84EtSL._AC_US160_

Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

On a certain 400th anniversary

April 10, 2016

serveimageAs I shall be away on the actual day – 23 April – of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ll write something a little early. This piece will be more about my encounters with him, rather than anything academic.

I’ve lived longer than Shakespeare did: I still have the set of commemorative stamps issued to mark his 400th birthday in 1964, at a time when I collected stamps but knew nothing about our greatest writer. Before I first read any of his plays – as preparation for O level English Literature – I remember I had the feeling that he would be dull, difficult and boring.

I have an inspirational teacher to thank for my experience being so different. We had to study The Merchant of Venice, and I was astonished at the level of detail, the hidden meanings, and the messages beneath the surface, as well as the vulgarity. But most of all, even at that relatively early age, I think I was seduced by his masterly use of language, the magic of his verse, and his wit. Over time, I came to like the tragedies best; it took me a long while to engage with the histories, and I’m still wrestling with the comedies…

I was introduced to live performance while at school, too. The wonderful new – at that time – Nottingham Playhouse, with its ground-breaking revolving stage, had only just opened. I remember seeing a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play I’ve little time for – there, and also Ian McKellen‘s first Hamlet.

Obviously I went on to study more Shakespeare at A level – King Lear and Othello – and then at university, where I had the thrill of attending lectures by the great Kenneth Muir, who could stroll around the lecture theatre and reel off any quotation from any play that his train of thought required – just like that… And then I went on to teach Shakespeare to my students for many years.

Now, in retirement, I’m a student again, not a teacher, as each year I head off for a week deep in the Oxfordshire countryside to spend a week looking at three plays – usually two by Shakespeare and one by a contemporary – and then heading off to Stratford to see them at the RSC. There’s good company, and one of the course leaders is the Shakespearean actor Jane Lapotaire, who explores the plays from performance perspectives and is always very illuminating; one thing I did relatively little of as a teacher was drama.

So I have set myself a target in my retirement: finally to get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. My acquaintance is somewhat limited so far: teaching syllabuses meant that I’ve only taught about a dozen of the plays, and only seen a few more than that, although some I have seen many times, in some very memorable performances. This year I hope to see Cymbeline for the first time…

Though it can be hard sometimes to separate the brilliance from the bardolatry, my love of the richness of our wonderful language and its myriad possibilities does firmly convince me that in Shakespeare’s works is something very special indeed in our literary history and culture.

John F Danby: Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature

March 7, 2016

31M42iJdaRL._AA160_I’ve been having a tidy-up and clear-out, and rediscovered this, which is one of those books that you come across once in a while, that do a superb job in explaining key concepts and background material in cultural and literary works. Danby’s work, although more than half a century old, seems to me to sit alongside other such classics as Huizinga‘s The Waning of the Middle Ages, and Tillyard‘s The Elizabethan World Picture: essential reading for students who need to have a clear understanding of the ideas and thinking of another age.

I’ve found, over years of reading and study, that many books, particularly history and literary criticism, are rewritten by each generation (academics do have to make a living, after all), with new interpretations and updated expression and examples replacing those of a former age, but I haven’t yet come across what could replace any of the books mentioned above.

Danby’s book is certainly an excellent key to making sense of the word ‘nature‘ in King Lear, two diametrically opposed meanings of which are illustrated and explored both through the action and in certain key characters in that play; that is where I first came across the book more than forty years ago. The explanations and the illustrations are precise and clear, and Danby widens his scope by bringing in aspects of, and characters from, Richard III, King John, Henry IV (both parts) Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello and Macbeth, to flesh out his thesis and illustrate developments in Shakespeare’s overall thinking. Through his close focus on Nature, we can also perceive more clearly how what Shakespeare has to say in his plays remains relevant to us today, even though we may nowadays use different words to articulate our feelings and fears.

Danby has also sent me back to the play King Lear itself, which I haven’t read for many a year; though I studied it at A level a long time ago, and have always liked it, I only ever had one opportunity to teach it as a text – it’s now another of those that examiners seem to regard as ‘too difficult’ for today’s students…

 

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