Category Archives: Heated Response

Why aren’t we teaching Two Gentlemen of Verona?

This weekend, I’ve been reading Two Gentlemen of Verona. It’s the second time I’ve read it, the first time at my leisure, and it makes me wonder: why isn’t this being taught in schools? Why have I always had to read it on my own?

Here are some reasons why this play is worth teaching:

–       Its scenes are short and the language is relatively simple.

–       It contains two strong female characters and a bunch of male ones, providing potential for group performance. This means that more students have a chance to perform, and nobody has to learn too many lines, much easier than the big tragedies.

–       It has two clowns! That makes for double the comedy!

–       It also has a “bit with a dog”, which we know from Shakespeare in Love, is always a winner for both young and old.

–       It has cross-dressing, which is always important to teach in terms of gender/sexuality dynamics and how women weren’t allowed onstage in Shakespeare’s time

–       It has countless elements from two well-known and often-taught tragedies: Othello (jealousy, scheming to break up one’s best friend’s relationship) and Romeo and Juliet (banishment, sneaking away to be with one’s lover), yet it’s a comedy.

–       Yes, yes, I know – the comedy is a very troubling one, on account of the whole “Valentine loves Silvia, but so does Proteus, who said he loved Julia, but he actually tries to rape Silvia in the forest” thing. Oh, and the whole “Valentine forgives Proteus, and offers (?!?) him Silvia to re-solidify their bonds of friendship” thing. Yeah, that’s misogynist; maybe they should change the title to “Two Ungentlemanly Men of Verona? It doesn’t have the same ring to it. Obviously, teachers do not want to condone rape, the rape myth, or any sort of philosophy other than “only yes means yes.” But we also wouldn’t want the rampant racism of Othello and the teen-runaway-marriage of Romeo and Juliet, and we still teach those. I think it’s totally worthwhile to give the students that shock factor, and then discuss why that’s not acceptable today. Show them how Shakespeare starts the play in such a way that we can totally relate to his writings of youthful infatuation and the wretchedness of long-distance relationships, but how, ultimately, things were different in his time. No matter how durable his writing is, and I know that’s the biggest reason we appreciate his works today, it’s still vital to recognize that he was a product of his time, and wrote for audiences of his time. And unfortunately, the audiences of his time didn’t offer wiggle room when practicing the “bros before hoes” rule.

Okay, so I know that these opinions may be controversial. But perhaps I want it to be that way, in the hopes of stirring up some conversation! What do you think: should this play be taught in schools?

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Filed under Genres, Heated Response, Plays

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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Filed under Arresting Images, Heated Response, Manifesto

Life is too short to watch bad Shakespeare

One thing I’ve made known on this blog: I believe that the beauty of Shakespeare’s work can be found in his written words. For someone to act them out to render the best possible emotional output is genuinely not an easy task, so I do respect actors and directors for trying. That being said, if you present a production that makes me shrink in my seat, then I will leave at intermission. And that’s what I did tonight.

Only a couple weeks into my second at-least-four-year sojourn in Kingston, Ontario, I was looking forward to checking out the theatrical scene, something I didn’t really do last time ’round. Tonight’s fare was a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), performed by the King’s Town Players. I’d never seen or read it before, but the written version came strongly endorsed by a fellow bibliophile with a wicked sense of humor.

It’s not that other people didn’t enjoy the play and laugh at the humour; to the contrary, in fact. But to me, when one of the players came out, requested for the house lights to be turned on and then quizzed the viewers whether they’ve read King John (one of that handful of Shakespeare plays that don’t get taught at the secondary or early post-secondary level, and rarely get performed), I didn’t like where this was going. It was like a cheap way to assert his experience with Shakespeare as being more exhaustive than our own, giving them license to butcher the plays.

