Monday, September 24, 2012

Monday September 24 2012

Another quiet week but a few things of interest have happened. First the regular:

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On September 20, 1899, the first Shakespeare film was shown. It was in London, a four-minute scene from King John.
  • On September 21, 1599, Thomas Platter saw Julius Caesar “in a house with a thatched roof”. He seemed most impressed with the dancing at the end. Dancing? At Julius Caesar?! They did that in those days.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the absolutely dreadful novel Lavender Morning by Jude Devereaux (why do I read junk like that??) one of the characters is so unexpectedly brilliant that she's compared to Shakespeare living in a village of morons.
  • Mentioned in the bonus material to the DVD of the film Sparkle: Tom Hunsinger, one of the directors, worked previously under Trevor Nunn in the Royal Shakespeare Society.
  • In the film Fahrenheit 451, one of the books being burned is Othello.
  • In the comic (silly, actually) novel The Monarch of the Glen by Compton McKenzie (upon which the TV series was based) Macbeth and the three witches are used as a comparison upon the confrontation with an odd gang rescued in the dungeon.

Further, since the last report:
  • Continued reading aloud with Hal: Julius Caesar.
  • My text “Why Shakespeare?” was posted on Blogging Shakespeare
  • I think I have succeeded in creating a new folder for “Ruby's Reflections” and posting the above-mentioned “Why Shakespeare” in it.

Posted today:
  • “Why Shakespeare?”
  • This Monday Report

Why Shakespeare?
by Ruby Jand

“Shakespeare is a black woman.”
I came across these words written by Maya Angelou in Peter Erikson's Rewriting Shakespeare Rewriting Ourselves and it plinged the spot in my brain that constantly whispers the question, “Why Shakespeare?” Why is this claim made by a black woman? Why does a representative of the Reagan administration then misuse Angelou's words to try to make us believe that class, gender and ethnicity don't matter? Why is Shakespeare so important?
About a year ago I started my blog Shakespeare Calling and the question I asked in my introduction was, “What's so great about Shakespeare?” Today, after seventeen play analyses and a number of book reviews, I'm still not really any closer to an answer. The “Monday Reports” with their lists of “Shakespeare Sightings” only make the question more mysterious. Why is Shakespeare referred to in so many novels, films, newspaper articles and pop songs – so casually, assuming everyone recognizes the source? And why do so many, in fact, recognize the source? Why are these plays, written within a time span of less than twenty years four hundred years ago, still performed and filmed all over the world in all kinds of languages?
Some answers reveal themselves but how good are they?
  • Shakespeare understood, maybe loved or at least tolerated every aspect of all humans from all walks of life.
    • Not really true but many aspects. But that's what all great authors do. No others have not only survived for four centuries but are still thriving in all cultural arenas.
  • England was emerging as a world power when Shakespeare was writing and it soon dominated the globe politically and economically until the 20th century. The language still does.
    • Well, yes. But an awful lot of literature has been written in English since then. Why is Shakespeare the undisputed champion?
  • The language! Shakespeare was a language genius and half of everything we say is a quote or a word invented by Shakespeare.
    • Again, yes indeed. But...half of what he wrote is incomprehensible to normal English speakers today. And how can Shakespeare be so appreciated in translation if his language is so important? The Swedish productions I've seen, for example, lose the brilliant English and they're still amazing.
  • He's a genius of high drama and comedy.
    • Sort of. But his stories are often simple to the point of silliness and he swiped most of them from other people.
There are undoubtedly a dozen more answers but the questions remain:
  1. Why has Shakespeare survived all the recent attacks – many of them justifiable – on the English language canon which have tried to break the absolute dominance of dead white men, and succeeded to a certain extent?
  2. Having not only survived but thrived, why does Shakespeare remain the absolute yardstick by which literature is measured?
  3. Why do we want to identify ourselves with Shakespeare and make everything he wrote fit into our worldview? I'm not trying to simplify Angelou's “Shakespeare was a black woman” or misinterpret it, but the fact remains that even though Shakespeare has been accused of racism, antisemitism, misogynism and classism, Bardolators now include – together with conservatives, stuffy old schoolmarms, cultural snobs, Christians of various flavors, and Ivy League elitists of old – feminists, blacks, Jews, Marxists and just about everybody else you can think of. And we all say, “Shakespeare was one of us!” Why?!?

