Tamora, Queen of the Goths: a tribute to a she-villain

Mirror, mirror on the wall…who’s the fiercest she-villain of them all?

“Unsex me here”: Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

The go-to answer is usually Lady Macbeth, and not without reason. She’s ambitious, and her words leave such an emasculating sting on Macbeth that he is driven to kill King Duncan. While he wants to reap the benefits of being king, it is Lady Macbeth who shows him that, to make a royal omelet, one must first crack a few crowns.

Lady Macbeth is most notable for her lack of stain-remover and for the heartlessness of the following rant:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

Lady Macbeth’s baby is one of those great Shakespearean mysteries. We know that Macbeth has no sons, and thus the crown will pass to Banquo’s, but what of that baby? Was it Macbeth’s, or Lady M’s by another man?  Has she already dashed that baby’s head into the concrete? We never really know, but her threat to “dash” the baby’s brains out has made her an eternally compelling she-villain.

“Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top” – Jessica Lange as Tamora

But now I’d like to make the case for Tamora, Queen of the Goths, the underrated she-villain of Titus Andronicus. Mother to four sons over the course of the play, she is the true embodiment of “Hell hath no fury like a Mama Bear scorned.”

Tamora’s first words are some of her most compelling, as she begs Titus to spare the life of her firstborn:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome,
To beautify thy triumphs and return,
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke,
But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets,
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge:
Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.

 

Tamora pleading with Titus in the Peacham drawing: the only surviving contemporary Shakespearean illustration

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Cymbeline at the Stratford Festival

Cymbeline is, in a word, a doozy. It is rarely taught in schools because the plot is so darn complicated; the chief reason for this is that not one, not two, but at least five characters, at some point or another, intentionally or inadvertently, go about this play in disguise. While this makes for a tough read, director Antoni Cimolino proves that it can be significantly more entertaining to watch.

Posthumous gives Innogen a token of his love

Going to the theatre, we expect to be entertained but in the best cases, we are also moved.  After largely overlooking them in my annual pre-show lecture to my ever-patient mother, I was most touched by the performances by EB Smith and Ian Lake, who played the roles of Guiderius and Arviragus. These characters know themselves as Polydore and Cadwal, the supposed sons of Morgan, actually Belarius, a courtier that had been banished for treason and took the boys with him into exile, twenty years earlier.[1] One appealing feature was, no doubt, their brawniness, but more so, I was touched by their bright-eyed innocence, their playfulness with each other, their genuine affection for the old man who they think is their father, and the way their hearts open wide to accommodate the beautiful boy Fidele, actually Innogen[2] incognito, who they take in as a little brother for no more reason than “Love’s reason’s without reason.”

The main love-match in the play is Innogen and her betrothed, Posthumous Leonatus. King Cymbeline banishes him when he finds out that they are all-but married. As Cymbeline’s only remaining biological child, Innogen must marry for the kingdom’s advantage rather than her heart’s. Exiled on the continent, Posthumous’s false friend Iachimo[3] tricks him into believing that Innogen is unfaithful, and Posthumous sends his servant, Pisanio, to kill her. Charmed by her, he reveals his master’s plans and tells her to disguise herself as a boy and hide. Clearly, Pisanio is far nobler than his master, who I usually resign alongside Othello and Claudio as weak and gullible, unworthy of my tears. Onstage, though, Posthumous redeems himself, not through his own actions, but through the love and forgiveness of Innogen, who literally throws herself at him in the concluding moments of the play. At that final moment, she is no longer the gangly Fidele, but the tragic princess for whom things are finally going right.

To oh-so-sauve Geraint Wyn Davies as King Cymbeline

The beauty of the Shakespearean Romance is that the Bard never lets too many bodies pile up onstage before he sets everything right. Belarius comes forward to tell Cymbeline that his sons are alive, consequently shoving castle-raised Innogen back to third in line for inheritance. This resolution is unsettling, but characteristic of the Romances: things have changed for the better, but there’s no rule dictating that the result is fully just (or just on today’s terms). This moment should leave readers with a sour taste in their mouths, but Cimolino chose to overlook this aspect. This omission leaves the play’s conclusion with less of that unsettling dimension that we should be exposed to when watching the Problem Plays and Romances, but I applaud the director’s focus on the other crucial aspects of the genre: redemption and reconciliation. The “Evil Stepmother” of a Queen is dead, and the King finds his only daughter alive and able to reconcile with her true love, clearly caring more for their reunion than the throne she no longer has claim to. The play ends with a glorious group hug, a moment which might sound cheesy in print, but one that brought tears to my eyes as I was the first to jump up and give the cast its much-deserved standing ovation.

