Monday, February 25, 2013

Doing Something about Hamlet

Doing Something about Hamlet

February 4
And now.

The play has been read. It’s so compact! It’s so complete!  Each line is so…significant! So…powerful!

Calm down.  Yes, it’s a powerful play. More so with each reading. So what else is new?

The available spin-offs have been watched, some not previously seen. Star Trek?? Oh yes. And one of the most unexpected and truly you-gotta-be-kidding spin-offs: Hamlet in Klingon! Can you do that to Shakespeare? Oh yes, you can! Thank you, Trekkies and Klingon speakers everywhere! And thank you, Tom Stoppard, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth for another oh-yes-you-certainly-can-do-that-to-Shakespeare experience. Thank you, Rosencrantz. Thank you, Guildenstern.

Two of the available films have been seen.  The BBC with Derek Jacobi. No more need be said.  The Zeffirelli. Mel Gibson? Can you do that to Shakespeare? I would have said absolutely not! I would have been wrong. Even Mel Gibson can’t ruin Shakespeare.

February 16
Two weeks later. Things happen. Richard III’s bones. Exciting but disruptive to Hamlet musings. Focus!

I’m focusing. I’m thinking. I’ve actually started writing a text.  There’s a plan. An outline. The subject? Something scholars repeatedly say can’t be done. I know that.  That’s what these reflections are rambling on about.  You can’t write about Hamlet. Why then have so many done it?

A paragraph. An intro.  That’s what I have so far.  And a list.

Two more movies.  Ethan Hawke as techno-corporate Hamlet.  Yes, yes, you can do that to Shakespeare.  Ethan makes Mel look like a blue-eyed stick of wood.  What about Olivier? Ethan makes Olivier look like an old ham.  And a stick of wood.

Four more to go. And I’m going to continue writing the impossible text.

February 18
Oh no. I’ve just started reading a book on contemporary criticism of Hamlet.  Now I have to worry about whether or not my emerging text adheres to traditionalism (oh horrors!), structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, cultural materialism, feminism…none of the above? All of the above?

February 24
It’s happening. I’m writing. Six pages so far. It could easily become sixty. Six hundred. Six million. But no, it’s under control. I’m following my outline. I’m very nervous.  But it’s actually happening.  Three brilliant movies help. David Tennant, Adrian Lester, Kevin Kline. Harold Bloom says that every actor creates a new Hamlet, or something to that effect. True. The same can be said for the Ophelias: Mariah Gale, Shantala Shivalingappa, Diane Venora.

Later, same day
It’s done.  How did that happen?  It wrote itself in the end. Hamlet does that to you. There’s no resisting, you just get swept along in the power of the play.

What’s next? Polishing up the text. Posting it on the blog.  Watching Kenneth Branagh’s film – the apex of the eight-film (fourteen if you count the spin-offs) Hamlet marathon.  Will I still think it’s the apex after Brook, after Doran? After reading it again and thinking about it so much?

It’s done. Mostly. A sigh of relief? A sigh anyway.  And then:

Life After Hamlet.  I miss him already.

Monday February 25 2013

The Hamlet odyssey is approaching its end for this time.  The rough draft of my text is written. Only one movie remains to be seen.  My reflections have mostly been reflected. And most of the material in this report is, coincidently maybe, connected to Hamlet.  But then most things in life are, aren’t they?

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
·         Aeneas is related to Priam, the King of Troy. Oddly, the dictionary does not mention that Hamlet uses Aeneas and Priam in his appeal to the First Player to give them a speech. Says Hamlet: “One speech in it I chiefly loved, ‘twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam’s slaughter.”  A rather major omission from the Dictionary!
·         Agincourt, and the battle and English victory led by Henry V, is given historical explanation.

Shakespeare sightings, very few this week, all from one novel:
  • The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, who wrote in the 70’s a book about Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Magnanimity: Four Tragic Heroes, Their Friends and Families (co-author with Wilbur Sanders), Chatto & Windus, 1978, which unfortunately is only available used from Amazon. Since I didn’t much like this novel I don’t know how much I will pursue the Shakespeare book.  Here’s the Shakespeare in this one anyway:
    • Main character Julian Treslove is interested in the Ophelia Complex.
    • He and his friend Sam Finkler quote Hamlet to each other, in this case “There are more things in heaven and earth, Samuel, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
    • Donald Wolfit, who had played Hamlet, is mentioned. According to Google he was a renowned British actor of whom had I not previously heard. Do all British people know who he was?
    • “To what base uses we may return,” says Samuel to Julian, who isn’t in the mood to reply this time.
    • Finkler says,”If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile.” Julian is supposed to say, “Who’s Felicity?” but it doesn’t feel like playing this time either.
    • Depressed Julian thinks, “It was a good job that no fragile shiksa with a watery Ophelia expression had come into the bar in which he drank. He might have taken her back into the park and drowned them both.” Cheerful guy, our Julian.

