Sunday, February 27, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

When my Alabama grandparents watched TV, their programs of choice were Baptist preaching, the Weather Channel and movies about God. So, on those interminable Christmas visits, my sister and I watched "The Ten Commandments" over and over and over again.

Unfortunately for my grandparents, we liked the rich, fancy Egyptians much better than we liked preachy old Moses and the Israelites. We've both grown up with a soft spot for ancient Egyptian history, and we both adore Elizabeth Taylor's epic "Cleopatra." What's not to love about the character with the most costume changes in movie history?

So, I'm looking forward to this week's reading, Antony and Cleopatra, which tells the story of ancient Egypt's final collapse -- and depicts one of the world's great love stories. As always, we'll discuss the play starting at noon next Sunday. Enjoy!

Discussion: Macbeth

The play: Macbeth

The plot tweet: Witches prophesy greatness for Macbeth; he and his wife take matters into their own hands by killing the king. But blood follows blood.

My favorite line:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


For reasons I don't understand, Shakespeare has practically no presence here in Indianapolis. We don't have a dedicated Shakespeare company, as do similar cities like Cincinnati, and our classical theater companies tend to offer lighter fare. So, I was delighted several years ago to see that one of our larger professional theater companies was producing Macbeth.

And then I read the fine print: It was part of the theater's "Short Shakespeare" series, featuring condensed versions of the plays with running times of as little as 45 minutes.

I wrote a letter, a very angry one. I believe it included the sentence, "You only show one Shakespeare play every other year, and then you have the nerve to chop it in half?" I'm pretty sure I swore never to patronize the theater again, a promise I haven't kept.*

Obviously I skipped the production, so I'm not sure what was cut. Since then, I've often wondered about that, because I don't see how Macbeth can be cut. A line here, a line there, sure, but a whole hour? The thing that strikes me about Macbeth is its ruthless economy. It has just a handful of well-sketched characters, a simple and fast-moving plot, and no distractions of sub-plot or comic relief. You can't trim much fat from a play that is already thin.

Sure, you can probably cut the scene with the porter, but it is the one moment of comic relief in the entire play, and it underscores several important themes and terms that show up elsewhere in the play. Sure, you can probably cut the charming scene with Lady Macduff and her son, but it emphasizes Macbeth's descent into bloody tyranny. Except for the two brief appearances of Hecate (which are non-Shakespearean anyway), what can be omitted from this already short and streamlined play?

The Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival produced Macbeth last year (properly, as in, the whole play), and the two scenes I've just mentioned -- the porter scene and the Lady Macduff scene -- were actually two of the most memorable. (The production was also memorable for its depiction of Lady Macbeth as a Michelle Obama look-alike, which was extremely distracting and besides that seemed like a rather odd choice for a Canadian theater company.)

I've been reading some excellent commentary on Macbeth this week, most of it focused on the characters of Macbeth and his wife. But the commentary that really struck me this week, in A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, focused instead on Banquo. The gist: Although he does a better job of resisting the witches' temptation initially, he too succumbs to evil. He keeps silent about the witches, even when the king is almost immediately murdered in Macbeth's house. And, in some of the last lines he speaks, he shows how obsessed he has become with the idea of his descendants wearing the crown:
Thou hast it now -- king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
As the weird women promised: and I fear
Thou play'dst most foully for't. Yet it was said
It should not stand in thy posterity,
But that myself should be the root and father
Of many kings. If there come truth from them --
As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine --
Why, by the verities on thee made good,
May they not be my oracles as well
And set me up in hope? But hush, no more.
Macbeth's rapid descent into evil overshadows the whisperings that Banquo too is succumbing to temptation, especially when Macbeth shortly afterward has Banquo murdered. Had Banquo lived longer, however, he might eventually have given Macbeth genuine cause for concern.

I want to add just one note about the ending. The rebellion against Macbeth is supported by the English, and Malcolm's final speech proclaims that the Scottish thanes will "henceforth be earls" -- an English term. In the recent Stratford production, Malcom's aides placed an English flag next to the Scottish flag during this speech, which was staged as a press conference, and it was quite clear that the Scots had not expected this and did not approve. Have the Scots lost their country in the process of saving it?


*And thank goodness, because just this weekend I saw this same theater's outstanding production of In Acting Shakespeare, a one-man show by James DeVita, itself an adaptation of Sir Ian McKellen's one-man show Acting Shakespeare. I've seen DeVita perform several times at the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, most recently in All's Well that Ends Well and Waiting for Godot, and he is a fantastic actor. The one-man show was a wonderful glimpse behind the curtain, helping us understand what DeVita loves about Shakespeare and how he learned to act the Bard's work in an accessible way. He got an immediate standing ovation, and he deserved it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

This week, let's continue our study of Shakespeare's great tragedies with the Play That Must Not Be Named, aka the Scottish Play, the Bard's play and Mackers. Actually, I'm not in a theater at the moment, so it's okay to say that your reading for this week is Macbeth.

