Category Archives: Stage to Page to Stage and Screen

Loving Shakespeare does not make me noble

This post was originally published in my Secret Diary of PhD Candidate column for The Shakespeare Standard.

I know that ol’ Will Shakespeare has been sitting comfortably upon his pedestal for the past few centuries, but sometimes we have to step back and remind ourselves of two things:

One: Shakespeare’s work contains a certain levity that implies that he didn’t take himself too seriously. I’m not prescribing opinions to him when I say that, but I am saying that his work is chock-full of seriously bawdy, sexist, and racist humour that prompts me to believe that he was havin’ a laugh while writing the words that have inspired us all this time.

That brood was pretty sexy when I was 14

Two: The love of Shakespeare does not require you to start wearing horn-rimmed glasses and elbow patches (although the latter is highly recommended), or take your own study of Shakespeare too seriously. In my opinion, it’s perfectly acceptable if one’s motive for watching R&J is to see Leo, rather than watching for the Shakespearean content exclusively.

Likewise, I enjoy taking my guilty pleasure of reading celebrity gossip to the level of reading it in a Shakespearean context. Preferring not to read into the speculative biographies (“Didn’t you know that Shakespeare was gay?”), I take pleasure in the scandals within the plays themselves and those that inevitably erupt during their production.

This started with an obsession with Antony Sher’s biographies and theatre diaries, Year of the King, Beside Myself, and Woza Shakespeare!: I got to learn about the gritty research he did in interviewing murderers for his role as Macbeth, and enjoyed unfolding his complex colleagues-and-lovers relationship with now-husband, RSC Chief Associate Director Gregory Doran.

Last summer, I got to read some seriously scandalous stuff, less related to Shakespeare but rather focused on the sadomasochistic life (and published diary) of 20th century dandy-cum-theatre-critic Kenneth Tynan, which I highly recommend.

This is not going to end well...the map scene in King Lear

Today, I feel no shame in telling you that I am anxiously awaiting David Weston’s book about his time as Ian McKellen’s understudy on the American tour of Trevor Nunn’s production of King Lear. Covering McKellen: An Understudy’s Tale is said to revolve around the escapades of a cast that includes a napping principal actor, an “arrogantRomola Garai as Cordelia, and another actress vindictively enjoying a negative review given to another actress.  But were Goneril and Regan any less vindictive? Did Cordelia’s principles not set her on a high-horse that led her sisters to order her death? In a production most notable for Sir Ian’s dropping trou, as it were, I can’t wait to hear all the juicy gossip that will doubtlessly be as entertaining as the scandals that abound Shakespeare’s tragedy itself.

Loving Shakespeare does not make me a more noble reader: it simply proves that my taste for scandal knows no bounds!

 

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The Ides of March: (re)watch your back!

I’d like to start off by wishing you all a healthy, happy Ides of March!

This day of back-stabbing was memorialized in Julius Caesar, and thinking about it has inspired me to consider the significance of “watching your back.”  Today, I’d like to look at Shakespeare in light of another kind of looking back: re-viewing. I use the word re-viewing as opposed to re-reading or re-watching because with Shakespeare’s plays and today’s new media, it’s never so limited as to exclude one or the other.

With April 23 fast approaching, most Shakespearean theatre companies will begin their 2011 season on the day we honour Shakespeare’s (not to mention my own) birthday. Shakespeare’s Globe in London is starting with an oldie but a goodie: Hamlet. My first reaction was, of course: Dammit! Why can’t I be there to take part in this celebration?? But my next was: Has the English theatre crowd not gotten enough Hamlet of late? There have been at least three extremely well advertised, not to mention well-reviewed mainstream productions in the past two years, which makes me wonder: how is the public not getting tired of watching the same thing over and over? Don’t these people want some variety?

In Jewish biblical scholarship, the more you re-read a text, the more you learn. Each and every year, synagogues around the world go through the same text, chapter by chapter; every year, congregations celebrate the text’s completion, and every year they return to the beginning of these hand-crafted scrolls. They read the same old stories, but endeavour to find new lessons in the mix; can we not say the same about bardolatry, the cult driven by Shakespeare devotees? I cannot tell you how many times in the past two years I’ve gone to Starbucks, Titus Andronicus in one hand, notebook and pen in the other – I find new gems every time. And, of course, I cannot participate in my sixth, seventh, or eighth re-viewing of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet without getting chills from the intensity of the fast-paced prologue, whether I’m blogging about it, or watching it for the sake of having a good ol’ cathartic cleanse.

