I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop… —Comedy of Errors1, II:1:199-200
Shakespeare is bringing before us both the vastness of the ocean and the indistinguishability of one drop from another, and maybe even the way in which drops in an ocean are artificial constructs. But for us, “a drop in the ocean” is the standard signifier of an amount so small that it makes no difference at all. A drop in the bucket could still add up to something. A drop in the ocean could not.
You can see the power of this image in the startling effect its inversion had in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Ice Nine. A single drop of this fictitious chemical would crystalize the entire ocean. Imagine, a mere drop in the ocean having such an effect!
Of course, when it comes to racism, for a long time in this country (and only this country), having one drop of “Negro” blood in your veins — a black ancestor in any generation back to the presumed-white Adam and Eve — was enough to make you subject to all of the racial and social restrictions white America had devised. [More] Unlike an ocean drop or bucket drop, a blood drop could make all the difference. But, racism is all about being inconsistent, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.
When it came to tiny bits that didn’t matter at all, a drop in the ocean was the measure.
Not any more. All those drops have added up. Depending on where you’re floating, if you were to withdraw a drop from the ocean, there’s a measurable probability that you’ll come down with hepatitis. In some parts of the ocean, your dropper will get clogged with plastic. No drops for you.
We used to say that the ocean is forgiving. It turns out it was just nursing a grudge.
We have suffered from the Fallacy of Scale. We are now learning the power of drops. Perhaps too late.
1Speaking of Comedy of Errors, don’t miss the hilarious version at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass. It’s set in NJ, and they play it entirely for laughs because, well, it’s a comedy.
The actors in Shakespeare & Co. rehearse before they’ve learned their lines by being shadowed by someone who whispers their lines to them. That way (as Kevin Coleman explained) they can rehearse while looking at the person they’re talking to instead of looking down at a piece of paper. The result is an early rehearsal in which the actors can act together and experiment.
Jonny Epstein is an actor and a highly collaborative director. He interceded occasionally to punch up a reading, and always kept an eye on the audience’s interests: We need a gesture to understand what “bona-robas” are (high quality courtesans — literally “the good stuff”); Falstaff should turn to the left while pointing to the right so that both sides of the audience are involved, etc.
But as the scene came to a close, it took a turn towards the awesome.
It’s a short and humorous scene in which Justice Shallow is greeting his old friend Falstaff. There’s funny business about rounding up men for Falstaff, which in this abridged, small-cast version had the actors pointing into the audience. Very amusing.
The scene ends with Shallow inviting Falstaff to dinner. They’re about to wander off, in a convenient scene-closing way, when a memory from fifty-five years ago pops into Shallow’s mind. “O, Sir John, do you remember since we lay all night in the windmill in Saint George’s field?” This becomes a chat about old acquaintances who now are old or dead.
The first time through, the actors played it lightly: a bunch of old folks remembering their lusty youths. But Epstein then suggested that they stop their funny business. Just stand there and talk. Without further direction, the actors changed everything: posture, cadence, expression, diction, interaction. And it became a scene about age and youth that touched me deeply.
It was, in short, a moment of transcendence. I got yer magic of the theatre right here.
Shakespeare & Co. is a great company, but it rarely plays to full houses. If I were them, here’s what I would do:
1. Video every lecture they give and put it on the Web for free. In fact, do more lectures, at least one for every play they produce. These lectures have been consistently fascinating. I want people to get used to looking up the Shakespeare & Co. lecture before going to see a Shakespeare play performed by any group.
2. Video a performance of each play presented, and post it for free on the Web. Have some of the summer interns do it. No one who comes would have stayed at home if they could have watched a video of it, especially since the company doesn’t have the resources to do studio-quality video production.
3. Post a second version of these videoed performances with a director’s track. Have the director and some of the actors explaining both the play and their decisions about it. We want teachers to play these scenes when introducing students to Shakespeare, and we want people who just saw a performance to then see the thinking behind it.
Now, there may be Actors Equity rules that prevent this, which would be a shame because videos like these would help expose the actors’ talents more broadly. And I suspect that Shakespeare & Co. may have reservations about posting content that’s not of the highest professional quality. If so: get over it! It’s the Web! Trust comes from imperfection.
In any case, when you’re in the Berkshires, do come. And bring the kids.
We saw Shakespeare & Co.‘s Julius Caesar last night. What a rich production! And certainly not because of its production values: the performance was in the tiny Bernstein Theatre with a cast of just seven and an almost bare stage.
