Russell Brand plays Trinculo in Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest, and he’s known for his improvisation. Naturally, he can’t improvise in this film, but he can do it off-screen. And brilliantly, mind you.
Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play (the longest being Hamlet), so a production of it has to be substantially edited. More often than not, that means cutting out the entire character of Queen Margaret. It’s an understandable edit, given that Margaret doesn’t have any influence on the plot, and she makes reference to events that occur in the Henry VI plays, with which even many avid Shakespeareans are often unfamiliar.
I wholly respect any decision to eliminate Margaret, but personally, I find her essential to the theme of the play, and one of the more powerfully dramatic figures of the play. She frames the entire context of time within the play.
First, she represents the past. As the last Lancastrian, she reminds the current Yorkist regime of its overthrow of Henry VI. She’s like a ghost, just as haunting as those that visit Richard and Richmond on the eve of battle. She knows history.
She also knows the present, and sees what’s going on better than anyone else in the play. She can see through Richard and knows his plots when everybody else is fooled by him.
And lastly, she foresees the future. She predicts that Richard will destroy the House of York, and warns them that they will look back on her predictions and note their accuracy: “O, but remember this another day, / When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow, / And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!” (I.iii.299-301) And they do: “Thus Margaret’s curse falls heavy on my neck. / ‘When he,’ quoth she, ‘shall split thy heart with sorrow, / Remember Margaret was a prophetess'” (V.i.25-27).
But these are not distinct roles. Margaret isn’t a historian, journalist and prophet. She is the person who views connections over time and history. Margaret isn’t actually a prophet; she doesn’t have a supernatural power to see events in the future. In actuality, she finds connections between the past and present and knows that the future will be the same. The old saying is, “Those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it.” Margaret knows the past, and she knows the Yorkists don’t know the past (or, more accurately, they know the past but ignore it), and thus she knows they will repeat it. She parallels the present to the past quite effectively when talking to Elizabeth and the Duchess of York:
I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him (IV.iv.40-43).
In summary, Margaret believes that Richard’s violence is inevitable. Peace cannot exist in England as it is now. The era is designated for violence, and violence will happen. It will come at Richard’s hands, and there is no stopping it.
Richard, on the other hand, views his role a different way. He believes he can manipulate the era. As early as his opening soliloquy, he says that the time is now designated for peace, but he will change the time and make it violent and bloody.
So who’s right? Is Richard a tool of time, simply the object by which the era of violence exercises itself? Or does he actually alter what would otherwise be an age of peace? Many people talk about this matter in terms of fate and free will, but I don’t know that it’s as metaphysical as that. It’s the old question of history. Does history march on its own and some people follow and some don’t (“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” — Otto von Bismarck), or do individuals alter the course of history (“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” — Thomas Carlyle)?
The real conflict of Richard III is between the views of Richard and Margaret, even though they only appear on stage at the same time once. The conflicts between Richard and his relatives are, by and large, reflections of the deeper conflict between Richard and Margaret. So while Margaret may not be important to the plot, the play loses much of its edge when she is gone.
All that, and she’s just gosh darn awesome.
I think? Maybe “interdisciplinariness”? Whatever. It’s beside the point.
Duane made an excellent post at ShakespeareGeek about how Shakespeare is taught to young students, and whether or not they should be expected to provide analyses based on history, literary theory and the like. Now, let’s not beat around the bush: No grade-school kid enjoys learning about British succession law, or the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and how those things influenced Shakespeare’s writing. And as Duane correctly points out, it’s this style of teaching that makes kids think Shakespeare is dry, dull and outdated. Nobody wants them to think that.
But should we eliminate the literary element entirely? I don’t think so. I’ve sometimes encountered an attitude that Shakespeare was just an entertainer, not a commentator on his times, a literary master, etc. And he was all those things.
Those who read my blog regularly know that I’m fascinated by literary analysis of Shakespeare, but that’s not my sole interest. I often compare my love of Shakespeare to my love of a person. When you fall in love, you love the other person in many ways: intellectually, emotionally, physically, psychologically, etc. But are they all distinct feelings? Can you say, “Here is where my intellectual love begins and my emotional love ends?” Of course not. It’s one complex, inter-related feeling. My love of Shakespeare is the same. I don’t love Shakespeare analytically sometimes and aesthetically other times. They feed off of each other.
I thus don’t think any understanding or appreciation of a play is complete without some analysis. Say you are teaching Othello. But say also that you fail to teach your kids about the tense relationship between European Christendom and the Ottoman Turks, and how that drives the play. No, you don’t need to dedicate hours upon hours to studying the political climate. But you do need to bring it up and give the children some background (and, perhaps, draw modern parallels, like the current tension between the West and the Middle East). This ought to help the students appreciate the play more, not less, because it makes more sense in light of that knowledge. It speaks on more levels. At the same time, if you teach Othello only as an exhibit in a history museum and not a passionate love story, you’ll make it dry and lame. The combination of both is what gives Othello its energy and spirit.
Even from a theatrical standpoint, the same is true. I cannot speak from experience, having only a slight background in theatre, but every actor or director I’ve spoken to (and I’ve spoken to many) has told me that one cannot be a good actor without studying the history of the play one is acting in.
