Saturday, November 5, 2011

Portland Shakespeare Events THIS WEEKEND

Last-minute announcement for Shakespeare opportunities in the Portland area Nov 5-6!

Fall Festival of Shakespeare - area High Schools coming together to share their productions.

King John at Northwest Classical Theater Company  - plays next weekend as well.

Richard III from the Portland Actors Ensemble, the folks who bring us free Shakespeare in the Park - only this play is performed inside a building!

Looks like it'll be a fun weekend!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 3 of 3; In Which the Production is Actually Reviewed

(Shakespeare Girl's title)
Trouble in Stratford
Royal Shakespeare Company
Seen Tuesday, July 26, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Directed by Michael Boyd, featuring Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth and Aislin McGuckin as Lady Macbeth
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this fine review, I spend a lot of time complaining about the RSC building. But does any of that stuff really matter? Well, I think so, because if I had loved the production - if it had made me feel the way that truly good Shakespeare performances can make you feel - I would not remember the building's problems at all! Nor would my favorite part of the playgoing experience have been watching the swans on the Avon after the play was over. Frankly, if brainless swans, lovely as they are, seem more interesting than a Shakespeare play, there is a real problem. Unfortunately, the performance seemed a little like a mirror of the building - a little rough, unfinished, with some elements that seemed incomplete and inadequately thought through.
Alas, where to begin? The production seemed to be aiming for a creepy, gruesome interpretation, with plenty of blood, ghosts, and gore. All to the good – elements in any Macbeth that I would be strongly in favor of. I also had few complaints with the set; the Macbeths plot their wickedness in a church ruined by iconoclasts, no doubt a representation of their evil reign of Scotland as a similar desecration of all that is holy and right.
A choice that started (in my mind) to veer a little off from the straight and narrow was an absence of Witches; no bubble, bubble, toil and trouble for us. Instead, three female cellists who sat on a platform above the stage throughout the show provided a sort of three-woman mystical presence-thing through dramatic classical music, while the actual lines the witches say (Hail, Thane of Cawdor! etc.) were taken by three creepy little children. While certainly creative, this choice seemed to me to take away the sense of pure evil that the witches bring to the play; the three female musicians mostly played music that evoked feelings of grief and mourning, making their role as commentators more profound and sympathetic than the malicious witches of the text. And weird children of 8 or 9 years old can seem grotesque and macabre (or just annoying), but simply cannot project the same kind of menace that ADULT weird sisters could bring. This choice served to make the Macbeths seem even more evil without the weight of other wicked characters. It also created strange questions about the time and space continuum within the world of the play– the same three young actors that played the “weird children” later played the MacDuff children IN THE EXACT SAME COSTUMES that they wore as spirits(?) in the forest; they then re-appeared as the GHOSTS of the MacDuffs looking exactly as they did at the beginning….So were they ghosts before they were murdered? What’s the deal?
Witches are scary even when they are not kids
 Starting to get the picture about how this production was jumbled and confusing? But the biggest problem of all was not that the actor who played Ross also stalked around singing Catholic liturgical chant at surprising moments in a remarkable and piercing counter-tenor; nor was it even that the actor portraying Malcolm never diverged – in the whole arc of his development - from a remarkably monotonous tone of slightly deranged despair. This was a big, big problem, as was the depiction of the Porter as a pyromaniac demon of some sort (not kidding). When the director made choices like this, sure, they were weird choices. But the worst affliction of all was that not enough actually happened on stage.
Events and actions moved slower than the viewer’s mind. We looked at the set before the actors even came out and got that message; we picked up a sense of the tone of the production within a few minutes; now give us something else to think about! But no, this didn’t happen, because there was too little action to complement the spoken word. Instead, for the most part the actors seemed to be left to their own devices, perhaps “directed” in this manner: OK actor, at this point I’m going to leave you alone on a bare stage with no props and I just want you to stand there – don’t move around or anything – just stand there talking. It will be really interesting! Note to anyone who ever has or ever will direct a play: this doesn’t work. It’s mean to your actors. Don’t do this.
On the positive side, whenever actual action  - ie planned movement that illuminated the dialogue, meaningful interaction, etc, - did take place on stage, it was often very good (plus the audience would always perk up a bit and act really grateful). The slaughter of the MacDuff family was performed with energy and dispatch, and the Macbeth’s state banquet where Banquo’s ghost returns as a featured guest was also a highlight. That scene was actually directed very cleverly, as it was performed twice: once before the intermission with an actual blood drenched Banquo appearing before Macbeth’s horrified eyes, and again after the interval from the perspective of the banquet guests, with Macbeth gibbering away at something invisible. (Hilariously, the scene involved Banquo stabbing Macbeth with a ghostly sword, causing Macbeth to react as if he were dead. As this took place just before the lights came up for the intermission, a young lady sitting near me, no doubt unfamiliar with the play, took this to mean that the show was over: “What a strange ending!” she exclaimed.)
These were not the only bright spots in an otherwise somewhat dull production; most of the actors (with the exception of the wretched Malcolm) were first-rate, especially Jonathan Slinger as a young, energetic and somewhat insecure Macbeth, and Aislin McGuckin as a beautiful, captivating and ultimately shatteringly fragile Lady Macbeth. This production had so much potential, yet fell short. - In this way, it reminded me of Lady Macbeth's shaming charge to Macbeth:
"Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
Like the poor cat i' the adage?"
Basically, what I (and Lady Macbeth) are getting at here is that if you're going to do Shakespeare - if you're going to create theater - then go for it with all your might! I'd rather see a production go all out and "shoot [its] arrow over the house" than hold back or be careful and do nothing and fail in that way. Macbeth is cool. It can be done better. "Screw your courage to the sticking place!"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fun Shakespeare Timewaster