The acting was up to the company’s high standard. New to me was James Udom as Marc Antony. He gave the famous address — which stands out for its devious plainness amidst the torrent of language in which it is embedded — brilliantly. Eric Tucker made the noblest Roman, Brutus, human. I could listen to Jason Asprey all day long. (I embarrassed myself after the performance when he came out to the lobby.) Kristin Wold switched characters on stage instantaneously and before our eyes, nevertheless bringing us along.
It is a hard play. It never lets you settle. And it has perhaps the most despairing final words of any Shakespeare play. We may not be 100% sure that Caesar was so ambitious that he needed to be killed for Rome’s sake, but he at least had the good sense to mask his ambitions. When Octavius stands amidst the carnage and celebrates the “glories of this happy day,” we see what naked ambition truly looks like. It was a devastating moment last night.
The small audience consisted almost entirely of people over 60. Such a shame.
I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival . It’s chockablock with interesting people and sessions, but because it’s the sort of event that expects you to take notes in a moleskin notebook, I won’t be doing a lot of liveblogging — there are fewer outlets than in a 1970s airport.
Last night I went to the very first screening of Julie Taymor‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a composite recording of four live performances in Brooklyn. (I suppose that makes this the first review of it!) According to this roundup of reviews of the stage version, the critical establishment was impressed by Taymor’s genius for staging — it’s astounding, stunning — but less impressed with the directing of the actors. But, because Taymor filmed it using the repertoire of movies — close-ups, controlled focus, etc. — we can see the acting through the spectacle. Taymor has made some bold choices.
Some of that boldness pays off. For example, Titania’s lasciviousness with the donkey-headed Bottom helps reveal her character and informs her loving relationship with Oberon. Kathryn Hunter brings an autonomy, mastery and a sense of completeness of character to Puck. The ensemble of young children who are the fairies (or “rude elementals” as they are listed in the cast) are believably otherworldly. But…
…I suppose it should also count as a bold choice to make every character a recognizable stereotype. The costume and makeup choices assert this, making it clear that it was intentional. Bottom is a NYC (maybe NJ) working class Italian, Oberon is a magisterial African warrior king, Demetrius is an up-tight crew-cut guy, Lysander is a long-haired romantic, etc. This works well for the comedy, but the play needs the characters to grow out of their types because otherwise this play is merely about a weird interruption. We want the interlude to have changed them, to help them become who they are. Indeed, some are changed, and those are the moments when the play moves from entertaining (and boy is it entertaining!) to moving. For example, when Hermia realizes that Demetrius loves her, the play breaks open. In that moment, love is raw and deep.
There’s a moment at the end that I thought was brilliantly directed, and that helps justify the shallowness exhibited by all four of the young lovers. The nobles react to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe like jerks. The mechanicals are giving it their all, and their all is hilarious. But the nobles make cruel fun of them. Yet we love the mechanicals. What are we to think?
So, Taymor does this brilliant thing. After Bottom has gone through his world-class over-acted death scene (always a highlight), his buddy playing his lover knocks her/his death scene out of the park. The moment when he takes off his wig is heart-stopping. And is comeuppance to the contemptuous snobs who have been mocking the show-within-a-show.
Taymor took questions after the screening, and I asked her about this. Does the fact that the nobles look like jerks during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe mean that our culture’s presumptions have shifted since Shakespeare’s time? How are we supposed to make sense of it? Taymor answered at length. She said she’d struggled with this scene. She cut lines, put the most vicious ones in the mouth of a character we already disliked (Hermia’s father) and made him drunk to boot. She cited Theseus’ lines “I will hear that play; For never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it” as Shakespeare’s guide for our attitude. She pointed to Shakespeare’s sympathy for all classes. She acknowledged the way Thisbe’s speech undercut the nobles’ jeering attitude. All I’d add is that the jeers of the nobles at the mechanicals’ embrace of culture can be seen as the last gasp of stereotypes: the audience has been laughing at the working class bumblers throughout, and now our own attitude has been subverted.
During the Q&A session, Taymor said she is trying to figure out the best way to release the film. I hope it gets distributed broadly. It is not the first Midsummer you should see — the staging is more astounding in comparison to prior performances — but it would be an excellent second. So, I hope she figures out how to make it available to everyone who is learning to love Shakespeare.
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.