Which brings me back to my original point: Interdisciplinaritivitism. The very first discussion Susan and I had on our podcast was about the fact that literary experts and theatrical experts tend to look down on the other. But both groups would benefit if they cooperated. Shakespeare is one of history’s great geniuses, because he wrote on thousands of levels simultaneously. Why do him the injustice of ignoring those levels?
According to The Independent, Shakespeare outranks many popular authors in terms of total Facebook friends. The top rank goes to Stephen King, aruably the most popular author in American history, with more than twice as many as his closest competitor. It’s not even a contest.
Now, given that Shakespeare’s dead, and his Facebook page is clearly not run by him or his estate, aren’t there several? So how did they measure how many friends he has? Did they just find the most popular Shakespeare profile, or did they add up the number of friends on all his profiles? If the former, I question their results. But I’m biased.
I discovered this piece about Jewish identity and The Merchant of Venice in the Huffington Post several days ago, but refrained from writing about it until I had digested it fully. It’s a piece about someone who saw The Merchant of Venice on Broadway, only to be disgusted, as he always is, at the portrayal of its Jew. But this article touches me particularly, because its author talks about trying to find his Jewish identity while being a non-believer. And I’m an atheist Jew.
The question is, what does it then mean to be “Jewish”? There have been circles where I avoided calling myself “Jewish” — rather asking that I be called an atheist who was raised Jewish — because there is so much popular confusion between Judaism as an ethnicity and Judaism as a religion. For example, people often like to list religious scientists, and cite Albert Einstein as a Jew. Yet there’s no real indication that Einstein was a Jew in any religious sense.
But, back to Shakespeare. My difficulties with Jewish identity have never driven me to a particular revulsion to Shylock, or to the play in which he appears. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, unlike Mr. Sims, I’ve never had to deal with any severe anti-Semitism. Some comments here and there, but the article’s author apparently bunked in the Air Force with a Mississippian who had thought Jews had horns. (Yes, this is a real belief in some places.) And while Mr. Sims claims to have made some progress with this man, the bunkmate continued to make anti-Semitic remarks.
If I had had to deal with anti-Semitism of this magnitude, I can imagine I’d be more sensitive to The Merchant of Venice. But I’m not. I find that Shylock is too complex a character to be relgated to simple Jewish stereotype. Of course, let’s not be so naive as to pretend that Shylock isn’t a stereotype at all. The stereotyipical view of Jews in Elizabethan England was not just that they were money-hungry, but that they were so because they were incapable of understanding connections like love, compassion, family, etc. They only understood material things, not human emotions. And we can see this when Salarino and Solanio report about his rant when Jessica leaves him:
I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! find the girl;
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats’ (II.viii.12-22).
Shylock is no more upset about losing his daughter than losing his money. (Though let’s keep in mind that we don’t hear this from Shylock’s mouth; Solanio, himself an anti-Semite, relates the story.) But in one of the more overlooked moments of the play, Shylock violates the stereotype. Tubal tells him that Jessica gave away a ring of his for a monkey. His reaction:
Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys (III.i.111-14).
Who now can say that Shylock can’t see past the material into the human? He wouldn’t exchange an item for more than its face value, because it reminds him of a person he loved. And while this scene, in which he meets Tubal, is full of stereotypical Jewish money-love, we see the complexity of the character.
People often ask the question, “Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite?” when they read or see The Merchant of Venice. My answer to this is, “Shakespeare was a white middle-class man, living in Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. I don’t need a play to know how he felt about Jews.” But even on Shakespeare’s worst day, he didn’t create two-dimensional characters. Othello is a Moor, and Shakespeare more than likely had some negative views of the Moors, given the general view of the society in which he lived. But is Othello a simple stereotype? Or is he a partial stereotype? Surely he’s anything but simple.
So how do I, a Jew, absorb The Merchant of Venice? I look at it for what it is. It’s a play that, at least in some ways, promotes anti-Semitism, and in other ways discourages it. It’s a work from an era when anti-Semitism was the norm. But it’s also brilliant, complex and deep. I see the anti-Semitism in it, and while I hardly approve of that attitude, I can set it aside, knowing it’s a product of its time, and enjoy the play and all its marvelous poetry. Maybe that means I can compartmentalize better than some other Jews. Maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe it’s not. But I can’t imagine a world where I’m incapable of enjoying The Merchant of Venice.
Shakespeare’s plays have been set everywhere, from the modern day to Elizabethan England to prehistoric times to World War II. Sometimes it works and sometimes it bombs. But one concept that seems like it would work, which I recently heard about, is Henry V in space. It’ll star Michael Caine. I like this idea. War is universal, and who doesn’t like to see space battles on a silver screen? It’s a thrill, as the latest Star Trek movie reminded us so well. And hey, maybe this will be extra evidence for when the Klingons try to make their case.
However, my hopes were dashed a little when I found out that, according to NBC, the film hasn’t yet begun shooting and may never come to fruition. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed.
What I can’t seem to find, as much as I look, is whether this film would be in Shakespeare’s language or not. I’m hoping it is. I’d love to hear Crispin’s Day from the bridge of a space station. Wouldn’t you?