Ever wondered exactly what percentage of words in your prose match up with the vocabulary used in Shakespeare's plays? Well, fear not - the indispensable Oxford Dictionary people have created a way to help you answer this burning question! Go to this link - - paste your text into the little box - and wait anxiously for your Shakespearean percentage verdict to come up. I'm still not sure exactly how this is relevant to anything in my life or writing, but it's oddly fascinating - plus the program gives you cute little notes of encouragement that liken you to Shakespeare when you get a high percentage. Come on, you know you want to try!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 2 of 3; In Which Shakespeare Girl Takes Her Seat For the Show

(Thrilling story continued from Part 1!)
So, we got tickets to Macbeth (at the last minute, of course – keep your options open, it’s the only way to travel), and ventured in to view the RSC’s brand spankin’ new remodel of their theater.

In theory, the remodel is a nice idea – it replaces a 1930s era proscenium stage with a thrust stage that brings the actors out closer to the audience. I like thrust stages, but I'm also an instinctive conservative who would feel sad if practically anything built anywhere in the whole world were to be demolished. However, I always try to quash these unreasonable feelings, and despite reading about some rumblings of controversy about the remodel, I went to the show prepared to be pleased with everything. My first inkling, however, that there might be some rough edges with this here remodel, that it might need a little fine tuning, came when I visited the ladies' restroom. Now, I’m not going to list every little thing that was wrong (I have some sense of propriety!), but suffice it to say that the design of the room had some things wrong with it. It didn’t have that coherence and attention to detail that well-designed spaces have. And anyone who has ever seen the lines outside the ladies’ restroom at any concert, play or performance knows that the ladies’ restroom is IMPORTANT.
Well, but what about the even more important room – the actual theater? Some signs of trouble there too, I’m afraid, starting with MY SEAT. The ticket seller lady had shown me a fancy book with pictures of the view of the stage from every seat in the theater – but the only reason that this was necessary is because many of the seats are “restricted view” of the stage, ie there’s a great big pillar right in front of your face. Seems like a bit of a problem to me, especially once I actually sat there (in the back row of one of the balconies, I forget which one) and there was not only a pillar, but also a weird roof sloping down very low so that I could not see most of the tall set. AND there were stage lights mounted on the little sloping roof that drooped down even farther so that at times I couldn’t see even the PEOPLE acting on or in front of the tall set. I haven’t mentioned yet that my seat was this rather tall stool that you had to sort of launch yourself up into by a running leap (only a slight exaggeration).
Now, all this did not bother me too much, because as previously mentioned, I had bought my ticket at close to the last minute for not that many pounds; being somewhat impecunious, I humbly accepted that to actually be able to see the stage would be too much to hope for. And as I am young and lissome, minor athletics in the theatre, such as jumping up to perch on a high stool, there to bounce for the duration of the show, are no great burden for me. NOT SO for the couple sitting to my left. Older, British, and somewhat stout, they had no sooner entered the theatre and stared and look'd (like Cortez) upon their seats with a wild surmise, that they began unceasingly to breathe imprecations against the RSC, the theatre designer, and all and sundry who might have had a hand in remodeling the theatre in such a way that they had to clamber up and sit in high chairs in order to watch their beloved Shakespeare shows in Stratford. A snatch of their conversation, overheard and surreptitiously copied down by yours truly:
Older British Fellow (indignantly) “They’ve simply destroyed it! An absolute b----y mess.”
American Student in Next Seat (timidly): “I heard that they’ve only just finished renovating it –“
Old. Brit. Fellow (interrupting): “They haven’t renovated it, they’ve destroyed it. It really used to be a comfortable, beautiful theatre!”
His Wife (plaintively): “ It’s hard for people our age…”
Old. Brit. Fellow: “Well, they just want you to be uncomfortable whilst watching Shakespeare!”
I take no sides as to the truth of this latter statement, dear reader. I simply report what I see and hear.
OK, so perhaps none of this seems as though it has much bearing on the quality of the RSC production of Macbeth…but in a way it really does. Find out in the next and final installment of our series!!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 1 of 3; In Which Shakespeare Girl Decides Not to See the RSC Merchant of Venice