And what is this blog, if not my effort to get you, my dear Reader, excited about Shakespeare? I recognize that some of you come to this blog not as fans, but as those who were seriously turned off by the yearly Shakespeare unit in high school. But you know what? That was then and this is now! My role is to expose the inherent awesomeness of Shakespeare’s plots, characters, and most of all, words, encouraging you to return to those texts, go see another production, realize the inherent truths that still exist today as they had existed for this actor/poet/playwright 400 years ago.

And who knows? Whether you loved Shakespeare in high school or hated it, there is no shame in going back to a play and realizing how far you’ve come – one of my most-trusted professors sees this as one of the greatest virtues of re-reading, and I think it’s necessary to take joy in the new discoveries we make about texts written so long ago! And if you aren’t searching for those universal truths, it’s just as much fun to go back to these plays and understand their countless, underlying dirty jokes!

So instead of letting the blog stop here, I want you to keep it going! Tell me: do you re-view Shakespeare’s plays? What pulls you back to the same ones again? Must you read from the same edition and keep notes in the margins, or are you content with scrolling through a Shakespeare App? Do you read certain plays at certain times of the year, perhaps a ritual before going to see a live production? Will you only watch productions featuring theatre “Greats” like Laurence Olivier, or do you prefer the fresh perspective of local talent?

Let’s get a conversation going and discuss our Shakespeare re-viewing experiences!

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How do I define a good Shakespeare production?

“It’s totally subjective,” – right? Sort of, but I’ve taken the liberty of defining some parameters to help us come to our subjective judgments.

In my adolescence, I saw some really excellent Shakespeare productions at the Stratford Festival, namely, Paul Gross’s Hamlet and Christopher Plummer’s King Lear. I don’t know whom they tortured more: myself, restless and unable to appreciate the action, or my father, a general non-fan of non-musical theatre and narcoleptic extraordinaire. When I finally began to study and understand the plays that I went to see, I soon defined ‘a good production’ as the ones I could sit through without impatiently yearning for them to end.

A decade older and hopefully more than a bit wiser, I’d like to revise my definition: to me, a good Shakespeare production is one that sheds light on key themes and passages of the text in a way that makes you aware, and makes you aware that they’re aware, of their significance to the whole. An unsuccessful production (I’m loath to actually use the word ‘bad’ – symptomatic of a high school instructor who would not let us use such a cop-out of an adjective) is one that obscures these key issues and ideas from the reader’s attention.

I’d like to explain this in greater detail, using the example of two productions that I’ve recently seen. For those of you who correspond or go to school with me, you’ll know that I had the highest of hopes in seeing both and, if I can be honest with my dearest Readers, was so excited I could hardly contain myself! My closest friends and mother will already begin to roll their eyes, knowing that my expectations are often too high, often at the expense of my own disappointment.

But here’s perhaps where I might seem a little hypocritical, but bear with me: once you’ve studied a Shakespeare play, if you can afford to go see a production, it’s worth it. Even if it’s not great – it’s worth a check-out (followed by an indignant march out at intermission, because life really is too short to sit through bad Shakespeare in its entirety). Perhaps this is my Bardolatry coming in and I don’t have sympathizers with this opinion but to me, it’s fun to amass a whole repertoire of productions to compare and play off each other; no one production can satisfy the infinite readings of a certain text because the privileging of one reading necessitates the disregard of another.

So excited I can hardly contain myself!

In the case of Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest, we have a situation that the directorial powers-that-be disregarded many of the important, nay, indispensable, issues that the text offers for our intellectual delight. In short: a freaking cop-out! Let me tell you: I am a huge fan of Julie Taymor’s work. Across the Universe was genius and Titus is certainly one of my favourite films in general – a strong endorsement, considering how protective I am over my favourite play. I’d only been looking forward to seeing this film for about two years, was literally bouncing up and down in my seat when the time had finally come (or, in the words of my dear friend Alexis, had a bit of a Shakespearegasm), and was disappointed. But why??