I don't know. I've thought and thought, analyzed and read and reread and I can't figure it out. To quote Geoffrey Rush, as Philip Henslowe in “Shakespeare in Love” (Oscar for Best Movie – why?! A movie about a playwright from four hundred years ago?!):
It's a mystery.

August 2012

Posted on Blogging Shakespeare
September 21 2012

Monday, September 17, 2012

Monday September 17 2012

This week has mostly been rather boring from a Shakespeare perspective. Only towards the end did it pick up a bit.

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:

  • On September 11, 1611, Simon Forman, one of the few contemporaries to leave written documentation of having seen Shakespeare's plays ( Cymbeline, Macbeth and The Winter's Tale) died. 

Shakespeare sightings:

  • The novel Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker was a real disappointment. It was supposed to be very funny and heartwarming but I'm afraid I found it boring and repetitive and the only reason I read it all the way through was because I had paid good (though not much) money for it. Even the Shakespeare sightings in it were boring so enough of that.
  • Following Jane by Shelley Singer with its mentions of Shakespeare wasn't much better even if the main character is a history teacher from Minnesota. 
  • Much much more interesting is the classic sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury about a future (sort of) society in which books are banned and firefighters don't put out fires, they go to book hoarder's homes and start them, incinerating books, home and sometimes hoarder alike. Of course there are a lot of sightings here. Hamlet is still a household word, the resistance still knows Shakespeare by heart, Shakespeare is referred to by one of the villains as “Willie”. Said villain tells the unhappy hero, “All's well that ends well.” And finally when the hero has the upper hand the villain says, “What'll it be this time? Why don't you belch Shakespeare at me, you fumbling snob? 'There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am arm'd so strong in honesty that they pass by me as an idle wind, which I respect not!'” 
  • In Dagens Nyheter yesterday there was an article about the exhibit at the British Museum about Shakespeare and “Staging the World”. Oh you lucky Londoners. You have all the fun. 

Further, since the last report: Continued reading aloud with Hal: Julius Caesar.

Posted: Just this.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Monday September 10 2012

This week has been an intensive Henry-and-then-Julius-Caesar-week. Time flies and with it the plays swish by.

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On September 5, 1607, it was recorded by the captain of an East India ship in his diary that “We gave the tragedy of Hamlet” Later they gave Richard II. He writes, “It keeps my people from idleness and unlawful games or sleep.” The ship was off the coast of Sierra Leone. It is the earliest mention of a Shakespeare performance outside of England.
  • On September 6, 1769, the great Shakespearean actor David Garrick opened a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. In the three days of festivities not a word of Shakespeare was actually spoken and it rained.
  • On September 8, 1601, Shakespeare's father was buried. It is unknown if he was at the funeral. It is believed that at this time he was writing Hamlet.
  • On September 9, 1608, his mother was buried.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the second episode in the first season of Mad Men, the guy who just got married (I haven't learned their names yet) is called Romeo by his colleagues.
  • Romeo and Juliet also show up in Nawal El Saadawi's novel Zeina (called The Stolen Novel in Swedish) and Shakespeare's and Shaw's pictures are hanging next to that of the editor-in-chief of the major Cairo newspaper where several of the characters work, “as though it was enough to have one's photo next to theirs to become a great writer oneself.”
  • On the walking quiz along the lake shore, Hal and I saw the question: “Who wrote Uncle Vanya?” The alternatives were: Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Chekov. Before I get too big-headed about knowing the answer I can add that it was the only question I got. Lucky we weren't really participating.

Further, since the last report:
  • Watched with Hal: Henry V, Branagh version.
  • Finished and posted today: my text on same.
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: Julius Caesar.

Henry V When Hoodlums Become Kings

 When Hoodlums Become Kings

The Life of Henry V

This play is about war but is it anti-war or super-patriotic? Well, both. This is Shakespeare, after all.
Being that it's Based on a True Story I really should analyze the whole Hundred Years War and the conflict over the wool industry that the Battle of Agincourt was a part of but that will have to wait for another time. King Harry is just too big to ignore, so he's what I'm going to write about here. I could call it Harry's War. He's a king and he's leading thousands to their death.

What kind of guy does that make him?

He wants this war. It's clear from the very start. Why? The usual. Macho power game. And he has plenty of supporters to help him play it. Eager or reluctant, they're all there: cardinals, lords, yeomen, old drinking buddies. And it all revolves around our old friend, young Hal, once hoodlum, now king. What a change! Or...?