The three male actors that comprised the troupe began with Romeo and Juliet, not only dressing in drag to play the female parts (acceptable, as Shakespeare did it in his own time), but complete with shrieking falsetto voices. Let me tell you, 15 minutes with that voice was enough to make me start thinking exit strategies. After a decent Titus-as-TV-chef skit (Bone Appetite!) and a short Macbeth skit where they poked at Scottish accents (which we rarely ever see performed in modern productions) they got to Othello. Oh, Othello. After seeing how they desecrated the Juliet part, I was expecting the same man to Crip-walk out in blackface. Luckily, he came onstage with a life raft for an almost-as-stupid sketch where is his chastised by his fellow actors (in the worst acting out of embarrassment that I’ve ever seen. Full hand-on-forehead stuff, people. These days, that acting quality is mainly reserved for the Disney Channel — but I digress), who go on to explain that the boating term ‘moor’ is not the same as an African Moor. And then they rap. *Shudder*

And at some point, they’re able to fit in a joke about playing ‘hide the salami’. Shakespeare did vulgar, I get it. But he also had taste, timing, and subtlety. After that, they just had to equate the English history plays (throwing in King Lear, a tragedy – why not? He was a king!) with a football game, and then they realized they had briefly mentioned every Shakespeare play.

…Except Hamlet. At this point, the bile is already rising up in my throat. I’ve spent that delicious first-week-of-class leisure time before the essays hit making my way through Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour Hamlet. Nobody’s Hamlet will ever be the one I have in my mind, but I really enjoy this one, and have learned a lot from it. I was NOT about to watch them do Hamlet. And, to my even greater displeasure, the actors spent about five minutes pretending not to want to act out such an exalted role, once again looking to the audience for the external validation to let them butcher that, too. At that point, they let us out for intermission, and I suppose that the external validation will be noticing how many audience members stayed for part two.

They did not get my validation, that’s for sure. As I said: life is too short to watch bad Shakespeare.

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Filed under Current Events, Heated Response, Manifesto

I love Shakespeare, but not those who think they can speak for him.

Oh, Reader.

We could just as easily ask this gif. file for its opinion

I have a bone to pick. I was reading an article in The Guardian about multi-generational, -racial, -cultural theatre critics and was thoroughly enjoying it … until the end. The last sentence?

“Surely the Bard would approve.”

DO NOT TELL ME WHAT SHAKESPEARE’S OPINION IS.

You know why? Because none of us have ANY idea. Why?

1) Shakespeare is dead, not a 21st century gossip blogger. If you ask him a question and he answers, you should probably seek psychiatric help.

2) Although it doesn’t apply in the case of this article, some people link hypothetical Shakespearean opinions to concepts/media that would have been foreign to somebody who lived in and died in the Renaissance.

3) Shakespeare did not provide us with an extensive biography, a list of aphorisms detailing his personal opinions, etc.

4) Few of his contemporaries left detailed anecdotes about Shakespeare’s life to apply to these sorts of things.

5) Shakespeare’s work holds layers of meanings. He had to veil his opinions so as to keep friends and dissuade powerful enemies. Although some of the parts he wrote seem to be men after his own heart (Prospero directing a scene with his magic book, Hamlet mourning a dead father at the time that Shakespeare was mourning the death of his son, and so forth), unless he told us specifically that this character’s opinions were his own, they could just be opinions that he was flirting with, rather than the gospel according to Shakespeare.

I could go on, but I won’t because no matter how much I whine about this, people will be prescribing opinions to Shakespeare for as long as his work are still in circulation. That being said, if I find someone on the blogosphere who hints at Shakespeare ‘rolling in his grave’ one more time, you can get ready for ‘Prepare for a proper schooling,’ Part 2.

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Prepare for a proper schooling

Hello, Reader!

This post is off the topic of Shakespeare on Stage and Screen but I think it’s really important. I read the following blog post

http://mwittle.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/i-hate-shakespeare/

and saw someone who really doesn’t understand the importance of Shakespeare and probably isn’t willing to learn. My blog is for people who don’t get what the fuss is all about, but wouldn’t mind finding out. What’s the point of studying Shakespeare? What did he say four hundred years ago in that fancy-pants prose that someone within the past hundred years hasn’t said better? Why spend (or in his opinion, waste) our precious high school years devoting ourselves to this dead white guy?