Well, I studied The Tempest for an entire semester during my MA, so I’d like to think that I’ve got a grasp of its possible meanings. I’d like to think that Taymor and her production team had studied it for at least that many hours: so why did she neglect to shed light on some of the most important meanings?

The passage I hold most dear to my heart (thanks to the guidance of my former card-carrying Communist of an instructor) is: “What cares these roarers for the name of king?” I waited excitedly to hear how the character would say it and it either got muffled by the unsurprisingly gratuitous special effects, or was left chopped up on the editorial room floor. I was flipping indignant when I didn’t hear my favourite line, and those sitting in my immediate vicinity experienced my wrath.

Spoken by the Boatswain to the sweet but uber-Establishment Gonzalo, it couldn’t have been more audacious for someone of such a low social caste to point out that Mother Nature trumps the entire social hierarchy! These words were so treasonous in the Early Modern period that, had they been spoken in real life and on dry land, the Boatswain would have been “perfect gallows,” do not pass Go, do not collect 200 ducats. This exclamation is even more important because it foregrounds the unconventional social philosophy of the rest of the play! I’m thinking specifically of both Antonio and Caliban’s attempts to overthrow the rulers of their homeland. In an effort to inspire Sebastian to usurp his brother, King Alonso, Antonio tells him: “Here lies your brother, / No better than the earth he lies upon,” implicitly stating that nature pays no attention to social hierarchy, as all men are equally mortal as they sleep. Again, while this is a comment that we take for granted today, it would have been considered treason 400 years earlier. Caliban, who claims, “The island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,” seeks out a “master” in the drunken Stephano in order to get him to kill Prospero while he takes his customary afternoon nap. Clearly this spectacularly egalitarian notion is of vital importance to the many overthrow-plots of the text: so why neglect it when it deserves our critical attention?

For the sake of brevity (it is the soul of wit, after all), I’ll offer one more example from The Tempest before moving on to Lear. Whoever has studied The Tempest at any level of their education will remember spending at least 45 minutes on close-reading the Epilogue. And I’m not saying that Taymor has to use it just because we studied it: I’m saying we study it because it’s of vital importance. Let’s have a look:

Exeunt

EPILOGUE
SPOKEN BY PROSPERO
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

All hail ProsperA?

Everyone leaves the stage, and Prospero returns. Once again, a character brings up this notion that no magic or title can change the fact that he’s just a man (or in Helen Mirren’s case, an overly gender-conscious female ProsperA, as she incessantly reminds us), standing in front of a crowd of judges who are ready to hear his closing remarks. He tells the audience – “I must be here confined by you, / Or sent to Naples.” To be the reinstated Duke of Milan and humbly stoop to the opinion of both the nobility and the dregs of society that comprised the Globe theatre audience is as egalitarian as it gets. This is the moment where the audience gets to participate in the final action of the play –fun!!! – by casting the final judgment.

So my question is this: why the heck would Julie Taymor want to prevent this from happening? Doesn’t she want her own audience to “release [her] from the bands” (of all the negative hype that’s been going around about both The Tempest and her ill-fated Spiderman musical?), “With the help of your good hands” (with applause and positive reviews by professional critics and leisurely bloggers, alike)? Well, perhaps this is telling that she doesn’t want the production to self-consciously speak for itself. Maybe she wants it to be a movie you play in the background at a house party rather than a Shakespearean adaptation you absorb. So what does she do? She gets her husband and frequent collaborator to compose it to a tune that will run during the final credits! If I haven’t yet made it clear, this is unsatisfactory. She’s basically obscuring literary gold with the sounds of winter boots crunching spilled popcorn.

Can I say the same about Michael Grandage’s King Lear for the Donmar theatre company in London? I’m so happy to say: definitely not. And I’m not flaunting my obvious Anglophilia in order to assert that English theatre is the best theatre. What I’m saying is that he got it right.