As always, we'll start the discussion at noon next Sunday. In the meantime, if you want a funny take on the alleged Macbeth curse, pick up the second season of "Slings and Arrows," a Canadian series based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It's all fun and games until someone mocks the Macbeth curse and promptly falls off the stage and breaks her neck.

Discussion: King Lear

The play: King Lear

The plot tweet: King Lear divides kingdom among two daughters, disowns the third = unwise. The 1st and 2nd drive him mad, the 3rd dies trying to save him.

My favorite line:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous;
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.


When I was learning to read, one of my favorite chapter books was The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh. It tells the story of humans who flee the destruction of Earth and colonize a new planet, leaving quickly and taking very little with them. They are allowed just one book each. The narrator's father chooses A Dictionary of Intermediate Technology, because he wants to be useful. The sister chooses a book about ponies, and the brother chooses Robinson Crusoe. The narrator herself chooses an empty notebook, which eventually becomes the chronicle of the colonists' new life.
We didn't think. We were excited, disturbed, and we hadn't really understood that everything else would be left behind. Father looked wistfully at the shelves. He picked up The Oxford Complete Shakespeare. "Have you all chosen your books?" he asked. "Yes," we told him. He put the Shakespeare back.
In the end, the new planet's library includes important works like Grimm's Fairy Tales, Homer's Iliad, and three copies of Robinson Crusoe. But there's not a single thing by Shakespeare, and the colonists try in vain to piece together their memories of Hamlet. Even as a child, I recognized this as an incalculable loss.

I often think about The Green Book when people ask me which of Shakespeare's plays is my favorite. If you can rescue only one, which one do you save? Shakespeare is so much a part of the fabric of our culture, it's hard to imagine life without Romeo and Juliet, Hal and Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, Lear, Puck, Iago and Macbeth.

Which one do I save? If I'm founding a new colony on a distant planet, where the book I choose will enrich a new culture's intellectual development, I choose Hamlet. I don't see how it can be otherwise. But, if I'm going to be marooned alone like Robinson Crusoe, with just one book to my name, I choose King Lear. There is nothing else by Shakespeare, or by anyone else, to match its grandeur and beauty.

In one blog post, it's impossible even to give an overview of the critical discussion of King Lear. I once wrote a 20-page paper about the delivery of just three words ("What need one?"), and that is just one of thousands of issues raised by this play. We could spend years discussing the ramifications of the sub-plot (which is unique among Shakespeare's major tragedies), the role of the Fool, the multiple (and sometimes conflicting) meanings of words like nature and nothing, and the tragedy's odd echoes of the medieval morality plays. As many scholars have done, we could also debate whether this play is even actable.

But let's not. Maybe it's because I just took a two-hour yoga class, but today I'm inclined to appreciate rather than analyze. I am grateful to have King Lear. And Hamlet. And the 36 other plays, too (although, truthfully, I could do without Merry Wives). I am grateful to know Lear, Cordelia, Kent and even Edmund, cold as he may be.

That said, it's important to remember that what makes King Lear so powerful is its horror, or more specifically a sense that Lear's collapse has broader apocalyptic implications. This summer, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, and the apocalyptic element was emphasized in scenery that literally fell apart as Lear descended into madness. Before the play started, the actor who played Edgar sat, alone and obviously devastated, on a ruined stage, creating a loop of prologue and epilogue. For the very few characters who survive this play, there's nothing much left of the world they knew.

The production was deeply horrifying, and in that respect it was tremendous. It was the best production of King Lear that I have ever seen, and the best production I ever hope to see. I wept, as did everyone else, for a fictional character we'd met just two hours before. That is the power of all great tragedies, and of Shakespeare's work in particular, and most especially of King Lear.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Friday Distraction

A word of warning: This has nothing to do with Shakespeare. But, if you like Shakespeare, you might be an Anglophile, and if you're an Anglophile, you might love the new BBC version of "Sherlock," starring Benedict Cumberbatch. If so, you might die when you hear this audio clip of Cumberbatch reading "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats. It's enough to make an Anglophile's head explode.

(Thank you to Brooke for the link!)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

This Week's Reading Assignment

I'm so excited, I want to jump up and down and clap my hands. This week's reading is my favorite of them all, King Lear. And, because I have a bit of extra critical reading I want to do (specifically, King Lear in Our Time by Maynard Mack), this is a two-week special.

Yep, that's right, you have until noon on Sunday, Feb. 20, to finish this most vast and horrifying of all Shakespeare plays. Enjoy!

