Tuesday, November 30, 2010

We're Halfway There!

Today marks the halfway point of our Shakespeare in a Year Challenge. How are you holding up? So far, which plays have been your favorites -- and your least favorites? Now that we're halfway through, what benefits are you seeing from this challenge?

For me, the value of Shakespearean immersion is the ability to spot connections between plays that I otherwise wouldn't notice -- similar lines, similar plot twists, characters with similar world views. Shakespeare's plays present myriad possibilities when read singly, but reading the canon as a whole expands the view still further.

Another bonus: After a few weeks, the Shakespearean language becomes familiar and easy -- no more struggles with the archaic phrasing and vocabulary.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

We're almost halfway through the Shakespeare in a Year project (congratulations!), and I know some of you are trying to get caught up. So, your assignment this week is very, very short: "The Phoenix and the Turtle," an allegorical poem first published in 1601. It's probably in your Complete Works. If not, you can find the full text here. I've never read this one, so I look forward to our discussion!

Discussion: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

The play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

The plot tweet: Hamlet's childhood buddies star in their own "behind the scenes" play, but they meet the same fate as in Shakespeare's tragedy.

My favorite line:
Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don't go on forever. It must have been shattering -- stamped into one's memory. And yet I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure.


This is my first time reading this play, and I'm fascinated. I'm desperate to see it on stage. I've just spent an hour online trying to find a convenient upcoming performance, so please let me know if you're aware of anything.

This play interests me on two levels: as a play in its own right and, of course, as another perspective on Shakespeare's Hamlet. I laughed out loud every time Guildenstern asked what Hamlet was doing, and Rosencrantz replied, "talking." It's true, Hamlet does that a lot. I also enjoy R&G's statements on the cause of Hamlet's melancholy and madness, whether real or feigned. For example:
Rosencrantz: To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?

Guildenstern: I can't imagine!
You might not like absurdist, existentialist metatheater in the vein of Waiting for Godot, but you have to admit, this play is funny. And, of course, it is weird. Why are R&G so lost and confused, even about their own identities and pasts, and why don't they have more control of their own fate? What causes the string of 92 coins landing heads-up? What is behind the sense of unease that pervades the entire play?

Just as with every Shakespeare play -- and just as with every good play, really -- these are questions that can be successfully addressed (or intentionally not addressed) on stage, creating endless variations of interpretation. I'd love to see and compare several productions before drawing my conclusions (or admitting the impossibility of doing so).

At the moment, however, the only thing I can picture is this past summer's outstanding production of Waiting for Godot at the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin. I fear the similarities between the two plays are clouding my judgment.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

This month, our readings are all about Hamlet. We started with The Spanish Tragedy, an earlier play that influenced Shakespeare's own revenge tragedy, and of course we've read the play itself. Now, let's read a contemporary play based on Hamlet: the Tony-winning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.

A few of you just cringed and said, "Contemporary drama? Really? I only like the old stuff." I used to feel that way, too. When I started spending long weekends at theater festivals -- especially the Stratford Shakespeare Festival -- I sometimes needed an extra play to fill up my schedule. So, I first saw plays like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by accident. Trust me: The new stuff is worth your time. After all, what might Shakespeare have written had he lived in the 20th century?

Discussion: Hamlet

The play: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

The plot tweet: Ghost orders Hamlet to revenge dad's murder; he delays, sets up play within play, kills girlfriend's dad. Play ends with bodies everywhere.

My favorite line:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


We could, if we wanted to do so, ignore the rest of William Shakespeare's work and spend our entire year on Hamlet. We'd have plenty to do, even if we only read the best and most influential of the criticism focused on this play.

So, it's daunting to tackle Hamlet in a little weekly blog post. I'm not even sure where to start. Should we talk about the back story of Hamlet and Ophelia? Of Claudius and Gertrude? Why does Hamlet feign madness, and to what extent is that madness actually feigned? Why does Hamlet delay his revenge? Does Hamlet know he is being overheard in his "get thee to a nunnery" meeting with Ophelia? Why does Ophelia go mad? Is her death a suicide or an accident? To what extent are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern complicit in the plot on Hamlet's life? In what ways does Hamlet's outlook change during the play? How much time has passed from the first to fifth acts, and how old is Hamlet, anyway?


When I wrote about Merchant of Venice, I said the play was like a kaleidoscope: Every time you look at the play from a different angle, the entire meaning shifts. The same is true of Hamlet. Hundreds of questions have been posed about this play, so the possibilities for interpretation are, perhaps, infinite.

On this reading, the question that intrigues me the most is this one: What was Hamlet like before his father died and his mother remarried? After all, we're not exactly seeing him at his best.

We know from Claudius that he is beloved by the people, and Ophelia says that he has been "the glass of fashion, and the mold of form, th' observed of all observers." She also refers to him as a scholar, a courtier and a soldier. During his time at university, he's been learning to fence, making friends with actors and carousing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We tend to think of Hamlet as a bookish, melancholy (and perhaps even whiny) scholar who can't make up his mind to act, but that's apparently not true of the pre-mourning Hamlet we don't get to meet.

