Monday, July 5, 2021

Shakespeare, Live Performance, and Regendering Roles


Yesterday I heard part of a discussion on NPR, concerning the current reopening of theaters as well as other ticketed events in the wake of Covid. (I wish we were in the wake of Covid; I'm speaking hopefully.) Although most of this discussion was related to the ways people are being ripped off by scalpers, the program host began by posing a different question to the radio audience: what was the last live performance you saw before Covid shut us all down?

It's interesting how easy it is to answer a question like that. It's like -- on a more or at least differently tragic scale -- the question of where you were when you heard President Kennedy had been shot. If you were five or over, you remember. (I was five, and I remember.) You remember what you were doing before a completely unexpected thing descended and instantaneously changed your world in a way you did not like. Quite likely you were doing something you enjoyed, but that kind of enjoyment was going to depart for a while. (Yes, in November 1963, this was true even for kindergartners, because we lived in families which contained adults who understood things better than we did.) But this is too grim! I didn't mean to go there. I just want to say that I do remember the last live performance I saw before Covid hit, as do the people with whom I attended it, and we all looked back on it with a kind of appreciation that we had taken the trouble to go to it, since we weren't going to be able to see anything else like it for a very long time. Of course, this being a Shakespeare-ish blog, it will not surprise readers to know that the performance was a production of a Shakespeare play.

The work was Timon of Athens, a weird and melancholy play caught somewhere between the genres of tragedy and satire, like several others Shakespeare wrote in the first decade of the seventeenth century (e.g., Troilus and Cressida). It was directed by Simon Godwin of the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, D.C., where I grew up (in the D.C. area, not inside the theater) and which I was visiting. Despite this theater's annoying habit of spelling "theater" with its "e" on the end as though we weren't Americans (Chicago Shakespeare Theater doesn't do that, by the way), I have never seen a play performed by the group that wasn't made spectacular by their acting. As a teenager whose mom held season tickets, I was lucky enough to see, not once but many times, luminaries such as the magnificent comic actor Floyd King (an unforgettable Don Armado), Franchelle Dorn (hilarious as Mistress Page in Merry Wives), and Edward Gero (in so many roles, but most recently as the tortured ailing monarch Henry IV in the second part of that play).

But this time, in March of 2020 -- truly right before it all shut down -- my friends and I were watching, in the lead role of this lesser-known Shakespeare play, a British import, Kathryn Hunter of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She was the main reason I'd wanted to go. Ever since I saw, on film, her extraordinary rendition of Puck in Julie Taymor's 2014 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Theatre for a New Audience (oh, that final "e"), I had wished to see her again, in something! As Puck, the diminutive Hunter, though already in her 60s, exhibited flexibility and gymnastic skills worthy of an Olympic gymnast. She performed in a Charlie Chaplinish "Little Tramp" type outfit, and her voice, strange and gravelly, added to her boyish androgyny, as she crouched like a frog and scuttled like a crab across the stage, or allowed herself to be lowered head down from the rafters by means of her expanding elastic pants. (That Julie Taymor!) Still, I wouldn't have guessed the next Shakespeare role I'd see her in would also be a male one. Yet so it was.

Puck, like The Tempest's Ariel, is often played by women. As spirits, both seem somehow genderless. Timon, the savage, misogynistic, and very human hero of Timon of Athens, is different, which, I assume, is why Simon Godwin (if it was he; Hunter first starred as Timon with the RSC) simply made the character female -- a wealthy lady of ancient Athens, rather than a lord, however historically unrealistic that choice may have been. (It certainly isn't the only historically weird thing about the play, as is usual in Shakespeare. For example, Timon, an Athenian who lives centuries before Christ, spouts some terminology proper to the Christian religion, in references to church "canons" and "cherubim.") In general I'm a traditionalist who is skeptical about the contemporary craze for women playing male Shakespeare roles, but in particular cases I usually forget such distinctions immediately when the acting is good, and . . . this was Kathryn Hunter. Spectacularly, she rode the roller coaster from the first three acts of the play, where the spendthrift Timon feasts his friends on credit, to the final two acts, wherein Timon, after being rebuffed when he visits those same friends to beg loans, retires to the wilderness as a misanthrope, to curse thankless mankind. Hunter was clad in a gold gown and headdress for the first three acts, serving her friends in a gold-draped dining room on plates and platters of gold, which, when confronted with the evidence of their ingratitude, she throws at them (in one of my favorite scenes in Shakespeare). This tiny Timon went berserk! And her throwing arm was magnificent. But in the final acts, crouching half-wild in rags to deliver her great maledictions against mankind, Hunter outdid herself, preaching a savage indictment of money and those who lie, cheat, steal, and kill to possess it. "Gold" is a "yellow slave" that will "knit and break religions," "place thieves and give them title"; it's "the common whore of mankind." Delivering these lines, Hunter, mud-besmirched and crouching, simian-like, close to the earth, seemed a demonic version of the Puck she'd once played -- or perhaps a harbinger of Caliban, whom I'd love to see her enact one day.