 

 


[1] See what I’m saying? This gets complicated!!

[2] Also spelled Imogen, but let’s not make this any more difficult.

[3] Pronounced Ya-chemo and spelled numerous ways, more unnecessary confusion in print.

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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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Shakespeare’s birthday resolutions!

My birthday is today, April 23. I’m turning 26 and am feeling great about it. My personal life is full of hope for the future, and my professional life allows me to immerse myself in what I love. The overlap becomes significant on a day like today, when I set out to celebrate both my life and Shakespeare’s. A new year of life reminds me to reflect back and look forward, setting a game plan and then putting it into action to my best ability. That’s why today I’m setting out my Shakespeare’s Birthday Resolutions:

–       Audit my university’s summer Shakespeare course and enjoy the continuing education without the stress of essay deadlines

       See Alan Cumming perform Macbeth (my mom and I actually have tickets to see it in July in New York and I couldn’t be more excited!)

–       Custom-make wall decals to literally surround myself by Shakespearean inspiration (my bedroom favourite: sleep perchance to dream)

–       Visit the Stratford Shakespeare Festival with my mom (our annual tradition) and with friends (a new experience!) to see Ben Carlson play Benedick to his real-life wife’s Beatrice in Much Ado; Cymbeline to see the kick-ass eagle prop the Festival’s been sneaking pictures of over Twitter; Ben Carlson again, because he’s so awesome, playing the sassy Welsh Fluellen in Henry V; and the one-man show MacHomer, as a hilarious contrast to Cummings’ much darker Macbeth, hopefully including the voices of Patty and Selma as the Witches

–       See Benedict Cumberbatch perform in something Shakespearean (fine, that one’s more of a fantasy)

–       Stop buying new Shakespeare posters and instead find more places or better adhesives with which to mount the ones currently lying on the floor in my office

–       Submit my first article for publication

–       Write a brilliant essay/paper/blog post that delves into Suzanne Collins’ Shakespeare references in the Hunger Games trilogy

–       Get back to England before I’m 27, returning to the Globe and to the RSC to experience Gregory Doran’s first year as Artistic Director

–       Finally make my way to Britgrad to hear the Shakespearean luminary Stanley Wells speak in person

–       Read more about Shakespeare’s egalitarian instinct, especially more written by my living Shakespeare idol, Kiernan Ryan. This writing just gets me too excited about the way that Shakespeare said such incredibly subversive stuff about the equality of one human being with the next. It also helps me keep steady among the painful truths of mortality – accepting death, but as a result grabbing life with both hands and really just finding ways to enjoy it – not taking more work so seriously that I no longer enjoy it, and when that time comes, allowing myself the time to rest and relax. Of course, my favorite way to do that is to go to England (see above), so I must remind myself that the best way to simultaneously avoid burnout and keep moving forward on this path of Shakespeare scholarship is by learning Shakespeare on my feet, and then come back to my books with renewed vigour

–       Speak to a grade 7 class about my awesome experiences with Shakespeare so far, and convert at least one unassuming child into a die-hard bardolator!

That’s all for now! What are your Shakespeare’s Birthday Resolutions?

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Trauma gravitates towards trauma

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

My 2012 recreational reading/listening list looks a bit like this:

–       Jane Austen’s Persuasion (audio book read by a wonderful librivox.org volunteer)

–       The Hunger Games (the entire series, twice; first in print and then over audio book)

–       Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (also an audio book, extra points because Mad Men’s John Slattery reads it)

–       The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night Soundtrack

When I look at the list, I feel the satisfaction of having enjoyed good books and music – a pretty fair way to spend the time that I was recovering from some family trauma of my own.

Today, after a trip to see a previously-recorded version of the Stratford Festival’s 2011 production[1] of Twelfth Night, I realized that now, more than ever before, I had become addicted to trauma narratives. No longer was Twelfth Night the same old story of “girl-dressed-as-boy meets boy, boy loves other girl, but other girl is obsessed with girl-dressed-as-boy.”

