Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC

May 15, 2017

I’ve also been lucky enough to have taught this play to sixth formers a good number of times; again, a play I’d never seen on stage till now, although I admire the Trevor Nunn film version which we used to use in the classroom. But I’m utterly convinced now that Antony and Cleopatra is my favourite Shakespeare play, and also that this performance is probably the best Shakespeare performance I’ve ever seen on stage. I was utterly gripped throughout apart from a brief moment during the sea battle scene: I was able once to remind myself that I was ‘only’ watching a performance on a stage, but from my seat in the centre, towards the front of the stalls, I was there, and it was riveting.

Given that it’s quite a bitty play in a lot of ways, flitting from Rome to Egypt and back again so many times in a large number of very short scenes at certain points, what made it work here? Simplicity of the set and a clear visual definition of Rome and Egypt certainly helped, as did the pace of the performance – not rushed, but not disjointed either, which helped convince me of the inevitability of Antony‘s disintegration, as Rome slips through his fingers. The sense of tragedy develops surely and certainly from the coincidence, as we see Antony realising as he loses Rome, that Cleopatra is more important to him, the most important thing in his world: I was totally convinced of their love for each other, although this is perhaps harder to detect in Cleopatra, who is empress of Egypt and used to having everything just as she wants it, her every whim satisfied on the instant. For me it worked. Cleopatra is inevitably selfish, never having had reason to be anything else, but I felt she came to realise her love for the man who has lost all, given all for his love of her.

Cleopatra was superbly cast and played, exuding luxury and sensuality and Egypt, Antony and Octavius were very convincing and Enobarbus, whom it’s impossible not to love, was outstanding. Even his death, which must be one of the hardest to carry off effectively onstage nowadays (he dies of a broken heart) convinced. And I came to understand much more about Cleopatra’s women too, their love, loyalty and devotion to their queen shown through the adoration in their eyes fixed on her and ready to respond to her slightest look, word, gesture or whim.

For me, the sense of tragic waste with the death of Antony, and then of his lover, was full and complete. It was marvellous to hear the gorgeous language that Shakespeare poured into this play delivered so effectively and powerfully; the stagecraft was astonishing and it was, for me, an amazing production.

Julius Caesar at the RSC

May 15, 2017

I’ve just got back from my annual Shakespeare week, having seen productions of both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

They’re doing a Roman season at the RSC, so there’s a certain coherence to the staging and set design, which I really liked, and I think one of the things that struck me most about this production was its coherence: all the characters worked well together and the set enhanced the overall effect. And I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the middle of the third row, so the view was stunning.

Brutus and Cassius made a really good pairing, and I got a strong, clear picture of the closeness of their friendship, and their centrality to the play which I did not have from previous readings of the play and filmed performances. We see the strength of the bond between them, the stresses and tensions it endures, and its survival to the bitter end: the scene of their quarrel in the Roman camp was very moving, particularly when it came to the news of Portia‘s death; despite his stoicism, Brutus’ humanity shone through as well. And the moment of their final farewells to each other on the morning of the battle, which I’ve always found effective even in a reading, was very touching.

The nature of the stage set made the moments after the murder of Caesar astonishingly effective: you really had the impression that not only had the conspirators not thought things through beyond the actual killing, but also that they somehow had not fully realised that they were going to kill someone, and what that meant…

There were strong performances from other characters, too: Caesar’s physical weaknesses and frailties were well portrayed; Antony was clearly a chancer and a gambler, and the callow youth that Octavius was seemed very real, like an arrogant sixth-former who has just been chosen as deputy head-boy, polite and well-behaved but with a power-hunger just below the surface. It’s not a play with strong female roles; Portia worked for me, but Calpurnia didn’t: I just couldn’t see her as Caesar’s wife.

I’m really glad to have finally seen a performance after having taught it so many times in the past; the BBC Shakespeare film version never really cut the mustard for me, so this really was a special treat.

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale

February 1, 2017

51-njcrlnl-_ac_us218_I only once had the chance to teach The Winter’s Tale, sadly; it was a bit of a challenge, though, with the sixteen-year time-lapse between Acts 3 and 4, and that very strange interlude which is Act 4 itself. But I’d have liked another opportunity.

