Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday October 28 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013
The big event this week is that we saw Kung Lear at Stadsteatern here in Stockholm. We’re still mulling over our reaction.  As a whole I liked it and will write a short review of it with the Lear text which is slowly formulating itself in my mind.  We’ve also watched Olivier’s King Lear; see the link below for my review on the Movie Blog.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary.
  • Dorothy wasn’t a popular name in the Middle Ages but came into fashion in Shakespeare’s day. He used it in Henry IV Part Two for Doll Tearsheet and a servant in Cymbeline.  Not a name for a noblewoman, in other words.
  • Dover and its white cliffs are now so connected to our image of England that probably no one hears the word Dover without immediately seeing those white cliffs in their mind. So it has been since ancient times. Surprisingly, perhaps, they only figure in three Shakespeare plays, Henry VI Part One, Henry V and King Lear.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • Dagens Nyheter had a clever cartoon this week. Sweden’s conservative tax-reducing prime minister is shown dressed in Renaissance clothing and holding a skull thinking, “Welfare or not to welfare…that’s maybe an important question…” You might well ask, Fredrik.
  • Dagens Nyheter again: An ad for Richard III, premiering at the Royal Dramatic Theater on February 27, 2014, starring Jonas Karlsson of Caliban fame. Oh I’d like to see that!...  In fact, we just booked tickets for it in March.
  • The Night Climbers is a novel by Ivo Stourton about a gang of students at Cambridge so of course there’s a Shakespeare sighting, but only one: “…since old Lord Soulford had shuffled off the mortal coil…”
  • The Little Friend by Donna Tartt also has one (so far, I’m not finished) but unlike in the example above, I doubt the character even knows she’s quoting Shakespeare when she says, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much!”

Further this week:
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: Harold Bloom’s analysis of King Lear.  
  • Watched: Olivier’s film.
  • Attended: the play at Stadsteatern. If you live in Stockholm, it’s well worth seeing. It’s going until December.

Posted this week:

Shylock Meets Morgana

Shylock Meets Morgana

                      Stephen Greenblatt is always inspiring. The Harvard Shakespearean has stimulated much of my work on Shakespeare Calling.
                      But I never expected him to explain Merlin to me.
                      Merlin.  That is to say Merlin, the enormously popular BBC TV series starring Colin Morgan (also Ariel in the Globe’s The Tempest) as the appealing, funny, powerful young warlock in Camelot where witchcraft is forbidden upon pain of death.  I came to the series late. We started watching it after all five seasons had been broadcast. Hal and I are now in our second time through, watching two or three episodes four evenings a week. We’re addicted.
                      What does this have to do with Shakespeare?
                      That’s where Stephen Greenblatt comes in.
                      I was calmly, with interest as always, reading the professor’s Shakespeare’s Freedom (fascinating, read it!) and started Chapter Three, “The Limits of Hatred”.  On the first three pages a nameless voice tells us about the aliens in our midst who hate us because they are weaker while “we embody the dominant value, embrace the dominant beliefs, control the dominant institutions” (page 49).  The reader soon realizes that this is the voice of an Antonio type person explaining the dangers of the presence of the Jews in Venice. It’s a chilling picture and Greenblatt goes on to explain why The Merchant of Venice is more relevant today than ever.  Just exchange “Jew” for “Muslim” and you have today’s Western fear for The Other.
                      And exchange Antonio for Uther Pendragon and Shylock for Morgana and…
                      “Oh come on,” you might well say.
                      Yes, you’ll find a lot of holes in my argument but there was a flash of recognition when I read Greenblatt. Uther Pendragon is the king of Camelot. He’s the one with the dominant values, beliefs and institutions and he hates witches and sorcery. He has forbidden all magic, he hunts and kills anyone even slightly suspected of sorcery, but he demands the use of magic for his own purposes when necessary.
                      Antonio hates, fears and mistreats Jews.  His religion condemns usury. But he exploits both when necessary.
                      Shylock embraces hatred and revenge because of the oppression. Morgana embraces hatred and revenge because of the oppression.
                      The Merchant of Venice is a comedy that disturbs us deeply. Merlin is a TV adventure series that delights us.  There is darkness and tragedy in both.  We see why the villains have become villains. We wish they hadn’t become villains. We wish for a happy ending but that’s impossible. It doesn’t happen.
                      Shakespeare is Shakespeare.  Merlin is a popular contemporary TV series.  They both grab onto us because we are all close to becoming the hater and the hated.  We need to tell these stories and be told these stories.  We all need to confront and avert this danger and our fears. In comedies. And in adventure stories.
                      We are all Uther and Antonio, Shylock and Morgana.
                      And hopefully a little Merlin too.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Monday October 21 2013