Discussion: Othello

The play: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice

The plot tweet: The black general Othello marries Desdemona and promotes Cassio; the devious Iago persuades him they're having an affair. Murders all around.

My favorite line:
Put out the light, and then put out the light!
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume: when I have plucked the rose
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither.


In all of Shakespeare, there are three scenes I find nearly unbearable to watch. Two are in King Lear: the blinding of Gloucester and the emergence of Lear onstage with Cordelia's body. The third is in Othello, and it is of course the murder of Desdemona. The other great tragedies are vast and grand affairs, tales of kings and kingdoms, but Othello is on a more human scale -- which makes it perhaps the most painful of them all.

Each week, after I finish reading the assigned play, I read through a pile of critical responses. This week, the response I've found most useful is in A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy. When we discussed Hamlet, we pondered what the title character might have been like before his world collapsed around him. In the same way, Bradley gives a useful description of the pre-tragedy Othello:
So he comes before us, dark and grand, with a light upon him from the sun where he was born; but no longer young, and now grave, self-controlled, steeled by the experience of countless perils, hardships and vicissitudes, at once simple and stately in bearing and in speech, a great man naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth, proud of his services to the State, unawed by dignitaries and unelated by honors, secure, it would seem, against all dangers from without and all rebellions from within. And he comes to have his life crowned with the final glory of love, a love as strange, adventurous and romantic as any passage of his eventful history, filling his heart with tenderness and his imagination with ecstasy.
How does such a man fall victim to Iago so easily? Not because he is stupid, as some scholars have claimed. More likely, it's because he is much more experienced and confident in his public life than he is in his private life, which until now he has largely ignored. And, as Harold Bloom convincingly argues, Othello never has time to consummate his relationship with Desdemona. So, when Iago implies that Desdemona has been false, Othello doesn't even know whether she is a virgin.

Iago knows just how to manipulate his general, and he is an outstanding improviser. Every passing word and chance event becomes part of his plot. Not surprisingly, most of the reading I've done this week deals with Iago: who and what he is and what motivates him to ensnare the people around him. As Bradley points out, we can't trust anything Iago says about his motives without seeking collaboration from other characters and circumstances.

Again, I turn to Bradley for the most cogent analysis of the week. What follows is Bradley's own summary of a much longer analysis, which is worth reading in full if you have time:
Let us remember especially the keen sense of superiority, the contempt of others, the sensitiveness to everything which wounds these feelings, the spite against goodness in men as a thing not only stupid but, both in its nature and by its success, contrary to Iago's nature and irritating to his pride. Let us remember in addition the annoyance of having always to play a part, the consciousness of exceptional but unused ingenuity and address, the enjoyment of action, and the absence of fear. And let us ask what would be the greatest pleasure of such a man, and what the situation which might tempt him to abandon his habitual prudence and pursue this pleasure ...

The most delightful thing to such a man would be something that gave an extreme satisfaction to his sense of power and superiority; and if it involved, secondly, the triumphant exertion of his abilities, and thirdly, the excitement of danger, his delight would be consummated ... Now, this is the temptation that comes to Iago ...

His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction. What fuller satisfaction could it find than the consciousness that he is the master of the General who has undervalued him and of the rival who has been preferred to him; that these worthy people, who are so successful and popular and stupid, are mere puppets in his hands ... It must have been an ecstasy of bliss for him.
Of course, the tragedy undoes not only Othello and Desdemona but Iago as well. In that sense, Bradley says, we can consider this play Iago's tragedy, too: "It shows us not a violent man, like Richard, who spends his life in murder, but a thoroughly bad, cold man, who is at last tempted to let loose the forces within him, and is at once destroyed."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snow Day Shakespeare

My city is encased in ice at the moment, and all of my clients are safe at home, sitting by the fire and sipping hot chocolate. So, it's the perfect day for me to catch up on Shakespeare tasks, like purchasing my London theater tickets for this summer!

First on the schedule: Much Ado About Nothing with "Dr. Who" co-stars David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Benedick and Beatrice. I know. I know.

Next up: Richard III at the Old Vic, starring Kevin Spacey in the title role. This is the third installment in the three-year Bridge Project, directed by Sam Mendes, which last year featured a fascinating pairing of The Tempest and As You Like It.

My trip also includes a one-week course at Oxford University, called "Riot and Rebellion in Shakespeare's London." As part of that, we're taking a field trip to the Globe, so I'll get at least one more Shakespeare play on the schedule.

Meanwhile, here's an interesting article about why it might be preferable to skip productions of the "lost Shakespeare play" Cardenio/Double Falsehood, which was recently enshrined in the Arden Shakespeare series.