So my main approach to it has always been as a comparison to and contrast with Othello as a play about sexual jealousy, and to a lesser extent, a comparison with The Tempest as a play about forgiveness and reconciliation, as part of that curious grouping often labelled ‘Shakespeare’s Last Plays’ and categorised as a ‘romance’, whatever that may mean. In terms of genre, it is hard to classify: beginning tragically, it ends quite happily, yet doesn’t seem to merit being called either a comedy or a tragicomedy…

The sexual jealousy in Othello is fomented by an outsider – Iago – while that in The Winter’s Tale comes from within the unsteady mind of Leontes himself; both are triggered by a tiny incident, very few words, Iago’s semi-aside ‘I like not that’ and Leontes’ observation ‘Too hot, too hot’. Both fits of jealousy can initially appear incredible before we think about the nature of that emotion. Othello is never left alone long enough to come to his senses and ask the right questions; Leontes goes as far as to ask the oracle at Delphi about Hermione‘s adultery, and then rejects its judgement when it flies in the face of his own obsession.

There are many close parallels in the language of the two plays: ‘call her (Hermione) back’ and call him (Cassio) back’ were immediately striking, and then there was the idea of the hero’s mind being ‘abused by some putter-on’; in both plays, as jealousy reaches its peak, the language becomes very tortured and convoluted, but is especially so in The Winter’s Tale, and it’s not just Leontes’ language, either.

Where the plays differ, obviously, is in their resolutions. Othello is reduced to the depths, destroys the thing he loves most, and sentences himself to eternal torment for his crime; the perpetrator goes unpunished. Leontes suffers for sixteen years, having lost his heir and his wife, he thinks, but the curious fourth act allows romance to develop between his and Polixenes‘ heirs, as well as laying the groundwork for the reconciliation between the alientated friends. This is then effected in the final act, along with the miraculous coming to life of the statue of Hermione.

This all does stretch our credulity immensely. We have to remind ourselves, firstly, that Shakespeare never worked in our so-called ‘realist’ mode, and then to accept that he is exploring the possibility for, and the nature of, both forgiveness and reconciliation: he has moved on from tragedy, having exhausted its possibilities earlier on in his career as a dramatist. And though he is very different here, I have come to find the conclusions of these final plays – The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline and Pericles – as powerful and moving as those of the greatest tragedies, because they offer hope, and faith in ultimate human goodness.

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.)

Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

January 26, 2017

51dtgromsl-_ac_us174_It’s Shakespeare time again, as in preparing for my week of Shakespeare study and visits to the RSC in the spring; this year it’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, neither of which I’ve yet seen in performance. I’m really looking forward to A&C in particular as it’s possibly my favourite play…

Julius Caesar often seems rather dull and worthy; that’s certainly the reaction of most people when I mention it. It does lack the intrigue of the great tragedies; true, there’s the conspiracy to murder Caesar but it’s the matter of a night’s work and never really threatened with betrayal or failure. A dramatist is constrained a little when dealing with ‘proper’ history, although Shakespeare does play fast and loose with plenty of details. Neither are there any characters for us to really warm to – even Brutus, though noble, is too naive, and the play is basically an all-male play, interrupted only briefly by brief appearances from Portia and Calphurnia.

Whose play – whose tragedy – is it really? Though it’s named after Julius Caesar, he’s dead before the play is half done, and Brutus is the one whose story we’re really meant to be following and interested in. Disinterested, honourable, unsuspicious, the naive idealist manipulated by Cassius, flawed in his short-sightedness and over-confidence, his lofty motives are submerged in the dirty dealings of real politics. The contrast with Cassius is too obvious: thinker-philosopher against envious manipulator.

Caesar does not come across as a bad ruler; in historical terms in the chaos of the disintegrating republic, he was probably as good as it gets, but hadn’t been chosen in accordance with the rules, and was clearly arrogant and full of himself: look at the way in which he refers to himself in the third person. So here is Shakespeare coming back to one of his oft-visited questions: is it right to depose a ruler, whatever his flaws: does it actually get you anywhere? Marlowe had touched on the idea first in the tragedy of Edward II, and Shakespeare tackled the same issue in Richard II: what do you do with a useless king who’s making a total hash of things? Divine right is all very well, but there’s the country to consider too, and then, when the king has been successfully deposed, along comes the next problem: what do you do with a spare king? You have to kill him. Claudius has gained the throne through murder, but there’s no suggestion that he’s ineffectual: the issues of Hamlet’s revenge and kingship are quite separate. And in Julius Caesar, clearly the death of the eponymous hero unleashes more chaos as the state slips through the hands of Brutus and Cassius into those of the cynical Antony and the cold, calculating Octavius, heading for another thirteen years of war…

Which brings us on to the sequel, which I’ll be reading next.