First off – I shall be reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth that I saw while in England. However, no such matter will appear in this post - this will be a three-part series, and everyone will just have to wait until part three for the scoop on Macbeth. Happy day! You won't just get a play review, but a lot of pontificating about the RSC will also be included for no additional charge! But to my tale.

To set the stage. You are in Stratford-upon-Avon, which you find not to be, as travel books have warned, a miserable tourist trap, but a very nice little town, with perhaps its most notable feature being a much higher number of bed-and-breakfasts per capita than is perhaps quite usual. (Note – open a good bed-and-breakfast in Stratford and make your fortune.) There are dozens of gleaming white swans in the river; the half-timbered houses with their gorgeous gardens have the added attraction that Shakespeare himself might have spent time within their walls; and you are looking forward to an evening of Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Company theater. The prospect!! Who among the readers of this blog has not heard of the RSC? I myself have done a fair bit of gushing over some of their work! My summer has turned me into a firm fan of the Rick Steves travel books (seriously very good. Don’t travel with anything but these and the Michelin Green Guides), and Rick gravely assures his readers that the RSC puts on the best Shakespeare ANYWHERE in the WORLD! And yet, and yet…
Having followed Emma’s excellent advice in her article about watching live Shakespeare, I had not only looked up WHAT plays the RSC was doing while I was in their neck of the woods, but I had also carefully read several reviews of the productions. I initially was interested in seeing both Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, which latter play was starring the great Patrick Stewart (!!!) as Shylock!!!! Yet, after reading what the critics had to say, I was not thrilled. As my readers will possibly remember, I have extremely strong opinions about Merchant, and I could tell that the vision for this show - a re-imagining of the story as set in the midst of all the most well-known cliches of behavior in Las Vegas - was not really in line with my vision. Fear of what the director might be up to with his or her beloved concept, wreak what havoc it may on the play (cry, havoc! And let slip the dogs of war), has caused me again and again to enter theaters hopeful, yet guarded and somewhat suspicious. No director is going to pull a fast one on ME!

