Category Archives: Other

Happy 449th, Will! #happybirthdayshakespeare

I did not have a chance to write a new post for Shakespeare’s Birthday last year–trying to find clients for your freelance writing business is no easy or quick matter, HINT HINT–but last year’s was pretty good, so I’m reposting it. Visit www.happybirthdayshakespeare.com to check out this year’s new contributions, and celebrate!

Apart from the famous musical parody of Hamlet in Gilligan’s Island, my early memories of Shakespeare are better left repressed. Rote memorization in high school and a year-long college course from a professor so dull he had three last names left my with a distinctly unfavorable impression.

What changed that? Shame. Years later, living in New York City, I thought I had recovered from my school experiences. I went to museums, theater, and concerts. I listened to National Public Radio. I’d seen my share of Shakespeare productions, including some breathtaking, celebrated ones: Kevin Kline as Falstaff at Lincoln Center, the all-male Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe. I thought I was a pretty cultured guy. But then I read about P.G. Wodehouse who, it is said, read the complete works every year or two. Every year? How did he find time to read anything while writing ninety-six books? I’d only read about half the plays, and I had not written even one book. I thought I was literate; in truth I was a poseur. The only solution was to do what Wodehouse had done—read all the plays in a year. (I’m hardly the only one to have done that, I know; not even the only Shakespeare’s Birthday blogger.)

I did it; that’s why my blog is called “shakesyear.”

I wish I could tell you that reading Shakespeare changed my life; that it got me out of a dead-end job, brought Hollywood sniffing around, and whitened my teeth. Nothing of the sort happened. Cole Porter notwithstanding, the women were not wowed. Something’s very wrong, though, if you read Shakespeare looking for pickup lines or neatly packaged Life Lessons. At least half of what he’s doing when he puts “To thine own self be true” in the mouth of that sententious old busybody Polonius is mocking anybody who imagines that life can be summed up in an aphorism or two. Gilligan’s Island was wiser than you thought.

Why bother to read Shakespeare at all, then, or see his plays produced? Can we say anything more than Italo Calvino’s sly remark that reading the classics is always better than not reading the classics? There are many reasons—I have a list—but one above all seems central to me. In 1610 the title of a poem by one John Davies of Hereford addressed Shakespeare as “our English Terence.” I choose to believe that Davies was not comparing Shakespeare to Terence as the Roman playwright who bored me to tears in third-year high-school Latin, but as the man who said “Nihil humanum a me alienum est” (or something similar)—“Nothing human is alien to me.”

It’s very conventional to praise Shakespeare for that inclusiveness. But it’s equally conventional to disparage the aspect of it I like the best; his constant mixture of humor with seriousness. Almost never do I find myself agreeing with Samuel Johnson, but his response to this criticism of Shakespeare seems to me unanswerable as far as it goes:

Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous or critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.

“The reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend” is so beautifully put I almost hate to observe it doesn’t go far enough. Those who complain about Shakespeare’s mingling of the serious and the silly do so in order to defend the Serious from the threat of belittlement, to save the beleaguered High from the attack of the Low, the Adult from the Childish. I value Shakespeare’s mingling of the comic and the tragic on both a personal and a political level. Personally, those who think the Serious needs defense from the Funny (having presumed to tell the rest of us what is Serious and therefore really worth caring about) are more likely than not to lack a sense of humor, and secretly to fear that others’ laughter is directed toward themselves. (This is implicit, I think, in Orwell’s occasionally insightful critique of Tolstoy on Shakespeare.) Politically, Shakespeare is subversive. Not in the sense of openly challenging the Elizabethan police state, of course, but in the sense that power depends on convincing the powerless that servitude is their lot. From childhood, a tremendous portion of institutional endeavor is devoted to grinding the joy at being alive, the curiosity, out of each of us, shaping us into instruments fit only for labor. Drawing sharp distinctions between people, to drive them apart, is one of Authority’s sharpest tools in this endeavor. Shakespeare undermines Authority’s whole way of looking at the world by knocking over distinctions between serious and silly, good and evil, male and female, noble and common, and undermining our certainties about everything we see and believe—all while continuing to entertain us. The boy who said the emperor had no clothes undoubtedly suffered a painful, lingering death the next day, but once his subjects laughed at the emperor, the slow path to revolution was under way.