Hamlet has always seemed like a "real person" who could walk off the stage into everyday life. Thinking of him as a normal guy in difficult circumstances makes him seem even more alive. As many critics (most notably Harold Bloom) have pointed out, Shakespeare's creation of Hamlet changed our understanding of what it means to be human.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

Okay, okay, okay. In the past few weeks, you've waited very patiently during our little foray into the works of Shakespeare's Elizabethan contemporaries. Now, it's finally time to read Hamlet. Go.

P.S. I know you're not reading any CliffsNotes during this challenge. Right? Because that would be super-duper bad and defeat the whole purpose. But, if you need a reading aid for Hamlet, check out this awesome poster on Etsy: a fascinating diagram of this play's complicated plot.

Discussion: The Spanish Tragedy

The play: The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd

The plot tweet: A ghost and Revenge oversee murders and a (delayed) revenge plot, set the stage for Hamlet.

My favorite line:
My heart, sweet friend, is like a ship at sea:
She wisheth port, where, riding all at ease,
She may repair what stormy times have worn,
And leaning on the shore, may sing with joy
That pleasure follows pain, and bliss annoy.


Several years ago, one of our local universities had a "spring cleaning" event, in which books that had been pulled from circulation were available for free. I picked up An Anthology of English Drama Before Shakespeare, intending to learn more about mystery plays, morality plays and the like. Instead, the book sat on my shelf -- until this week, when I finally got around to reading The Spanish Tragedy. Here is what the book's editor, Robert B. Heilman, has to say about the play:
The Spanish Tragedy is historically notable as one of the vehicles by which various elements of Senecan tragedy were naturalized in English drama -- a declamatory manner, the revenge theme, the ghost -- and as a repository of other devices which Shakespeare was to use later: madness, pretended madness, the tardy avenger, the multitude of violent deaths, the play within a play.
In other words, Hamlet. Next week, we'll see how Shakespeare makes this genre his own, with more beautiful poetry and vastly richer characterization.

In the meantime, is anyone else disappointed in the women of this play? If you want revenge, stabbing yourself doesn't really accomplish much. (At least Bel-Imperia manages to accomplish her revenge first.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week's foray into the works of Christopher Marlowe has taught us an important lesson: We can better understand the genius of Shakespeare when we understand his contemporaries and his influences. So, before we read Hamlet (next week, I promise), let's read Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Written between 1582 and 1592, this play was wildly popular in its time, and it established a new category of drama, the revenge tragedy -- of which Hamlet is perhaps the ultimate incarnation. The play also contains elements that Shakespeare refines in his own play, such as the vengeful ghost and the play-within-a-play strategy to expose someone's guilt.

Don't have a copy of The Spanish Tragedy on your bookshelf? It's available online here.

Discussion: The Works of Marlowe

The play: Doctor Faustus

The plot tweet: Faustus trades his soul for magical powers, wastes his time with petty magic tricks, gets dragged to hell by demons.

My favorite line:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.


It boggles the mind, but a frightening number of Shakespeare "scholars" are doggedly trying to prove that his work was written by someone else. Maybe it was Francis Bacon, who had a university education and useful court connections. Maybe it was Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who actually wrote a few (awful) plays under his own name. Or maybe, they say, it was Christopher Marlowe, who perhaps faked his death in that 1593 tavern brawl and then went into hiding, writing under Shakespeare's name.

I don't have much patience for these conspiracy theories, which seem to be based on the elitist idea that a provincial actor without a university education could not possibly have produced works of such genius. (See Bill Bryson's summary of this argument in his excellent Shakespeare biography.)

But the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theorists drive me especially batty: Have they ever actually read Marlowe's work? Every time I do -- as I did this week with Doctor Faustus -- I am disappointed and underwhelmed. Doctor Faustus is little better than a souped-up morality play. The plot is nonexistent, the characters are underdeveloped and the poetry is flat. At the end of the play, I closed my book and thought, "That's it?" I had the same reaction several years ago to The Jew of Malta.

Granted, Marlowe was more successful than Shakespeare before his untimely death, and his early plays are regarded as better than Shakespeare's early plays. (Think of that scene in "Shakespeare in Love" where dozens of hopeful Romeos recite the same line from Faustus for their tryouts.)

For years, Shakespeare struggled to break free of Marlowe's influence, even after Marlowe's death. Thank goodness that Shakespeare did so and that he survived until retirement. Can you imagine a universe where Tamburlaine and Faustus -- not Hamlet and King Lear -- are regarded as the pinnacle of literary achievement? *shudder*

Friday, November 5, 2010

Plummer's Tempest Now on Film

If you missed The Tempest this past summer at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, you're not alone. The play, starring Christopher Plummer as Prospero, sold out many of its performances at the Festival Theatre, an unusual feat for the festival's largest venue.

But all is not lost: The acclaimed production is now on film. It will be shown at theaters in Canada only, but we should be able to get a DVD copy south of the border. (It's not on Netflix or Amazon, but I'll keep looking.) It's worth tracking down: I've never seen a funnier, more whimsical production of this play.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Sci-Fi Henry V?

The Shakespeare blogosphere is all aflutter over a newly announced movie, "Henry5," a sci-fi version of Henry V starring Michael Caine. The synopsis sounds a bit strange. Will the film use Shakespeare's original language? How closely will the Henry V story be followed? We'll just have to wait and see -- perhaps for a long time, because the film hasn't yet started production.