Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rounded with a Sleep

As you might have noticed, this blog has been dormant for a few months. I had a whirlwind summer of travel through England, where I saw some fantastic Shakespeare plays, and then did my usual tour of the Shakespeare festivals and theaters in the Midwest. I thought every day about what I had learned during the "Shakespeare in a Year" project, and I can't thank you enough for sticking with me through this process.

Now, it's time for the next phase of my education. I've just started an MFA program in creative writing, and that's where my energies are focused now. I have a vision for part two of the "Shakespeare in a Year" project, but it might have to wait a few years.

Thank you again for sharing your insights into the plays and for constantly providing encouragement. I hope this project has reignited your passion for Shakespeare as much as it has mine.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shakespeare at Mini University

This week, I'm at Mini University, an annual "lifelong learning" conference at Indiana University in Bloomington. We come to campus for a week, attending three different lectures each day from IU professors and other industry experts. That equals 15 fantastic nuggets of knowledge, on topics ranging from space exploration to Mexican immigration.

This year, two of my 15 sessions were related to Shakespeare -- perhaps because I wrote, on my evaluation last year, that I wanted "as much Shakespeare as possible."

My first session, taught by actress Fontaine Syer, was titled "Shakespeare in Performance," and she emphasized right away that she was an actress rather than a scholar. She discussed some of the things actors consider as they prepare for a Shakespeare role, including the need to discover new layers in the text -- especially because Shakespeare's work is "the most elastic text in the world," she said.

Another consideration: How to perform the soliloquies. Is the actor talking to himself, to a higher power, or directly to the audience? Should a soliloquy in Richard III, for example, be performed the same way as a soliloquy in Hamlet? Interesting question.

Here is my favorite quote from the session: "If you're in love with Shakespeare, you'll be in love with him for your whole life," Syer said. "The more you learn, the more there is to learn." (You and I already knew that, didn't we?)

Today I attended "Merchant of Venice and Early English Antisemitism" with professor Ellen MacKay. She started by describing the pervasive antisemitism in early modern England, including the "blood libel" claim that Jews killed young children and used their blood and bones in Passover matzoh. MacKay explained this rumor as a displacement of Catholics' own cannibalistic queasiness about transubstantiation (the communion wafer turning into the body of Christ).

Also at play: Many Christians condemned Jews for betraying Jesus based on the Passion narratives of that time. Jews were also condemned as usurers, even though they had been backed into that profession because Christians were forbidden to loan money with interest.

Shakespeare may also have been influenced by the Lopez plot, in which Queen Elizabeth's Jewish physician was (probably falsely) accused of trying to poison her and subsequently executed. And, Shakespeare was certainly familiar with Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, which he both echoes and transcends in his own play.

(As Syer said yesterday in relation to the authorship controversies, "Marlowe? Come on. Who ever heard of a Marlowe theater festival?")

In the midst of pervasive antisemitism, Shakespeare created a character who reflected some Jewish stereotypes but refuted others. As we've already noticed, Shylock makes some pointed critiques of his Venetian (and, by extension, Elizabethan English) society. He does play the villain, but he is not wholly unsympathetic.

MacKay pointed out that Shakespeare could have made Shylock a more definitive villain by making his daughter, Jessica, more sympathetic. And yet we have a character who steals money and spends it wastefully, carelessly gives away mementos from her dead mother and elopes with a guy she barely knows. She claims that living with Shylock is terrible, but how much can we trust her?

Other things to think about: The nature of bonds and contracts in Merchant of Venice (friend to friend, spouse to spouse, parent to child, borrower to lender and servant to master) and the culpability of Venetian authorities, who easily could have found a way to release Antonio from his bond without Portia's intervention.

I'll be considering those questions -- and many more from my other classes this week -- until it's time for next year's Mini University. For more information on my non-Shakespeare classes this week, stop by my lifelong learning blog, That'll Teach Me.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why "Shakespeare in a Year" Matters

For weeks, I've been struggling with what to say in this "wrap up" post. After a year of Shakespeare immersion, I feel pressured to say something profound about what I've learned and how it has affected my life. A project like this has immense value; I know this deep down, but it's hard to explain.

