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July 2, 2011

Tolstoy and the Shakespeare meme

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.

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May 6, 2011

Acting Shakespeare

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.)

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April 15, 2011

They couldn’t be more different

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.

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August 29, 2009

The NY Times is 100% correct

So, don’t listen to me when I tell you to get to Lenox to see Shakespeare & Co.‘s production of Twelfth Night. Listen to the NY Times, which just gave it a rave review.

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August 8, 2009

Shakespeare for girls, and young language

Two more points from Kenneth Coleman’s lecture on teaching Shakespeare, at Shakespeare & Co.

First, he says that the four most-taught Shakespearean plays are all tragedies. The tragedies are — he says — 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.

Two excellent points.

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August 6, 2009

Go see Twelfth Night

My family has gone to Shakespeare & Co. productions every summer for almost 30 years. We have taken the kids since they were nursing. Over the years, I’ve blogged about various plays we’ve seen, usually very positively. Shakespeare & Co. do lively stagings, with clear diction and no desire to have us sit still while watching A Classic. They are always entertaining and frequently moving.

We saw Twelfth Night this afternoon. It is the funniest production I think I’ve seen them do. If you are in or near western Massachusetts, I urge you to go. You will LYAO.

It was directed by Jonathan Croy, who we’ve enjoyed as an actor since seeing him as Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night Dream a few decades ago. He had us crying with laughter in the Pyramus and Thisbe play within a play, and we’ve seen him in just about everything he’s been in since. His direction of Twelfth Night is brilliant. Mainly it’s hilarious. But it was also at times quite moving. He finds every laugh, many bawdy, some hammy, and some perhaps not in the original — but Shakespeare would have approved, for, as always with Shakespeare & Co., this is not the broccoli Shakespeare you’re required to eat for your own good. This is delicious, hearty, deeply satisfying Shakespeare you can’t wait to get another helping of. This is Shakespeare after Shakespeare’s own heart.

Afterward, we went to a free lecture by Kevin Coleman, who heads the company’s educational program. His talk was informal, full of anecdotes. But by the end of the hour, he had made his point: Stop teaching Shakespeare in the schools. Instead, we should have students play Shakespeare. But not just put on performances after memorizing the lines.

He demonstrated one technique he uses. Students in pairs run up to a basketball hoop (he thinks Shakespeare should be taught on a playground, to convey the sense of play) dribbling an imaginary ball; one kid passes the ball and the other shoots a nothing-but-net shot, and then they high-five or otherwise exult. Next, he gives one kid in each pair a single line from a random Shakespeare play. They run up to the hoop. The one with the line speaks it loudly but flatly — “passing” it — and the other kid delivers the line to the audience. The combination of bodily movement and the fact that the line doesn’t have to be memorized gets the kids to find the heart of the line. This is way better than having kids read a play at home and then call on them to read a line from a page.

Kevin says that he then has them do entire scenes, each player being fed all the lines by a partner, without having read the play first. The players therefore can look at each other as they say the lines, rather than look at the script. They find the rhythm, the meaning, and the feeling. At Kevin’s lecture, we did the one line version, and the results were impressive. I could see it working for an entire play.

Kevin also argued against the “translation” process most teachers and Shakespeare books use, by which we ask students to re-express Shakespeare’s words in their own language. This seems like a way for students to appropriate the text, but it also strips out the beauty and resonance of the language. His example was the line when Romeo first sees Juliet: “What lady is that, which doth enrich the hand of yonder knight?” When, with good intentions, teachers ask students to re-express that line, it comes out something like “Who’s the girl?” or “What’s the name of the fox?” Sure, that’s what Romeo is asking, but the translation loses everything. Shakespeare’s language gets turned into “French fries,” Kevin says.

Anyway, go see Twelfth Night.

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August 10, 2008

Othello without intermission

On Thursday, we saw Shakespeare & Company’s Othello, in Lenox, Ma. We go frequently to see that company’s productions, but this one was special. In fact, I didn’t want it to have an intermission. The play is too relentless. You know where it’s going (especially if, ahem, you re-read it the day before) and you just want it to get there, to be over, to let you go. It is a play with no distractions and no subplots. (This production wisely dropped the Clown who has a couple of scenes of witty-but-now-incomprehensible Elizabethan badinage.) The plot ticks, but its engine is Othello’s prodigious will. As soon as Iago suggests that Othello shouldn’t suspect Desdemona without proof, you know that “proof” will be forthcoming, and Othello will be unstoppable. Only an intermission stands in his way.

The first half of the play is Iago’s. Iago knows everyone better than they know themselves. Including the audience. Iago is the one who addresses us directly. We may not be on his side, but we are in his world. The second half is Othello’s. But at the end, the play belongs to the women. Desdemona sees clearly. And her maiden (Iago’s wife), Emilia, is a fierce teller of truths and the bravest person on the stage. For all the talk of heroism and military feats, the only truly heroic act Shakespeare shows us is Emilia’s.

I thought the acting surpassed Shakespeare & Co.’s usual high standard. Michael Hammond was a believable Iago. He took Iago’s hatred as a given. Hammond instead convinced us that his power was based on his ability to see into those he used. John Douglas Thompson’s Othello I found harder to appreciate because of the extremes to which his character is pushed: He’s a hard-won general and a charming teller of tales who rapidly is reduced to writhing on the floor. But the depth of his feeling for the woman he kills was apparent. Merritt Janson was a perfect Desdemona. Kristin Wold was a fearsome, riveting Emilia. LeRoy McClain added immeasurably to the play by giving us a sympathetic, rounded Cassio. This was a hell of a production.

And, boy, could that Shakespeare guy write!


Michael Hammond blogs about Iago, painting him as the consummate actor. He adds:

I am also inclined to suspect that by presenting a character so ingenious in his ability to inspire and manipulate others, Shakespeare was offering those who mistrusted or even hated the theatre their worst nightmare.


Given Iago’s understanding of how the world looks to each character, perhaps he’s also the consummate playwright.


Here’s the NY Times’ review. He liked JThompson’s performance a bit more than I did — although he makes a good case and is probably right — and he failed to glow enough over Hammond’s Iago. And here’s the WSJ’s review. [Tags: ]

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