We just came from a fantastic production of Love’s Labor’s Lost by Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass. I’ve lauded this company before (often), but this afternoon’s show was among the very best we’ve seen. The second half especially was both hilarious and very touching. At least the way they played it this time — we saw it here years ago — the ending was a criticism of the play’s own wit as a way to dodge true knowledge. That Shakespeare guy really could write!
I’d recommend you see it, but this was the last performance. Which makes me wonder (once again) why a company like this doesn’t video one of the performances and put it up on the Web for free. Why the heck not? It would only encourage attendance, and would raise the company’s prominence.
And Shakespeare & Co. also holds informal talks about their performances. Why not video them and put them up on the Web for people who are about to see any company’s performance of the play?
There may be a simple answer to this. For example, as my nephew pointed out, some of the performers are in Actors Equity and there may be rules against posting performances for free. If so, what a waste and disservice to their members! For example, it would only help Josh Aaron McCabe‘s career for people to see his performance as Berowne this afternoon.
Or it may be simply that the default at Shakespeare & Co. hasn’t switched to open-when-done. But that only requires the Will. I just hate to see this love’s labor lost.
I’ve been listening to the wonderful Emma Smith lectures/podcasts about Shakespeare. Wow, is the world better because we can take for granted that there is a supply of such wonders that a full lifetime could not experience them, all available for free.
But what I meant to say is she makes the point that Othello is a tragedy that’s structured as a comedy. Perhaps Shakespeare, having spent the past decade or so writing within genre boundaries, was mixing up the genres on purpose, she suggests. The comedic structure of Othello is obvious as soon as she points it out: a dumb trick with a handkerchief, that in a comedy would have been the pretext for a lovers’ quarrel that lasts the length of the play, instead triggers a cascade of jealousy and fury that culminates in one of the most wrenching scenes Shakespeare ever wrote.
I’ve long thought that The Sopranos — yes, I know The Sopranos isn’t Shakespeare — was sort of like this: comic characters, comic situations, with tragic results. Also, the same structure is true of the accidental brain-blowing-out scene in Pulp Fiction (you know, the one in the car). The Pulp Fiction scene lacks tragedy because we don’t know the dead character, and it devolves further into comedy as the only implication is that it makes a mess of the car. The Sopranos usually let us know its characters better, so it got closer to tragedy. And Tony and Carmella arguably approached true tragedy: one of the advantages of “100-hour narratives” (hat tip to Steve Johnson) is that characters can be developed until they are deep and vivid even though the writing of each of those hundred hours doesn’t come close to Shakespeare.
Douglas L. Wilson has a lovely article that tries to make sense of what we know about Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare. He argues that one fact about the performance of Shakespeare at the time illuminates comments Lincoln made to actors and friends. (No spoilers here, my friends!)
BTW, we learn early on in the article that Lincoln thought Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy was outdone by the one in which Claudius wonders whether forgiveness is possible for his murder of his brother.
Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not.
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursèd hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestallèd ere we come to fall
Or pardoned being down? Then I’ll look up.
My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn, “Forgive me my foul murder”?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above.
There is no shuffling. There the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limèd soul that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels. Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees, and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe.
All may be well. (kneels)
I’ll stay away from the cheap psychologizing about Lincoln’s interest in the forgivability of unforgivable crimes during a war waged at least in part against slavery. Instead I’ll offer cheap psychologizing about the theme of the doubleness of self — with the attendant heightened perception of one’s self as always at issue — that seems to go through Lincoln’s favorite passages.
Finally, I might note that articles like this one show the value of experts, something we dare not lose in the networking of knowledge (in case anyone was wondering).
Tolstoy really really doesn’t like Shakespeare. His polemic is a wonderful literary rant, taking him on for putting undifferentiated characters into ridiculous plots, speaking language no one would ever actually say, and betraying Christian values and virtues. His opening recounting of King Lear shows just how absurd the plot is, and he moves on from there.
