Category Archives: Arresting Images

I’d like to post one of these arresting images a week, and walk you through exactly how Shakespeare takes an ordinary theme and puts it into words in such an extraordinary manner that for a moment, your mind is blown

Creative Casting of Revenge Tragedy: “Romeo and Juliet” meets “Game of Thrones”

One of Shakespeare’s earliest revenge tragedies is Romeo and Juliet. I’m a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, and was looking forward to seeing if Sir Kenneth Branagh could top it with his most recent stage production. I saw the play as-live through Kenneth Branagh Theatre Live, and was really pleased with the way it was adapted to the setting of 1950’s Italy, complete with monumental hand gestures and Sophia Loren looks. The cast included the timeless Sir Derek Jacobi as the oldest performing Mercutio on record, Lily James continuing her ingénue streak as Juliet, and Richard Madden, formerly Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark, performing on a twisted ankle as the simultaneously bright-and-teary-eyed Romeo.

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On top of the exciting casting of the main characters, I was extra impressed to see that women were cast as traditionally male characters, like the thugs Sampson and Gregory, and a servant of the Capulets, named Peter. Peter delivers one of my favourite lines in the play. Unaware that she is speaking to the enemy of her master, she tells Romeo of a party being held by Capulet: “If you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and crush a cup of wine.” I love the imagery of that line: the violence of the crushing, the bloody splatter of squished grapes, and the destroyed cup, discarded and forgotten in the festive ruckus of the masquerade. Despite the violence of this image and the invitation’s deliberate exclusion of the Montagues, Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to be violent towards Romeo when he appears at the party and ogles Juliet. Capulet admonishes Tybalt:

 

Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone;
He bears him like a portly gentleman;
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth:
I would not for the wealth of all the town
Here in my house do him disparagement:
Therefore be patient, take no note of him:
It is my will, the which if thou respect,
Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,
And ill-beseeming semblance for a feast.

 

Despite the fact that the Montagues are his enemy, Capulet refuses to “here in my house do him disparagement”: he forbids violence against a guest in his home, no matter who that guest is. Capulet escalates in rage not at Romeo’s attendance, but at the insult of Tybalt’s intended violence. Capulet’s response immediately brings to mind the concept of “Guest Right,” which entitles any guest who shares the bread and salt of their host to their host’s protection while under that roof. This is a topic that keeps coming up in my favourite show: Game of Thrones. Like any living, breathing person right now, I’m pretty obsessed with it. This season, the show’s violence has escalated to Shakespearean proportions. In order to avoid ruining it for those of us who aren’t caught up, I’d like to talk about Shakespearean resonances with a revenge scene from much earlier in the show: The Red Wedding.

 

SPOILER ALERT: Stop now if you don’t know what The Red Wedding is and don’t want to read spoilers!

 

The Wedding between Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey is meant to consolidate the treaty between House Stark (represented by the King in the North) and House Frey, who control an tactically-important river crossing in the fictional setting of Westeros. The Wedding was meant to be between Walder Frey’s daughter and the King in the North, but King Robb meets someone young and beautiful during the War of Five Kings (the book and show marry him to two different characters), and can no longer fulfill his promise to Frey. Father of the bride-to-be Walder pretends to forgive Robb for his breach in their agreement, and feeds the King the bread and salt that signify the Freys’ protection.

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Robb Stark and his wife Talisa on Game of Thrones

 

Frey, however, is fed up with not being taken seriously by his allies, and forges an unholy alliance with the enemy Lannister faction, as well as a trusted soldier from within Robb’s own ranks. After the most important members of Stark’s army are seated around Walder’s table and are listening to the cacophonous wedding music performed by disguised members of House Frey, the “musicians” pull their weapons out from the instruments and bloodshed ensues. Robb dies. His mother dies. His pet direwolf dies. Many loyal members of his army die. They trusted Walder Frey because of Guest Right, and died for it.

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Robb crying over his wife’s lifeless body during The Red Wedding

So how does this tie back to Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet? Because Richard Madden plays Robb Stark and Romeo. By considering the “creative casting” behind Branagh’s production, we can think more deeply about the topic of revenge: when is revenge just and what constitutes a low blow? Who deserves revenge and when is an avenger in the wrong? Richard Madden may change his accent and cut his hair, but both of his characters fall in love with women that they shouldn’t. Their impulsive marriages come at the cost of their lives, and the lives of those they love. Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to “make a mutiny among my guests” at the feast, but Tybalt finds another opportunity to attack Romeo, leaving behind the bodies of Mercutio, Tybalt himself, and Lady Montague, who dies of her grief when her son is banished from Verona.

