Archive for August, 2010

Reacting to Violence in “Macbeth”

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom says, “The violence of Macbeth doubtless impresses us more than it did the drama’s contemporary audiences. Many if not most of those who attended Macbeth also joined the large crowds who thronged public executions in London, including drawings-and-quarterings as well as more civilized beheadings.”

Bloom goes on to discuss the violence in Titus Andronicus as well, but it’s important to note that the violence in the two plays is of a very different nature. Titus Andronicus is full of blood and guts and gore. Macbeth, though a play about violence, isn’t actually all that gruesome.

Which is why I disagree with Bloom. Indeed, Shakespeare’s original audience was more desensitized to gore. They were used to seeing acts of violence, such as public beheadings. For this reason, it seems clear to me that modern audiences are more disturbed by Titus Andronicus than was its first audience.

But Macbeth is different. It’s a play about mass slaughter, not horrible violence against individuals. And our history, unlike Shakespeare’s, is full of such things. Of course, Shakespeare’s audience was aware of some great dictators, but our history books include Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Francois Duvalier and more. We live in a world where mass murder is not a shock. It’s disturbingly common. Macbeth’s ability to kill in the thousands, disturbing though it is, probably doesn’t shock those of us who are familiar with murder in the millions.

When visiting Malcolm in England, Macduff says, “Not in the legions / Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn’d / In evils to top Macbeth” (IV.iii.55-57). When I hear these lines, I say, “I can name a few.” Shakespeare’s first audience might have believed it.

Your thoughts?

Dench Gets On Board in Olivier Film

I was recently told that Kenneth Branagh would be playing Sir Laurence Olivier in an upcoming film. (Thanks to Shakespeare Geek for originally calling my attention to it.) It’s not a film about or based on Shakespeare, but nonetheless, is it not quite exciting that the most recognized Shakespearian actor of his time is going to play the most recognized Shakespearian actor of a prior era?

Now there’s a whole new level of Shakespeare-ness in the film. Dame Judi Dench is joining the cast. Just one more Shakespeare icon for what’s shaping up to be quite the cast.

Dench and Branagh have only worked together twice, according to IMDb. Dench appeared in Branagh’s production of Hamlet as Hecuba, in a brief non-speaking role, and she was Mistress Nell Quickly in his Henry V. That’s a pretty limited list of common projects for two actors as iconic as they are. I’m really looking forward to seeing them on screen together.

The 10 Best Hamlets

The Guardian recently did a story on what actors they consider the best 10 Hamlets of all time. And it’s a pretty non-traditional list. No Kenneth Branagh. No Derek Jacobi. But some pretty unexpected names on there. I give them huge credit for putting Innokenti Smoktunovsky, who was in the 1964 Russian film version of the play. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Even in a language you don’t speak (and I don’t know a word of Russian; if it hadn’t been for the subtitles, I’d have sat in front of the TV the whole time going, “Shto?”), it’s marvelously effective.

Who do you think should be on this list who isn’t? Or shouldn’t be who is?

Empson on Hamlet’s Delay

In his 1986 book, Essays on Shakespeare, the scholar William Empson proposed that Hamlet’s delay to take revenge in the play that bears his name is an intentional absurdity. Many scholars have attempted to analyze why Hamlet delays, approaching it as a psychological problem on Hamlet’s part, but Empson views it as an intentional dramatic absurdity.

Empson begins by referring to the Ur-Hamlet, an earlier play that dealt with the Hamlet story, the script of which doesn’t survive. A few contemporary references show that, by 1600, the Ur-Hamlet was a bit of a laughingstock of the theatrical world, largely because of that outrageous delay. Everyone in the audience knew there was a revenge coming, but something was preventing it from happening.

Empson believes that Shakespeare’s approach to the Hamlet story was to attempt to overcome this problem, and in order to do so, exaggerate it. You know how when, there is some implausibility in a work of fiction, it becomes plausible when a character acknowledges its implausibility? The author knows it’s not working, the characters know it, and so, since the oddity is canonized and is not being passed off to the audience as believable, it becomes believable.

This is how Empson imagines Hamlet. Hamlet, according to Empson, “walks out to the audience and says, ‘You think this is an absurd old play, and so it is, but I’m in it, and what can I do?” In other words, audiences came to the theater not to understand why Hamlet delayed, but to see what Shakespeare did with that delay. And, in this theory, when Hamlet wonders out loud why he’s delaying his revenge, he is not so much saying, “What’s wrong with me that I haven’t done this yet?” but, “What’s wrong with this play that its main character hasn’t done this yet?”

It’s a pretty non-traditional view, but a pretty fascinating one, isn’t it? I don’t know if I agree completely, but given that the Hamlet story had been on stage before Shakespeare’s play, it’s probably at least partially true.

