Posts Tagged ‘Twelfth Night’

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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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.

Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

December 26, 2015

4106MBV4HRL._AA160_This is quite an early Shakespeare play, which I’ve enjoyed in the past, but found a little tiresome this time round, for a number of reasons. For one, the plot is tiresonely symmetrical: a king and three nobles woo a princess and three ladies; all are ultimately successful. And for each of the three courstships, the stages are alike: you would not find such a lack of variety later on in the dramatist’s career. The comic subplots using the clowns and other menial character I therefore found rather more humorous and diverting.

The language is correspondingly limited, too: the blank verse is very structured, and very frequently moves into rhymed couplets, or alternate line rhymes, which grows tiresome after a while. There’s a great deal of wit and wordplay, much prized at the time and still very clever today, if you can penetrate it. My preferred edition of the plays is the Arden (second series) which appeared over about forty years from the 1950s onwards; this being an early edition, it’s interesting to see the editor doing his best to avoid having to explain the vulgarities and obscenities that abound, or couching them in euphemistic terms. Later editors of other plays were nowhere near this circumspect. But often, to understand much of the humour, a twenty-first century reader does need glosses.

One gets a clear picture of Shakespeare as a developing craftsman from this play; familiarity with a range of his work clarifies all sorts of different stages and experiments, and from this early work it’s possible to see a number of tracks that he would eventually explore: a lot more disguise and cross-dressing, a lot more experimentation with the versatilities of prose and poetry, bolder comic heroes and heroines (I was aware of how far he had yet to go to create the Viola of Twelfth Night, for example), much more complicated plots and subplots…

I suppose my closest comparison for anyone not familiar with this play would be Romeo and Juliet, which was written maybe a year or so later. it’s a tragedy (obviously), but, if you look closely at the text, rather than watch one of the quite heavily edited film or stage versions, you will still see some of the rather tiresome overuse of rhyme, and leaden emotional over-exaggeration (the Nurse’s lament at discovering the apparent death of Juliet), over-long set-piece speeches (Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech) and other signs of a still-developing playwright. Just read it alongside Antony and Cleopatra and you will see what I mean.

However, I always find it useful to be reminded that our greatest dramatist had to practise and learn his craft, and make a few mistakes along the way.

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…

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