The most obvious effect of the "Shakespeare in a Year" project is my (somewhat obnoxious) ability to use Shakespeare quotes in arguments. When my husband says, "We really don't need that," I can counter, "Oh, reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous." Sometimes that argument even works.

Another obvious result of this project is that I am, unquestionably, more knowledgeable about Shakespeare and his work than I was before. When I first started attending the Stratford Shakespeare Festival five years ago, I was awed by the Bard-related conversations I heard around me at restaurants and theaters. (Yes, I'm a chronic eavesdropper.) Now, after this project, I feel right at home amidst these Shakespeare lovers.

In fact, when I attended Merry Wives of Windsor a few weeks ago, I was shocked to hear a woman behind me say, "Now, who wrote this play again?" Her companion must have looked at the playbill. "See here," she said, "it says Shakespeare." How that woman got to the play without knowing who wrote it, I'll never understand.

At intermission, the woman next to me said to her husband, "Huh, I thought Falstaff died offstage at the beginning." Wrong play, honey.

Now, I don't think these playgoers were representative of the festival crowd, which in general is quite well-informed. But those two incidents made me realize that I am now safely among the well-informed playgoers, which is a nice accomplishment on its own.

Some Shakespeare scholars are accused of "bardolatry," i.e., blind worship of the Bard. When I started this project, I was guilty as charged. Now, however, my perspective on Shakespeare is more balanced. Yes, I'm still awed by King Lear and Hamlet. On the other hand, I can say without reservations that Merry Wives of Windsor and Troilus and Cressida are terrible plays, that I really don't care for Shakespeare's narrative poetry, and that there is something deeply wrong with the so-called "problem plays." Shakespeare was a literary genius, but he wasn't infallible. Unlike some of the scholars whose work I read this year, I'm not going to make excuses for, or try to explain away, Shakespeare's mistakes.

In the end, why does it matter? After four centuries, why is Shakespeare's work still relevant, and what does it have to teach us? To answer, I must borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom: Shakespeare teaches us what it means to be human. More than any other author, he shows us the "mingled yarn, good and ill together" of our consciousness. With Shakespeare, as in life, there are never any easy answers.

It is bittersweet to know that I have read every extant Shakespeare work -- that I will never again hang on tenterhooks to know whether Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after or whether Benedick and Beatrice get together. I know all of the stories now, and there's something sad about that.

On the other hand, with a Shakespeare play, knowing the plot is just the beginning; the Bard "borrowed" most of his plots from other sources anyway. Now that we've read everything at least once, we now need a new goal: to mine the rich depths of every play, to continually explore new possibilities and perspectives.

This blog will remain active for that exact purpose: To chronicle my ongoing Shakespeare journey through re-readings of the play, exploration of scholarly analysis, and ongoing reviews of Shakespeare productions across the globe.

This summer, look for updates from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Join me on a week-long London theater extravaganza, which will include David Tennant's Much Ado About Nothing and Kevin Spacey's Richard III. And, join me at Oxford University for a week-long continuing-education course about Shakespeare's London.

We've come to the end of our "Shakespeare in a Year" project, but the real education is just beginning.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Discussion: The Tempest

The play: The Tempest

The plot tweet: Marooned and usurped duke Prospero uses magic powers -- and Ariel's help -- to be "revenged" on his enemies and find husband for Miranda.

My favorite line:
My library was dukedom large enough.


I have a special place in my heart for Shakespeare's most magical plays, Midsummer and Tempest. If you'll forgive the pun, these plays bewitch me, and they reawaken my wonder at what can be accomplished on a little wooden stage.

Since we learned our lesson last week about autobiographical readings of Shakespeare's work, let's soundly reject the traditional view that The Tempest is Shakespeare's farewell to the stage -- especially since we now know that he wrote other plays afterward. But it's hard, isn't it? It's hard to read lines like this and not see a double meaning:
... These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
It's hard to imagine that Shakespeare -- who surely knew he was nearing retirement -- didn't feel a double meaning in these lines. But, as Oprah said in her farewell show this week, "When you know better, you do better." Thanks to James Shapiro, we now know better, so we'll set the autobiographical implications aside.