The flaws of Julius Caesar – and I don’t think it’s that bad a play – are those of any chronicle or history play: the action is linear, and circumscribed by fact (Shakespeare is no Donald Trump) which means that the major interest has to come from characters and their interaction, rather than plot, and this play doesn’t really have them. The struggle between the ambitious Octavian and the ageing Mark Antony, and the intrigues of the wily Cleopatra are something else, though, and there are even some interesting minor characters – who could not warm to Enobarbus, for instance?

To be continued…

My A-Z of Reading: Z is for Zeitgeist

December 28, 2016

Warning: this post is political, and I make no apology for that.

The spirit of our times is selfishness. Thatcher’s Britain – me, me, me; there’s no such thing as society. For two generations now, this mantra has been dinned into everyone; the neoliberal tentacles have spread in every direction so that even to suggest that some things are better done by the state on behalf of everyone in society is to seem to exhibit signs of lunacy, and one is treated as if one is somehow wrong in the head. Writers such as Noam Chomsky or John Pilger, to name but a couple, who challenge such orthodoxy, are regarded as being on the extremes of politics.

The US is the individualist society par excellence, with power and influence far beyond its shores. The individual self-fulfilment preached by the hippy movement of the sixties and seventies was soon co-opted by consumerism, the pendulum swung far in the opposite direction and the balance between individual and collective was lost, to everyone’s cost. Britain suffers perhaps more than any other nation because we have the misfortune to share a similar language with the US, which means that every crackpot idea from that land can reach us virtually instantly, unmediated. Not that we aren’t short of home-grown crackpots, mind…

Where is the literature in all this, you may wonder, as that is supposedly the driving force of my blog? Two novels spring to mind. The first I must go back to soon, as it’s more than thirty years since I last read it: Robert Tressell’s masterpiece from the early twentieth century, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which reduced me to tears when I read it; it makes an irrefutable case for socialism being a fairer way to run society in the interests of the vast majority of people. And then there’s a utopian, science-fiction classic from the 1970s, Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent The Dispossessed, which shows us how an anarchist society might be run, and what it might feel like to be part of one. Life isn’t easy on Anarres, but people feel that what they have is worth working for, struggling for. In different ways, both these writers take us outside the mainstream bubble and show us how things might be very different.

In my younger days, as a student, I mingled with all sorts of political groups on the left, and the communist party analysis then, straight from Marx, was that the class struggle was the paramount struggle, and if that was won, the other issues in society, which did exist, such as racism, sexism, ageism, environmental issues and the like, could then be resolved. Other interest groups, however, chose to prioritise their struggles in their particular areas, dividing the opposition exactly as the hegemony wanted.

In my older years I’m coming to think that Marx was right, and that over the years energies have been diverted from the main problem: look at what has happened in the recent US election, where one might say that the struggles by people of colour, women, environmentalists and others, kept the Democratic Party fragmented and led to its losing, while somehow Trump managed to present himself as the champion of an impoverished and disenfranchised class… and won… There are two classes, however you look at things, and what is vague is where the dividing line between them is drawn, but there are the wealthy few who take money from the many ordinary people, the few who enjoy a far greater share of wealth and property than they have right to or need of, right across the world, and are prepared to use violence of all kinds to keep things as they are.

I suppose that brings me to the second spirit of the times: violence. The world is a much more violent place now than when I was a student: you could feel safe travelling pretty much anywhere. I had friends who hitch-hiked to India, via Afghanistan… now even in the relative safety of Europe there is the risk of a terrorist outrage at any moment. How did we get here? Two things stick out, for me, based on what I’ve seen in my life so far. The first is the failure of the West to contribute to a resolution of the Palestine problem; in fact our attitudes and policies have made the situation much worse, and helped poison the feelings of much of the Middle East towards us. And secondly, we can’t stop interfering in the affairs of other countries. Capitalism needs unfettered access to their raw materials, and again this manufactures conflict. Nor can any country be allowed to offer a working alternative model to capitalism: far too dangerous a precedent for our system. See Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits for further exploration of this idea, or just read up on modern history. Writers have always been political: Shakespeare explored contemporary political issues, as did Jane Austen.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, this blog will return to dealing (mainly) with literature, teaching and travel…

