Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Creative casting: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

The beauty of Shakespeare’s drama is its versatility: it has reached audiences throughout the ages as a product of its time, and as a perfect vessel to communicate the cultural zeitgeist ever since. We don’t study it just to learn a bunch of difficult words: it’s about how those words, delivered in the right way, can make us think differently about bigger ideas like love, ambition, fury, and revenge. When I say “delivered in the right way,” I mean, by whom? In what accent? Who are they speaking to? Where are the words being spoken? Is the speech staged based on First Folio stage directions, or at the whim of a director with another vision entirely?

A bit of a pop culture fiend myself, I love thinking about how who speaks the words matters. Where have I seen them before? How do their most memorable performances colour my understanding of the Shakespearean role they play? In the past I’ve called this inter or intra-dramatic doubling, but lately, I’ve been calling it “creative casting.” It’s a bit more pithy.

Most recently, I’ve been eagerly anticipating my trip to London to see Benedict Cumberbatch perform in Hamlet. We don’t live anywhere near England, but as self-professed “Cumberbitches,” my mother and I determined that we needed to see it in person. Why do we care so much? Because with all of Benedict’s filming commitments, we won’t be able to binge-watch another season of BBC’s Sherlock until January, 2017! In the show, he plays the sharp-witted and sharper-tongued Sherlock, who loves to confound his partner with his powers of deduction. Benedict’s Sherlock is unique because it’s his own spin on the role. I have no doubt that he’ll make his Hamlet unique as well, but I wonder: will his Hamlet bare traces of his Sherlock? When he raises Yorick’s skull, will he investigate it? Will Hamlet’s signature comeback, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” be delivered with the same sass that Sherlock lashes witticisms at Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson?

Hinds as Mance Rayder

While Benedict is the main attraction of this Barbican theatre production, there will also be a familiar face in the supporting cast. Fresh off of his role as King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Ciarán Hinds will be playing King Claudius. Hamlet contemplates revenge against his uncle when his father’s ghost informs him that Claudius poisoned Hamlet Sr. in his sleep. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This isn’t a good fit! In season 5 (without giving away too many spoilers), Mance scoffed at the notion of poisoning someone, declaring himself above killing those under his hospitality!” Will Claudius be a complete change of character from Mance, or will Hinds draw on his recent character’s silent strength and determination to bring his people together at a time when “something’s rotten” north of The Wall? Mance is a man who understands necessary brutality for the greater good, but is also an advocate of justice. Most of all, he’s honest about his own shortcomings. Will this come through when Claudius gives his great speech, inches away from Hamlet’s drawn sword?

But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?

Claudius admits his sin, but what Hamlet does not realize is that the King does not have it in himself to repent: he did what he thought was right. I see that in Mance, and I hope that Hinds will let some of that rub off on his Claudius!

Looking ahead, I can’t wait to see the chemistry between these two excellent actors. Both speak with outstanding elocution, and I’m especially looking forward to their verbal sparring in Shakespearean verse, which has its own internal rhythm. How will they dress? Will they look Danish, upper-class English, Viking Norse or trailer trash? Cumberbatch and Hinds share high cheekbones and a look that is rarely called attractive so much as “distinct”: will director Lyndsey Turner use that to her advantage, perhaps hinting that Hamlet is Claudius’s bastard? That’s an angle that’s always worth pursuing, because it makes it seem that Hamlet eventually kills his own father, which is deliciously Oedipal. There have been precious few clues about what to expect. All I know is to be excited!

Hamlet: directed by Lyndsey Turner.

Barbican Theatre, 5 August–31 October 2015.

Sold out.

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Filed under Characters, Performances, Roles

Janelle Jenstad’s Map of Early Modern London, or Shakespeare’s Serial

Not much can get me out of my dissertation-writing groove. Maybe it’s the progress, or maybe it’s just the opportunity to sit out Kingston’s awful winter from my armchair: pajamas, hot chocolate, and cat snuggles unlimited. But when Janelle Jenstad came to my university, her alma mater, to give a talk on the Map of Early Modern London (MoEML) project, I was there with bells on. MoEML is the supremely accomplished Jenstad’s brainchild and, spoiler alert: it’s a wunderkind.