Shakespeare is alive, and more than alive, to me because the plays are the work of an individual fully engaging with his world to a degree unique in world literature. To experience his work forces us to engage with the world, too; to be more alive. Shakespeare isn’t great because he gives us Insight Into The Great Questions of Existence or any such folderol. He’s great because above all other writers he exemplifies Terence’s motto. And he makes us laugh. Happy 448th, Will!

My Kingdom for a Porsche

It’s been almost two weeks now and I still haven’t seen anybody use this obvious groaner for a story about the announcement that yes, indeed, those bones are “beyond reasonable doubt” those of King Richard III. (“Porsche’ because they were found under a car park, get it, hahaha?) It’s up to me to stand up for the great Shakespearean tradition of bad puns.

Are you as strangely moved by this story as I am, and as the whole of England seemed to be? Oh, sure, there were jokes, my favourite being this one:

tumblr_mhpqkxonOa1qeesmwo1_500

[All over the web, but I borrowed it from cherrycaketh.tumblr.com]

Not only is any reminder of the Elizabethan series of Blackadder welcome, the reminder of Baldrick, played by Tony Robinson, is particularly in keeping. As presenter of Time Team, Robinson must have been kicking himself since the discovery of the bones was first announced. If the search for Richard wasn’t the ultimate Time Team episode, what could be?

For just think about it! If there’s one thing we learn from watching Time Team, it’s the sheer contingency of archaeological exploration. These are serious people, funny though some of them look, doing actual science, and how many times have we seen them lay down their three intersecting trenches and come up with nothing? Indeed, you may remember how Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist of the Richard III dig, was at pains to lower expectations—rightly so, of course. He is a scientist, after all. On his account the Leicester team was engaged in something more like reconnaissance than a hunt for Richard’s remains. It was “a shot in the dark.”

And then. And then. The very first thing they find, in the very first trench on the very first day, is the skull of Richard III. If you’d made it up, nobody would have believed you. But because it really happened, we wanted it—desperately wanted it—to be true. My own sense of wonder is mingled with relief that it did turn out to be true. If those bones had turned out to somebody else’s I think I would have been crushed.

I wouldn’t have been the only one. I watched the Channel 4 special, Richard III: The King in the Car Park, with a fascination that developed into a distinct feeling of unease. I’d never seen the shaggy-haired presenter, Simon Farnaby, before. I gather he claims to be a comedian. He came across as rather more of a prat. The power of the special comes from the way it depicts the Leicester team conducting a happy marriage of history, literature, and science. History and literature gave them the broad outlines; where to dig, what to look for in analyzing what they found. Science then went to work, proving that history and literature were indeed pointing to the right object.

The University of Leicester has finally gotten [by the way, British readers, did that sound like fingernails on a blackboard to you? I am genuinely interested in this taboo of yours about the perfectly respectable form gotten. It was good enough for Shakespeare—why do (some of) you have a problem with it?] around to putting up the video of the press conference. It’s well worth watching in its entirety.

These are heroes of science, and, of course, of literature. The biggest hero of all in my opinion is Dr. Jo Appleby, the osteoarchaeologist. The Channel 4 special reveals her crucial role at every stage of the process, from the initial dig (it was she who found the skull), through—of course—the analysis of the bones, right up to the press conference. Don’t skip Dr. Buckley’s presentation, but watch her starting at about 11:15 of the video, and fall in love.

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A Low-Down Dirty Schama: Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 1

I know this is supposed to be the Year of Shakespeare but for God’s sake does that mean that every established BBC presenter gets a crack at him, however little they actually know? After the two parts of Simon Schama’s Shakespeare (or SSS) I can only wonder who’s next, Niall Ferguson?

Don’t get me wrong, Schama has done at least one thing I admire. I still get a warm feeling when I remember how he tore into John Bolton during the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 United States presidential election. I’m not the only one: it’s mentioned in his Wikipedia entry. In truth, though, John Bolton is a thug, and somebody should have taken down the white-mustached bully boy years before; he should never have been allowed near the BBC. And what I’ve seen of Schama’s popular output has not impressed me; an episode or two of his History of Britain and Power of Art. Neither struck me as having needed to be made; still less does SSS.