We’ve finished reading Lear and have started the movies.  I had thought I had decided what to write about but after watching the BBC version I’m in doubt again.  I probably won’t start writing for a week or so, there’s too much other stuff going on and this will take concentration. In other words, not much will be happening on Shakespeare Calling for a couple of weeks.  But here’s what this week has to offer:

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary.
  • The devil was more of a presence in Shakespeare’s day, I suppose, but he made surprisingly few appearances in the plays. Listed in D&F are Henry VI Part One and Measure for Measure.
  • Doomsday, even more sinister than the devil, being that it signifies the end of history, is mentioned in Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV Part One, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • Inget är i sig själv varken ont eller gott, det är tanken som bestämmer vilket det är. This was the quote of the week last week in my teacher’s calendar. For those of you who haven’t brushed up on your Swedish the original is: “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and if you know who says it to whom and why and in which play, well, we haven’t had a contest for awhile. Write a comment here (not on Face Book please) and win…
  • In Dagens Nyheter last Monday (I missed it because I read the morning paper at dinner) was the report which I actually saw refuted on The Globe’s Face Book, that Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes simplified the text of Romeo and Juliet because not everybody has enough education to understand Shakespeare. Fiona Banks at the Globe answered: the actors are capable of making the story understandable and engaging. Thank you, Fiona (I liked this on FB). Silly Julian, I didn’t think you were such a snob…
  • Dagens Nyheter again: Anthony Hopkins has written to the star of the series Breaking Bad (which I haven’t seen) Bryan Cranston, praising the series as similar to a drama from James I’s time, a Shakespearian or Greek drama.  Hmmm, maybe I should see it.
  • One of the members of our local English book circle talked about the New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh, known for her detective novels and, according to the blurb on the book RL had with her to the circle, a renowned Shakespearean director who was instrumental in bringing Shakespeare to modern New Zealand.
  • On Swedish TV there was an interview with the popular song writer Lasse Holm who said that he likes Verdi’s version of Macbeth.
  • Our dear friend NM managed to get a ticket to one of the last performances of Mats Ek’s Julia & Romeo and was lyrical about it. “Soooooooo good!” said NM.
  • Ali Smith has done it again, written a wonderful novel, this time Hotel World in which a homeless woman thinks of Shakespeare, a dead girl has a poster for Romeo and Juliet on her wall and the child actor Solomon Pavy, who died at the age of thirteen, haunts the Globe. The ghost telling this informs us that Shakespeare had written The Comedy of Errors before Solomon was born, Julius Caesar while he was alive and acting and Antony and Cleopatra after his death.

Further this week:
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: King Lear and the introduction to the Norton edition.
  • Watched: the BBC version of play.
  • Premiered: the Kung Lear we’re going to see at Stadsteatern with Sven Wolter next Saturday.  So far the play has gotten mixed reviews but Wolter has evoked positive responses.  A colleague, TG, who saw part of the dress rehearsal, says it’s really good but the show was cancelled before the second half because someone slipped in all the rain on stage and hurt themselves. Not Wolter though! Lots of water and blood, TG reports. More next week when we’ve seen it!

Posted this week:

  • Only this Monday report.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Monday October 14 2013

We’re getting close to the end of Lear, reading it that is.  We have five films to watch and busy weekends ahead so it will still be a long process. As always at this point in reading a play I wonder what in the world I’ll write about it but there is no shortage of fascinating aspects.  I’m not sure how much I like this play but then I’m not sure “like” is the issue here.  Does one “like” Shakespeare?  I don’t think so…