Professor Jenstad, showing a student her project

Professor Jenstad, showing a student her project

Do you remember the opening credits of Shakespeare in Love, when Henslowe is rushing through the streets of London to confront Will Shakespeare about his writer’s block? MoEML visualizes that. Well, to be precise, it visualizes a map drawn around 1561, about 30 years before Shakespeare was writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. So, why is the map so exciting? Because it allows us to investigate the theatrical culture, as well as daily life, of early modern London. It shows us where we can find Ben Jonson’s inspiration for his comedy, Bartholomew Fair, and where on a map we can situate Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. In terms of daily life, we can discover where the conduits ran, for people to gather fresh water. What do water cans on the map tell us? They don’t tell, they show. They show us about where people would have exchanged important information with friends in their direct proximity, without the long-distance reach of cell phones and social media.

best-buy-payphone-hed-2014Listening to Janelle’s talk, I began to think about NPR’s smash-hit podcast, Serial. So much of host Sarah Koenig’s reasonable doubt was based on the placement of a Best Buy. To be precise, she wanted to know whether there was a payphone at a certain Best Buy at the time of this one crime, as a suspected accomplice said that he had used it to call the other suspect. Jenstad’s “Agas Map” bears witness to London as it was in 1560, and it lies waiting to be used by people with mysteries to solve. What people are looking for is yet to be known, which is why the site is always looking for feedback. This team of scholars keeps reworking the entire website to adapt with the scholarly needs of the times, using the latest technology in the Digital Humanities. They perform the painstaking coding of layers upon layers of data to keep this 400 year old map so digitally current it’s on its way to being integrated with the coordinates on Google Maps. For the MoEML team, the job is never done.

Using the Map of Early Modern London is fun for curious history fanatics, London tourists figuring out which theatres once stood in terms of today’s ultra-hip Shoreditch, and for teachers on a never-ending search for the best visual aids to bring history to life. Choosing your own search terms, building type, or route through London, the website visualizes the material, but also allows you to bookmark and save these images for personal and pedagogical use. For fun, I searched for the Globe Theatre on the map, and sure enough, there is a highlighted space for where Shakespeare’s best-known playhouse would be erected in 1599. Take a look:

The Agas MapThat yellow square is where the original Globe Theatre would stand forty years after the map was drawn. What strikes me from this picture is just how close the Globe was built to the bear- and bull-baiting gardens outside of the city walls. I had always heard that bear-baiting pits were close to Shakespeare’s theatres, but I didn’t realize that they were this close! This discovery brings new meaning to Sir Toby’s ominous plans to “gull” or humiliate the surly Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew Aguecheek: “To anger him we’ll have the bear again; and we will fool him black and black.” Their idea of fooling is exceptionally violent. Sir Toby’s revenge on Malvolio will emulate the early modern practice of whipping a blinded bear, a form of entertainment that Malvolio himself had encouraged Olivia to outlaw from her estate. This practice is almost as gruesome as the most commonly-known mode of bear-baiting, setting dogs loose on a bear chained to a stake. In this case, though, they blind Malvolio by “hav[ing] him in a dark room and bound,” imprisoned and tormented almost to the point of believing that darkness is light and light is dark. Almost. This is a humiliating experience for Malvolio, who, unlike the unfortunate bears, lives to have the last word. Addressing the revelers as if they are the dogs who seized on him, Malvolio proclaims: “I’ll be revenged on the pack of you!”

Unlike the revelers of Twelfth Night, the MoEML team doesn’t look to discern between insiders and outsiders. In an act of generosity not always seen in the academy, this site is entirely open access. That means that even though scholars run it and universities fund a bunch of it, the team are determined to make it accessible for anyone with the internet, including you! Check it out!Bear+Baiting-1

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Shakespeare’s Birthday Resolutions: 2014 Edition!