Here's the way it goes: King Harry wants war, gets the church leaders to convince everybody it's legit, makes sure everyone knows he has God's support and help, rabble-rouses, threatens, punishes, manipulates and sweet talks. Sometimes all at once, friends and enemies alike. He is as aware of the tragedy of war as of its glories and shies away from neither. He is king and warrior. He is the aggressor. He is the invader.
The stage is set immediately by the Chorus who asks us to imagine

The warlike Harry...
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment (Prologue)

The violence and destruction of Harry's invasion is thus already established. And within a few minutes, the Archbishop of Canterbury explains to the Bishop of Ely that in order to avoid losing lots of land and money to the crown through a proposed bill he has already promised the king

As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time yet,
Did to his predecessors part withal (Act 1.1)

That's fine with Harry, he thus already has money. But he wants assurance that it's OK that he invades France, knowing, as does God, many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to (Act 1.1)

Clever Harry. Blame it on the archbishop! Who obligingly explains in a long, convoluted and not completely logical presentation of the long line of heritage leading to Harry's possession of the throne that of course Harry is also king of France.

Just to make sure that everybody knows he's doing the right thing Harry rephrases the question, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” (Act 1.1)

And they all clamor: you bet! “Unwind your bloody flag,” sums up the stance of lords and clergy alike. Hooray for blood and guts – you go get 'em, Harry!

He does.

At the gates of Harfleur Harry urges his soldiers on by lifting them up to his level and cheering them – or shaming them – into a macho brotherhood of fighters who prove that their mothers had bred them legitimately by warrior fathers and who set an example for the boys who might be more peaceful:

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more...
...Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war (Act 3.1)

This guy, and this society, have some serious masculinity insecurities...

The English prevail and Harry once again shows that he doesn't shy away from gore and guts and rape if it's really necessary. Having defeated the defenders of Harfleur he tells the representatives of besieged townspeople that if they don't yield it's not his fault if his soldiers lose control. “The gates of mercy shall be all shut up” and his inflamed soldiers

In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants...
...What is it to me, when you yourselves are the cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
...Take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command...
...If not – why in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes...(Act 3.3)

Yuck. This is sickening. And this is the hero? What kind of monster is this Shakespeare who has the good guy say this horrible stuff? Well, just possibly he's not a monster but a clear-sighted author doing his job showing it like it is: war is hell and the good guys are just as guilty of atrocities as the bad guys.

Happily Henry doesn't have to let all this happen because the Harfleurians give up and the English enter the town. Peacefully, on the king's orders. “Use mercy on them all” (Act 3.3).

After that display of viciousness and slyly putting the blame for it onto others – the prospective victims and his underlings - Harry reverts into a nice enough fellow. He impresses the French herald Mountjoy by once again showing his milder side (immediately after approving the execution of his old pal Bardolph for petty thievery): “We here give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language. For when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom the gentler gamester is soonest the winner” (Act 3.6). Wise words from the mouth that had recently threatened rape and the impalement of babies. Is Harry a gentle saint in the context of his time, or is he this contradictory, or does war always make a person so? Of course he goes on to say that he really doesn't want to get his sick and weary soldiers into battle but if the French insist, “We shall your tawny ground with your red blood discolour” (Act 3.6).

The next time we see the king we are given “a little touch of Harry in the night”. (I just had to use that line spoken by the Chorus – I love it!) The king wanders incognito among his troops. This encounter deserves its own essay analyzing the class issues here but I will have to limit myself to the observation that the soldiers are sceptical to his claim that “the king is but a man” and so as vulnerable and afraid as anyone but still he wishes to be here on the verge of battle. They point out that they wish he was here alone in that case because that would save a lot of lives. It's the king's faults, they say, if these men die in a bad cause. This irritates the good king who tries to convince them that even though the king more or less forces them to go to war, it's their own problem if they get killed in it. Pretty shaky logic there, Harry. Later, alone with his thoughts, he does what Shakespeare's kings do, he feels sorry for himself because even the simplest slave, for lack of worries, sleeps better than he does, because he has everyone's lives in his hands. Well, you could go back to England and mind your own business, Harry.

I'm not even going to deal with the king's famous St. Crispian speech – the whole “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” thing from Act 4.3. It's pretty exciting of course and it does get the job done because against all odds Harry and his gang defeat the vastly more numerous French army.