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary.
  • Deborah was the first woman mentioned in biblical history to become a leader and a military general. In Henry VI Part One Shakespeare invents a “Deborah’s sword” to compare her to Joan of Arc.
  • Denmark, in Shakespeare’s time, was a world power though in decline. They were uneasy Protestant allies to the English, who were nevertheless suspicious of the Danes because they were allied to Scotland and traded with Spain.  Then Anne of Denmark became queen of England in 1603 and they all had to be friends.  By then Hamlet had done its Danish thing.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel The Song House, by Trezza Azzopardi, Shakespeare sightings abound:
    • The main character Maggie treasures the Shakespeare her mother had given her for her eleventh birthday. Precocious Maggie.
    • When the other main character Kenneth asks where a handkerchief is mentioned Maggie answers “Othello.”
    • Kenneth recognizes as Shakespeare the quote Maggie utters: “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break…” and she pretends not to remember that it’s from Antony and Cleopatra.
    • When Maggie goes off to town, Kenneth stays in the garden with his Shakespeare.
    • Kenneth tells his son Will as he dashes off for a dip in the dirty river, “’Tis a naughty night to swim in!” Because Hal and I had just read that very line, I recognized it as King Lear. Did you?
    • Will complains that his father is losing his mind: “He’s reading bloody Shakespeare!”
    • Will’s friend Alison tells Kenneth that William is worried about him: “That’s William your son, by the way, not Shakespeare.”
  • Dagens Nyheter tells us that Mats Ek’s ballet Julia and Romeo with the Royal Ballet has been invited by the Paris Opera to perform in Paris. We haven’t managed to see it here in Stockholm. Maybe we’ll have to go to Paris to see it.
  • Dagens Nyheter, same day: Copenhagen is celebrating Verdis 200th birthday by performing his three Shakespeare operas, Macbeth, Falstaff and Otello.  
  • The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther is about a woman from Iran and her English born daughter Sara who is a teacher. On page 2 we are told that that she has sixth form essays on Othello and Desdemona to read.
  • The film Sin Nombre was called by the Swedish TV presenter “a kind of brutal Romeo and Juliet in a gang environment.” That’s as far as we got.  We weren’t up to a brutal movie yesterday evening so watched something else.  We’ll get back to Sin Nombre

Further this week:
  • Continued reading aloud with Hal: King Lear
  • Ordered from the Globe shop: DVDs of Globe productions of Henry V, Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew (not, unfortunately, the one we saw this summer) and various other goodies.
  • Answered comments left on Blogging Shakespeare

Posted this week:
  • Text on Shakespeare and Popular Music by Adam Hansen
  • This Monday report.

Shakespeare and Popular Music

Shakespeare and popular Music by Adam Hansen, 2010.  Read in May-June 2011.

                      Those of us who grew up in the western music culture of the 50’s and 60’s no doubt remember the song “Just like Romeo and Juliet”. Do you remember who first did it? Well, I didn’t but now I know because this book told me.  It was the Reflections. That’s about the only song they did.  But it certainly wasn’t the only song produced with Shakespeare connections. There are four columns of songs in the index that are mentioned in this book.
                      Hansen sets out to show how his two passions, Shakespeare and popular music, relate, or more importantly, to prove those wrong who claim that they don’t relate and never can.  He does this admirably. It’s a fun book with a lot of “Oh yeah, that one!” – for example Peggy Lee’s “Fever” (“Romeo loved Juliet, Juliet she felt the same. When he put his arms around her he said ‘Julie, baby you’re my flame, thou givest fever”) and Springsteen’s “Point Blank” (“I was gonna be your Romeo you were gonna be my Juliet. These days you don't wait on Romeo's you wait on that welfare check..”) and Donavan’s “Under the Greenwood Tree”.
                      But Hansen goes back a lot farther than that, starting with Shakespeare himself who included a lot of what has to be called popular music in his own plays.
                      One chapter deals with how popular music is used in today’s Shakespeare movies, for example Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet or Julie Taymor’s Titus.
                      Another chapter deals with Shakespeare and jazz by which Hal and I were inspired to order Cleo Laine’s Shakespeare and All That Jazz and Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder. We learn further about British rap artist Akala who runs workshops on Shakespeare.

                      Hansen also explores Shakespeare in county music, punk and world music. And as always when it comes to Shakespeare, there seems to be no end to it.  Hansen ends his very enjoyable book with the wise words: “This is something to celebrate, not lament, as Caliban counsels: ‘Be not afeard’…And the beat goes on…”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Monday October 7 2013

Lear continues. Unfortunately the technical problems I had last week also continue.  I still cannot save the text for Timon of Athens in the “Play Analyses” side bar and I simply don’t know what to do.  The link is this if you want to find it this week
Free blogging is nice but it means there’s no one there to help you when glitches turn up.  I just hope it’s a onetime thing and that everything works today. Keep your cyberfingers crossed.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary.
  • The Cotswolds, a range of hills near Shakespeare’s home town Stratford, is an area with which he would consequently be very familiar.
  • Cupid is the Roman god of love and is used often in the plays, often “mocking or pointing up the disasters that follow from impetuous love matches.”