Further, since the last report:
  • Watched: Hamlet with Adrian Lester, directed by Peter Brook.
  • Watched: Hamlet with Kevin Kline, directed by Kevin Kline.
  • Continued reading: Harold’s Bloom’s text about Hamlet. It’s very long and says very little but once in awhile there are some gems.
  • Continued reading: Hamlet, Contemporary Critical Essays, edited by Martin Coyle.
  • Finished writing: my text on Hamlet. Now just the revision left. Will be posted next week, hopefully!
  • Finished writing: “Doing Something About Hamlet” for Ruby’s Reflections and/or Blogging Shakespeare, to which it has been sent.

Posted this week:
·         This Monday report
·         “Doing Something about Hamlet” in Ruby’s Reflections.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday February 18 2013

After the distractions of last week I’m trying to get back to Hamlet. Steps forward are being taken but there’s a long way to go. It’s frustrating to have so little time to work on Shakespeare but I’m not complaining (yes, I am, but short of inheriting a fortune from a non-existent rich relative or winning on the lottery ticket I never buy I guess I’ll have to stick with my day job which in truth I am happy to do).  So to the report.

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac: After a year of reports on Shakespeare’s life chosen from this interesting book it’s time to move on to something else. On February 14 Hal and I started reading The Shakespeare Name Dictionary, seven years in the making by J. Madison Davis and A. Daniel Frankforter.  Each week until the end of the book my plan is to include one or two items of interest from the week’s reading. Here are the first:

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
·         “Absey book” – this expression, which is a kind of abbreviation for “ABC book” is used in two of the plays: King John and Love’s Labour’s Lost
·         Absyrtus is murdered by Medea and Jason. He is named in Henry VI, Part Two, by young Clifford who find his father murdered: “Henceforth I will not have to do with pity;/Meet I an infant of the house of York,/Into as many gobbets will I cut it/As wild Medea young Absyrtus did./In cruelty will I seek out my fame…” The Dictionary explains: “Shakespeare implies that the passions that divided the houses of York and Lancaster during the War of the Roses inspired brutality equal to the worst found in Greek mythology.”  Probably a few more theater-goers of the time could make the connection than those of our day.

Shakespeare sightings:
·         Stadra is the name of a theater in a small town in mid-Sweden. In spite of it being called a summer stage they have been doing winter productions and last year they did ”Shakespeare on Ice”. It said in Svenska Dagbladet during the week.
·         Dagens Nyheter had big ads for theater productions in the coming spring.  Of interest:
    • Hamlet in March in the regional theater of Örebro, a nice town a couple of hours by train from Stockholm. Sounds good! Maybe we’ll get there!
    • Romeo and Juliet or as it is called in this case Julia och Romeo at the Royal Ballet in May, to the music by Tchaikovsky. We might make it to that too!
    • In May Rufus Wainwright will be in Norrköping, about an hour by train from Stockholm, doing some sonnets.
  • Also in DN, in an article about the new series House of Cards with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, the political intrigues are compared to Macbeth.
  • In the novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, about Henry VIII’s battle with the pope et al over marrying Anne Boleyn, the author mentions in her end note that the biography of Cardinal Wolsey written in the 1550’s by George Cavendish strongly influenced Shakespeare in his writing of Henry VIII.

Further, since the last report:
  • Watched: Hamlet with David Tennant, directed by above mentioned Gregory Doran.
  • Continued reading: Harold’s Bloom’s text about Hamlet.
  • Finished reading: Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory
  • Was informed in an email from Blogging Shakespeare that too much time has passed – and why the delay, one might ask?  I sent it quickly enough - to post my text on Richard III.  Slightly irritating. No time spent on Shakespeare is wasted but with my time so limited I would have preferred to spend it on Hamlet. I wouldn’t have written the text if I hadn’t been asked to. But never mind, I’m over it.
  • Started reading: Hamlet, Contemporary Critical Essays, edited by Martin Coyle.
  • Started writing: my text on Hamlet.
  • Continued writing: “Doing About Hamlet” for Ruby’s Reflections and/or Blogging Shakespeare

Posted this week:
·         This Monday report

Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday February 11 2013

What a turbulent Shakespeare week!  After closing down Shakespeare Calling last Monday I got a mail from Paul at Blogging Shakespeare about the sensational discovery of the bones of Richard III (see more below).  And yesterday I checked out the website of the conference Hal and I are going to attend in London in June, and saw that the play we’ll be seeing is The Taming of a Shrew (see more below). We’ve still had time for Hamlet though and a few historical events and sightings:

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:
  • In 1601 while the Essex Rebellion was going on, Richard II was also being performed. Brave actors! Essex was condemned to death and Shakespeare’s patron Southampton was put in the Tower.
  • On February 10, 1616, Judith, the daughter of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare, married Thomas Quinney without the special permit needed for getting married during Lent. Whether this and other problems with the bridegroom (who had another girlfriend at the same time) contributed to Shakespeare’s death a couple of months later, we don’t know.

