Posts Tagged ‘tragedy’

Why I don’t like Macbeth

February 10, 2018

51-Skl7FXWL._AC_US218_I’m doing my homework, ready for this year’s week of Shakespeare, which will include Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet and also a Restoration Comedy by a woman writer I’d never heard of, Mary Pix. And so I’ve made myself re-read Macbeth. I say made myself, because although I’ve taught the play in school more times than I can remember, I’ve never liked the play, and still don’t. I thought it was time to reflect properly on why…

For starters, I can’t take the fantastical seriously. I know Shakespeare’s audience could and did, but witches, fairies and magic really turn me off (no, I don’t like the Dream, either!) But, a minor detail, perhaps. I can see the tragic flaw – ambition – in Macbeth, but for me the witches’ prophecies remove any autonomy of character and turn him into a plaything of fate in a way which doesn’t happen with other tragic heroes. He’s in the toils of evil forces right from the beginning of the play, before I’ve really seen anything about him that I can actually like or admire. So, when I reach the end of the play and Macduff enters bearing the tyrant’s head, there’s no feeling of pity or terror, no sense of catharsis.

And yet this time around, after not picking the play up since I retired, I found myself very struck by one thing in particular: the language. For me this is the redeeming feature of a play that I don’t like – there is so much stunningly powerful, effective, even beautiful poetic language and phrasing; the play positively drips with it, in a way that I don’t recall from other tragedies, even Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m studying in detail at the moment as I’m in the middle of writing a guide to it. The language really is the power of the play, from Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and many other characters, too. And that’s before I even consider the soliloquies…

I was reading my copy, which is the old Arden Second Series – for many, the best edition ever, though now very dated – edited by Kenneth Muir, whose lectures I had the good fortune and amazing experience of attending in my first year at university. His annotations are most interesting, and I was struck again by something that had once occurred to me: why doesn’t Banquo, who was with Macbeth when they first encountered the weird sisters, mention the prophecies to anyone after the murder of Duncan, and Macbeth’s accession? He’s clearly suspicious. Obviously Shakespeare was dealing with very sensitive subject-matter, as James I was descended from Banquo, but even so…

When I taught Macbeth, mainly for the completely unlamented SATs tests, sadly, I had to endure several grim performances of the play, none of which in any way countered my dislike of it. I’m hoping that this May the RSC will perhaps make me feel differently.

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Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

January 27, 2016

51NjXWbSjBL._AA160_When I wrote about The Taming of the Shrew last month, I mentioned that I’d come late to the enjoyment of Shakespeare’s comedies, and considered some of the reasons. I’m back here again, having revisited Much Ado About Nothing, which I realise has some similarities with the former, particularly in the central male/ female relationship.

The idea of a comedy being a story – a drama – that ends happily, rather than something that you spend a lot of time laughing at, is a difficult one for us to take on board, although if tragedy is a story with an unhappy ending, then the contrast is logical. And in a Shakespearean comedy there is usually a good deal to laugh at, even if it isn’t the primary focus. And then there is the tragi-comedy – a drama of tragedy averted – as it was so succinctly put by my English teacher at school. There are certainly tragi-comic elements in Much Ado.

I don’t find the sharpness and the displays of wit between Beatrice and Benedick anywhere near as funny or as enjoyable as those between Petruchio and Katherine, though I do like the idea of their being so ‘up themselves’ that they can be manipulated into admitting that they fancy each other, love each other, and will marry. I do find the plot which leads to the public shaming of the chaste Hero quite a shocking element in a play which will eventually turn out to have a happy ending, and Claudio’s behaviour seems quite unforgivable: thank heaven for suspension of disbelief, I suppose. And there is a reminder that the first Elizabethans prized different things from us, found different things humorous, and different behaviours acceptable.

And then there’s Dogberry and the watch: I’ve always warmed to this bumbling crew with their hearts in the right place, and the whole happy ending depends on them, of course. Somehow their blundering and their malapropisms mean the mounties get their men, as it were, and we realise how much of the success of this play depends on overheard conversations, and who overhears them and what they do with that eavesdropped knowledge…

Because it’s a comedy, the punishment of the evil Don John is deferred beyond the end of the play: there is no real assurance that he will get what he deserves, unlike what is promised Iago, for example; again an instance of the difference between tragedy and comedy.

I have yet to see a performance of this play; I suspect I will enjoy it much more when it’s brought to life. I have a DVD of the recent RSC production which I must get around to watching.

Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

December 20, 2015

51drgdDFhEL._AA160_A friend took me to task the other day for omitting Twelfth Night from the list of Shakespearean comedies I liked in my post on The Taming of the Shrew. I was so astonished at my own oversight that I went back to the play…

I recall a wonderful amateur production many years ago at my last school, when we were lucky to have a sufficiently talented group of actors to put on a production (I stage-managed) which went down very well. I think I’ve seen the play once or twice in the theatre, too, but not recently, so there’s something to look forward to one day.

Re-reading the play set me off thinking further about comedy. So much more seems to be riding on the language than in tragedy. Yes, in the tragedies there are the great set-piece speeches and soliloquies too, and I’m not disparaging these at all, but they accompany clear onstage action, and the emotions and responses expected from an audience are clear; in spite of any issues with the sevententh century language, a twenty-first century audience is in no doubt about what’s going on – the deaths and murders that are the stuff of tragedy are obvious.

There seem to me to be rather more obstacles to the appreciation of Shakespearean comedy, which I’ve been aware of in the theatre when I’ve often found myself much readier to laugh than most of the audience (which is fine, as I love laughing). The language is sharper, the exchanges between characters are more rapid, quick-fire wit is the key: a modern audience will surely understand if they have the time to take everything in, if they are as quick-witted as Shakespeare’s characters, but comprehension is often lost: puns, innuendos and obscenities that make up the core of the humour flash by too quickly. And then, there are the changes in the use of the language itself, and the different context of some of the exchanges, before we even get on to the action onstage.

What the actors themselves are up to may also be less easy to interpret: yes, there is cross-dressing and hiding and general silliness which one can usually understand, and there’s certainly lots of this in Twelfth Night, but one also needs to be clear about the very diferent attitudes to courtship and marriage, which are woven into the complexities of the plot.

 

With this re-reading, I was struck quite forcefully by the perfection of the plot of the play, the wonderful symmetry of the story of brother and sister lost in shipwrecks and ending up with weddings at the end, as well as the chaos of the many subplots and distractions so artfully woven together, the Malvolio story and the antics of the two drunken knights, and the Duke and Olivia story that is not to be, with the added complexity in the role of Cesario as the go-between…

Ionesco: Le Roi Se Meurt

November 24, 2014

A review in the paper at the weekend of a revival of this play in English sent me back to it; the book I have I ‘forgot’ to return to school after I’d studied the play for French A level in 1972! It was my first introduction to the theatre of the absurd, and I suppose was one of the texts from which I began to learn and develop the skills of literary analysis and criticism which have played a major role in my life and work…

Coming back to this story of the reluctant death of a king who has always refused to come to terms with its inevitability is obviously very different, given that I’m rather closer to that possibility myself than I was way back in 1972. The metaphorical meanings were clearer, for a start: it’s the death of a king because everyone (Everyman?) is at the centre of his/her own universe, solipsistically: everything revolves around us, from our perspective, and no matter how significant we imagine we are, we must eventually let go of that importance, that permanence, and fade into insignificance. The king is aided and tormented by his two queens, one rather matter-of-fact, insistent on the necessity of what must happen, in a no-nonsense way, and the other representing attachment, to people and objects, all of which must be let go of… The interplay between acceptance and resistance is at the heart of the drama, as it surely is at the heart of the human condition, cruelly inevitable.

What attracted me to the play way back then – the absurdity which breaks through, which jars, which shocks us into new ways of seeing and responding – is just as powerful to me now. We create the meaning to our life if there is one, and there is another perspective from which it is absurd, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. ( Ionesco later wrote a version of the Scottish play, too). I wondered then, and felt that the play was a tragedy, no easy thing to write in the godless twentieth century, and I still think so. Perhaps there isn’t a so much of a sense of tragic waste, but there is a sense of loss at the end as everything gradually vanishes and collapses around the dying king.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the title, which is a sort of play on words which cannot really be translated into English – the rather banal ‘Exit The King‘ doesn’t do it justice. The point is that the verb ‘mourir’ – to die – in French is a normal verb, whereas Ionesco makes it a reflexive verb, one of those curiosities which drive English learners of foreign languages to distraction; it’s on the same level as other things that one does for oneself, like getting dressed, sitting down, cleaning one’s teeth, so to make the verb ‘to die’ a verb like those others, gives it an extra edge: to die in himself? for himself? to himself?

And, I have always found a great profundity in the line from the play (translated here) “Everyone is the first person to die.” Think about it.

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