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel After This, by Alice McDermott, “Once more into the breach” is spoken by one of the character and “Something rotten in Denmark” is mentioned by another. As You Like It and Henry V are mentioned as is “Shakespeare” (just generally). Unfortunately none of these lifted this rather bland novel.
  • Sven Wolter, who will be premiering as Lear in a couple of weeks (we have tickets for the 26th) was interviewed on Gokväll, a popular program on SVT (/Swedish TV). Says Sven (in rough translation and paraphrase): “The play is about a ruler who becomes a person. The play has fantastic lines and lyricism. After playing Lear on Gotland in 2001, when my wife was very sick and shortly thereafter died, I want to do the play again because there is so much existentialism in it. It‘s the only role I’ve wanted to do again. How has it changed? I’ve gotten old! I’m now 80 years old. The younger actors don’t ask my advice, I learn just as much from them as they do from me.”

Further this week:
  • Continued reading aloud with Hal: King Lear
  • Finished reading: Shakespeare’s Freedom by Stephen Greenblatt
  • Continued the King Lear film watching with: Ran
  • Ordered: Duke Ellington’s CD Such Sweet Thunder.
  • Ordered and received: The Hollow Crown, a trilogy of Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V with Jeremy Irons, Patrick Steward, John Hurt, Julie Walters and lots of other people.
  • Blogging Shakespeare posted the two texts and

Posted this week:

Shakespeare Behind Bars

Shakespeare Behind Bars, Jean Trounstine.  Read in May 2011.

                      Being an English teacher I have long harbored the dream of actually reaching out to troubled students and helping them find the inspiration to get their lives together.  Working with women in prison has been a thought. It probably won’t happen for me.  It did for this author. 
                      Jean Trounstine gets a teaching job in a New England women’s prison. The inmates are not into Shakespeare but Trounstine experiments. Focusing on six women, who come to the classes mainly to pass dreary time, she writes about how by putting on The Merchant of Venice these women work their way through past traumas and tragedies, how they protest, refuse to continue, complain about the language, deal with ornery prison guards, and then after months of hard work, lots of aggression and anger and tears and heartbreak, they actually perform the play for their fellow inmates. And prove a lot of things to themselves and the skeptics.

                      There’s a touch of the Hollywood feel-good to the book but it is nevertheless a good read and shows once again that Shakespeare is for everyone.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Timon of Athens When You're Down and Out

When You’re Down and Out
Class Conflict

Timon of Athens

                      If you see Timon as a particularly odd individual who is extremely generous in the beginning of the play only to become extremely vicious when he loses his money and his friends shun him in his need, then this is, as Professor Harold Bloom sees it, “somewhere between satire and farce” (page 589). Some have thought it impossible to perform and indeed it seems that the play was never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. But as we know, Bloom refuses to see any of his (and our) beloved Bard’s works in any kind of socioeconomic or political context. This often clouds his perception of what is most interesting in a play, certainly in this case.
                      Timon is, to be sure, a fascinating character and it’s hard not to say, “Well, duh, if you give away all your wealth and borrow a lot of money and never actually make any new money, whaddya expect?”  He didn’t expect bankruptcy (wrong word – no banks in those days but same principle) but that’s what he got.
                      An oddball? An exceptionally foolish man? Not at all, according to Katherine Eisaman Maus in the introduction to the Norton Edition.  Timon is simply a representative of the aristocracy of Shakespeare’s time during which “the traditional aristocratic virtues of openhanded generosity and carelessness of expense were coming into acute conflict with the limited means upon which the great nobles could actually draw” (page 2265). She goes on to explain that while the bourgeois class grew in power and wealth and not only traded in more and more luxury goods but could afford to buy them for their personal use, the aristocracy had to increase the value of their gift-giving in order to retain their superior status. Timon wasn’t the only one giving away things, it’s just that the others more openly expected something other than love in return. Poor old aristocrats.
                      Hugh Grady, in his essay on Timon of Athens in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, the Tragedies, is even more explicit in showing how the Athenian society, in a clear parallel to Shakespeare’s London, “consist[s] of a hypocritical exterior of entertainment, friendship and (oddly female-less) domestic life actually organized to enrich a class of merchants and usurers and corrode ancient bonds of loyalty and service” (page 434). Grady goes on to cite Coppélia Kahn who shows that “Timon’s suppliers – and ultimately Timon himself – fantasize an endless fecundity” in the Marxist sense that money is “no longer simply money but capital; that is, money expended not for tangible commodities but for profits” (page 435). Timon isn’t seeking profit, he’s seeking the power over others of being the virtuous selfless gift-giver, putting them into a debt of obligation. But it is the Merchant, the Jeweler (members of the bourgeoisie), the other lords (his competitors within the aristocracy) the Poet and the Painter who end up with the financial profit.
                      This is getting complicated.
                      Timon is…upset by the demands of his creditors and the refusal of his friends to help him.  In fact he goes stark raving mad.  He really hates these people and calls them
                                            Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
                                            Courteous destroyers, affable wolves… (Act 3.7)

