Posts Tagged ‘The Tempest’

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

April 14, 2019

41hbjX8V5KL._AC_UL436_ I’ve always found Shakespeare’s comedies rather difficult. I know they’re not necessarily meant to be ha-ha funny – a comedy is a play with a happy ending rather than a humorous play, as we understand the word comedy nowadays – but I’ve usually found the subject-matter either challenging to get to grips with, or just boring. So, for example, I’ve never liked A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are rather too problematic to be labelled comedies. For me, the craziness of Twelfth Night is the best it gets. And now, I’m wrestling with The Taming of the Shrew, which is one of the two plays I’ll be seeing at my Shakespeare study week this year, when we go to the RSC at Stratford (the other is As You Like It).

I’ve only once seen a performance of the play before, and that was a school one, at the school where I used to work, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the RSC interprets it, although the reviews lead me to believe it will be one of their challenging performances, with gender role-swapping and so forth, which I’ve found bearable and sometimes mildly illuminating in previous years, although overall I tend to feel such changes are gratuitous.

The play itself is an oddity. It’s framed – or part-framed by an ‘induction’, with a drunken peasant tricked into believing he is in fact an aristocrat, to be entertained with the play itself – but either Shakespeare forgot about this element, as it disappears after the second act, or, more likely, via garbled transmission of the text, the rest of that framework has been lost. And then we have the marriages game: several suitors chasing the pleasant younger daughter who cannot be married until someone has taken the ‘shrewish’ elder daughter off her father’s back. How to marry off the right characters with each other is a staple of comedy of that time; the patriarchal structures of Shakespeare’s time, and the designation of a woman as a ‘shrew’ are rather more difficult for a twenty-first century audience to countenance. And everything comes down to the final, apparent ‘submission’ speech which Kate makes in the last scene: how are we to take this? At the moment I have the impression she has finally met a man who is as cracked or as awkward as she is: there is an equality to the pairing of Petrucchio and Kate which redeems the play somewhat. And setting their courtship against the scheming that those involved in the chasing of Bianca are involved in also makes them seem well-matched to each other.

Obviously the ending of the play can be seen as open, and this is what Shakespeare is wont to do very often: to leave his audience feeling somewhat uncomfortable, with the idea that there is no easy answer, no simple conclusion or interpretation of what he has presented onstage. Male and female roles and positions in society were very different then, at least from those available in much of the West nowadays. And so many of us today ease our consciences with the notion that Kate knows exactly what she is doing, that she is publicly appearing to submit to ease the minds of everyone watching, but that her love for and relations with Petrucchio will be rather more equal, more balanced, within the paradigms of the times.

What I like most about productions of plays is that I can dislike the interpretations offered by a director, and nevertheless come away with plenty of food for thought, and I’m hoping this is what I get next month…

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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.

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.

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.

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

Cymbeline at the RSC

May 28, 2016

This performance was the highlight of the week for me. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, perhaps a tragi-comedy, perhaps a romance, depending on how you like your classifications. It’s rarely performed and rarely appears on an exam syllabus; I’d neither taught it nor seen it; having read it and enjoyed it, I was really looking forward to seeing it. It’s noted for seriously tortuous syntax in much of the dialogue, and has the most complex final scene I’ve ever come across in a play…

The setting was a dystopian future one; the various settings in Italy were ‘enhanced’ by the delivery of dialogue translated into Italian (and some French for one of the characters); the Roman ambassadors spoke in Latin. Translations were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. Such gimmickry – and other touches, too – added nothing, and had the potential to confuse, as well as doing unnecessary violence to Shakespeare’s original. However, I was far too focused on the language and action to spend much time grinding my teeth over the director’s silliness…

The key actors’ performances were stunning. Imogen – or Innogen, as the director insisted she be called (if you want the minutiae of the textual history, you’ll have to look it up), her husband Posthumus, and his loyal friend Pisania (actually Pisanio in the text, but there were several parts taken from males and given to females) worked very well together, Iachimo was extremely convincing as the Italian seducer who failed to seduce, and the Welsh ‘mountaineers’ were superb. Cloten, the doltish son of the queen, was insufficiently doltish.

The action flowed better in the first half, where the story is clearer; it becomes extremely complicated in the second half, especially in the battle scenes, and the masque was pretty naff; masques had become a necessary addition to plays at that time, fashionable and suited to the new indoor theatres being built, and whatever you do with them nowadays fails to convince, as they are something a modern audience has no way to relate to. What you do with a final scene where so many loose ends need to be tied up is a real challenge, but if the actors are strong enough to carry the plot line along securely through all the revelations, it works, and it did here.