Shakespeare sightings:
·         Two articles each about Richard III in the two largest Swedish daily newspapers Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet.
·         In Ali Smith’s novel There But For The
    • “Every new wink of an eye some new grace will be born.” A lesser known quote. Any guesses?
    • The wonderfully precocious Brooke, about 10 years old, quotes Shakespeare frequently, the best being in describing a play, “I found it weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.”  And which play does that come from?
    • One of the characters was in a band called the Shakespearos in his youth.
    • Another character goes to see The Winter’s Tale.
    • “Knock knock. Who’s there? Toby or not Toby…”
·         From the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with Maggie Smith:
    • Miss Brodie points out the uselessness of team spirit with, “Cleopatra knew nothing of the team spirit if you read your Shakespeare.” (see last week, the book).
    • Not from the book but in the movie: one of the girls says Miss Brodie makes history seem like the cinema and another girl says, “No, like Shakespeare!”

Further, since the last report:
  • Received as a gift from friend and colleague AC: Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Swedish.  A lovely edition translated into Swedish by Göran O. Eriksson, whom AC knew well because he was the father of one of her best friends in school.  Thank you, AC! What a wonderful gift!
  • Watched Hamlet with Ethan Hawke.
  • Watched Hamlet with Laurence Olivier.
  • Started reading Harold’s Bloom’s text about Hamlet.
  • Continued reading: Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory
  • Was asked by Paul at Blogging Shakespeare to write about the Richard III discovery. I did but technical problems at Blogging Shakespeare stopped it from being posted.  Hopefully my updated text will be posted this week.
  • Oh what a disappointment! I had so been hoping for Timon of Athens, or Measure for Measure or almost any other play but not Taming of the Shrew this summer in London. Not because I don’t like the play but because it’s been, in my experience, so badly misinterpreted! But maybe I’m being unduly pessimistic.  Maybe it will be a good discussion at the conference and an excellent performance.  It is the Globe after all!

Posted this week:
·         This Monday report
·         “’…the dead bones that lay scatter'd by…’”An Archeological Sensation” in Ruby’s Reflections

“…the dead bones that lay scatter'd by…” An Archeological Sensation

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Could Shakespeare be wrong?

Well, of course he could be and frequently was if you’re demanding historical accuracy.

But he can’t be wrong about this, can he?  Richard III is so deliciously evil in Shakespeare’s version!  What if the archeological skeleton dug up in the parking lot manages to prove that Richard III was a good guy, not the villain Shakespeare made him at all?

Hello?  We’ve known that all along, haven’t we?  There are in fact quite a lot of historical documents to support the claim that as far as kings go, Richard III was rather decent and the victim of a Tudor conspiracy. But that’s what kings did, right? Killed each other and tried to prove that the victim was the bad guy?  Just read your Shakespeare.

So was Shakespeare just a liar in the pay of the Queen, granddaughter of Henry VII, slayer of poor Richard III?

Well, kind of.  If you want to look at it that way.  But looking at it calmly, of course not.  He was a writer of drama, a playwright who had to make a living doing it in an extremely explosive political society where a wrong word could lead to censorship or worse, even execution.  That makes Shakespeare look like a real hero, brave enough to make everybody look bad but always in the spirit of profound humanity.

Yes, it is unfair to the real Richard III and my historian self protests.  But my Shakespearean self says, “Richard III and Richard III are two different things.”

 The bones in the parking lot are truly exciting and I really hope they bring conclusive light onto the mystery.  Maybe this discovery will inspire Sir Ken to make a film, a faithful but nuanced interpretation of this fascinating person.  That would be a Good Thing.

But does the discovery really change the value of Shakespeare? Not at all. If reality were to change works of literature and facts were the only basis for good writing we wouldn’t have anything left.

So long live Shakespeare’s Richard III. And the one in the parking lot too. So to speak.

P.S. The above was written last Monday evening (February 4)  in the heat of the moment.  Since then several articles have appeared in the Swedish press.  In one of the major daily newspaper, Sweden’s leading historian on the Middle Ages, Dick Harrison, writes a very long article in which he tells us, “I will never forget when I saw Laurence Olivier’s classic filming of the drama Richard III (1955) on TV when I was little –  it was probably one of the experiences that made me choose the Middle Ages as my field of research.”  Harrison goes on to present Richard III as the mysterious and multifaceted person that he was and also his important role in the historical development of his times: “He reorganized parliament…allied himself with the bourgeois and supported sea trade…Richard and his family placed important puzzle pieces in this development, something that has long been ignored in the reveling of Shakespearian orgies of murder and intrigue. Richard III’s big mistake was that he still had one foot in the Middle Ages” and that he didn’t get rid of enough of his enemies.  Harrison has seen two TV trials of Richard (one by British Channel 4 and another featuring the then American Chief Justice William Rehnquist) and presents the more or less unanimous conclusion: though Richard is a likely culprit, there is not enough evidence to convict the guy (Svenska Dagbladet February 9, 2013).