With this victory comes, after awhile, the last scene I'm going to look at. The one in which Henry woos Catherine. Woos? He plays with her. Charmingly, it's true. He starts with

Fair Catherine, and most fair,
Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter at a lady's ear
And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart? (Act 5.2)

That's romantic, right? Well, it would be if she understood English and if she had any choice. But she doesn't and she doesn't. This is politics, not love. Lots of people died and Harry won the war, the kingdom and the princess. Still, he does take the trouble to sweet talk her in his clumsy way. She probably found him attractive enough. She knew the score and marrying him did make her queen of both France and England so we don't have to feel too sorry for her. Still, she doesn't understand what he says and as always, language is power. Harry uses it. They get married and don't live happily ever after. In case we haven't seen or read the Henry VI plays the Chorus tells us that Harry dies within a few years, the infant king succeeds him and the state around baby H6 “lost France and made his England bleed” (Epilogue). And that was that.

So what can we conclude from all this? Two things:

The first: Did Hal change from the hoodlum of the days when his dad H4 was king? Not really. He played around at war and robbery with his friends Falstaff and company as prince. As king his violence just got more serious and widespread and his winnings were greater.

And the second: Does this play glorify war or is it anti-war? Well, you tell me. But you're going to have to work hard to convince me that Shakespeare wasn't trying to tell us something with his repeated eloquence from various characters on the horrors of war. I think, if we looked really close at the play, we'd find that Shakespeare does what he always does – he leaves us unsettled, not sure whether or not we like these people, but uncomfortably suspicious that if we were in their shoes, we'd be pretty much like them. Don't you think?

September 2012

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. “Invisible Bullet” in Shakespearean Negotiations. 1988. I haven't directly used this essay in the text but my view has been influenced and the essay is essential reading in connection with this play and the other Henry plays.

Films seen:
  • BBC 1979. Director: David Giles. Cast: King Henry: David Gwillim; Chorus – Alec McCowen; Katherine – Jocelyn Boisseau; Archbishop of Canterbury – Revor Baxtor. A straightforward competent production. I enjoy seeing it but there isn't so much sparkle.
  •  Olivier version, 1944. Director: Laurence Olivier. Cast: King Henry: Laurence Olivier; Chorus – Leslie Banks; Katherine – Renee Asherson; Archbishop of Canterbury – Felix Aylmer. There's just something about Olivier. I don't like him. He's so aware that he's Olivier and a Shakespeare Genius. As always a colorful production with brilliant stage settings but it puts me to sleep (literally, I missed the whole fifth act and had to run it again.) The scene between Henry and Katherine is oh so sweet and totally wrong. How the movie has gotten so much praise throughout the years I don't know.
  • Branagh version, 1989. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: King Henry: Kenneth Branagh; Chorus – Derek Jacobi; Katherine – Emma Thompson; Archbishop of Canterbury – Charles Kay. And a whole slew of other favorites: Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Brian Blessed, Paul Scofield, a very young Christian Bale (with clear traces of the Batman to come), Michael Mahoney. I love this movie. (I know, I know, I say that about all of Branagh's Shakespeare movies.) It's totally convincing and compelling. There may be flaws and we may not be in total agreement with Branagh's interpretation but it is absolutely believable, including Harry as a sometimes uncertain blustering nice guy. The exchange between victorious Harry and grieving Katherine is perfect. It is also one of the strongest anti-war movies I have seen.
Seen on stage: No.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Monday September 3 2012

It's going to be a short report today because I'm all caught up in trying to write about Henry V. He sure is a trouble maker. Besides, it has generally been a very quiet Shakespeare week. Here's what I have to offer:

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:

  • On August 31, 1422, our trouble maker Henry the Fifth died. (Poor fellow, he was only 36 years old. He only had seven years to enjoy his glory after Agincourt, which is what the play is about.) 

Shakespeare sightings:

  • In the novel Island of Wings the author Karin Altenberg opens with this quote: To cry to the sea that roared to us; to sigh to the winds, whose pity, sighing back again, did us but loving wrong. Any guesses? 
  • I didn't get very far in the novel Herb and Lorna by Eric Kraft because I didn't like it enough to keep reading but on page 8 he quotes our friend: good euen good Mr what ye cal't. I will be very, very impressed if someone posts a comment with the source of this quote! 

Further, since the last report:

  • Received ( last week actually) from blog follower MS a book she used in her high school in Germany: Discover...William Shakespeare: Macbeth. Thank you, MS! 
  • Watched with Hal: Henry V, BBC version. 
  • Watched with Hal: Henry V, Olivier version. 
  • Left to watch with Hal: Henry V, Branagh version. 
  • Struggled, with some progress made, on my text on King Harry. 

Posted today: Just this.