With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come.

images-2Happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! Also, happy birthday to me! Today I turn 28, but the milestone birthday goes to the Bard himself, who turns 450! Every year on our shared birthday, I like to reflect back on the amazing ways that I’ve experienced Shakespeare over the course of the year, and my goals as a Bardolator (unabashed Shakespeare lover) for the coming year. Take a look back at my Shakespeare’s Birthday Resolutions from 2012 and 2013 – I can’t believe how quickly time flies!

 

Up till now

The past year’s shakespeareance (I had to – just once) most dear to me is my trip to England. There, I presented my research alongside my peers, and I got to go on a mini tour to visit some of my favorite people in London, Oxford, and Cambridge. I feel so lucky to be able to gallivant around England for a few weeks every year or two; however broke I am afterwards, I still think of it as one of the top perks of being a scholar. I love being able to work from where I want, when I want, be it in the promised land of Shakespeare himself, or working away at my desk with a sleeping cat next to me for moral support. Both are part of the lifestyle that I’ve come to savour over the past year.

Some of National Theatre Live's best offerings!

Some of National Theatre Live’s best offerings!

As ever, I cannot express the extent of my appreciation for the technology and arts funding that brings the best of England’s theatre live to my local cinema. This year, I got to see Rory Kinnear’s Olivier-winning turn as Iago in Othello; Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, which was just as sexy as I’d hoped; and Kenneth Branagh’s outstanding Macbeth, which I am over the moon to be seeing in New York this coming June!

Professionally, I am always striving to strike a balance between working hard and having fun. This year, the fates aligned when my Victorian ecocritic boyfriend got assigned to TA Shakespeare with me; to have a boyfriend who can quote Shakespeare is pretty much all I’ve ever wanted…and far be it from me to stop our students from calling us the Brad and Angelina of the English department 😉

Thanks for the Bardie, Shakespeare Standard!

Thanks for the Bardie, Shakespeare Standard!

But enough of the lovey-dovey stuff! This year, I’ve been working to keep on top of my blogging while doing my research, which isn’t always easy but is nonetheless immensely rewarding. This morning, I found out that I won two Bardie awards on behalf of The Shakespeare Standard, where I discuss my grad school experiences in the Secret Diary of a PhD Candidate. Winning the award is such an honour, and reminds me that it’s worth it to keep writing because there are people out there who will keep reading! I thank you! I continue to strive to make your blogging experience better, which is why I’ve finally done away with the dusty bardolator23.wordpress.com domain and have finally locked down TheBardolator.com. Stay tuned for some exciting updates over the course of this year, too; as I get closer to the job market, I want to make this place shine!

And finally, the dissertation: I’m proud and relieved to have made some substantial progress on my dissertation research this year. After years of grappling with The Merchant of Venice (relationship status: it’s complicated.), it finally hit me that it is the beast that I was meant to tackle in my dissertation. I’ll be presenting the first nugget of that research at a symposium at the University of Toronto this weekend: wish me luck!

 

What’s to come

This past year, I’ve been building up my teaching skills by taking a course on teaching and learning in higher education. Teaching at the university level doesn’t require a Bachelor of Education, but the methods I learned in the course have already proved indispensable for my marking, and I can’t wait to see how they influence my teaching. In September, I will be teaching my own course. This is an experience that has been no less than five years in the making, and I can’t be more excited about it. Word docs with creative ideas abound!

Got an idea for my Shakespeare course hashtag? Leave it in the comments below!

Got an idea for my Shakespeare course hashtag? Leave it in the comments below!

But as much as teaching is a time to pass on my knowledge, it’s still very much a time for me to grow. In the past, I’ve been known to ride what I would call the “textual high horse” – I’ve argued that Shakespeare must first and foremost be understood through reading the text, and then only afterwards should students watch the movies. While this is one of my ideals, I recognize that undergraduate study habits don’t always work that way. For my course, I will be screening each of the films and I really hope all students, whether they’ve had/made the time to read the text or not, come to these screenings and engage with the material in whichever ways they can. I want to make these screenings a party- popcorn potlucks! I’ll know that it works if the students develop a course hashtag. I’ll be sure that it works if the students turn that hashtag into t-shirts – fingers crossed!