Derek Jacobi as a classic Lear

I usually maintain a preference for the text over stage/screen adaptation because the director must choose one interpretation to privilege over all others, whereas with the text you can simultaneously maintain an understanding of each of the possible directions the text can take. That being said, I really enjoyed what Michael Grandage did in fleshing out Shakespeare mathematical language in order to amplify the theme of domestic division within the play. Shakespeare’s tragedies, more often than not, center at the “fear of what lurks at the heart of the family,” to quote one of my favourite professors and King Lear guru, Kiernan Ryan. Not doing anything particularly new but simply doing it really well, Grandage introduces the notion of divide by placing a map of England on the floor of the stage, having Lear, a man so robust that he seems to have too much energy for retirement, divide it with his staff amongst the daughters that deign to tell him in the most florid language how much they love him. Daughters Goneril and Regan multiply their love, while Cordelia tells her father that she has “Nothing” to offer in tribute. His rage erupts. He tells her that “Nothing will come of nothing,” and beseeches her to try again. It’s not that she doesn’t love him at all, she tries to explain, but that she loves him no more and no less than an unmarried daughter ought love her father:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

These words get Lear so angry that he disowns this one daughter, leaving the kingdom to be split 1 part Goneril, 1 part Regan, 0 parts Cordelia, 0 parts Lear. Smart? Doubtful. Significant enough to produce a timeless tragedy? It worked for the Bard!

And while I love Derek Jacobi to bits and think he did an excellent job as Lear, I’ve seen enough Lears to know that they’re usually pretty close variations on a theme. It’s the Fool that has the opportunity to make us, and the king himself, think and feel.  How is this possible? Because he is the one person onstage who Lear pays to tell him the truth. And what is this truth? That he’s divided up his nation, divided up his family, and at the end of the day, he’s left with nothing.

FOOL

Can you make no use of
nothing, nuncle?

KING LEAR

Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.

FOOL

[To KENT] Prithee, tell him, so much the rent of
his land comes to: he will not believe a fool.

The Fool is the one to remind Lear that he has brought this nothingness upon himself, pulling all his land from under his feet and offering it on a silver platter to his duplicitous daughters. The Fool knows it, the audience learns it from the Fool, and the tragedy lies in the fact that it takes five acts and three hours for this to cut to the King’s heart.

Djimon Hounsou's body language alone was well worth the cost of admission

And that’s not to say that there’s nothing left to be desired from Grandage’s Lear: his Cordelia seems to be onstage for the purpose of practicing her received pronunciation rather than evoking extreme pathos from the audience, only doing so when she stops talking and plays dead in the final scene. And The Tempest, not a complete failure, certainly had moments of light: Djimon Hounsou’s muscular, beautiful, tragic, earthy, and graceful Caliban’s pained and angry exclamation of “this Island’s mine” certainly evoked pathos from my cold, academic heart.

So where do we stand, dear Reader? I’d like to suggest that there’s no single Shakespearean production that is unequivocally bad (although the Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged comes dangerously close). Instead, I like to think of each production as offering me something more to learn about Shakespeare, a new way to think about a character or a theme, bringing a multitude of possibilities to light. When a production keeps an important theme in the dark and I feel that loss, I become more understanding of how vital that theme was in the first place. So I choose to remain optimistic. I will just keep on coming back to these new visions and revisions of Shakespeare. Why? The beauty of Shakespeare is that the interpretive possibilities are infinite.

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Shakesetelly: To watch, or not to watch?

Dearest Reader,

I am so happy to be in Kingston, don’t get me wrong, but alas, I can’t be in two places at once! Sometimes I miss London so much that I get a digging sense of missed opportunities, a feeling which usually sets in when I find out that my favourite actors are performing the best Shakespearian roles on the West End. I was feeling really down about not being able to see Derek Jacobi perform King Lear at the Donmar when I got the most wonderful surprise: on February 3rd, 2011, there will be a live screening of his Lear at select movie theatres! I was overjoyed and am, as ever, impressed with the current state of technology in bringing great Shakespeare that much closer to those of us who don’t live in the GSA (Greater Stratford Area).

