Posts Tagged ‘Shakespearean tragedy’

Lockdown Shakespeare: King Lear

May 2, 2020

My first foray was to the BBC screening last weekend of Richard Eyre’s 2018 adaptation of King Lear. Since it came in at a running time of just under two hours, I wondered what we might lose. But the adaptation was smooth, and the quick pace didn’t detract much from the essence of the play, indeed the telescoping of all the scenes of madness and wandering about on the heath was a good move, given that a good deal of the language and the humour is pretty impenetrable nowadays without textual glosses. Obviously I noted some cuts, but again, didn’t dwell very much on them, although some good lines were lost.

My main gripe – let’s get it out of the way first – was that, although it’s a dark play, the setting and lighting was too dark too much of the time. I wondered about how the modern military setting, so fashionable at the moment in Shakespeare productions with any sort of war connection, would work, but it was very effective, particularly when it came to the final scenes, with twentieth-century Dover under modern military onslaught…

Anthony Hopkins played a strong Lear, with the focus on dotage in a man who couldn’t see what he was doing or what was happening to him, and I thought Emma Thompson was powerful and deliberately understated Goneril. Gloucester’s role seemed to be more foregrounded by the adaptation of the text, and for me this helped to bring out the key theme of loyalty. But I felt that both Edmund and Edgar faded rather into the background.

That old age should give place to the young came across clearly in the paralleled plot and subplot; Lear’s irrationality made it clear initially that one could not take sides between him and his daughters, who came across as sweet reason. It is a play about age and ageing, and the gradual loss of our strength and faculties (cue Jacques’ Seven Ages of Man speech), and as it progresses we are increasingly uncomfortable as we are made to wrestle with reason shading into self-interest and amorality, while the values of love and loyalty come to the fore, yet are cruelly insufficient to avert tragedy.

It’s quite a long time since I read or studied the play, and I think I only ever taught it once, quite early on in my career, as it seemed to be deemed ‘too difficult’ (along with a goodly number of other classic works of english Literature) by the minions in our country’s examination boards… But it’s still the most powerful of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies for me; the two scenes, of the blinded Gloucester’s mock suicide aided by his loyal son, and the deaths of Cordelia and Lear can still bring tears to my eyes. This was a good performance to begin my season with.

Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

February 18, 2018

411nnDMdwyL._AC_US218_This is another of Shakespeare’s plays that I haven’t been back to since I retired. I’ve seen a couple of very good performances in the past, though I don’t remember a great deal about them, so it will be interesting to see what the RSC do with the play when I see it in May.

Romeo and Juliet is a play I always enjoyed teaching in school, and always found appropriate at GCSE level; it was a bit more difficult when – back in the dim and distant past – it was set for the SAT tests of loathed memory, because some of the humour was tricky to explain to 13 year-olds. But the subject-matter – young love – and the vulgarity, bawdiness or obscenity of the group of lads who are Romeo’s mates, call it what you like, went down well with classes a couple of years older. It was realistic in terms of how young people often talked and joked, and I firmly believe it’s not a teacher’s job to censor: whatever needed explaining was explained and I would laugh along with the class. There is a fine line, though, between clarifying, and dwelling unnecessarily on the obscene…

Several things struck me with this re-reading, particularly the development in Shakespeare’s work in the dozen or so years between the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and his later love tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m currently writing about. Compared with the latter play, Romeo and Juliet can feel rather primitive, with its several prologues prefiguring each act, what feels like excessive use of rhyme, a certain lack of subtlety in some of the characterisation, and all the over-the-top wailing and moaning by the Nurse…

These are two love tragedies worth seeing alongside one another, though: young lovers and mature lovers; both pairs die, tragically, because they feel they have nothing left to live for; the teenagers are totally wrapped up in themselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world, but the older lovers are plagued by the interference of the outside world whichever way they turn. Young lovers swear sincere and undying love to each other, the mature ones play games with each other, go astray, but come back to each other in the end. Comparisons are endless, and perhaps enlighten our own experiences.

I find both plays utterly convincing in their totally different ways, and, of course, I shall call this another illustration of the dramatist’s genius. The passion, the haste, the exclusion of the outside world in the love of Romeo and Juliet perhaps reflects some of Shakespeare’s own life experience, which we know almost nothing about… and for me the crudity of the lads’ sexual banter – Mercutio and Benvolio particularly – creates the atmosphere that allows the youthful but definitely sexual passion of Romeo and Juliet to convince an audience (before we remember the boy actor who would have played Juliet, perhaps). My classes all seemed to enjoy studying the play and working out who was to blame for the tragedy – parents, usually, so no surprise there – and I found myself gradually growing to like Baz Luhrmann‘s film (which I initially loathed) for its fidelity to the original dramatist’s intentions. I’m looking forward to seeing the play again.

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

December 17, 2015

4116zMytiZL._AA160_I have realised it’s taken me a very long time to begin enjoying Shakespeare’s comedies as much as his tragedies, and I have been thinking about why this may be. Perhaps the tragedies are easier to access: a (pretty) clear plot, and message, and an expected audience response. Certainly, I understood Othello and King Lear when I studied them for A Level. At university, I preferred the tragedies, saw some sense in the histories, and managed, largely, to overlook the comedies.

The Taming of the Shrew is wonderful, for its plot, its framing, its message and its language – full of wit, pun and obscenity. I think the quick-fire, rapier wit exchanges are also probably somewhat more difficult for twenty-first century audiences to grasp quickly, meaning the moment has often passed before we know what to laugh at. Although I’m getting better at this. The interaction/ interplay between Kate and Petruchio is masterly, often hilarious. And again, what audiences find humorous or witty does change over time, whereas the subject-matter of tragedy remains pretty constant.

So, the range of Shakespeare I enjoy has broadened: I’ve grown to like Love’s Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor; I may even go back to some of the more obscure ones like The Comedy of Errors, or All’s Well, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although I did once, many years ago, see a wonderful production of it.

The challenge in Shrew comes with the ending: what has Kate said, and done? Is it a feminist declaration, as some would like to think, or is it shades of St Paul, putting all women in their place, silent and subordinate? I always read the last couple of scenes particularly carefully for this reason, and I look forward to seeing a production again one day, to see how it comes across. The best account I’ve come across is in the Arden two edition introduction, by Brian Morris, who sets the ending very carefully in its context, which cannot be feminist, yet also elucidates the freedom and happiness open to a Kate who understands her position in her world and what it offers her…

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