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Romeo crying over Juliet’s lifeless body in Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet

Tragedy is defined by the number of dead bodies onstage at the end of a play. Revenge is the impulse to kill, and revenge tragedy is when the impulse to kill ultimately kills the killer, as well. By thinking about revenge on TV today, we can reflect on those beautiful little details that Shakespeare left behind for us. By reflecting upon the issues that Shakespeare brought up in his revenge tragedies, we can gain a greater appropriation for the politics and drama that we continue to consume today.

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Mercutio and Tybalt: casualties of revenge tragedy

 

 

 

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Arresting Images in Measure for Measure

I haven’t done an “Arresting Images” post in a while, so it’s about time that I do! “Arresting Images,” just to recap, are words that Shakespeare uses that make you stop and think, “Wow! He just made something so seemingly normal or overdone sound so meaningful, so memorable! That must be why we’re still studying his work after 400 years!”

Carmen Grant as Isabella and Tom Rooney as Angelo in the 2013 Stratford Festival production of Measure for Measure

Carmen Grant as Isabella and Tom Rooney as Angelo in the 2013 Stratford Festival production of Measure for Measure

I recently saw the Stratford Festival’s production of Measure for Measure and it reminded me of all the arresting images that this play has to offer. Although the plot isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve probably seen the metaphors printed on a coffee mug or fridge magnet.

The play is about the nature of justice: when the Duke of Vienna feels like he hasn’t been fulfilling his duty to uphold the law, he takes a short hiatus to wander the streets in costume, putting himself in touch with the voice of the people while the scrupulous Angelo holds down the fort.

William Holman Hunt's painting of Isabella telling Claudio to prepare for his execution

William Holman Hunt’s painting of Isabella telling Claudio to prepare for his execution

When Angelo takes the reigns, people are surprised at his severity. Isabella, a nun-in-training, begs Angelo not to execute her brother for the crime of impregnating his girlfriend, who had enthusiastically consented to the union. The stand-in Duke responds:

“The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.”

Isn’t that amazing? Angelo is showing that he is waking up the legal system of Vienna. Angelo sees the citizens as assuming that they can get away with breaking the laws (in this case, laws against premarital sex) because the Duke hadn’t enforced them. While Angelo is waking up the legal system, he offers the people of Vienna a harsh wake-up call.

Isabella begs Angelo to forgive her brother’s youthful impetuousness, and says that Claudio will remedy the crime by marrying and taking care of the expectant Juliet (no, not that Juliet). Angelo refuses to yield to this reasonable solution, and offers the most outstanding metaphor as to why it’s necessary for him to start upholding the law:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Crow perched on a scarecrow

Crow perched on a scarecrow

That line is worth reading twice, three times, and then putting it up on a wall somewhere. Instead of saying that “my town, my rules,” Shakespeare provides us with an unforgettable image that even those without farmland can understand: scarecrows are not scary enough. Men with guns are scary, dukes with the power to execute men are scary, but scarecrows are all show, with little power to deter the vultures that might destroy the crops and lead to greater repercussions. Angelo may not be shocked and appalled by Claudio’s engagement in consensual sex, but it’s his job to uphold the law where the Duke was too lenient, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

When discussing the notion of mercy in Shakespeare, people usually refer to Portia’s “The quality of mercy” speech in The Merchant of Venice. Yet, Measure for Measure offers outstanding, and frankly underrated meditations on the nature of mercy, and why sometimes it’s important to allow the legal system some wiggle room in order to let people coexist in peace.

Thematically, this play interrogates whether a binary even exists between justice and mercy, and metaphorically, it offers outstanding imagery of the battle between darkness and light. Lucio is Claudio’s best friend, and his name is derived from Latin words that mean “light” or “shine.” Angelo represents his foil (his character opposite), but instead of being the darkness to snuff out Lucio’s light, he’s the cold that threatens to overcome Lucio’s shining sun of humour and optimism. Lucio calls Angelo

“a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth”

I need a cup of soup even thinking about snow-broth!