What do you folks think?

Oh Give Me a Home, That’s Imperial Rome…

OK, so the title has only a little to do with the subject of this post. I just couldn’t resist.

A recent article at cited the recent interest in fiction about ancient Rome (sparked by the film Gladiator) and discussed Rome in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the upcoming film version of Coriolanus (more on that in future posts, as well as in the next podcast). Here’s a quote:

Rome is the go-to era for stories of crime, debauchery, and power, for films that push the technical boundaries of the art. But the most intriguing movies and television shows set in ancient Rome tend to be those that attempt less historical accuracy and use the era as a dark mirror to our own times. In “Titus Andronicus,’’ written around 1590, Shakespeare likened the political atmosphere of old Rome to “a wilderness of tigers.’’ But the line could also describe Shakespeare’s era, or Washington’s political churn.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? What is it about Rome that captures our imagination — and the Elizabethan imagination — so much? Is it the glamor of its power? In some ways, I’m tempted to say that instability in Rome is facinating because Rome was so powerful that a collapse of a regime had such tremendous impact. But political instability is as much a theme in King Lear as it is in the Roman plays. But then, it’s not as political as Coriolanus or Julius Caesar.

Rome is something of an amalgam of opposites. At different times, it could be politically stable and politically weak. It was sometimes dictatorial and sometimes democratic. The Romans were capable of great art and humanism, and also horrific cruelty. And it’s the source of so many incredible stories.

I think of it as something like an imperial Wild West in the Western imagination. A place where established governments attempted to maintain order, but wildness and disorder could still reign. And yet, as a militant state (as opposed to a dissociated amalgam of settlements), it can parallel our own society much more than the Wild West can.

What do you think? Why does Rome fascinate us so? What does the setting suggest in Shakespeare?

Othello as an Arab?

In 1911, the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated, “The term ‘Moors’ has no real ethnological value.” This is because, at different times in history, the term has been used to refer to people of Berber, Black African and Arab descent.

For most people reading this blog, the most recognizable Moor is probably Othello, who, on stage, is almost always portrayed as a Black African. After all, the characters in the play, including Othello himself, refer to him as “black,” and modern audiences understand that term in a specific way.

But I’ve always wanted to see a production that portrayed Othello as an Arab.

Elizabethan Englishmen viewed the Muslim Middle East — at that time, dominated by the Ottoman Turks — as theocratic, totalitarian and backwards, dominated by sadistic dictators. The Empire was expanding into Europe and was a source of great fear for the West. And so, an Arab Othello would have been quite the interesting dynamic on stage: an Arab fighting against Arabs to protect Christendom.

And how do we, in our modern culture, view the Muslim Middle East? Since 9/11, we have cultivated an image of the region as theocratic, totalitarian and backwards, dominated by sadistic dictators. And there has been much fear of another terrorist attack from them. While no two political realities are identical, there is much similarity. So wouldn’t it be interesting to put that dynamic on stage? Othello the Arab, fighting against the enemy we fear the most: his own people.

Any directors reading this are more than welcome to steal the idea. 😉

Metric variations in “Henry V”

Since I started working with Susan Guthrie, I’ve been paying more and more attention to verse form in Shakespeare. Susan is a big believer in classical verse form, and I’m picking that up from her, and discovering some incredible new things.

For example, I was reading Henry V recently, and came upon noticable variations in one of his famous speeches (IV.i.282-299):

O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon

Notice the variation on the four lines in which Henry talks about what he’s done and what he will do in Richard’s memory:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;

I’ve never been much of a believer in the hype around Henry as a great patriotic hero. Personally, I find the play that bears his name to be more ironic than promotional with regards to patriotism. For example, when Henry says that if any commoner fights at Agincourt, the battle will “gentle his condition” (IV.iii.64), does he mean it? It doesn’t seem so, given that only the nobles get their names specially mentioned when Henry finds out about the English death toll (IV.viii.101-104). Moreover, why is this “mirror of all Christian kings” (II.Cho.6) praying to a pagan god in the above speech?

Anyway, my point here is that, if indeed Henry is not entirely honest and genuine, the varied lines in his speech may indicate dishonesty; ie, he’s not genuinely sorry about Richard’s death or his father’s actions, nor does he truly intend to do the penance he claims. (After all, nobody in this play seems to acknowledge the fact that, due to Henry’s father’s usurpation, even if the King of England is legitimately the King of France, Henry is legitimately neither.)

Some editors choose to compile those lines to turn them into proper blank verse. When read as three lines, they work well:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;

These were printed as four lines in the First Folio (see here), but it’s well known that printers would often break up lines to take up space when printing a book. So perhaps when Shakespeare wrote those lines, they were in iambic pentameter, and this whole long rant was meaningless.

What do you all think of Henry and this speech?