I'm also deeply uncomfortable with readings of this play (or any Shakespeare play) that impose the reader's own ideology, be it feminist criticism, Marxist criticism or what have you. Some scholars read this play as a critique of colonialism and set up Caliban as the hero, defending his island from colonization. I can't accept this reading. Caliban has few redeeming qualities; instead he is both an attempted murderer and an attempted rapist. We have no reason to suppose that Shakespeare intended us to side with Caliban -- unless we are prepared to twist the play to suit our own views.

If The Tempest is neither a colonialist critique nor an artist's farewell to the stage, what is it?

First, it is one of just a handful of Shakespeare's plays to observe the three classical unities of action, time and space. (Comedy of Errors is another.) It's interesting to me that Shakespeare would return to this idea late in his career. He seems to be returning to the classical roots of his art. The effect on the audience is to make them participants in the magic of the play, because they are experiencing the onstage events in real time.

Second, The Tempest shares many themes, such as reunion, forgiveness and redemption, with the other late romances. But, rather than show us the entire back story, as The Winter's Tale and Pericles do, The Tempest skips over the first part of its own story, bringing us directly to the moment of reunion.

These two factors combine to create a real intensity, beyond what I normally feel in a Shakespearean "comedy." Prospero is in charge here, and every moment he is moving us closer to the grand culmination of his plot.

Here's something I haven't yet decided: At what point does Prospero abandon his plan for revenge and choose the "rarer action" of forgiveness? If he intends to destroy everyone, why not just wreck the ship at the beginning? That's not his plan at all, of course; he intends all along for Ferdinand and Miranda to meet and fall in love. But what had he planned to do to the others, once they were within his power, before Ariel changed his mind? I'd love to invite Prospero to a dinner party and ask him that. I'll bet it would have been good.

Coming to the end of The Tempest -- and the end of our "Shakespeare in a Year" challenge -- is a bittersweet moment. In a few days, I'll do another post about the overall challenge. For now, I'm still absorbing the idea that I will never read anything new by Shakespeare, unless some dotty English matron finds Cardenio in her attic. On the other hand, the magic of Shakespeare is that his work, even after four centuries, continues to be new every time it is read and performed.

Thank you, Will, for an incredible journey.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Stratford Shakespeare Festival: Merry Wives of Windsor

For several months, I've been withholding final judgment on Merry Wives of Windsor. Although I've recently seen productions at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, I knew this season's production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival had the best chance of making me finally like this play. (And why not? It worked for As You Like It last year.)

My devotion to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival isn't far from idolatry. So, I must clarify that there is absolutely nothing wrong with its Merry Wives production. The scenery is breath-taking, the costumes are perfect and the acting is superb (with a few minor exceptions). The production stars two of my favorite festival actors, Geraint Wyn Davies and Tom Rooney (who completely steals the show as Ford), and the production sticks close to the letter and spirit of Shakespeare's text.

Which is, actually, the problem. Shakespeare can be riotously funny -- as any good production of Comedy of Errors makes clear. But that comic genius never emerges in Merry Wives. Shakespeare can create memorable, lifelike characters, including the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays -- but those characters never come to life in Merry Wives, not even Falstaff himself. Shakespeare can provide striking and startling insights into human nature -- but he doesn't bother to do so in this play.

Now that I've seen the Stratford production, I can finally say this with confidence: I really don't like Merry Wives of Windsor. It is one of my least favorite plays in the Shakespeare canon (just barely ahead of Troilus and Cressida). If it disappeared forever, I wouldn't really mind.

The playbill for the Stratford production explains that the play is derided by scholars and readers but is a favorite of theater audiences. I've now seen the play three times in one year, and I'm not sure that statement is true. Even the best possible production -- and the Stratford production comes pretty close -- can't change my mind about this weak entry in the Shakespeare canon.