Another residual obsession from my time in England is reading The Guardian. It’s important to read several reviews in order to get a better-rounded understanding of the plays I can’t see, but I think that Guardian reviewer Michael Billington’s columns are a good place to start. Although he lacks the roguish flamboyance of the late Kenneth Tynan, I genuinely respect his attention to detail and ability to reflect on each production as unique as well reflective of the greater trajectory of Shakespearean performance history.

Today, Billington wrote an especially relevant blog post (is it silly how excited I am to consider myself as his contemporary/peer in terms of mutual Shakesblogging experience?) about the future of Shakespeare’s transition from stage to screen. In particular, he reflects on the very popular televised adaptations of the Gregory Doran/David Tenant production of Hamlet (with Sir Patrick Stewart as Claudius) and Stewart’s own starring role in Rupert Goold’s Macbeth. What’s awesome about these productions? They have the biggest names in British acting! Tenant is well-known in the UK for his role on Dr. Who and the rest of us know him for playing Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Stewart had memorable roles as Professor X in the X-Men films and commanded the Enterprise as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. High-profile actors bring in mass numbers to the theatres, and those who live outside of the cities or don’t have the spare cash to throw around can cozy up in front of the tv and watch these stage-to-small-screen adaptations from the comfort of their own homes!

But Billington suggests that even this isn’t successful. Why? Because the plays are being aired on unpopular channels during the very popular timeslot that hosts X Factor, the UK equivalent to American Idol. Thus, Billington laments: “we live in a barmy, upside-down world where Simon Cowell is considered to be more significant than Shakespeare.” Is this true? Has weekly television prevailed over the timeless works of Shakespeare, or is it that we’re forced to study Shakespeare in school, thus increasing our favour of reality television as a guilty pleasure?

Now, I’m not going to judge you, but which would you prefer to watch? Even without being a bardolator, I’m so starstruck that I would rather see Capt. Picard kill Duncan than watch a nobody kill a classic show-tune, any day!

So you tell me: free Shakespeare, offering us a connection with a golden past of culture, or free music, watching the history of democratically chosen music stardom unfold before us?

And possibly even more important: who wants to come see Lear on February 3rd in Kingston???

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My kind of Saturday night!

Welcome back, Reader!

Call me crazy, but to me, one of the greatest joys of being back in Grad School is getting together with some friends, drinking some wine, eating copious amounts of chocolate, and watching film adaptations of the texts we’re studying. On last night’s agenda: Oliver Parker’s 1995 adaptation of Othello, starring Laurence Fishbourne (The Matrix, CSI) as the Moor, Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Much Ado, Henry V) as Iago, and a lovely little cameo by my crush du jour: Michael Sheen as Desdemona’s cousin Lodovico.

Looking through past blog posts, I’ve realized that Why I Love Shakespeare is developing into a thought-provoking conversation about the virtues and drawbacks of conveying Shakespeare’s works onto stage and screen, which is something I’d like to continue working through today. I think that Parker does a fantastic job of bringing certain verbally constructed images prevalent in the text to the visual fore. The visual image that drew my attention most was the contrast between skin colours when certain characters’ hands touched.

Othello is a play that calls to question the Elizabethan preconception that white was ‘good’ and black was ‘bad.’ That’s not to say that Shakespeare ‘solves’ this issue through his text, but he certainly provokes his readers/viewers to re-think the issue. At the beginning of the first act, Brabantio is told of his daughter’s elopement in a most vulgar way: Iago, cowering behind Roderigo, shouts out that “a old black ram / Is tupping (making dirty animal sex) your white ewe!” (I.i.87-8). After storming the Senate to tell the Duke, the Venetian leader tells the racist Brabantio to get with the progressive times and see past his new son-in-law’s colour: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.290-1). Parker shows how the senator relents, symbolically putting his daughter’s white hand into Othello’s black one. They sail off to smite some Turks, and arrive in Cyprus victorious. This seems like the newlyweds are off to a great start but don’t get too comfortable: any time that a Shakespeare play begins at peacetime, get ready for a tragedy!