According to BBC Two, “Simon Schama argues that it is impossible to understand how Shakespeare came to belong ‘to all time’ without understanding just how much he was of his time.” Fair enough, and Schama’s history is not terribly objectionable (he is, after all, a historian). But he is not a Shakespeare scholar and has no other special source of insight into the plays; this series exists because of Simon Schama, not because of Shakespeare.

The first installment in the series, “This England,” argues that Shakespeare gave the English their idea of England by showing them “England unedited,” “the cream and the scum.” (I was interested by the casual assumption that we would all agree which was which.) That’s the Protestant cream and the Protestant scum, mind you. After the Reformation, Protestant England “needed to tell its own story” to oppose itself to rebel Catholics “abroad—and at home.” Shakespeare hasn’t even started creating “England” and already it excludes a sizeable portion of the English people, including his mother’s side of the family. (In this part of the documentary Schama is cribbing his history from Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, not the soberest of sources. However, Schama cannot mention the idea, which Greenblatt considers at length, that Shakespeare was Catholic; that would have made it hard for him to forge the voice of the Protestant English people.)

That points to the big problem with this first hour of the series. Schama seems to assume there is something we can all agree on as the English national self-image, but he never actually says what it is. He gestures toward various snippets, such as the idea of Deep England, Churchill vowing to fight the Nazis on the beaches, and the lowlifes and prostitutes of the Boar’s Head Tavern, but he never gets them to jell. When he says something like “What you feel at Wembley, they felt at the Globe” I can only respond that I have no idea why the true comparison isn’t “What you feel at Wembley, they felt at the bear-baiting pits.” I can well imagine that the Globe’s audience had a communal experience, but I need to be persuaded that it was an experience of Englishness.

The concept of Shakespeare as the national voice of England is a cliché by 2012; but the idea that he consciously tried to forge a national identity, to the extent it makes sense, can in fact find some support in the plays. There’s John of Gaunt’s great “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” speech in Richard II. And above all there’s Henry V, as conscious an exercise in national-myth building as you could ask for. But Schama doesn’t mention either play in this context. Instead, he argues that the plays that forged the English national consciousness are the Henry VI trilogy and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

A focus on Henry VI might seem perverse. These three plays are among Shakespeare’s most neglected, and in the case of Part 1 at least, there’s a scholarly consensus that most of it isn’t Shakespeare’s. It is still, according to Schama, “the record of a genius in the making,” which is a far cry from being constitutive of the British national character, but never mind. The argument that Part 1 is significant (apart from Schama’s way-over-the-top characterization of it as “Kill Bill in tights”–I kid you not) is that it features the English national hero John Talbot, of whom the “Nancy boy” French are terrified even when he’s their prisoner. Schama conveniently omits the presence of Joan of Arc in this play and her triumph over Talbot. Some English national hero; he can’t even beat a girl!

Part 2 is significant for the only reason anybody remembers the trilogy, the suggestion by a peasant rebel “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Like most people, Schama misattributes the line to the rebel leader, Jack Cade. He also oversimplifies Cade’s complex characterization (see Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All for a more nuanced unpacking) by stating that Shakespeare, “the first poet of class warfare,” nonetheless prevented identification with Cade, covering his own Bardic behind, by making him a megalomaniac.

Schama starts from the familiar observation that Shakespeare presents all elements of society, the high and the low, and certainly Part 2 does this. But it doesn’t follow that the plays, especially Henry VI, created an English (really Protestant) national self-image that also contains all elements of society. One could as well conclude from Part 2 that England contains rabble, and when they get ideas beyond their station they will be smashed. (Come to think of it, I’ve seen considerably more inaccurate accounts of the English character.)

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My First Post for BloggingShakespeare.com!