So, as WordPress’s resident Bardolator, I figured it was my job to show this blogger where he/she has been lead astray…essentially, give him/her a proper schooling!

Here goes…

Dear Mwittle,

I recently read your post and have every intention of going through it and showing you where I strongly disagree with (or in some cases, can easily disprove) your opinions.

Firstly – Shakespeare’s language is notoriously difficult, but is it his fault for writing works that are too difficult for high schoolers to grapple with at first glance? It’s definitely a worthwhile endeavour to teach students to decipher this language, but what the school boards need are teachers who can make these complex works accessible. The problem? Few of them have more than a high school Shakespeare education, and that’s not to say that this education implies their understanding. Teachers are responsible for getting students to understand, and they need to understand the works first. I think they should personally re-read these plays right before teaching them in order to have them fresh in their minds. That way, they can think of teaching strategies and make the plays accessible to students by linking the themes to current events or student issues. If teachers can relate the themes to current issues, students will feel a new motivation to understand the language that describes them.

As for going to see a production of King Lear at the Globe – I empathize. As an adolescent, I saw Christopher Plummer performing Lear in Stratford, Ontario, and I, too, wanted to gouge out my eyes. That was before I had a teacher with a passion for Shakespeare. Giving Shakespeare a second chance, I opened my mind to teachers who have shown me the play’s beauty, harshness, and complexity. Having been properly educated, I can watch two different versions back to back, and savour them both.

When the First Folio was published, Shakespeare's work was broken down into three genres. Since then, scholars have split the plays into more precise categories

Next issue: Shakespeare did not keep to “one basic genre”. He wrote tragedies, comedies, Roman histories, histories of the English monarchs (who lived in a totally different time and state of mind compared to the Romans, so the two categories can’t be conflated), the highly mystical romances, and the morally-complicated problem plays, to say nothing of the hundred-odd sonnets and two epic poetry sequences.

As for considering Shakespeare’s prolificness as a fault: how can we blame him for writing several plays in a very short time, approximately three per year? Were you the type of person who tried your very best in high school and did merely ok? Or were you the person who wrote your papers the night before and kicked butt? Some people have the talent, and that talent doesn’t run on a stop watch. If you really need to be told why Shakespeare is so awesome, it’s not because of how much he’s written, but rather the way he writes. Shakespeare puts words together that create images in your head that make you need to stop and think because he makes these connections between ideas that you wouldn’t have made yourself…but wish you had. If you want to get direct examples of this, see the ‘Arresting Images’ section of my blog: bardolator23.wordpress.com.

As for recorded history: Shakespeare did not start his career as a success; he was considered an ‘upstart crow’ by university-educated writers who thought that the grammar-school educated Shakespeare sho

Cover page of a Titus Andronicus quarto: notice the absense of Shakespeare's name

uld have stayed in the gutter rather than reach for the stars. When his early plays were printed, his name was not even featured on their front covers; his name was considered too lowly to deserve such prime real estate, reserved for words that convinced people to buy. Nothing had been written about him in his early years because people didn’t think he deserved the attention. For starters, back then, the only people considered worthy of biographies were kings and saints, not lowly actors who got paid per play they pounded out. Additionally, great writers of the English language weren’t considered as such because the English language had barely found its footing. Spelling had yet to be concretized (thank you Dr. Johnson, 150 years later) and it was Shakespeare himself who created words and phrases that we widely use today like accused, addiction, bedroom, cater, champion, flawed, obscene, rant, varied, and worthless, to name but a few of the approximated 1700. Even the ‘be all and end all’ you speak of was originally coined by the Bard. When Shakespeare went to school, the only language worth learning was Latin, the only writers worth reading were the Greeks and Romans, and maybe the English Chaucer. Shakespeare had to prove himself in order to become worthy of biography. He proved himself by writing plays that people wanted to see, plays that made people want to return to the theatre to be entertained over and over again, even if it meant braving bouts of the plague, smelly civilians, and the London rain that loomed over the open-roofed Globe theatre.

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