                      And that’s the mild stuff. It’s not enough to hate these individuals; he leaves Athens, becomes a hermit and hates the whole human race.  But poor old Timon, digging for roots to eat he finds a bunch of gold coins. Ah, he just can’t get away from money that he hasn’t earned.
                      So money, the real main character in this play, makes a new entrance, in the form of some kind of mythical profit.
                      In one of Shakespeare’s more clear-sighted monologs, he has Timon expose money for what it is:

                      Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
…much of this will make
Black white, foul fair, wrong right.
Base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! Why this, what, this, you gods? Why, this
…yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th’accursed…
…This is it
That makes the wappered widow wed again…
…Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations; I will make thee
Do thy right nature (Act 4.3).

                      Money.  Lots of it can change bad things into good.  We know that. Money pays our rent, buys our food, gives us status and self-confidence (maybe). This yellow slave. It does what we tell it to do. We use it to create gods to give us harmony (maybe) and power (definitely). It is our slave.  And then suddenly we are its slave.  We become its whore.  We sell body and soul for it.  And more of it.  And more.
Timon’s outrage at finding the gold coins is so significant that Karl Marx himself wrote page after page of analysis in his Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts from 1844. He writes:
Shakespeare stresses especially two properties of money:
1. It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.
2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.

                      Oh that word “whore”.  It’s a nasty word used several times in the play itself and Marx isn’t the only one to make use of it in his analysis.  It has often been noted that Timon of Athens is unusual in Shakespeare’s works because there are almost no women. Only the “ladies” presented in the directions as Amazons who come to entertain the banquet in Act 2.1 (interesting in itself) and Phrynia and Timandra (female form of “Timon”?) who accompany Alcibiades in his visit to Timon in Act 4.3. Timon insults them, as he does everyone.  He tells them to use their diseased bodies to spread disease. And he gives them gold. When they reply, “Believe’t that we will do anything for gold (Act 4.3)”, we are not to see these two women as greedier, more immoral, than everyone else because they are “whores” but that, as Kay Stanton points out, “gold, rather than woman is called the ‘root’ of whoredom, so all who must live in the material conditions of a market economy are in some sense whores” (page 97).
                      Ouch. That hurts. But it’s hard to deny.  We’re caught up in an economic system not to our liking and we do what we can and must do to get by.  And even if we play by the rules we don’t all succeed.
                      Timon was playing by the rules of aristocratic generosity.  His creditors were playing by the rules of dawning capitalism demanding the repayment of their loans to him.  His friends? The rule of “I don’t have to because someone else will”? Or, “Not right now, it’s not a good time…later”?
                      This is a cynical hopeless play in which the choice is “Timon’s extravagant imprudence” or a “dog-eat-dog world of untrammeled self-interest.” In Marxist Shakespeares Scott Cutler Shershow writes further that “Shakespeare simply cannot imagine any realistic social model beyond these two alternatives, and since the play deplores both it has absolutely nowhere to go” (page 260).
                      Maybe not.  But does it have to?  We know what happens because we have four hundred years on Shakespeare. We know the aristocracy lost and the bourgeoisie won, what’s amazing is that Shakespeare so accurately describes this happening. Of course we say down with the aristocracy (as many of us more or less say down with the bourgeoisie today). In the historical perspective it was inevitable and desirable that the system of generosity based on non-production should give way to a market economy, just as it is necessary today for the market economy to give way to an economic system based on need, equality and ecological soundness. Sooner rather than later, if we are to survive.
                      But still, caught in this historical process, Timon doesn’t have a chance. It’s a fine line between love and hate. Or more accurately, when one’s entire essence is based on a lie that is exposed in the harsh glare of reality, hate can quickly, fiercely and completely replace love.
                      It does, so magnificently in Timon of Athens.
                      Poor Timon?

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare – the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosphic Manuscripts of 1844. “The Power of Money”.
  • Shershow, Scott Cutler. “Shakespeare Beyond Shakespeare” in Marxist Shakespeares. Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, editors. 2001.
  • Stanton, Kay. “Use of the Word Whore in Shakespeare’s Canon” in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Dympna Callaghan, editor. 2001.

Films seen:
  • BBC, 1981. Directed by Jonathan Miller. Cast: Timon – Jonathan Pryce; Alcibiades – John Shrapnel; Apemantus – Norman Rodway; Flavius – John Welsh; Timandra – Diana Dors; Poet – John Fortune; Painter – John Bird. A competent production with competent actors. It’s a difficult play but this clarifies it and brings it alive.

Seen on stage: no.