Posts Tagged ‘The Winter’s Tale’

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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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: Othello

May 7, 2015

9780141012315The second up-coming treat is Othello. This is the play I’ve taught most, I think, and I’ve also seen several versions, as well as having studied it at A-Level myself (along with King Lear). I saw an RSC production a couple of decades ago at Stratford, saw the 1986 production with Ben Kingsley in the title role, and have watched the Willard White/ Ian McKellen version countless times with my students.

It’s an astonishingly complex play, which never ceased to make me think, and often to re-evaluate my stance as I taught it and focused in on different aspects of the text. It stretches our credulity in the overview – can Iago really be that evil? can Desdemona really be that innocent? can Othello really be that gullible? – but in the close and fine detail I have always found it stunningly convincing. I still find the short line ‘Ha! I like not that!’ of Iago’s which triggers everything, absolutely spine-chilling, because of its understatedness.

There are lots of things to watch closely: how is Iago portrayed? is his motivation or lack of it, convincing? how effective is his revelling in doing evil? I have always found McKellen’s perfomance the best, because of the pure evil that he exudes, the Austro-Hungarian corporal’s uniform and the hint at the Hitler moustache (which at one point is made chillingly more explicit) and the cold, blank facial expression. Somehow this coldness can seem more powerful than Othello’s passion and torment.

Desdemona is another complex character, as the actor has to portray victim and innocence as she fails to fathom what is happening to her and her husband, and yet she has a very strong womanly presence, self-assured and with a touch of the feminist about her in the early scenes. The relationship with Othello eventually leads one to examine the very idea of love itself and what it is, to measure it up against infatuation, hero-worship and even lust. And Shakespeare shows the horribly destructive power of sexual jealousy and its devastating effects: pair this play up with The Winter’s Tale and there’s nothing else left to say…

Finally, there’s the male environment of the play to watch, too, and how the male-bonding of the military setting necessarily and inevitably seems to sideline and distrust the women; even when they are wives and lovers, male loyalty seems to win.

 

I’m really looking forward to seeing this again!

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