Reluctantly, I realized that not even the chance to be in the same room as Patrick Stewart and listen to that deep voice intone some of my favorite Shakespeare lines could reconcile me to a production where my beloved Portia is portrayed as a Las Vegas showgirl; here’s the Telegraph review that convinced me to give this one a pass (money quote: “poor Patrick Stewart seems to inhabit an entirely different production from the rest of the cast, giving us a sombre and increasingly frail Jew which is intermittently impressive in its own right but seems to have little to do with the gaudy excesses of the rest of the show.”) So, since “Merchant” is one of my favorites, I didn’t want to go see this production only to have to leave muttering (in a confused sort of combined identification with myself, Shakespeare and J. Alfred Prufrock) “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."
I was further bolstered in my resolution not to see the show by a most enlightening conversation that I overheard in the tiny café at the Stratford railway station. Participants: Myself (not really a participant as I was listening not talking, innocently drinking my tea and sneakily trying to charge my laptop whilst waiting for a train); a lady of the lower classes running the shop; a man (later revealed to be an actor); and a most genteel older widow lady, later revealed to be a former professional ballerina (!).
The conversation between the Genteel Lady and the Shop Lady rambled on in desultory fashion about the relative merits and pricing of coach travel around the UK as opposed to trains (watch out trains, you are about to lose the Genteel Lady’s business because the coaches are cheaper), until the entrance of the Actor.
Somehow it came out that the Actor had a very small role in the RSC production of Merchant.
The Genteel Lady, who volunteers in some capacity with the RSC, tried to say something pleasant about the show: “I do try to tell people what it’s like before they go – they’ve had quite a few people STORM OUT! But I really think it’s great fun – just so you know what you’re IN for.”
(Follows more discussion about the show and the Actor’s prospects - he, being an actor, is naturally hoping that his current engagement will lead to bigger and better things. Somehow the conversation turns to the poor uptight creatures who have STORMED OUT, and all join in condemning their poor artistic vision in scorning the production.)
Shop Lady: “It’s all these people who want Shakespeare “Shakespeare” Shakespeare!”
(All nod sagely at this wisdom; after some more pleasantries the Actor slips out, leaving the two Ladies to regard one another in silence.)
Genteel Lady (quietly to Shop Lady): “have you seen it?”
Shop Lady (just as quietly): “No.”
Genteel Lady: “Well, you just have to know what you’re IN for, what with Elvis Presley popping up everywhere & girls in feathers. (pause) I think it’s good fun."
Well, my dear genteel lady, it doesn’t sound like good fun to me, so it’s a jolly good thing I knew what I would have been IN for!
We decided to see Macbeth instead.

Stay tuned for part 2, in which Shakespeare girl tells all about the newly remodeled Royal Shakespeare Company building! It's more interesting than it sounds!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Your Foreign Correspondent Reporting….

I’m Back!
This is Shakespeare girl, returned from my Shakespeare Fact Finding Mission overseas!
OK, so it wasn’t exactly a Shakespeare business trip and more just a super fun Europe tourist vacation. Aside from our myriad tours of palaces and cathedrals (highly recommended – we like palaces and cathedrals), Emma and I made it a priority to seek Shakespeare where he might be found – to wit, we:
-           saw three Shakespeare productions (yay!)
-          went to Stratford-Upon-Avon
-          Saw the Shakespeare birthplace house
-          Saw Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church
-          Saw Shakespeare First Folios at the British Library and at Trinity College, Cambridge (adding to my previous First Folio sighting at the Folger!)
I gained a new understanding of English geography and regional differences, and thrilled at all the Shakespeare connections everywhere  – Kent and the White Cliffs of Dover? King Lear! Northumbria? The House of Percy from the Henry IVs! We were happy to just miss the re-appearance of forces similar to those of our old friend Jack Cade by cleverly fleeing the British Isles for the Continent before the looting broke out; we then explored the vasty fields of France. And as a non-Francophone, I relied heavily on Emma’s superior French-speaking skills and gained a new appreciation for the dismay of Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, in Richard II when he is banished:
The language I have learn'd these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up…
I also want to report my excitement upon visiting Warwick Castle, home of our old friend the Earl of Warwick! The castle was very fun, but Emma and I kind of suspected that we were part of a relatively small percentage of tourists that come there solely because of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays. (We rejected with scorn an advertised tour purporting that Shakespeare WAS the Earl of Warwick. Or vice versa.) Well, well, Shakespeare has something for everyone, and my case proves that a love of Shakespeare can lead to standing on the battlements of a medieval castle in the heart of England. Hurrah!

On a Tower at Warwick Castle
Coming soon – reviews of Shakespeare performances in England!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Where are Shakespeare girl and Emma?

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...
(Richard II, 2.1.)

As sharp-eyed and observant readers of this page may note, Emma and I have recently been absent from our lonely blog, which has been left to fend for itself. Could it be that Shakespeare girl has tired of reading plays? Has Emma turned her back on her favored pastime of watching Shakespeare films? Can such things be? No! Fear not! Reading and watching has been happening, but writing out all the reams of commentary that I've been longing to share has not, for one very good reason....we're on vacation in England right now! Yes, Shakespeare's very own home country. I've never been before, so I'm quite excited, and intend to do as much Shakespeare-oriented sight-seeing as possible. We've been here less than a week, but before that it seemed like every minute (when I, alas, was not updating my beloved Shakespeare blog) was taken up with frantically reading travel books (I checked out about 40 from the library). Planning a trip is serious bizness, you guyz. It's hard. You may now proceed to feel quite sorry for me.