Brrr! I need a cup of soup even thinking about snow-broth!

– isn’t that amazing? It gives me the chills just to think about it! I think about the slush that I walk on in the winter, and the countless bowls of soup it takes to warm me up, and that shows me that I would never want to deal with someone so stubborn, so disagreeable, as to be comprised of snow-broth.

So that brings my quick exploration of Measure for Measure’s arresting images to a close. I’m not sure why this play isn’t taught in high schools. It’s got material on teen pregnancy, good quotes for pre-law keeners, and ultimately offers essay topics that are ripe for the picking. Have you tried teaching Measure for Measure in your classroom?

 

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The Hollow Crown: Henry IV part 1

One way to fight the winter blues is to accept that it’s too cold for any sane person to leave the house. Instead, we must find ways to enjoy the great indoors. My proposed solution is twofold: the first is the miracle of slow-cooked applesauce. While you don’t get the pleasure of licking the tinfoil lid off the childhood favorite, eating it warm, straight out of the slow cooker, will change your life forever. The second part of the solution is to get into your jam-jams and comfiest robe, and watch lots and lots of movies.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

…Shakespeare movies, that is! I’ve been downloading way too many BBC adaptations and watching too few, so last night I decided to change that. I’ve been on a little Tom Hiddleston kick lately (can you blame me?), so I started with 1 Henry IV. I consider this the most unfortunately-named Shakespeare play, as its boring title doesn’t signify its compelling main character (Prince Hal), the fun he has with Shakespeare’s most comic character (Falstaff), and coming of age that Prince experiences in this play.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

This production is certainly well cast. Few actors make better brooding, guilt-ridden rulers than Jeremy Irons, slightly less lecherous than in his role as Rodrigo Borgia, and Hiddleston plays a bright-eyed mischievous Prince Hal. Michelle Dockery, fresh from Downton Abbey, glows, alabaster as ever, and I really enjoyed the way Richard Eyre amped up the flirtiness between Kate and Hotspur, who is often portrayed as loving his horse more than his wife.

Prince Hal and Falstaff

Prince Hal and Falstaff, besties for life?

Simon Russell Beale, who has been treading the boards of the English stage nonstop for the past couple of years, was a good Falstaff. Good, not great, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. I love the character, an irresponsible, lecherous, glutton who leeches off friends both high and low, yet his true devotion to Hal peeks through. What I don’t appreciate is that Richard Eyre thought it necessary to back each of Falstaff’s sympathetic speeches with an affecting violin track. I recognize that medium of film allows for certain enhancements to the text that the stage does not, but that does not mean that Shakespeare’s words themselves need more enhancing than an actor’s clear voice. Take, for example, the following speech:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

This is one of the most profound speeches in the Shakespearean canon. Honour inspires me to fight, by why should I, when I might just die? What is the value of dying in the name of honour? Will honour heal my bloody wounds? Will honour take care of my family when I’m gone? The dead man can find few, if any, practical applications for honour, so why pursue it? Falstaff asks these rhetorical questions, offering a catechism in the name of the Abbot of Unreason, all the while showing just exactly how reasonable he is. Falstaff is the one to make us question the nature of heroism: is the king heroic for forcing his army to fight and kill a hundred thousand “rebels”, who on any other day would be counted as fellow countrymen? Is Hal heroic for leaving the tavern in order to aid the King in a war that was only brought on after his father took the crown from Richard II? Falstaff may be a leech on society, but Shakespeare’s words show he is the one shrewd enough to know the finality of death, a truth that need no violins to prove it.

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Ladies with Attitude

Polonius said that “Brevity is the soul of wit”, so in an effort not to spend too much time procrastinating from my very, very busy comprehensive exam study schedule, “I will be brief.”

I know that they often get caught up in the mix of letters and numbers, but it’s most definitely worth your while to read any of Shakespeare’s early “Henry” plays: Henry the Fourth, parts 1 and 2, Henry the Fifth (a personal favourite), and the three parts of Henry 6.

Don't mess with me.