On the vein of performance, my goals for this coming year are, as always, to immerse myself in more Shakespeare! I’m particularly excited for what’s to come in Shakespeare performance this year. Much to my joy, the Stratford Festival is fulfilling one of my dreams: to stage more than one production of the same Shakespeare play to show the variety of interpretations that can spin out of one major dramaturgical difference. This year, they’re staging two productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Benedict is primed for performance!

Benedict is primed for performance!

There is one production, though, that I’m more excited about than any other, excited enough to book another trip across the pond for it. What’s that? Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, August 2015! It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read or seen that play: I can’t wait to see how Olivier award-winning director Lyndsey Turner will spin it! Will Benedict act like Sherlock, or Kahn, or think outside of the box? We’ll have to wait and see! So what’s the plan till then? My plan is to use that trip as my brass ring, the goal that pushes me to finish my dissertation and then take a much-needed vacation!

And with that, let’s celebrate! Happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! To another 450 years!

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Filed under Current Events, National Theatre Live, Shakespeare, Stratford Festival

Bullying in Shakespeare

To engage young people in the wonderful world of Shakespeare, educators tend to begin with old faithful: Shakespearean insults. The exercise is easy to set up and on top of being hilarious, the obscure jokes help educators to sneak in little lessons on Shakespeare’s language: “Why is that particular word insulting? Here’s a history lesson!” Truth be told, most of the expressions are slang for erectile dysfunction or venereal disease! Pretty risqué!

Today, while watching The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part 1 (2012, dir. Richard Eyre), I thought about another way of bringing Shakespeare into classroom conversation: let’s talk about bullying. So often we read Shakespeare’s speeches as meditations on virtues we should possess: selflessness, mercy, and courage. But what about when Shakespeare shows us a really awful character, someone who has charisma, but delights in causing others pain? Do we ignore those characters? Not a chance.

A drunk Hal and Falstaff

A drunken Hal and Falstaff

We find a Shakespearean bully in Prince Hal, Henry IV’s son and the future Henry V. Hal spends all of his time at a tavern in a scummy part of town, and it pains his father that he’s not participating in his courtly duties. Hal delivers a soliloquy about how he’s just waiting for the perfect time to show the whole kingdom that he’s worthy of the crown. Yet, even after he shares these lofty aspirations, Hal maintains his persona as the guy who can “drink with any tinker in his own language during my life”; he prides himself on being able to speak the language of the common people, and sees that as a selling point for his new generation of kingship.

But is it possible that Hal genuinely enjoys being at the pub because he can lord himself over all the guests and staff? This is a big change from being shamed by his father back home at court! Hal asserts his dominance at the Boar’s Head Tavern by playing a trick on the slack-witted busboy, Francis. Francis has a busy role, and as all the customers call out to him, he delays helping them by calling back, “Anon, anon!”, showing that he’ll be there soon. Hal gets his buddy Poins to call out to Francis from another room, while Hal monopolizes the busboy through meaningless conversation. Francis is forced to keep shouting “Anon, anon!” to Poins, but Hal laughs hysterically because he asks Francis stupid questions that he keep answering with, “Anon, anon!” This goes on for a while, much to Francis’s increasing anxiety.

Hal and Poins: Besties.

Hal and Poins: Besties.

Francis’s limited vocabulary is the butt of Hal’s joke; it’s easy for the one brought up by the kingdom’s finest tutors to laugh at the uneducated, but I find Hal to be the worst kind of hypocrite because he prides himself on his ability to speak the language of the people and then uses it to exploit them. Francis is overworked and underpaid, and instead of pitying his need to work so hard, Hal creates more obstacles to prevent him from getting his job done.

