THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for January 2011

The Taming Of The Shrew…

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So, given my opening post, I’d hate to give the impression I have no familiarity with Shakespeare. Bill and I actually go back a fair ways…

My first exposure to Shakespeare was a BBC adaption I watched on VHS at the age of nine. I don’t recall the play or why I was viewing it, but I was fascinated by this world where everyone dressed in tights and robes, kinda like a soap opera of cross-dressers prone to sword fighting and iambic pentameter. I decided at that point that I liked Shakespeare, it seemed like Monty Python without the laugh track.

I received the standard high school treatment of Macbeth and Othello, bumping into the occasional film adaption of Much Ado About Nothing and the omnipresent Romeo + Juliet (The Taming of The Shrew also faintly represented in the teen flick Ten Things I Hate About You). Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear followed in university drama topics, where As You Like It appeared in literature class. I did take a whole English topic on Shakespeare at one point, the aforementioned Batman sketching comes to mind. Unfortunately, much of the class is a teenage blur, though Edmund’s opening aside from King Lear’s Act 2 made the phrase ‘stand up for bastards!’ quite popular among my friends (inspiring a ritual where in the case of one cohort causing some small form of difficulty, the rest of the group would ‘stand up’ for them in response).

Now, I encountered Shakespeare differently in my poetry classes when I took some time to study the sonnets. Shakespeare’s poetry was something else: No idea too big, no word wasted, no pun too dirty, no mask left idle or desire still dormant. In terms of how I viewed Shakespeare’s writing, the sonnets changed everything.

After all this education, I eventually had a mysterious and crushing realization: at no point in my life had I voluntarily read William Shakespeare’s work. I only knew the greatest writer in history’s work due to coercive curriculum. I had been taught Shakespeare. I had never read Shakespeare…

And so here we are…

The Taming of The Shrew, a play that can alternatively go by the unfortunate but accurate title… ‘Breaking In The Bitch’. I know a little of Ben’s thoughts here regarding this play and eagerly await his scholarly autopsy of one of the Bard’s oft maligned works. Indeed, the common wisdom is that Shrew is William Shakespeare at his most misogynistic and patriarchal. The implication of the story being that women of assertive personality are still good wives and mothers in waiting, they just require a little training… or ‘taming’. Even the play’s title diminutises women, associates them with rodents and calls for coercive alteration. Yep, there’s that icky feeling.

Now, we could continue to wave our flag of progressive self-righteousness or we could be smarter about the issue. William Shakespeare was a man of 16th century England, a place where Fathers ruled their children and sons ruled their mothers, women could work but not learn and art and religion were male professions. Sure, the land was ruled by a woman, but only under God who was still a bloke in those days. Naturally, Shakespeare wrote from, for and within that time and place. He was a genius of his own zeitgeist, but not all.

Today’s ethical frontier is tomorrow’s status quo. I personally shudder to think of the new and popular social virtues that will come to pass in the coming centuries and cast what’s left of my sincere storytelling into some shamed paradigm of historical sins. I can see it now…

“Gee, I like Anthony Castle’s limericks from the 21st century, but he’s so backwards and ignorant regarding the big issues of nano-biology and evolutionary simian rights!”

Largely speaking, even if Shakespeare was misogynistic, so is, well gee… almost every other male fiction author prior to 1965! So, while we can ask ‘is Shrew a misogynistic story?’, I believe a far more interesting approach is to ask ‘why would Shakespeare tell such a story?’ A question I’ll post-pone for some initial observations.

Shrew is essentially a play within a play. It begins with Christopher Sly, a slovenly tinker passing out drunk in the gutter. A Lord arrives fresh from a hunting trip and spots the snoring Sly, announcing to his assistants he has found a subject on which to ‘practice’. The Lord then proposes a bizarre social experiment in which his assistants arrange the unconscious Sly amidst total luxury and brainwash him into believing his drunken life a dream. Everyone plays along, one of the assistants even dressing as Sly’s fictional wife. Sly awakes and the scheme works, well, until he announces he’s going to diddle his newfound ‘wife’, at which point a play is suggested for alternative entertainment. The players come forth and we begin to view a play about a drunk viewing another play while suffering identity theft. Then begins Shrew proper. Weird.

Our play within a play introduces us to a Lord of Padua, Baptista, who has two daughters Katharina and Bianca. Bianca is beautiful with many suitors, but her father declares no man may court her until her elder sister Kate is married. The problem is Kate is a ‘shrew’, or a rebellious and bad tempered woman. Enter Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona looking to make his fortune, aka, score some cash. His mate Hortensio also arrives and promptly falls in love with the younger sister Bianca on first sight. A plan is formed.

So in a mad dash to get a shot at Bianca, Hortensio arranges to set up Kate with Petruchio. In the meantime, a rival suitor Lucentio disguises himself as a tutor in order to get closer to Bianca. This trick is employed also by Hortensio. Wild antics ensue.

To cut to the chase, Petruchio marries Kate then promptly screws with her head (depriving her of sleep, food and clothing) until she cracks and goes domicile. Lucentio manages to elope with Bianca so Hortensio then marries a rich widow. To seal the deal, Kate gives a stirring (in relation to your bowels) speech about the true nature of a woman’s inferiority and duty of subordination. They all go off to copulate. The end.