Having only read the Henry 6 plays this summer, I was really happy to see that the blandness of the play’s name is not reflected in his very exciting characters, especially the women. In 1 Henry 6, we see the sharp-tongued Joan of Arc wrestle the French dauphin to the ground (in layman’s terms, she kicked his butt!), but I’d have to give the “Ladies with Attitude” award to Eleanor Cobham, who offers us today’s arresting image:

Could I come near your beauty with my nails

I’d scratch my ten commandments in your face.    (2 Henry 6, 1.3.142-3)

Ouch! I can’t help laughing when re-reading such serious Renaissance trash-talking! It both recognizes that she’s a woman and therefore lacks the conventional weaponry of the period (which was left to the men, who promptly began killing each other), but also that she is ferocious on her own. So the next time you need an effective threat (or party gag), think about Eleanor Cobham. It’s her brand, Shakespeare’s brand, of rhetorical power that will reduce your opponent either to laughter or to tears.

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Emo Shakespeare

I know it’s been a while since I’ve last written. I also know that I missed the biggest day of any Bardolator’s year: Shakespeare’s birthday. Oh well. Shit happens. Shakespeare supposedly was born and died on the same day of the year: his birthday, my birthday, April 23. As much as we bring his thoughts to life, Shakespeare has been dead for hundreds of years. His memory will still be alive next year, and I’ll be sure to make next year’s post super special.

At the moment not feeling in a celebratory mood myself, I find myself thinking once again to Shakespeare’s emo prince, the great Dane (Jr.) himself: Hamlet. I last left off with Hamlet waxing fashionista on us, but now I’d like to steer us back to why Hamlet was so concerned over his mother’s shoes: he was bummed out. His dad had just died and the unfortunate double-edged sword of life is that people come and go, yet a good pair of black pumps lasts forever.

So I bring you Hamlet: bummed out, feelin’ emo, Justin Bieber hair covering up his tearful eyes. His friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to get to the bottom of his grief so they can turn his frown upside down. But the prince has a hard time tearing himself out from his emotional rut. Hamlet responds:

I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or to cry after reading those words – 400 years ago, a thousand years from now, today – he just gets it. Shakespeare is able to set down his quill and say: “This is what grief feels like,” and I love him for it. Sometimes we say “there are no words,” but Shakespeare has, once again, proved us wrong.

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Can fashion prove that Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare”?

As a rule, I like to stay away from the infamous “authorship debate,” which suggests that someone else wrote the plays that we attribute to William Shakespeare. My first justification for maintaining this distance is that we’re completely lacking in evidence that would support an absolutely inarguable truth on either side, but I generally pooh-pooh the issue because nothing is going to change the fact that the plays are here today. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so I prefer to focus on the sweetness than what’s in a name.

That being said, I was enjoying a millionth re-watch of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet last night and it re-affirmed my prejudiced-but-eternally-unproven belief that the glove-maker’s boy from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote these amazing plays.

I know that some might laugh at how many times I’ll re-read a play or even re-watch a single production, but it’s amazing what you remember – those big lines – “To thine own self be true,” “Frailty, thy name is woman,” and the iconic “Alas, Poor Yorick!” – and what you overlook in anticipation of those parts, getting ready to lip-sync along with the production (oh please, like you haven’t taken joy in going along with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, so proud to have retained it verbatim from high-school memorization assignments!). It’s what we overlook that I’d like to look at today, showing how these seemingly insignificant parts might reveal deeper truths.

Let’s start with the first instance, looking at what Polonius says only a couple lines before this usually awkward courtier profoundly urges Laertes: “To thine own self be true.” Polonius, like any parent, is giving his son some last-minute advice before his return to school in Paris:

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man,

And they in France of the best rank and station

Are of a most select and generous chief in that.

Talk to the hand: Early Modern gloves

So Polonius likes to look good. Not surprising, and not surprising that he wants his son to preserve the family reputation abroad. Polonius speaks in aphorisms that could easily be Hallmark-card wisdom today, and although I like to think of Shakespeare as one of the greatest writers of all time, these suggestions could have even been proverbial back then. But when I think of “the apparel oft proclaims the man,” I am genuinely struck by how appropriate those words are today, and am just waiting for some French fashion house to snatch it up for their SS 2012 campaign.