It’s important to ask: Why is Hal doing this? We know he does this to share a laugh with Poins – is it because Hal doesn’t have friends in the manipulative world of court, and is trying to cement his friendship with the bar rat Poins, instead? The joke definitely indicates something about Hal’s self-consciousness. Even beyond his desire for friendship, I see a character that is so busy delaying his own coming of age that he’s displacing his own anxieties onto the innocent Francis.

What might seem to be a silly prank is nonetheless bullying because Hal is exploiting Francis’s subservient position.  No matter how loudly Poins calls for him, Francis is obviously going to delay helping Poins (calling back “Anon, anon!”, on cue) because it is his responsibility to make the Prince comfortable; his livelihood depends on the Prince’s favour. So it is okay when Hal finally lets Francis finally leave by bellowing at him, “Away, you rogue! dost thou not hear them call?”? No! He’s exploiting his social inferior for his own amusement! That’s not fair, and it’s not the kind of attitude that people should emulate when trying to be “princely.”

Goneril and Regan: don't mess with these two.

Goneril and Regan: Don’t mess with these two.

So the next time you’re studying one of Shakespeare’s plays, look for the bullies. It could be Gratiano in Merchant of Venice, the terrible Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, or maybe the bully is a woman, like Goneril or Regan in King Lear. Watch out for them: Shakespeare’s bullies are everywhere. They offer us the chance to learn about the motivations and weaknesses of all kinds of difficult people, and with those lessons, we can develop strategies for how to overcome negative influences and channel our struggles into something positive.

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National Theatre Live: Macbeth

Last night, I had the privilege of seeing Kenneth Branagh star in Macbeth, the production that has brought him back to the Shakespearean stage after a decade. As I’ve mentioned before, this production was very sold out; before going to England this past summer, I tried to pull every Shakespearean string I had, and still no luck! No amount of Googling, even, could find me a scalper to sell me overpriced tickets to this hyped-up production. Lucky for me, the wonderful National Theatre Live screened a live[1] performance of the play. I got to pre-order my tickets without panic, all for the low cost of 23 bucks! Not surprisingly, it was well worth it.

Macbeth telling his wife to "Bring forth men-children only"

Macbeth telling his wife to “Bring forth men-children only”

Branagh has only gotten more attractive with age, and while he held his head high as a redheaded Scot, I respect his decision not to parrot Shakespeare’s words in a put-on Scottish accent. That being said, some of the characters stayed true to their authentic Scottish accents, and I have to say: iambic pentameter has never sounded so sexy!

The reason why I continue to see Shakespeare’s plays re-produced, after reading and seeing them so many times before, is because each production has the potential to open my mind to ideas within the play that I haven’t yet considered. Branagh’s performance was excellent, although I wouldn’t say it shed significant light on aspects of the character that I haven’t already thought about. He pronounced the speeches well, but sometimes a bit too quickly; I would have appreciated a pregnant pause here and there to allow the gravity of Macbeth’s thoughts and actions to set in. For example, when Macbeth ponders his prospective murder of Duncan, he says:

                                  I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

I would have loved it if he had paused at the expression “vaulting ambition”, providing maximum dramatic effect so that we knew that this is his ultimate reason for murdering the king.

Can Macbeth be redeemed for his crimes?

Branagh as a director, though, is another story. The production was exceptionally well directed. It was set in a deconsecrated church, which brought up some really interesting parallels between the cross, symbolizing redemption; swords, symbolizing the battles that bookend the domestic interior plot; and the dagger, that Macbeth uses to kill Duncan. One of the most impressive moments in the production was Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me” soliloquy, when he begins to mentally unravel. This speech provides every director with a choice: do you show the dagger? Is the dagger real, hovering above Macbeth, or is it, as Macbeth says, “A dagger of the mind, a false creation, / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” The impressive moment came when Branagh began this speech, speaking to a beam of light that seemed to reflect from behind the church’s giant cross, onto the muddy battlefield that is stage floor. Never before did the notions of murder and redemption seem so…illuminated. This is the most literal manifestation of my notion of “shedding light” on different meanings within the play. Does Macbeth kill his king and curse himself forever? Or is eternal damnation worth it for the sake of becoming King himself? That being said, after this impressive sight, it seemed almost bathetic[2] when we finally did see a dagger, hovering from above on a not-so-invisible fishing wire.