I’ve always subscribed to the maxim “Underpromise but Overperform.” On the theory that something could always go wrong, I hardly ever announce a project, or good news, or anything of the sort until after it’s actually happened. That is why I didn’t tell you until now that I’ve become a guest blogger at BloggingShakespeare.com. Now that my first post is up, though, I’m proud to announce that I’ll be contributing about one post per month to the Internet’s biggest Shakespeare website. As you’ll see, the post is the first in a series on Shakespeare’s Neglected Plays–those that are so obscure we don’t even have to pretend we’ve read them.

I can’t tell you how honored I feel by this association. Instead of trying, let me exhort you to check out the post now, then spend some time exploring the site. Along with regular posts by many excellent contributors (again, it’s such an honor to be in their company), be sure to enjoy its many special projects. I’ve already mentioned Sixty Minutes with Shakespeare, and I particularly draw your attention to the webinar scheduled for 22 May with Rene Weis on the publication of his edition of the Arden Third Romeo and Juliet, which I’ve mentioned here. I’m distressed that I probably won’t be able to attend, so please do in my stead, and ask any questions my readings have raised for you!

Happy 448th, Will! #happybirthdayshakespeare

Every year the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invites the public to join in the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday with a blog post or an audio or video clip. Here’s my contribution. It wasn’t entirely clear to me how the Trust is supposed to know that this is the birthday post, which is why the hashtag #happybirthdayshakespeareis all over the place. Whatever: let’s party!

EDITED 24 April to correct the hashtag and to insert a link to www.happybirthdayshakespeare.com; check out the many others who are joining in!

Apart from the famous musical parody of Hamlet in Gilligan’s Island, my early memories of Shakespeare are better left repressed. Rote memorization in high school and a year-long college course from a professor so dull he had three last names left my with a distinctly unfavorable impression.

What changed that? Shame. Years later, living in New York City, I thought I had recovered from my school experiences. I went to museums, theater, and concerts. I listened to National Public Radio. I’d seen my share of Shakespeare productions, including some breathtaking, celebrated ones: Kevin Kline as Falstaff at Lincoln Center, the all-male Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe. I thought I was a pretty cultured guy. But then I read about P.G. Wodehouse who, it is said, read the complete works every year or two. Every year? How did he find time to read anything while writing ninety-six books? I’d only read about half the plays, and I had not written even one book. I thought I was literate; in truth I was a poseur. The only solution was to do what Wodehouse had done—read all the plays in a year. (I’m hardly the only one to have done that, I know; not even the only Shakespeare’s Birthday blogger.)

I did it; that’s why my blog is called “shakesyear.”

I wish I could tell you that reading Shakespeare changed my life; that it got me out of a dead-end job, brought Hollywood sniffing around, and whitened my teeth. Nothing of the sort happened. Cole Porter notwithstanding, the women were not wowed. Something’s very wrong, though, if you read Shakespeare looking for pickup lines or neatly packaged Life Lessons. At least half of what he’s doing when he puts “To thine own self be true” in the mouth of that sententious old busybody Polonius is mocking anybody who imagines that life can be summed up in an aphorism or two. Gilligan’s Island was wiser than you thought.

Why bother to read Shakespeare at all, then, or see his plays produced? Can we say anything more than Italo Calvino’s sly remark that reading the classics is always better than not reading the classics? There are many reasons—I have a list—but one above all seems central to me. In 1610 the title of a poem by one John Davies of Hereford addressed Shakespeare as “our English Terence.” I choose to believe that Davies was not comparing Shakespeare to Terence as the Roman playwright who bored me to tears in third-year high-school Latin, but as the man who said “Nihil humanum a me alienum est” (or something similar)—“Nothing human is alien to me.”

It’s very conventional to praise Shakespeare for that inclusiveness. But it’s equally conventional to disparage the aspect of it I like the best; his constant mixture of humor with seriousness. Almost never do I find myself agreeing with Samuel Johnson, but his response to this criticism of Shakespeare seems to me unanswerable as far as it goes:

Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous or critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.