My A-Z of Reading: Y is for Yesterday

December 27, 2016

There has long existed the myth of the Golden Age, the idea that everything was better in the past; it’s an infection that spreads through the brain as one ages, I am finding, and it’s one from which the world of literature is not exempt. Is Shakespeare the best dramatist, or the best writer, even, who ever lived? Has no-one since then approached him in brilliance, grandeur, stature? Is it really all downhill since then? Is Jane Austen the greatest English novelist? – and this is a question I’m sure we’ll be asked with considerable frequency next year, the 200th anniversary of her early death…

In the end such questions are surely pointless, as one is never comparing like with like; each age develops new themes and ideas and ways of exploring and illuminating them. Ibsen isn’t Shakespeare, he’s radically different; he challenges, too, and leaves us without easy answers: look at the ending of Ghosts, with the mother frozen in time forever. Should she offer her doomed son an easy death? And they wrote in different languages, at different epochs…

Each age produces an enormous amount of literature, of varying quality. Much of it vanishes fairly rapidly, without much trace: who now reads the novels of Dennis Wheatley, Hammond Innes, Arthur Hailey and their ilk, all best-sellers in my early days? How many people read D H Lawrence, touted as one of the twentieth century greats when I had to study him at university? Theodore Sturgeon, once a pretty well-known science-fiction author, once said, “95% of science-fiction is crap. But then 95% of everything is crap.” And he’s right, if you think about it. I’ve been in second-hand bookshops stacked with fading hardback novels from years ago, and thought, “No-one will ever buy any of this stuff. The shop belongs in a skip.” Most of the authors I’d never heard of, and I’m reasonably clued up on literature.

Which brings up another question: what will survive of what is being published and read today? I often initiated discussions about this with my sixth-form classes. What are the criteria which lead to writers such as Shakespeare or Austen surviving the test of time, and others not? Clearly, inclusion in university and school programmes of study help, but what leads critics to think that writer X deserves study by seventeen year-olds, whereas writer Y doesn’t? You can come up with such ideas as universal or timeless themes, but it’s not only Shakespeare who has written about sexual jealousy or filial ingratitude, for instance.

I’m not convinced that any of my favourite twentieth century writers will survive the test of time, even though I’d like to think so. How long will Umberto Eco or Gabriel Garcia Marquez enchant us? How long will readers be interested in Guenter Grass’ explorations of German war-guilt? My touchstone for current students has been Harry Potter: will the books still be popular and read in twenty, fifty, a hundred years’ time? I’m not convinced, anathema as it might seem to say such a thing.

What will survive? What ensures the survival of a particular writer or text? Answers below, please…

My A-Z of Reading: V is for Vade Mecum

December 20, 2016

What books could you not bear to be without? Or, let’s rephrase that: what book would you take along with you to your desert island, along with the Bible and Shakespeare? If you were going into a home which only had room for one small bookcase, what would you absolutely have to have on it?

Any real reader will know that those are impossible questions. Where do I start? I’ve written about culling my library and how painful it is; I’m still trying to thin it out a bit so there’s room to move. And the loft is creaking under the weight of the boxes waiting to be sorted out.

Musts: Shakespeare. The lightweight single volume on bible paper will do to save space, as will my two-volume complete Jane Austen, also on bible paper. I need my complete John Donne poems, too. Dictionaries I’ll pass on, if I can have a laptop instead. I want one of my reference books to Bach’s cantatas, though, and my trusty Times Comprehensive Atlas. And I’ll have my complete Sherlock Holmes, the two-volume one to save space.

And I could stop there, I suppose, using the excuse that anything pre-1923 is available free online, again as long as I can have the laptop. That just leaves the rest of the twentieth century, literature, history and travel.

You can see that it’s a ridiculous exercise; the laptop is clearly cheating; perhaps you should try it sometime? My house would feel naked, I’d feel naked, without my library surrounding me. One day, I’ll try the exercise, allowing myself 100 books… that feels like a more sensible number. And I’ll post the list.

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.

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