 

You know who else might have used that line as a selling-tool? Perhaps a glover in the London suburbs. Shakespeare’s father was a tradesman, not a member of the landed gentry, and I think that line offers a perfect defense of his family business. The rich had to look presentable, as fashion statements in the royal court did say something about one’s character – and whose responsibility was it to ensure that when someone talked to the hand, that hand looked damn good? Papa Shakespeare.

Moving along, the line “Frailty, thy name is woman” and I have a relationship, but to sum it up in Facebook terms: “it’s complicated.” I don’t know if Shakespeare realized that he was a writer, as fellow playwright Ben Jonson put it, “not of an age but for all time,” but that quote has given my gender a bad name for centuries! That being said, there are times when I believe it. But enough about me – let’s look at what prompted Hamlet to utter such harsh words:

Frailty, thy name is woman!—

A little month, or ere those shoes were old

With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,

Like Niobe, all tears…

Interesting…we have another shout-out to the fashion world. Here, Hamlet’s thinking about the shoes that his mother Gertrude is wearing in the present (sometimes depicted as her wedding to her former brother-in-law, Claudius) and remembers when she wore them for her father’s funeral. He notes that the shoes have barely gotten any wear between the time she walked behind her first husband’s funeral procession to the time she walked down the aisle beside her second.

The thing with Shakespeare, though, is that even these tiny details, these seemingly insignificant idiosyncratic turns of phrase, are telling. Who else would think about the quality of women’s shoes? A male university student? He’d probably rather concern himself with exams or his girlfriend, the fair Ophelia.  And I get it, he’s lost his father and is mourning, but do you really think he’d remember his mother’s mourning shoes, probably hidden under petticoats? Doubtful. But who would care? Someone who’s probably well versed in the ways of fashion, in the fine crafting required of leather accoutrements: a glove-maker’s son, William Shakespeare.

Last, but certainly not the final word on the matter, let’s have a look at Shakespeare’s renowned gravedigger scene. Before I grew into my bardolatry as I know it today, I would sit in the theatre restlessly, waiting one, two, three hours to see Hamlet hold up that skull – so iconic – but really, it had no meaning to me back then. Now, I have a far greater understanding about mortality in general and have developed an even creepier fascination with the morbid, in particular. That being said, I probably wouldn’t wander around graveyards (one ramble through an Edinburgh cemetery to find the resting place of the original Tom Riddle, excluded). Hamlet did, and after starting up a banter with his local gravedigger, Hamlet asks the following question:

How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?

The Gravedigger responds:

I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die–as we have many pocky cor[p]ses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in–he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year.

Hamlet:

Why he more than another?

Gravedigger:

Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.

So once again, we see this concern with trade, an understanding of the finer details of leather-working that a member of the landed gentry probably wouldn’t have concerned himself with in his daily life, let alone deem worthy enough to write about in a script that would reach thousands of viewers. But a glove-maker’s son seems a bit more feasible — whether the gravedigger’s projections were accurate or not, it’s definitely the kind of morbid joke that would probably come out in the drunken table talk of … a glove-maker.

That’s all for now, folks! Let me know what you think – comment below!

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Procrastinating with Shakespeare!

Something tough about writing an essay about Shakespeare is that I get caught up in all these wonderfully arresting images. This one was so literally delicious that I had to stop and write about it… or at least that’s what I tell myself to feel better for procrastinating.

When Hamlet meets his school buddy Horatio at his home/castle in Elsinore, Denmark, Hamlet jokingly remarks, “We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart,” but seriously asks his friend why he is not back at school. On a more somber note, Horatio responds: “My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.” In a classically emo retort, Hamlet responds: “I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.”

Hamlet’s not entirely wrong for being so snarky: his mother Gertrude marries her brother-in-law, Claudius, shortly after her husband, Hamlet Sr., mysteriously dies. The prince’s next remarks to Horatio are just so fantastic that they deserve to be in-set (normally a taboo for quotes with three or less lines, but I think taboo is what we’re going for!), and broadcasted across the Internet:

Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats

Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

Wow. Showing, once again, his mastery of imagery, Shakespeare has managed to depict such a profound life-change in such a mundane way. It’s sad and it’s bitter, but Hamlet maintains control over the situation by joking about it.

…And after those lines, I just want to laugh every time I sit down to a delicious meal of leftovers.

Thanks for procrastinating with me today! Back to the grindstone for this bardolator!

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