“The reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend” is so beautifully put I almost hate to observe it doesn’t go far enough. Those who complain about Shakespeare’s mingling of the serious and the silly do so in order to defend the Serious from the threat of belittlement, to save the beleaguered High from the attack of the Low, the Adult from the Childish. I value Shakespeare’s mingling of the comic and the tragic on both a personal and a political level. Personally, those who think the Serious needs defense from the Funny (having presumed to tell the rest of us what is Serious and therefore really worth caring about) are more likely than not to lack a sense of humor, and secretly to fear that others’ laughter is directed toward themselves. (This is implicit, I think, in Orwell’s occasionally insightful critique of Tolstoy on Shakespeare.) Politically, Shakespeare is subversive. Not in the sense of openly challenging the Elizabethan police state, of course, but in the sense that power depends on convincing the powerless that servitude is their lot. From childhood, a tremendous portion of institutional endeavor is devoted to grinding the joy at being alive, the curiosity, out of each of us, shaping us into instruments fit only for labor. Drawing sharp distinctions between people, to drive them apart, is one of Authority’s sharpest tools in this endeavor. Shakespeare undermines Authority’s whole way of looking at the world by knocking over distinctions between serious and silly, good and evil, male and female, noble and common, and undermining our certainties about everything we see and believe—all while continuing to entertain us. The boy who said the emperor had no clothes undoubtedly suffered a painful, lingering death the next day, but once his subjects laughed at the emperor, the slow path to revolution was under way.

Shakespeare is alive, and more than alive, to me because the plays are the work of an individual fully engaging with his world to a degree unique in world literature. To experience his work forces us to engage with the world, too; to be more alive. Shakespeare isn’t great because he gives us Insight Into The Great Questions of Existence or any such folderol. He’s great because above all other writers he exemplifies Terence’s motto. And he makes us laugh. Happy 448th, Will!

101

I hadn’t realized last night/this morning that today, 22 November, is Terry Gilliam’s birthday, so please join me in wishing him many happy returns–and a couple (“many” is too much to hope for) projects that actually get completed.

22 November 1963 is the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, an event that has receded into ancient history even though for years its memory was as traumatic as that of Sepember 11. It is also the day before the premiere of Doctor Who, so I’ll mark that anniversary here. Yes, I am already waiting for the Christmas special.

100

This hundredth post is a sad one, as we mark the death, on Saturday, of John Neville. Like Ian Richardson, he was a fine Shakespearean unfairly overshadowed by the big names of his generation. In Neville’s case, spending much of his career in Canada didn’t help either. But obituaries such as the Guardian‘s and the Telegraph‘s remind us what a force he was, as a young actor in England (I particularly like the anecdote about how he and Burton, switching off in Othello, both played Iago one drunken matinee; and to bring in current topics, I note that he opened the Nottingham Playhouse in 1963 as Coriolanus, with Ian McKellen as Aufidius!) and as an actor and impresario in Canada. I had had no idea that he was the artistic director of the Stratford Festival from 1985 to 1989, during which time he created his most famous role.

Yes, John Neville will be remembered—for a very long time—as the titular character in Terry Gilliam’s still criminally underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s a little flabbergasting (if anything can be a “little” flabbergasting) that Baron Munchausen was the most expensive movie ever made to that point; its estimated $46 million price tag would be $89 million today, which is probably about average. (The Motion Picture Association of America no longer releases average budgets; for 2007, the last year it did so, the average combined production and marketing cost of a Hollywood film was $106.6 million; as a rule of thumb, 20 percent of that is marketing.) Gilliam’s troubles with cost overruns, strikes, and other tribulations are well known—there’s a whole book about them—and they pretty much ended his Hollywood career, but he got the movie made and it’s the movie he wanted to make. Viewed today, it’s an exercise in imagination that is also a monumental, whimsical, beautiful, exuberant, messy meditation on the need for imagination, a theme Gilliam must have wanted to scream at the studio. The special effects hold up amazingly well after a quarter century, the main performances are superb (though what would you expect from Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, a young Uma Thurman, a very young Sarah Polley in her first role, and even Robin Williams as King of the Moon, a role in which his schtick for once is not fatally annoying?). But it’s Neville, fittingly, who makes the movie, creating a Munchausen who more than lives up to the trickster requirements of the role, but who is also genuinely affecting, as in this scene with the nine-year-old Polley.

Terry Gilliam directed Faust at the English National Opera last year. I’d love to see him do Shakespeare. I think he might be especially good for the problem plays (including Pericles and Timon here). What do you think?