For its excellence, her performance would have burned itself into my brain no matter when I'd seen it. But there was something particularly memorable about the timing, with the play opening in Washington a few weeks before the coming of Covid, which of course cut the run short, and in the year of the U.S. presidential election, which so bitterly divided and continues to divide our nation. "The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends," Timon is told. In his person, he demonstrates the failure to find Aristotle's moderate mean of human behavior, choosing extravagance and then misanthropy, never achieving simple generosity. In the midst of our extremism and identity politics, in our world of victims and perpetrators, it was worthwhile to go into the sad season with a memory of this representation of human folly. Shakespeare's deluded protagonist first thinks everyone is noble, and then, when he gets disappointed, concludes people are all monsters. He never finds the middle, the place Jesse Jackson used to call "common ground." Humor, humility, acceptance of human imperfection, and the ability to listen -- Timon has none of it, though his play contains no lack of characters to point out what's missing. In the early months of 2020, I'm glad I was there to hear it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Consider These Lines

 


People who don't read or see a lot of Shakespeare -- in other words, most people -- naturally don't understand why they should. What's in Shakespeare for them? They may well ask, since Shakespeare is far more often pointed to -- "Look! Greatest English writer!" -- than discussed in a way which might cast light on why he is known as the greatest English writer. (Unless, like me, you're a Shakespeare nerd who speaks with other Shakespeare nerds. But we're a small slice of the global population.)

Going to a really well performed Shakespeare play provides its own answer to the "why" question. As a playgoer, you don't have to have read any Shakespeare before, to be struck by the beauty and insightfulness of Shakespeare's dialogue. You may not understand all of it. But you'll understand a lot of it, and the part you understand will be unlike anything you've heard before. Shakespeare takes on all subjects, all fundamental human experiences, sees them from the inside out, and articulates them with bone-chilling precision. What is that worth? If a central purpose of literature -- including dramatic dialogue -- is to hold a mirror up to human nature, to show us who we are (as Hamlet says), then Shakespeare succeeds. And if one purpose of that action is to make us feel recognized and known, he gives us that, too.

Because I have nothing better to write about today, I will offer two examples, from speeches which, set against each other, express diametrically opposed but universally recognizable human experiences. The person who wrote these speeches knew what he was describing, and he knew how to describe it.

First: apathy, listlessness, depression. Anybody feel that way these days? Has anyone felt these things over the past year? Hamlet is your spokesperson. In acts one and two, he's depressed, and he's depressed about the fact that he's depressed. ("Melancholy" would be his word.) What interests him? Nothing. What used to interest him? Everything. We think of Hamlet's goal as finding and punishing his father's murderer. It is, but his underlying goal is recovering the self he has lost. Ophelia, too, wonders where he's gone: "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" But Hamlet wondered first. Here are lines from his first soliloquy:

    O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt, 

    Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

    Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon

    'Gainst self-slaughter!

This is definitely suicidal thought. But the lines communicate the widely recognizable, garden-variety suicidal thinking of one who is finding relief in fantasizing about suicide because he lacks the energy to off himself, even though he finds life worse than a drag. Like Keats (doubtless inspired by this speech), who wished, in "To a Nightingale," "to cease upon the midnight with no pain," Hamlet doesn't want to take the initiative for such a choice. He just wants to melt into a goodbye (an "adieu." He's still got enough energy for a smattering of wordplay). He next claims that all that's stopping him is God's edict against "self-slaughter," with another little pun on the "fixed canon," which is both a rigid restrictive rule and a weapon aimed at that rule's violation. But Hamlet is full of reasons not to do things. This is his first. He's apathetic, listless, and unhappy, and nothing delights him. He says it best: "How weary, stale, flat, and uprofitable / Seem to me all the uses [customs] of this world!" No spark of interest resides in anything. It's all stale. Flat. Weary. Useless. He wasn't always like this; he doesn't know why he's like this now. He later tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth . . . and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory." Surprisingly, these sour lines are the lead-in to the famous exclamation, "What a piece of work is a man!," which, extracted from context, sounds exalted and appreciative. It isn't. Hamlet follows that line with, "And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me." It's all not only dust, it's absolute, concentrated dust. 

Yes, he's depressed, and he knows how to say so. In other words, Shakespeare understood depression -- the most enervated version of melancholy -- and knew how to remember and describe it.

But Shakespeare also understood joy.