We'll be in England for the next three and a half weeks, and will spend some time in France after that. Though updates from the road are a possibility, we'll be home the second week of August, and so you can expect to see some more activity on your favorite Shakespeare commentary and quotations blog!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Merchant of Venice - Shylock part 2, Two Shylocks

Shylock. I will have the heart of him...(3.1.1358)

In my previous post about Shylock, I discussed the controversy surrounding the Jewishness of the evil Shylock and that a lot of readers and critics find the play troubling because of this. An idea that concerned me in some of my research about different viewpoints on the play was the sense that some actors and directors were afraid to touch the play - that the subject matter was too hot to handle. I was happily able to see a powerful performance of the play last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and was very moved by it - it makes me sad that some people could miss out on the play because of what I see as a distorted focus. I was therefore very happy to find, in the Playing Shakespeare TV series, a robust discussion about Shylock and The Merchant of Venice where the participants agreed with me - that Shylock's status as a very bad Jewish person does not make Shakespeare and the play hateful and unplayable.

Playing Shakespeare is a very, very cool British TV series from the 1980s where some of the actors and directors from the Royal Shakespeare Company got together and talked about ways to approach performing Shakespeare, with actors such as Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart giving short scenes and working on them with directors Trevor Nunn and John Barton. It's great fun for any Shakespeare fan - if the comments section from the Amazon link doesn't convince you, check out this panegyric review of the series. I myself love the show not only for its thoughtful examination of Shakespeare's text in performance, but also, as a child of the '80s, for its retro appeal as a return to a past world of earth tones, chain smokers, and actors who were young but now are old. Presiding benevolently over all is RSC co-founder John Barton, looking like a kindly, rumpled, absent-minded professor in baggy sweater and disheveled tweed tie. It's good stuff.
My favorite episode in the series is all about Shylock - David Suchet, the delightful actor known everywhere to watchers of PBS's Mystery! as Hercule Poirot, and Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek fame, discuss the part and both perform, with differing interpretation, several scenes from the play. I have to agree with Shakespeare Geek here that I prefer Suchet's interpretation of the role - he's truly scary! - but the insights that both men bring are fascinating, even when I don't completely agree with them. You can - and should - watch the whole episode online here on the Theatre in Video site - it's under an hour. However, here's a little taste of David Suchet's Shylock to get you going:

Though Stewart and Suchet dig deeply into the motivations, characterization and actions of Shylock, one piece that I see as missing from their discussion is a really clear view of how Shylock fits in with the rest of the play. But what is really going on? What is this play all about? I see the play, as I mentioned before, as about money, marriage and murder, all leading up to mercy. In my next post, I hope to get more deeply into the question of law vs. grace and the importance of promises and bonds in the play - and how Shylock fits into these questions.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Merchant of Venice - Shylock part 1

Shylock. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my

bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not

revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you

teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.


(Shylock by László Mednyánszky)

The Merchant of Venice, for all its wit and charm, is in this day and age a controversial play, because the murderous villain of the piece - Shylock - is a Jew. Not only does Shakespeare have a lot of his characters speak anti-Jewish insults, Shylock also defends his plot to kill the merchant, Antonio, in terms of justifiable revenge for Antonio's bad treatment of him because of his ethnicity and religion. In a way, Jewishness  - identity and defense - can be read as the root of the great evil that Shylock plans, and this emphasis on Shylock's Jewishness as such a major part of the story makes a lot of people uncomfortable - the play perceived by some as bigoted and ought not to be performed. Click here to read an examination of this kind of discomfort on "Blogging Shakespeare."
I strongly disagree with this view, for many reasons that I'll get into later. However, some productions, in an effort to overcome the what they see as the anti-Semitic implications of having a Jewish villain, focus on Shylock's speech that references Jews' shared humanity with Christians:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?....

In a performance that interprets this passage in a sympathetic way, Shylock can come across almost like a noble freedom fighter, struggling for equality in a harsh, cruel world. And this speech is undoubtedly crucially important: Shakespeare puts nothing in by accident, and this speech - which receives no contradiction - refutes any sort of anti-Semetic idea that Jews are somehow a lesser/separate form of humanity, monsters by nature (a very offensive idea! If this were Shakespeare's Shylock, I would agree that the play is anti-Semitic - but as we shall see, that's not what is going on.) However, this speech cannot, in my opinion, be used to make Shylock NOT a villain. It in fact proves that he is one: being exactly equal with the Christians in all his humanity, passions and sensibility, he makes a deliberate choice to embrace violence and vengeance, turning himself INTO a monster:
If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you

teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Merchant of Venice

Portia. If to do were as easy as to know what were good to
do, chapels had been churches and poor men's
cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the
twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o'er a cold decree....