Iago, who thought he was front runner for in the race to be Othello’s ensign, his ‘Number 1,’ is livid because he has lost the title to the younger, less experienced, Michael Cassio. In revenge against Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona (he doesn’t discriminate against race or sex! Nice guy!), Iago concocts a plot. He tells Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Michael, and Othello’s jealousy begins to bubble up. What’s problematic here is how Shakespeare writes Othello as a character whose black skin implies an innately savage nature. His peers respect Othello because he has repressed this savage nature in favour of Christianity, leading the Venetian army, and the love of one virtuous woman. He tells Desdemona: “I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (III.iii.92). As his jealousy arises, so does his repressed nature. What remains is a man struggling with this internal chaos: a cognitive dissonance. Parker depicts Othello having nightmares about Desdemona’s milky white hand entwined in Cassio’s as they make love on the white sheets of Othello’s martial bed.

In Othello’s rage, he refuses to listen to his wife’s reasoning, preferring to listen to the oft-named “honest Iago.” When demanding proof of her infidelity, Iago ‘confides’ to Othello that Cassio has been sleep talking about a secret relationship with Desdemona; genius, if you ask me, because Cassio can’t disprove him! Othello gets so angry that he gets down on a knee and vows to avenge this infidelity. Iago offers his assistance in this “bloody business” (III.iii.472), and Parker shows the two engaging in a blood bond, a continuation and departure from that sealing of hands in the wedding scene at the beginning of the play.

And this is where it gets tough: Othello eventually goes so mad that, upon Iago’s advice, he smothers Desdemona in “the bed she hath [supposedly] contaminated” (IV.i.205). In a show of her infinite selflessness (that sickens me – I prefer the outspoken sort of female protagonist, more along the lines of Emilia), Desdemona’s white hand, the one thing not submerged under the white pillow, strokes Othello’s tearful face until she is subsumed into a downy death.

In the last scene, the classic ‘discover-a-pile-of-dead-bodies on stage’ scene, Cassio finally tells Othello that he “never gave [Othello] cause” to doubt his loyalty (V.ii.296) and in a final attempt at regaining his Christian composure, Othello apologizes to Michael, blaming “that demi-devil” (298) Iago. This is the image that Shakespeare brings forth to make his readers rethink the black-white dichotomy. The black can strive for good (although perhaps the times weren’t ready for a black character that could live a successful life without the assumption that he repressed a savage inner nature), and the white has the potential to be downright evil. In Othello’s last moments, Cassio shakes his hand, a sign of forgiveness but also a sign of kindness in slipping the Moor a knife with which he can end his almost irredeemable life. See? Black and white playing nice, showing each other mercy, mending ties, seeing beyond colour in the eternal struggle between good and evil.

So all and all, I think that Oliver Parker does a fantastic job of illuminating this balancing act of black and white, good and evil. It’s an issue that’s apparent in the play but you know what? It’s okay to make it obvious through visual aids! Let everyone understand that this is one of the key themes of Othello. The joy of Shakespearean imagery is not a secret that’s meant to be kept: it’s meant to be shared! There’s room enough for everyone on the couches of Shakespeare movie nights!

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Happy Birthday Shakespeare!!!

Welcome back, Reader! I don’t know whether this will make you squeal with joy or pout in dismay, but this is not going to be a biographical blog post to honour the Bard’s date of birth. Did you know that aside from today being my birthday (!!!), and Shakespeare’s birthday, it was also his death day? Next piece of trivia: The Tempest was recorded as the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own. I am not the first to connect the play with the end of his life, but I would like to be the first to share this connection with you!

The Tempest is a play about Prospero, the former Duke of Milan. He was overthrown and exiled on a rickety boat during a tempest (giant storm) by his brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples, when he was too busy playing with magic to rule. When the Alonso and Antonio sail the seas to go to a wedding, Prospero uses his magic to set off another tempest, shipwrecking them on the island where he lives and rules over all the creatures with his magic. Once he has his revenge, he tells them he forgives him, but he promises never to forget their sins against him. His daughter and the king’s son marry, Prospero promises to drown his magic books, and he is able to return home with a promotion and the scars of his former grudge.