I’m also reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory and I’ve reached the chapter about ghosts in Shakespeare and the pages about Richard III.  Fascinating reading about the historical significance of ghosts. And evil. And hell and purgatory here on earth. 

Since last Monday nothing has really changed.  If evil Richard III never existed we’d still have to invent him.  Shakespeare did it for us. Poor Richard.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday February 4 2013

We’ve finished Hamlet and have watched two of the eight movies. I’m thinking about what to write about it.  My thoughts are never far from Hamlet.  But there is more out there than Hamlet. Here goes for this week:

From Gregory Doran's Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On January 30, 1607, a tsunami in Bristol Channel killed more than 2,000 people.
  • On February 2, 1585, Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare became the parents of twins, Hamnet and Judith.
  • On February 2, 1600, Twelfth Night, about another set of twins, was performed at Middle Temple. John Manningham, who saw the play wrote: “…A good practice is it to make the steward believe his Lady widow [sic?] was in love with him.”  The twins are not mentioned here.  Of the real twins, Shakespeare’s and Hathaway’s children, only Judith was still alive in 1600.
  • On February 3, 1612, Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert was buried, aged 45.
  • On February 4, 1613, his brother Richard was buried, not yet 40. William was now alone with his sister Joan, who lived until 1646 when she died at the age of 77.
Shakespeare sightings:
·         In the second half of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought there are eighteen references to Shakespeare. I guess it’s hard not to refer to him when writing about language.  Here are the most interesting:          
    • Making a joke of metaphors: “If all the world’s a stage, where is the audience sitting?” Attributed to Steven Wright.
    • In showing that our languages usually correspond rather well with the real word Pinker twists the original:  “there are fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”
    • In his chapter about swearing, curses and insults Pinker gives this list: “’Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish…”. Who said it to whom and in which play?  More to the point, why did he choose this among the thousands of hilarious insults in Shakespeare?
    • Explaining the “Oh Shit Brain Wave” that goes into action when we discover danger, Pinker again twists a famous quote: “…discretion is not the better part of valor during what could be the last five seconds of your life.”
    • The importance of literature: “Literature can explore the themes that eternally obsess people in the world’s myths and stories, or even in the works of Shakespeare alone.”
    • And finally, an exchange overheard on the subway. Girl 1: As Shakespeare once said, “Thou shalt not kill.” Girl 2: “No, that would be God.”
·         From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks (upon which is based the movie starring Maggie Smith, who among her many other brilliant roles has played the Duchess of York in Ian McKellen’s  Richard III) comes these references:
    • Miss Brodie starts the quote, “Discretion is…discretion is…Sandy?” whereupon her disciple replies, “The better part of valour, Miss Brodie.” One of the most often used quotes, wouldn’t you say?
    • Miss Brodie points out the uselessness of team spirit with, “Cleopatra knew nothing of the team spirit if you read your Shakespeare.”
  • In her short story “Face” from the collection Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro’s character, born with a facial disfigurement, becomes a radio actor who performs, among other classics, Shakespeare.
·         In Jodi Picoult’s Handle with Care there is a poem by Carl Sandburg, “Bones”, from which these lines come: “No farmer’s plow shall touch my bones/No Hamlet hold my jaws and speak/How jokes are gone and empty is my mouth.”

Further, since the last report:
  • Finished reading with Hal: Hamlet.
  • Watched In the Bleak Midwinter (known in the US as A Midwinter’s Tale).
  • Watched BBC’s version of Hamlet and the Zeffirelli version.
  • Started reading (last week but forgot to mention it) and finished: To Be or Not to Be by Douglas Bruster.
  • In the spirit of having finished Hamlet we listened to Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth’s “The Collection” with such songs as: “O Mistress Mine” (Twelfth Night), “The Complete Works”, “Fear No More” (Cymbeline), “If Music Be the Food of Love”, “My Love Is a Fever” (Sonnet 147), “It Was a Lover and His Lass” (As You Like It), “Witches/Fair and Foul”, “Shall I Compare Thee”, “Take All My Loves” (Sonnet 40), “Winter” (Love’s Labor Lost), and “Duet of Sonnets”.
  • Received from Bokus
  • Started reading: Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory
  • Discovered by accident that my text “What to do about Hamlet” has been posted on Blogging Shakespeare
  • Started to write for Ruby’s Reflections and Blogging Shakespeare: “Doing About Hamlet”

Posted this week:
·         This Monday report