Oh, how I love this play. Especially after what for me was a rather dreary slog through King John, The Merchant of Venice is a delight - the beautiful writing, lively plot and thoughtful examination of the complicated issues facing the characters felt to me like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. Everyone loves a courtroom drama, and The Merchant of Venice, like any good story of that genre, inexorably moves toward a final showdown where the parties appear in court and the judge gives a verdict. But the play is more than that - the plot centers around money, marriage, and murder (for such is Shylock's plot against Antonio), and in each case there is only one real answer - mercy.

I chose the opening quotation - one of the very first things that we hear Portia, our wise heroine, say - as it seems to me in many ways to sum up a lot of what the play is about. Often we know what is right to do, but can we do it? This failure between thought and aspiration, hope and achievement, is seen in the contrast between Portia's beautiful Belmont and the savagery of the Rialto, the merchant's exchange in Venice: though Venetian law, we are told, is supposed to make everything just and fair, we see it instead being used to further revenge and violence, incited by racial hatred. Law - thought-through restraints that put up walls to protect people against the impulses of every passion - is in many ways the the highest example of aspiration for humanity: a teacher telling us what were good to
It can be twisted, though, and, as Portia points out, when the going gets rough, the hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree. When it doesn't feel right, people scramble to try to get away from the law. We see this tension again and again in this play: there are issues with trusting people to hold to their promises, pay their debts, keep their word - with money and with marriage.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

King John - Mothers

Phillip the Bastard. But who comes in such haste in riding-robes?
What woman-post is this? hath she no husband
That will take pains to blow a horn before her?
O me! it is my mother. How now, good lady!
What brings you here to court so hastily?

Lady Falconbridge. Where is that slave, thy brother? where is he,
That holds in chase mine honour up and down?


Constance. My bed was ever to thy son as true
As thine was to thy husband; and this boy
Liker in feature to his father Geoffrey
Than thou and John in manners; being as like
As rain to water, or devil to his dam.
My boy a bastard! By my soul, I think
His father never was so true begot:
It cannot be, an if thou wert his mother.


Um. Well, Happy Mother's Day to you too. Somehow it seems that my reading of Shakespeare is always a little off from whatever major holiday falls on that week. King John, for example, though very much a play about mothers and sons, is not a happy story about good mothers and sons - Queen Eleanor is the power behind John's throne; Constance, her daughter-in-law, fights for her son Arthur's right to that same throne with much more passion than he, poor little boy, ever felt; Phillip the Bastard identifies his mother, Lady Falconbridge, as the only parent he has known and thanks her for committing adultery with King Richard so that he had the good fortune to be born. Unfortunately, he besmirches her reputation by being acknowledged as Richard's son. Oh well, price to be paid! However, Lady Falconbridge is not the only mother to be accused of adultery - as we can see from the quotations above, Constance and Eleanor get some good insults going between them as well. Nice family, right?

Though these passionate, ambitious women seem to want only the best for their sons, tragedy is all that comes of their actions. Phillip the Bastard, seeking his birthright from his mother and true father, accepts the dazzling prospect of a title and a home with his royal relatives rather than the sure security of the estate of his mother's husband, an estate that the law would have given him; this choice leads him to nothing but incessant war and bloodshed. Poor Arthur faces imprisonment and death, and John - used to relying on the bold decisiveness of his indefatigable mother - is stunned and simply deflates when he hears of her death:

Withhold thy speed, dreadful occasion!
O, make a league with me, till I have pleased
My discontented peers! What! mother dead!


Ultimately, the unhealthy relationships demonstrated by these mothers, who pushed the sons into positions of power and didn't let go, lead to sorrow for other mothers and sons:

French Herald
.....the hand of France this day hath made
Much work for tears in many an English mother, 
Whose sons lie scattered on the bleeding ground.....

Monday, May 9, 2011

King John

Philip the Bastard. Ha, majesty! how high thy glory towers,
When the rich blood of kings is set on fire!
O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;
The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs;
And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men,
In undetermined differences of kings.
Why stand these royal fronts amazed thus?
Cry, 'havoc!' kings; back to the stained field,
You equal potents, fiery kindled spirits!
Then let confusion of one part confirm
The other's peace: till then, blows, blood and death!