Shakespeare’s plays can be divided into several genres, and The Tempest falls into the most complicated one: Romances. Not to be mistaken with the romantic comedies of today, Shakespearean Romances are known to include the following:

–         Families torn apart and then reunited, but with visible scars

–         Endings in which the conflicts seem to be resolved, but that resolution is never unconditional

–         An element of the supernatural

–         Strangeness

Shakespeare delved into the Romances at the end of his career, and I think they are so steeped in strangeness and the supernatural because Shakespeare was personally grappling with the idea of the afterlife, or: “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.” In this context, his thoughts would have ranged from angels and devils to whether he would be reunited with his own family on the other side.

What caught my attention in The Tempest was how Shakespeare incorporates the supernatural (his musings on the characters who might star in his own afterlife) with seemingly normal human life. This play takes every type of self-aware being and puts it in a blender, leaving us with blurred distinctions of what defines being a ‘person’. Think of it as a spectrum:

Animal ——- Human ———Spirit ——-Demon

One character doesn’t have to fall into a single slot; instead, they can hover over several.

The best example of a character that just will not stay in one category is Caliban. Trinculo, Alonso’s drunken butler says:

Sir Herbert Beerholm Tree as Caliban, 1904

What have we
here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish:
he smells like a fish;

In other sections of the play, he is called monster, mooncalf, son of the devil, and his name is actually an anagram for the word ‘cannibal’. Because Shakespeare left no drawn sketches of what he wanted his characters to be like, we’re left with this totally ambivalent (going in many directions) description of Caliban. When putting the play on stage and screen, directors have to make the decision: do I make Caliban fish-like? Do people call him devil out of cruelty, or should I outfit him with horns to match?

Well, Shakespeare wanted to make it one degree more difficult. To contrast with his monstrous image, Caliban happens to have a poetic mind. When leading the fearful Trinculo and his friend Stephano through the island, he comforts them by saying:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

This verse has made critics take pause and say: we know Caliban is visually unattractive, but Caliban can speak so poetically! Does the ability to speak poetry make one a person? Or does it force us at least to believe he’s not an animal, but could be some other being? Search the play all you want: there is no definite answer. That is because Shakespeare was a master at blurring distinctions, thereby forcing us to realize that what we think of as ‘truth’ is defined subjectively (based on personal feelings) rather than objectively (representing stone-cold facts).

Defining personhood

"What care these roarers for the name of king?", Designed by Walter Crane

Different characters in this play would define personhood in different ways. Alonso, the king of Milan, tells the mariners to ‘Play the men’ while sailing through the tempest. To him, people overcome their natural instincts whereas animals would flee in fearful situations. To the Neapolitan (from Naples) nobility, personhood is not enough of a distinction: men must also be classified in a social hierarchy. Their beliefs are shattered during the tempest when the boatswain begs the king to go back to his cabin because he’s interfering their attempts to survive. The king assumes he’s privileged because of his social status and the Boatswain rebukes him with one of Shakespeare’s most deliciously egalitarian lines: “What care these roarers for the name of king?” These words thrust the nobility into a ‘green space’: a place where the way of life is different and forces them to re-evaluate the crooked social codes they followed at home.

But this green space doesn’t just teach Alonso’s men a lesson: it teaches Prospero. Although he rules over the spirits, his fairy-like personal assistant, Ariel, is the one who tells him to forgive and forget. When Prospero and Ariel watch over the shipwrecked and horrified Neapolitan nobility, it is Ariel who suggests:

Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Prospero, who is up to his elbows in magic, has lost that essential humaneness which comes with being human. He asks Ariel for advice: “Dost thou think so, spirit?”, to which Ariel responds, “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Only then does he realize he’s gotten in too deep and must drown his books to regain his humanity.

Sir Antony Sher's "Bottled toad" Richard III, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1984

So back to the question: what does it mean to be a person? Is it empathy? Is it looks? Caliban is ‘not honoured with / A human shape’, but he could have been born deformed, like Richard III, who was called a ‘toad’ and ‘bottled spider’ in his self-titled Shakespearean play. To Prospero, humanity and self-control go hand in hand.  When he first got to the island, he treated Caliban well, feeding him “water with berries in’t.” Then Caliban tried to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. From then on, Prospero considered him unworthy of humane treatment, calling him “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself,” treating Caliban as a slave and forcing him to fetch his wood and build his fires.