P.S. As a side note, I also saw the Stratford productions of Camelot and Jesus Christ Superstar this weekend, and they are both fantastic. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

(Drum roll, please.) Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the final week of the "Shakespeare in a Year" challenge. This week's adventure is, of course, The Tempest, which has traditionally been viewed as Shakespeare's farewell to the stage.

As always, we'll start the discussion next Sunday at noon. It will be our final discussion, so let's make it a great one!

P.S. I know, I know, it's not the last play Shakespeare wrote. We already know that he later collaborated with Fletcher on Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII and the lost Cardenio. So it's not technically Shakespeare's farewell to the stage, and some of you will accuse me of being overly romantic and sentimental in my scheduling choice here. To those people, I say, "Yep." My project, my schedule. :o)

Discussion: Contested Will

This weekend, I'm making my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the best classical theaters in North America. I am so madly in love with this place; one of these days I'm just going to stay.

Within walking distance of my historic hotel are some of the best restaurants in Ontario, some of the cutest boutiques I've ever seen, and four of the continent's best theaters. The best part of being here, however, is that the entire community is built around a passion for theater. Being here means being part of a community that eats, sleeps and breathes Shakespeare.

Reading James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare this weekend in Stratford, I realized why the Shakespeare authorship controversy bothers me so much: The conspiracy theorists create a rift in the global Shakespeare community, forcing us to argue about Shakespeare rather than appreciating, debating and studying his works. Furthermore, as Shapiro points out, the conspiracy theorists denigrate the very things that made Shakespeare unique -- his boundless imagination and his understanding of human nature.

For the record, I'm a confident Stratfordian, which means I believe William Shakespeare's poems and plays were actually written by Shakespeare, as opposed to Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or any of the dozens of others whose names have been suggested. At the moment, the Oxfordians are the most vocal bunch.

For the sake of my own sanity, I'm not going to nitpick the Oxfordian point of view here. The Oxfordians are well organized online, and they are adept at picking fights with bloggers who disagree with their cause -- as a simple Google search will show. There is no reason to rehash the same old arguments here. Shapiro has already done an excellent job of picking the Oxfordian viewpoint apart (as did Bill Bryson in his excellent biography of Shakespeare).

But I do understand the desire to know Shakespeare -- and the frustration people feel with the disconnect between the documentary evidence of Shakespeare's life (mostly legal papers) and the genius revealed in his plays. It's hard to imagine that the author of Hamlet would have a neighbor arrested over a debt of just a few pounds. For some, it's also hard to imagine that a provincial actor with little formal education could write so eloquently about foreign travels and life at court (which is, quite frankly, pure snobbery). From there, as Shapiro says, it's just a short leap to believing that we must be dealing with two different men.

As Shapiro points out, one of the fundamental problems here is an underlying assumption -- made by Stratfordians and Oxfordians alike -- that the works are autobiographical. (Autobiographical works are commonplace now but were almost unheard of in Shakespeare's day.) Even Shapiro has been guilty of this mistake: "I flinch when I think of my own trespasses," he writes, perhaps in reference to his recent book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

I'm guilty as charged. I, too, assumed the plays and poems were at least partly autobiographical, and I have said several times during the "Shakespeare in a Year" project that reading the complete works has been like "getting to know" Shakespeare. After reading Contested Will, I realize the limitations of that statement -- and am finally aware of the unconscious assumptions I have been making as a reader.

We won't be able to persuade the Oxfordians (or the Marlovians or the Baconians) to become Stratfordians. (One can't have a reasonable argument with an unreasonable person.) But we can be more careful, as readers, not to assume that the complete works of Shakespeare are a kind of life story. It's so tempting to do, because we want so desperately to have those glimpses into Shakespeare's mind. Still, it's a habit we must break. Shakespeare is long gone, and we must judge his literary legacy on its own merits.

P.S. If you ever get to Stratford, go to the Parlour and order this. It is quite possibly my favorite food on this planet.