Archive for September, 2010

Falstaff Gets a Bad Rap

This is a subject I’ve talked about on the podcast more than once, but I figured I’d lay it out in text.

Falstaff gets a lot of attacks, not just from the people in the two plays that feature him, but those who read and see them. He’s regarded as Hal’s corrupter, but in many ways, he is Hal’s redeemer. Hal is torn between the world of Hotspur and the world of Falstaff, and everyone around him hopes he’s pulled towards the former, starting with his own father:

O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
(Henry IV pt 1, I.i.86-89)

But would that be a good thing? I don’t think Shakespeare thinks so. I’m willing to grant that Elizabethans valued a great warrior, but Hotspur has too many flaws for it to be worth it. In Henry IV pt 1, Hal stands between the body of Hotspur and Falstaff, who is lying on the ground playing dead. It’s a visual instance of Hal between his two forces. But after Hal leaves, Falstaff stands up. He’s almost Christlike in rising from the “dead.” He’s Hal’s salvation. He makes Hal a better king in the future.

Of course, I don’t deny that Hal’s rejection of Falstaff is a necessity. The new King Henry V can’t actively associate with a thief and a coward. Yet what he learns from Falstaff prevents him from being destroyed by Hotspur’s rage and lack of self-control. Consider two comparisons:

Henry V includes a scene in which Henry discovers a plot against his life (II.i). And he handles it expertly. How would Hotspur deal with this situation? He deals with a similar situation, in which his own relatives lie to him about the king’s offer to resolve grievances (Henry IV pt 1, V.ii). It’s not an identical situation, but Hotspur being Hotspur, he deals with it in a fit of rage and emotion without stopping to consider that he might be being lied to. He’s so consumed by anger that he never stops to think or act rationally.

The second instance I want to draw attention to IV.i of Henry V, in which Hal goes into his camp of soldiers to talk to them at their level. Shakespeare does a marvelous thing sometimes: He gives a character the ability to speak in either poetry or prose, depending on the situation. Iago, for example, can talk at either Othello’s level or Roderigo’s level. Hal is another example. He functions at every level.

And who taught him to talk amongst commoners?


“The Shakespeare Code”

I recently took to watching the TV series “Dr. Who.” — as in, the one that began in 2005, not the original — largely due to the exceptional performance of David Tennant in Hamlet. I was curious to see what it was that made him such a star.

I was excited to find out that the second episode of the third season is titled “The Shakespeare Code.” In it, the Doctor and his companion travel to London in 1599 to meet Shakespeare. It’s a wonderful episode, and my only complaint is the overuse of one of the oldest time travel sci-fi cliches: the Doctor routinely repeats lines of Shakespeare that he’s read, and Shakespeare decides to steal them.

But in spite of that, Dean Lennox Kelly’s performance as the Bard is quite compelling. Rather than stuffy and self-important the way so many have played Shakespeare, Kelly makes the character quite charming and accessible, if a terrible egoist.

Best of all, though, I finally know what happened to Love’s Labour’s Won. But I won’t ruin the surprise!

The Danger of Shylock

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend about one of the age-old questions: Is The Merchant of Venice an anti-Semitic play?

As I often do in this conversation, I compare Shylock to Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Shylock says some negative things, but Barabas goes so far as to say he kills homeless people for fun when nobody’s watching. We can’t imagine something like that coming from Shylock’s mouth. He’s more complex than that. He has more humanity.

My friend said that, in some ways, Shylock is more dangerous than Barabas for precisely this reason. Barabas is a caricature. In a modern world, we know this isn’t the way people behave, no matter what stereotypes we have about them. Shylock, on the other hand, can promote anti-Semitism because he is believable, but also subscribes to many Jewish stereotypes.

While I always say that Shylock is too complex to be dismissed as a mere stereotype, there is some truth to this. What do you think?

This Week’s Podcast: Season 1, Episode 8

Hey everyone. The most recent episode of our podcast is live. This week, Susan and I talk about Shakespeare on film and in live theatre; the challenges of playing Hamlet; Sir Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth; and a cartoon retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

You can listen to it by subscribing via this RSS feed, clicking the link in the sidebar on the right, or just clicking here. (Give it some time to load; it’s a large file.)

If you have any thoughts on the show or this episode, or anything you’d like us to talk about next week, feel free to leave a comment here on this blog, or write to me at Enjoy!

Getting Even With Shakespeare

I was fortunate enough to see this wonderfully clever comedy last night. It was originally part of NYC’s Fringe Festival, but the run extended. (But not for long! The last shows are this weekend, so if you’re in New York and want to see the show, check out the link for shows this weekend.)

The premise: Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet are forced, by the laws of metaphysics, to “attend” every performance of the plays that bear their name. And since they die in unpleasant ways, that’s no fun for them. They spend their days in a bar complaining about their creator, until a former-playwright-turned-lawyer comes into the bar and proposes a way to get revenge.

If you’re expecting lots of Shakespeare-related jokes, you might be a little disappointed. Which isn’t to say a familiarity with the plays isn’t helpful. But beyond a few Hamlet-wants-Gertrude jokes (which are pretty old hat and overdone), the magic of the characters is in how distinct they are from their Shakespearian counterparts and how they seem to have grown from their experience of being them, night after night after night.

And it’s meta on many levels. The writer of the play is, in fact, a theater lover who went to law school and is an attorney, and he speaks through the character in the play that bears his name. He doesn’t regret his choices, but says he has always wanted to be a part of the theater, and this was his opportunity.

Anyway, if you have the opportunity, go see it. You’ll thank yourself.

This Week’s Podcast: Season 1, Episode 7

Hey everyone. The most recent episode of our podcast is live. This week, Susan and I talk about both parts of Henry IV, in response to KERA’s “Think” podcast (located here).

You can listen to it by subscribing via this RSS feed, clicking the link in the sidebar on the right, or just clicking here. (Give it some time to load; it’s a large file.)

If you have any thoughts on the show or this episode, or anything you’d like us to talk about next week, feel free to leave a comment here on this blog, or write to me at Enjoy!

Iago: Creative?

It is generally said that Iago is one of the very creative, imaginative characters in Shakespeare, because of the way he so ably manipulates the people around him. But I disagree.

Of course, there are many types of creativity, and it would be impossible to deny that Iago is creative in some ways. His gift for improvisation, for example, is marvelous. But is he especially creative as compared to some of the other great characters in the Shakespearian canon? I have to say, I don’t think so.

Iago’s language is distinctly lacking in imaginative qualities. His mind is mired in very simple, straightforward imagery. Let’s look at part of Macbeth’s speech, when he is considering killing Duncan:

And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind

It’s rich in intense, fantastic imagery. Macbeth is creative enough to, for example, personify “pity” and compare it to something so imaginative as “a naked newborn babe, / striding the blast.”

What about Iago? Here’s a speech of his:

Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now

Dry, uninteresting imagery. How overdone is it to compare an evil individual to the devil? Of course, this is but one example, but I cannot find a speech of Iago’s in which he is any more poetic.

But, as I said at the beginning, creativity comes in many forms. One might protest that Iago is not a poet, but his creativity in being able to manipulate people and use human nature is tremendous. No, not quite, says I. People tend to forget that Iago doesn’t have his whole plot laid out. He has to improvise. Take, for example, the scene in which Roderigo finally confronts Iago and demands repayment. Iago, if he is as clever and as good of a judge of human character as many say he is, should have seen this coming. And yet, he has no prepared response. It isn’t until Roderigo threatens him that Iago even attempts an answer.

So what’s so creative about Iago? Can anyone defend this position to me?