Do I think Caliban is a person? I’d say yes. Why? Because he knows that Propsero, too, has lost his self-control. Prospero has let the magic take over his humanity, and Caliban knows he can overthrow Prospero by stealing his magic books. He tells Trinculo and Stephano that in order to rule the island, they must:

Remember

First to possess his books; for without them

He’s but a sot, as I am

Caliban is aware that he and Prospero share something in common: human weakness. Just as Caliban was outnumbered by the spirits Prospero sent to physically torment him when he didn’t fetch food fast enough, the old and magic-less Prospero could never win when outnumbered in hand-to-hand combat. And just as Caliban acknowledges Prospero as one like himself, Prospero later admits: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

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Romeo and Juliet on Stage and Screen

Actors minstrelling before their performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre, April 23, 2009

Welcome back, Reader!

Today we get to start our look at Shakespeare’s plays being brought to life on stage and screen. I decided to start with a classic fan favourite, Romeo and Juliet. I will explore its incarnations in the Baz Luhrmann film Romeo + Juliet (starring Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as a production that I saw at London’s Globe Theatre this past April 23rd, which happens to be both mine and the Bard’s birthday, as well as the Globe’s opening night.

First, to give you a refresher course on the story, we need look no further than Shakespeare’s prologue, which tells you the ending of the play before it has even begun:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

In a nutshell: In two short hours, Shakespeare plans to tell the tale of two families whose enmity has caused calm, lovely Verona to be overwrought with violence. The heirs of the families meet and fall in love at first sight but their love is doomed, as their families’ hatred makes their love virtually impossible. I say virtually because they can only consummate their love in death, which is their tragic ending. This tragedy finally brings about reconciliation between the Montagues and Capulets.

Now, the whole ‘boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, their parents forbid their love’ story is a tale as old as time and humanity itself, and therefore can be applicable in any time and culture. So let’s see how two different directors, Luhrmann and the Globe’s Dominic Dromgoole, go about transforming the text through different mediums that reflect two very different cultures.

Standing as ‘groundlings’ with my friends in the low-cost standing space at the Globe, we really got a feel for how the plays were performed in Shakespeare’s time. Just as in his time there was minimal set design – this prompted us to use our own imaginations when today we are used to being bombarded by visual stimulants. The actor who played Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend, really played up the Renaissance model of appealing to the lowly ‘groundlings’ by making the most vulgar gestures, gestures that made today’s patrons blush. The part I enjoyed most was the traditional Globe finale, where all of the actors did a jig together. After spending the end of the play crying, it was so touching to see the dead rise and those who began the play in deadly enmity hold hands and laugh together. Then again, what also made me teary was the prolonged time I was standing stationary on my feet. I know that people in Shakespeare’s time might have been used to it, but I wasn’t. None of us were expecting the production to be as long as it was, first because Shakespeare promises only ‘two hours’ traffic’ of the stage and secondly: we’re used to the Luhrmann.

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, 1996

Luhrmann gives us the general gist of the story while cutting a whopping 60% of the text, leading some to say that he’s ‘bastardized’ it. I wouldn’t go that far. I think he creates a genuinely touching image of the young lovers; what he did, he did well. What he cut out was Shakespeare’s deeper look into the lives of the supporting characters. Dromgoole took his time at the expense of my weeping feet, but it was worth it to see the way he delved into the Nurse’s tragic past (having lost her own daughter) and the hilarious Capulet servant, who provided much-needed comic relief and reminded us that the civil war is not only between the nobility but rather involves everyone in fair Verona.

Nonetheless, Luhrmann deserves credit where credit is most definitely due. His newscast of the prologue with quick flash-forwards to the end of the play bring the prologue to life as if own imaginations are doing the flash-forwards before we’ve even seen the events of the play. The music selection is out of this world – modern songs like The Cardigans’ ‘Lovefool’ highlights the joy of young love and Des’ree’s ‘Kissing you’ stops the fast-paced world of Montague-Capulet violence so we can watch two innocent people fall in love. Most of all, I think that the way that Luhrmann incorporates guns makes not only a strong statement about the problems with gun violence in North America today, but also connects this contemporary issue with the abounding violence that casts a tragic shadow over the beautiful love story of Juliet and her Romeo.

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