King John (1166-1216)

I find King John rather a curious play. John as a monarch has two major identifiers in the 20th/21st century imagination: as the signer of the Magna Carta, which would rein in the power of despotic rulers and lay the groundwork for truth, justice and the American way; and as the Bad King John of the Robin Hood legend, who skulks around with the Sheriff of Nottingham and spends his time conspiring against his brother, the noble Richard, when not plotting ways to grind the poor underfoot.

Neither of these themes appears at all in Shakespeare's play. Instead, we have a labyrinthine plot where John fights with the French; makes up with the French; fights with the Pope; fights with the French; fights with the nobles; makes up with the Pope; fights with the French even though the Pope tells them not to; makes up with the nobles; and then *spoiler alert* dies. Plus John's badness - his claim to the throne is not 100% solid, and he's willing to kill his little nephew to make it so -  seems kind of like a less exciting retread of Richard III. John has one nephew he wants to get rid of? Well, Richard has two!

Despite the (for me) less than compelling plot, there are some interesting themes and characters in the play, and some beautiful passages - though on the whole, the work is not as poetic as Richard II. One of the examples of interesting imagery is in the passage quoted above, where Philip the Bastard, John's nephew, paints a picture of the French and English armies somehow forming a corporeal expression of Death - their individual actions united allow Death to stalk the land, the swords of the soldiers serving as sharp teeth as he chews his way through his victims. The Bastard speaks of the Kings as amazed and potentially confused by all this bloodshed. In a way, this sense of a loss of control, of confusion, of wandering action leading to disaster yet disconnected from careful thought seems to pervade the whole play, leading to the abrupt and ambiguous ending.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - A Fairy Song

FIRST FAIRY. You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy Queen.

Philomel with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby.
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby.
Never harm
Nor spell nor charm
Come our lovely lady nigh.
So good night, with lullaby.

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence.
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail do no offence.

Philomel with melody, etc.

Here's the fairy song that Titania asks her servants to sing to send her to sleep. Not only is it fun because there's so much in this play that makes it into a kind of multi-arts theater presentation - music! dancing! play-within-a-play! - the poem is also neat in that all its imagery is of little, small creatures: beetles, snails, newts, nightingales, spiders. These small animals - very minor threats to humans like us - become towering figures that must be threatened off by Shakespeare's little fairies.

I looked around for different versions of this song, but I didn't really find anything that I liked. Felix Mendelssohn wrote music for the play (this is where his famous Wedding March comes from), and his version of the song is pretty, but it sounds very ordered and polished - sort of a fairy-like Gilbert and Sullivany kind of sound. You can listen here. I always thought of this song as being wilder though - with a melody maybe something like this, an old Latin carol sung by the wonderful Maddy Prior. Shakespeare's words would fit to that tune, right?

I just can't resist posting another Arthur Rackham picture, this time illustrating this scene - I love the little guy with the double bass. The way this picture looks is the way I want the song to sound!
Come, now a roundel and a fairy song...(2.2.650)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Fairies and Flowers

Puck. How now, spirit! whither wander you?
Fairy. Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I'll be gone:
Our queen and all our elves come here anon.


With this play, I want to concentrate on some of the gorgeous poetry and nature imagery - like in this passage! The simple rhyme scheme and homely words - like "freckles" - help to establish the character of a servant fairy, setting about a task that is standard for the speaker, but magical to us. I love the image of the dew in flowers as pearls placed there to adorn the blossom. But what is a cowslip? Here it is!
Cowslip (Primula veris)

Look, you can see the freckles, the "rubies, fairy favours," the spots in their "gold coats"! Doesn't seeing the brightness, the liveliness of these flowers make the scene, the poetry, seem more alive?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Art

The fantasy fairy landscape of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been inspiring visual artists for hundreds of years. My favorite Midsummer art that I want to share here is the 1908 collection of illustrations by Arthur Rackham: I was captivated by his delicately ethereal and beautiful, yet complex and dark, vision of Oberon and Titania's woodland fairy world. I'm going to post some of my favorite images here, but check out the whole work here, presented with the text: I especially like the artwork from Act Two.
...the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven...(1.1.10-11)
Fairies, away. We shall chide downright if I longer stay. (2.1.515)

"O Bottom, thou art changed!" (3.1.931)