Many excellent expressions of joy exist in Shakespeare, but one of the best is found in The Merchant of Venice, in lines spoken by young Bassanio, once it is confirmed that he has won the fairytale-like "casket test" which gives him the right to marry Portia, whom (maybe) he loves. He says he is too joyful to speak, although, of course, being a Shakespeare character, he still can, and in blank verse, too. He compares his (alleged) confused inarticulateness to the competing voices of a happy crowd which, "blent together / Turns to a wild of nothing save of joy / Expressed and not expressed." A wild of nothing, save of joy. All words unintelligible, canceling each other out, but the sound of happiness still audible. This is the paradox of joy unspoken, but still, somehow, spoken. So, whereas Hamlet has no joy, and many words ("Words, words, words" he drones), Bassanio has no words, and transcendent joy.

Countless shades of human experience reside between these two extremes. I would bet that many of them are inchoate, sensed but not clearly seen, until precisely described. Most people, even the wordiest, lack that level of precision. Where Shakespeare found it, what supplied him with that talent, is a mystery of the ages . . . .

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Horrid Speech Shakespeare Would Never Use


 It's May, and time for my latest list of horrible non-Shakespearean journalistic or advertising or other sorts of contemporary sayings, along with suggested Shakespearean substitutes. Here are ten.

1. Headlines like this: "Benedict Cumberbatch's Sweet Valentine's Day Wedding: Everything You Need To Know." Here's what I need to know about Benedict Cumberbatch's sweet Valentine's Day wedding: Nothing. NO THING. Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor. I like seeing him on the screen. I don't give a flying fig about his personal life. What would Shakespeare say about this headline? He'd have Ophelia sing, "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day," and then thank Bonafide Cummerbund for helping keep Hamlet alive on stage (at least until act five, scene two) four hundred years after Shakespeare himself departed for the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler may return.

2. "Bespoke" and "hand-crafted." These are disgusting terms that should be eliminated from the English vocabulary. There's no space to list the ways in which

Friday, April 2, 2021

Shakespeare's Spaniards

 
Often people make much of the fact that many of Shakespeare's comedies are set in Italy, a convention of early-modern English comedies which derives largely from Tudor playwrights' important models, the works of the first-century Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence. In plays like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, or The Taming of the Shrew, you won't find much evidence that Shakespeare knew many actual Italians, or, much less, had ever visited Italy, despite all his Hortensios and Petruccios and Benvolios. Usually his "Italian" characters seem like English folk (though this is not always the case: in England, Italians had a reputation for

Monday, March 1, 2021

Shakespeare, Jonson, Plague


 Last year at this time, I wouldn't have dreamt we'd be walking around with masks on our faces in March of 2021. I remember trying to buy some dust masks at the hardware store back then, thinking they might be useful over the next few weeks. (They were already sold out.) A month after that, when I wrote this post, I would have been equally surprised to hear that it would still be relevant, or even understandable, in 2021. But it is. So I'm posting it again: a look back to how things seemed, Shakespeare-wise, Ben Jonson-wise, and Covid-wise, a year ago.

I hope I'm not posting this a third time in 2022. 

April, 2020. This month, in our time of modern-day plague, I shall not write yet one more claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear or Macbeth while quarantined for the "pest," as they called it. (He did not.) Instead, I am offering my parody of a poem by Shakespeare's greatest rival, his brilliant contemporary, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson (pictured left of Will), who inhabited the early modern theater world alongside Shakespeare and enjoyed insulting him from his bully pulpit of the stage. All evidence suggests that Jonson and Shakespeare were friends, though they

Monday, February 1, 2021

Shakespeare in Winter

 
It's gray and cold and snowy in Michigan, and whatever the Groundhog does tomorrow, it's likely to stay this way til at least the middle of March. The weather puts me in mind of Shakespeare's descriptions of winter.

Seasonal change is a fundamental metaphor in Shakespeare's poetry. He is fond of the coming of spring. Who isn't? "From you I have been absent in the spring," the poet laments in one sonnet. The Winter's Tale, despite its title, is popping with references to budding flowers and greenery, and its longest scene features a springtime sheep-shearing festival. Twelfth Night takes its title from the Eve of Epiphany, in the first week of January, but its characters, too, spend much time frolicking outside, presumably in mild climes and a gentler time of year. Where, then -- outside of a couple of titles -- is winter in Shakespeare?

We can find it here and there. Here's a verse from the song that concludes Love's

Friday, January 1, 2021

Ten Things Shakespeare Wouldn't Say if He Were Alive in 2021


 I've got ten new things people say that I want them to stop saying. The people I have in mind are advertisers, news commentators, politicians, and university administrators. They are not like you and me. They speak their own language, one I know Shakespeare would have disdained, and there are certain current terms on the hearing of which I know he is spinning in his never-to-be-violated grave. Therefore, Shakespeare and I mutually request that these folks find substitutes. Drawing on Shakespeare's own rich vocabulary, I will recommend some, following this list of Terms Which I Request Be Left Behind with the Rest of the Miserable Year 2020.

1. "Gift" instead of "give," as in, "Gift one, get one free." Yes, I know Shakespeare liked to turn nouns into verbs. Who can forget "Uncle me no uncles,"