Suzy Jane Hunt as Viola (disguised as Cesario) in Stratford's Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I mean, think about it this way: Viola of Messaline was on one of those Costa cruise ships with her twin brother, her counterpart, when it hits a storm and the boat capsizes. They each survive, but she lives in grief thinking that Sebastian has been lost to the waves. Viola lands in Illyria, the country against which her country is at war. How convenient – landing in the country of your enemy, a woman, escorted only a moment longer by the captain, who has survived (how are we not surprised?). She begs him to hide her identity so she can live under the protection, and enjoy some of the privileges, of a great house. Smart girl.

But Viola doesn’t pick just anyone to live with – at first she wants to serve Lady Olivia. We can tell by the similarity of names that there will be some similarity of character. Here is what Viola learns about Lady Olivia:

A virtuous maid, the daughter of a count
That died some twelvemonth since, then leaving her
In the protection of his son, her brother,
Who shortly also died: for whose dear love,
They say, she hath abjured the company
And sight of men.

Viola gravitates towards the person who can empathize with her grief – they both carry the burden of fresh wounds, having lost their brothers earlier in the year. Olivia’s father has also recently died and Viola, whose voice is high enough to pass for a eunuch, had experienced the same grief when only a couple of years before, her father had “died that day when Viola from her birth / Had number’d thirteen years.” Trauma on one’s birthday – I’ve been there and don’t recommend it. Before she decides to work as a boy for Orsino, Viola shows how that she had rather be a lady-in-waiting for a woman who “like a cloistress, … will veiled walk / And water once a day her chamber round / With eye-offending brine” – tears.

I could go on. Of course Maria thinks Olivia will order to “hang the fool” – he has abandoned her in her time of grief. Why is this? In this pansexual play, is he, too, grieving over the untimely loss of Olivia’s brother? The Stratford production offers some interesting sexual tension between Olivia and Feste – hath she abjured the sight of this man? She lets Malvolio stick around, and doesn’t even wholeheartedly cast off Sir Andrew. Interesting. Feste proves Olivia the fool by catechizing her into admitting that one mustn’t grieve for those living in luxury in heaven above. Only then can her heart begin to open for a return of our usual programming, throwing herself at the girl Viola, dressed as a boy, Cesario.

Percy Shelley wrote: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” and I’d like to think that this production offers that same message of hope.


[1] Hilarious at the Festival itself, the filmed broadcast added dimension to my understanding of Des McAnuff’s production because I got to see the characters’ facial expressions close-up. It was excellent, but the machines playing it kept cutting out. On the bright side we got passes, so I’m going to try to see it in full on the 21st, when it’s playing at 7 pm for an encore presentation.

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The Tempest and Revenge

You know what’s interesting about The Tempest? What’s interesting is that even though the play’s rising action indicates that Prospero seeks vengeance against his deposers, it’s not a revenge tragedy. The play’s trajectory seems to turn upon itself when Prospero says “the rarer action is / in virtue than in vengeance,” but why, then, has he shipwrecked the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan, and their whole surly entourage on this island, yet “Not a hair perish’d” (which the Bard reiterates many times, indicating deeper significance when one mention would have sufficed).

"No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be"

The Tempest was possibly the final play that Shakespeare wrote independently and, fittingly, it’s a more intellectual drama that privileges reunion and reconciliation over the “murder most foul” of the campy revenge tragedies (that I admittedly favour) of the late sixteenth century. To Prospero, the best revenge is living well… and making his enemies watch. Although the audience does not get to experience the ‘happily ever after’ of their return to Naples, regaining his position as Duke must provide Prospero with sweeter schadenfreude than could be achieved in being a vengeful killer, which, 9 times out of ten Shakespeare plays, would otherwise leave the elderly mage as but one in a heap of dead bodies on the stage with a helpless sidekick praying that “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

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Remember me.

Tomorrow is my comprehensive exam. I’m supposed to be spending these last few hours mentally (spiritually? emotionally?) preparing myself for the exam, so I try to think of words that can adequatey express how I feel. I pace, I lie out my clothes, set a double alar(u)m, and worry about all the things I’m bound to forget. And then I log into WordPress and the page offers, at the tick of a box, a bypass-the-line service for future visits: Remember me.

It’s possible that I’m the only person who laughs at this message, and part of me that hopes I’m not a solitary member of a lost species. When I think of that line, I laugh and think of Hamlet, ashen-faced and quaking in his boots at the words that have changed his life: how do you respond to orders to assassinate your uncle, your king?

Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain.

And when I think of those kind of demands, I remind myself that spending a couple of hours talking shop probably isn’t so bad. Wish me luck!

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