The play explores the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, as do the other final plays like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest; as all the secrets are revealed in the final scene and all sorts of people are reunited with each other, I experienced these themes working very powerfully and movingly as everything moved towards the conclusion; yes, Shakespeare stage-manages all this, but it really does demonstrate his skill as a dramatist, that he can nearly move you to tears. And, having wondered why the director swapped the genders of Cymbeline and his consort over, I could see that a mother reunited with long-lost children was perhaps even more moving that Shakespeare himself might have imagined. This really was a stunning performance; I watched from the second row and it was wonderful to be able to see the actors’ expressions and gestures so clearly.

Shakespeare: Pericles

February 6, 2016

41CK9T+8zsL._AA160_This was the only Shakespeare play I’d never read before: I’ve no idea why. Someone urged me to read it, a few years back, and I’ve finally got around to it.

Firstly, it’s not all Shakespeare’s own work: it shows, both in the language and the construction, and also in the fact that there’s no really reliable text, only a single quarto apparently scribbled down during performance and immediately after by two different people. So there are plenty of parts that are unclear, or don’t make much or any sense at all.

Then, it feels like a throwback to a more primitive dramatic form: the action is shunted along by a chorus between the acts, aided by a dumb show sometimes, which prefigures the action. There are other times when Shakespeare uses devices like these – the sonnet at the start of Romeo and Juliet gives away the entire plot, for instance, and sixteen years time is magicked away between two acts of The Winter’s Tale – but not in this consistent fashion. Through the entire play, I had the impression of Shakespeare on an off day, capable of better than this.

The plot itself is very loose, and repetitive, full of sea journeys, shipwrecks and visits to various ancient Greek statelets. Aspects of it remind one of The Tempest and also The Winter’s Tale, and the play is part of that period of Shakespeare’s work labelled the late romances.

I suspect I’ve given the impression of a play that’s not really worth bothering with. It seems not to be performed very often, and there’s only one film version available, made as part of the BBC Shakespeare series because it had to be there… and yet, it is much more than this. As the play moved into its second half, it gripped me much more, and I got a sense of the scenes that Shakespeare must have authored: the astonishing brothel scenes, where the virginal Marina is supposed to be inducted into her new role, and the really powerful and moving scene where the aged and long-suffering Pericles is finally reunited with his long-lost daughter Marina. Here there are definite echoes of the Lear and Cordelia reunion scenes, though obviously Marina survives her ordeals. And Pericles is finally reunited with his wife, who he thought had died in childbirth…

I’m very glad I finally got  around to reading it, and clearly need to revisit it soon, to pick up on what I missed first time through.

Shakespeare: Cymbeline

January 29, 2016

51620XFKCTL._AA160_It’s not a play I know that well, never having studied it, and I’ve only read it a few times. It’s supposed to be set in ancient Britain, at the time of the emperor Augustus (which is a bit odd, since the Roman History I studied had no offical contact between Britain and Rome between Julius Caesar’s adventures in 55 and 54BC and Claudius’ conquest nearly a century later, but let’s not get too niggly..) but one thing that I have never really got is a sense of that time period; dialogue, action and attitudes basically feel like those of the sixteenth century, and the scenes in Rome and with Romans are very cursory.

It’s another of those plays where a villain convinces a man that his partner (wife or intended wife) has been unfaithful to him, causing grief and mayhem. Instead of the machinations of Don John which I wrote about in my last piece, about Much Ado, this time it’s the alleged friend of a friend, Iachimo, who manages to convince the absent Posthumus that he has slept with Imogen, the former’s wife. Clearly captivated by her beauty, he has tried it on a couple of times but got nowhere; repulsed he sneaks into her room at night and notes so many details of the chamber and the woman that he is able to convince Posthumus he’s done the dirty deed, even though he hasn’t…

There are elements of the scheming nature of Iago in Iachimo; Cymbeline‘s wife is also a schemer, and it’s via a supposed poison that she’s had concocted for a nefarious purpose that Imogen ends up apparently dead, and buried, though she comes back to life later on (now where has Shakespeare used that idea before?) This is a Roman element, I suppose, as Romans – especially women – were notorious for their use of poison to get rid of people who got in their way. And the idea of the heroine restored to life and reunited with her true love, her husband who had been gulled and led to doubt her honesty, comes up again in the later and rather more spectacular play, TheWinter’s Tale.

Then there’s the long-lost loyal friend who has fallen out of the king’s favour and gone into hiding (having arranged to have two of the king’s sons stolen away, too), which leads into a series of episodes set among the more primitive ancient Britons, though why Milford Haven should be everyone’s preferred spot does escape me.

Certainly Shakespeare wasn’t above re-using elements of earlier plays that had been successful! And they work well, re-used. The language of the play is often very complex, the syntax somewhat tortured, compacted in the way that a good number of Prospero‘s speeches are in The Tempest. I am looking forward to seeing it in performance, as I expect that it will be more immediately comprehensible when performed. And, although the combinations of plots, attitudes and characters are at times a challenge for a twenty-first century reader, I did feel strangely moved by the ending.

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