Saturday, January 1, 2022

"Speak of me as I am": Shakespeare and the New Orthodoxy

 

In the fall of 2021, distinguished Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng committed what should have been regarded as a simple academic faux pas. In an introductory music class at the University of Michigan, where he teaches, he showed the famous 1965 film of Othello starring Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role. Sheng's purpose was to introduce his students to the play as groundwork for discussion of Verdi's operatic adaptation of the tragedy. However, they never got to Verdi. His freshmen may not have recognized Othello or Olivier, but they knew a white man in blackface when they saw one. Sheng hadn't provided any contextual discussion of this facet of the film (or none the students noticed). After class, a group of them expressed their shock, horror, and pain, not to Sheng, but to the higher authorities of the music department. The "safety" they had expected to find in their college classrooms had been compromised by their instructor's gross display of racial insensitivity. The end result was an official apology to the students on the part of the school of performing arts and the removal of Sheng -- by "voluntary" agreement between him and the dean -- from his role as instructor of the class.

Well . . . maybe that wasn't the "end" result. Since this incident was first reported in a university newspaper article entirely sympathetic with the aggrieved students' viewpoint, over 700 Michigan faculty and students have written in protest against

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Duping Facebook with Shakespeare

 
Last week, when I asked my students why, during a discussion of Macbeth, they were using the awkward non-verb “to un-alive” to describe the action of regicide, they informed me that Facebook had trained them to it, with its flagging of the word “to kill.” “People,” I said. “This is Shakespeare seminar. We can do better than that.” Shakespeare offers us myriad terms to describe deading a person. Here are just a few: to “murther,” to cause to “dwell in solemn shades of endless night,” to send to the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” to “unseam,” to render a “tongue . . . a stringless instrument,” to make one’s antagonist “food for worms.” The list goes on.

Later I went to Google to inquire about other Facebook-flagged words. A post from last year on HVMA Social Media warns advertisers that Facebook seeks “generally uplifting, growth-oriented content!,” and cautions that “using ad copy which directly speaks on weight, health, beauty, anxiety, loss, failure, underachieving, or other such negative self-implicating topics are almost always negated from the platform.” This type of thing poses communicative challenges which Shakespeare can help overcome.

References to weight: Here the Henry IV plays are useful. Shakespeare does not

Monday, November 1, 2021

Huck's Shakespearean Soliloquy


 As is well known, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn chronicles the peripatetic journey of the boy Huck and his friend, the runaway slave Jim, as they make their way mostly by raft down the Mississippi River. At one point in the tale, Huck, brought up according to a white supremacist ideology that sanctions slavery as part of the natural order, must decide whether to betray Jim to his former owner, as his conscience bids him, or to continue assisting Jim's pursuit of freedom, as some deeper, contrary instinct tells him to do. Corrupted by church and Southern culture's belief that to assist a slave's escape is thievery, and that anyone who does so "goes to everlasting fire," Huck tries to pray "to quit being the kind of boy that I was" -- that low-down type who would help a slave escape -- "and be better."

      "So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't

Friday, October 1, 2021

MACBETH Time

 

It's October again. In Michigan it still feels like August, but even global warming can't change the earth's tilt and orbit, so the days are shortening and October light is falling on leaves that still start their change, from green to yellow and red, though it's 80 degrees. So, Halloween is on its way, and, of course, Macbeth is showing up on the Shakespeare prof's syllabus.

There is really only one appropriate season to teach Macbeth. Ideally, discussions and, if possible, expeditions to see this play should fall between mid-October and the end of the first week in November, because, of course, not only Halloween but All Souls' Day (November 2) and Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) are at stake. All these holidays -- as we find in Mexico's Dia de Muertos -- share Macbeth's grisly but humorous tone and atmosphere. Borges thought the play cast an unrelievedly nightmarish pall over the playgoer's senses, but, with due respect to that great Argentine author and Shakespearean, Macbeth's nightmare is not totally dark. The play is in fact punctuated by the humor of the gallows. The phrase is apt. Macbeth contains references to the Gunpowder

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 the flexibility and gymnastic skills 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