So why is Shakespeare universally acclaimed? He thinks the Germans — Goethe, in particular — started it, and it became what would today call a meme:
With the development of the press, it has now come to pass that so soon as any event, owing to casual circumstances, receives and especially prominent significance, immediately the organs of press announce this significance. As soon as the press has brought forward the significance of the event, the public devotes more and more attention to it. The attention of the public prompts the press to examine the event with greater attention and in greater detail. The interest of the public further increases, and the organs of the press, competing with one another, satisfy the public demand. The press is still more interested; the press attributes yet more significance to the event. So that the importance of the event, continually growing, like a lump of snow, receives an appreciation utterly inappropriate to its real significance, this appreciation often exaggerated to insanity, is retained so long as the conception of life of the leaders of the press and of the public remains the same.”
His example of a story without merit is, alas, the Dreyfus Affair. Indeed, Tolstoy does a pretty bad job picking which of the current celebs would last. Among those he thinks are flashes in the pan are George Sand, Charles Darwin, and Hegel.
Now, I still like Shakespeare, although of course I wouldn’t be able to convince Tolstoy. The artificiality Tolstoy points to for me serves a greater realism.
So, Tolstoy is right that Shakespeare’s plays often begin by asking us to accept a ridiculous premise. Othello is both so in love and so untrusting that he won’t be persuaded away from the flimsiest of evidence. Lear so misjudges his daughters that he disowns Cordelia even though she could have explained herself over half a goblet of wine. Hamlet’s plot is put in motion by a ghost. But I don’t mind. I know I’m swallowing the premise so I can be put into a special space where a person — not a type, not a canned virtue or vice — will behave in a particularly human way. Shakespeare defines humans by their weaknesses, and those weaknesses are outside the simple categories of vice and sin, unlike in the morality plays that preceded Shakespeare. Othello’s weakness cannot be comprehended by the traditional vices, nor can the allure of Richard III’s evil. How else do you explain Hamlet’s coldness toward Ophelia? How do you explain Shylock except by his unique mix of avarice, justice, fatherly love…? Shakespeare redefines us as uniquely weak, flawed, and impossible to understand in the old categories.
To do so, he puts humans into unrealistic situations in which they speak in iambic pentameter, and occasionally voice thoughts only newly recognized as inner. Tolstoy makes his case clearly, but it only makes it clearer to me why Shakespeare’s standing is no mere meme.
I’ve been reading John Barton’s book Playing Shakespeare, which pretty much transcribes a series of televised master classes. It’s a pretty amazing book, in which Barton claims that Shakespeare’s lines provide clues to how they should be read — the irregular stresses in the verse, the changes from prose to verse and back again.
I googled around trying to find the original series, but found these instead. Here are two ten-minute segments. Spanning the two is David Suchet reading Sonnet 138 several times, receiving direction. (I think I personally prefer his second reading.)
A couple of days ago while waiting my turn in the shower, I snapped on CNN, quickly got fed up with what can only be called drivel, and spun the dial. I landed on what I at first thought was Airplane! but,which after a cognitive twitch came into focus as that upon which the parody was based: Airport 1975.
This morning I went through the same drill, but this time I landed at the final fifteen minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing.
Fortune has, I believed, paired up for me two movies that meet the rigorous formal requirements for the relationship Could Not Be More Different Than.
Airplane 1975 is the one with Linda Blair faithfully waiting for a kidney, lying next to Helen Reddy who is an honest-to-jeebus singing nun. It’s the one where Karen Black accepts the garland for Worst Performance Ever by playing the stewardess-behind-the-wheel with such passivity that you want Sister Helen to come into the cockpit and slap her once, real hard. It’s the one where Charlton Heston descends from a helicopter through the hole in the airplane to save the incompetent female, and then tells her to calm the passengers with the eternal bard-llke phrase: “Go, do your thing,”
On the other hand, in the fifteen minutes of Much Ado, I laughed hard, cried harder, and hugged my wife at the end.
I’m sure there are other pairings, and I’m curious what they might be, but none can surpass the More-Different-Than-ness of Airport 1975 and Much Ado about Nothing.
First, he says that the four most-taught Shakespearean plays are all tragedies. The tragedies are â€” he says â€” about how men screw up the world. And in the four most-taught ones, the women generally kill themselves or are otherwise disempowered. We should be teaching the comedies, he says, because they’re about how women make the world livable.
Second, he objects to calling Shakespeare’s language “old English.” Actually, it’s young English, full of play, lacking rules, inventing itself.