Duncan in the mud, fighting for his against the initial uprising

Duncan in the mud, fighting against the initial uprising

All in all, the most impressive element of this production was the set. Rather than a stage at the front of the church, the action was set in the nave, the central aisle of the church, with the audience sitting in rows across from each other. The initial battle scene was set in the rain, and much of the killing was done up against the boards, providing a terrifying shock to the audience present in Manchester the night the performance was filmed.

What was really interesting was that they did not cover up this set when the plot turns to Macbeth’s castle at Inverness. Lady Macbeth is a domestic goddess; she plays the role of gracious hostess, all the while convincing her husband to kill the king. I got a new sense of her significant part in this treachery when Alex Kingston waded through the mud, saying: “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements”; this castle is indeed Lady Macbeth’s battlement.

Malcolm fighting in the mud

Malcolm fighting in the mud

If I had to apply one adjective to this production, I’d use the word “raw.” When Macduff cried over the death of his wife and children, he cried from his eyes, nose, and mouth. With the help of filmed close-ups, I was able to see the tears and mucus flowing out of his twisted, grief-stricken face. When Banquo was stabbed (in the back, appropriately), we saw the blood flow out of his mouth. And when any character died in battle, they lay face-down in the mud for minutes on end, no matter how unpleasant it was for the actor himself.

All in all, this is a performance that you don’t want to miss. Luckily, you don’t have to! See your local cinema listings for the encore presentations of National Theatre Live’s presentation of the Manchester International Festival’s Macbeth.


[1] We watched it “as live” – the live performance was filmed over the summer.

[2] The tumbling of the profound into the absurd.

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National Theatre Live: Othello

England’s National Theatre has undertaken a project very, very dear to my heart: screening the very best NT productions, live, to cinemas worldwide! I’m very excited about this, and always feel butterflies in my stomach when I enter the Canadian movie theatre but hear the murmurs of the live audience at the National in London.

images-4Last week, I had the privilege of seeing National Theatre Live’s production of Othello, starring theatrical heavy-hitters Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, and directed by NT Artistic Director extraordinaire, Nicholas Hytner. The result was outstanding. Before the play, emcee Emma Freud interviewed Hytner about his dramatic vision, and he explained that Shakespeare’s Venice, in which the text begins, is not culturally important in itself as much as it’s a byword for bustling commercial centre. To Hytner, the play could just as easily begin in central London, which we see in the when the play begins with Iago and Roderigo shooting the shit on a set made to look like a generic English pub. Kinnear puts on a working-class accent, which helps us understand why Iago is so frustrated when Othello chooses the young, Cassio over himself for the post of second-in-command, even though Iago is an experienced officer and Cassio has “never set a squadron in the field.”

This play revolves around the theme of truth, the tales people tell, and what listeners trust as truth. Lester appears onstage as Othello, and instantly I trusted him as leader of the Venetian military. Why did he deserve my trust? It probably had a lot to do with the fact that Lester looks a lot like another “O”, Barack Obama! He’s handsome, but his graying temples only add to his sexual allure; we can see why Desdemona is so attracted to him, despite the age difference. Hytner doesn’t overdo the Obama parallels, but when Lester sits at the head of a boardroom table with reading classes on, I can see how Othello claims the respect of his fellow statesmen.

When Desdemona’s father storms into the war council after finding out that she’s eloped with the Moor, Othello welcomes Brabantio’s rebukes with an offer to tell the “round unvarnish’d tale” of his courtship with Desdemona. By saying “unvarnish’d”, Shakespeare calls up the black/white imagery that haunts the play, and shows that these colours extend beyond questions of race to questions of morality and truth. When he says that his tale will be “unvarnish’d”, Othello means that his story will be one of truth, dignity, and propriety. He wins over the council, and Brabantio storms off, warning the Moor that “She has deceived her father, and may thee,” the first of many foreshadowings of the couple’s ultimate doom.

Othello1_610_407shar_s_c1Soon after a plan is devised for the military to head to Cyprus, Iago reveals his plan to drive Othello mad with jealousy. Critics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge believe that Iago is a villain of “motiveless malignity” – that he doesn’t have a reason to wreak emotional havoc. I disagree. His first motive is being overlooked for promotion. He tells us of the second during one of his many soliloquies (speeches made alone onstage, directed to the audience):

I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Iago has heard rumours that Othello is sleeping with his wife; he doesn’t know the rumours to be true, but decides to take his revenge without of seeking official confirmation. Tales run rampant in this play, and the fatal flaw of almost every character is that they refuse to communicate directly with their spouse. Iago plans to cure his jealousy by fighting fire with fire: just as the rumours of Othello sleeping with his wife drive Iago mad with jealousy, so Iago will drive a rift between Othello and Desdemona. Iago plans to “put the Moor / At least into a jealousy so strong / That judgment cannot cure.”

While the war with the Turks that brought the Venetians to Cyprus ends almost before it even begins, Iago intends to fill their time in Cyprus with other types of fighting. First, Iago gets the recovering alcoholic Cassio drunk, and Cassio brawls with another commander. Othello is upset and disappointed when he finds out, and Cassio sees this moment as his own personal tragedy. He cries: “O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Like Othello, Cassio’s sense of self comes from a sense of duty, and the respect of those around him. Without his title, Cassio is left with the shame of his indiscretion and calls himself “bestial”, driven by his animal spirits and the opposite of his best, most civilized self.

othello23april2013twoOnce Cassio is out of the Moor’s favour, Iago steals Desdemona’s handkerchief, a token of love from the Moor, and tells Othello that Desdemona betrayed him by giving the token to Cassio. The beauty of this production is that Iago’s moment of greatest triumph happens in a washroom! A washroom of all places! But it’s perfect: for once, washrooms aren’t just for places for women to gossip, but for men, once again, to shoot the shit! Othello attempts to take Iago’s words as nothing but idle washroom gossip, saying, “It is not words that shake me thus.” In moments, his words fall as flat as he does; Iago has tormented the Moor so far that falls into a seizure on the bathroom floor. Kicking his prostrate commander with his boot, Iago tells the audience:

The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood.
Burn like the mines of Sulphur.

In the past, I’ve heard critics make much of the “ocular proof” that Othello asks for to back up Iago’s claims of Desdemona’s infidelity. After seeing this production, I’m not convinced. Iago shows that Desdemona doesn’t even need to cheat on Othello: his words are all Iago needs to turn the Moor against his wife. Because everyone trusts him, calling him “Honest Iago”, Iago is able to spread his “poisonous” rumour and let it fester until Othello ultimately murders his wife.

Iago’s dark genius lies in his knowledge that Othello is just like him. As such, he knows that all Othello needs is to hear a rumour to make him unsure of his wife and unsettled in his rule as leader. If he can’t prevent his wife from cheating, if he can’t prevent his second in command from getting drunk, or sleeping in his wife, what can he do? Like Cassio who fears the “bestial” in himself, Othello tells us that without these cornerstones of his identity, “Chaos is come again.”

And chaos does, indeed, come to Cyprus. The council that had trusted Othello at the beginning of the play arrive on the scene to see Othello a fraction of the man he was: paranoid, inarticulate, and above all, violent to his wife. Hytner’s contemporary military backdrop at no point overshadows, but rather compliments this story, showing that although Shakespeare’s great tragedies tell tales on a national scale, the real tragedies are domestic.

 

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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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Filed under Arresting Images, Plays, Stratford Festival