On the whole, I found the set up to be entertaining enough, but the characters seem less and less likeable as the story progresses. Petruchio turns out something akin to a pernicious conman, as does Hortensio and Lucentio for that matter. Kate becomes worn, weary and loses whatever fire made her memorable. No one here is virtuous. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of actual goodwill or love, especially compared to the sheer deceit and manipulation present. I’d say this is because Shrew isn’t really about love. It’s about power.

From the moment Sly passes out in the gutter, deceit, disguise and shock therapy are common-place. The major theme seems to be exploiting others through coercive alteration (in relation to marriage as well!). Women are wooed through lies, masks and unconventional treatment. Abuse is prevalent. Money, lust and sadism are key motivators. There’s no good guys really. The play starts in the gutter and ends in the bedroom.

I sympathise with Ben, I just don’t enjoy The Taming Of The Shrew an awful lot.

The Bard does evidence his usual skill of course. Kate’s ferocity gives Shakespeare full license to unleash as much rhetorical wit, harsh banter and blunt punning as he’d ever hope to write. Regardless of the content’s overall effect, this is Shakespeare near his sharpest.

The initial meeting between Petruchio and Kate is a bawdy and break-neck example: Petruchio does his finest to deliver the lady a poetic proposal. Kate then calls him an ass. Petruchio responds with some good-natured ribbing that escalates until he offers to put his tongue in her ‘tail’. Suddenly, he apologises and he declares himself to be a gentleman. Kate puts this statement to the test and punches him. On and on it goes. He pours on the sugar, she busts his balls.

This is generally likeable, but less and less of course once they’re married and Kate is stripped of her wit. In fact, before the story really gets moving we have been informed that Kate is ‘curst’, a ‘shrew’, a ‘stark mad’ wench and ‘hell’ itself. The very thing that makes the play hard to take, the whole approach to Kate and gender roles, brings us back to our primary controversy. One cannot escape the fact that this play is about a woman’s nature being turned from defiant to domestic. The title makes no mistake of the story here. The ‘happy’ ending has the last word, so I will represent portions of Kate’s final, beaten speech here:

“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,

The head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,

And for thy maintenance commits his body

To painful labour both by sea and land,”

“Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,

Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,

But that our soft conditions and our hearts

Should well agree with out external parts?”

Kate’s use of the words ‘lord’, ‘head’ and ‘sovereign’ reference the New Testament’s oft quoted model for matrimony from Ephesians 5. This passage compares the relationship of husband and wife to that of Christ and the Church, and was historically interpreted in terms of domestic authority. This was the Judeo-Christian model for marriage at the time and indeed still is in some parts of the Bible belt of the US. The irony of this is that the Biblical passage is actually contextualised in the concept of mutual submission and respect. More and more contemporary Biblical scholars suggest that the head/body to Christ/Church analogy does not refer to coercive authority, but functions of mutual service. Biblical exegesis aside, for better or worse Kate is towing the party line.

Kate also adds that being physically dependent on men for food and protection deems a woman’s role that of doting servitude. To say this sentiment was the assumption of most pre-modern societies is axiomatic, but she continues with ideas that were probably backwards even for Elizabethan England…

“Come, come you froward and unable worms!

My mind has been as big as one of yours,

My heart as great, my reason haply more,

To bandy word for word and frown for frown;

But now I see our lances are but straws.”

Now she has been put in her place, Kate speaks of her intelligence, heart and reason in the past tense, agreeing with the play’s prior insults and adding a few of her own (unable worms!!!). To all this, Petruchio responds by calling her a wench and sending her to the bedroom. Total class.

Aside: At the play’s conclusion only Kate repents of her behaviour. The way I hoped it would end was with Petruchio declaring his honest love and apologising for his harshness. Kate would then agree to be a good wife in return. I’m a romantic, and all the nasty power struggling I could put aside did this small moment occur. It does not…

As already stated, the chauvinist thrust of the play is obvious, my initial question remains: why would a great poetic thinker like William Shakespeare write a farcical play about misogyny at all?

First, many believe Shrew demands a good dose of irony. The play within a play motif is farcical. The characters are largely debased. The humour is lowbrow. For a comedic love story, this play is rather nasty, performed for a drunk’s delusion. These may be Shakespeare’s ironic sign-posts for the audience not to take these happenings too seriously. In fact, many stage productions of Shrew often employ some form of nudge, wink or raised eye-brow with Kate’s final speech, implying that all her fire still burns beneath that compliant façade. Whether irony was originally intended or not is still a matter of debate, though we now often invoke it as to tame Shrew ourselves.

Second, an old authorship query also plays a part in how we view the content. You see, Shrew is either attributed to the earlier or later stages of Shakespeare’s career depending on which chronology you consult. A shorter play titled Taming of A Shrew existed earlier, the larger The Taming of The Shrew we know may have come later. Scholars debate whether Shakespeare took an earlier play of his own and redrafted it, or whether he took someone else’s work and dressed it up a little. Either Shakespeare was reworking some existing text and simply accommodated its treatment of women, or he in fact redrafted his own work, intentionally keeping the blunt misogyny. The former atones him a little, the latter even less.

Finally, have you ever made a joke at a moment of poor judgment that when later recalled offended even yourself? How often have you found that joke simultaneously offensive and funny? Humour is rarely virtuous, but an effective social framework for criticism according to our bias. Shakespeare may have written Shrew with all its cringe-inducing moments for the same reason we often tell off jokes at odd moments….

… it might have been funny at the time.

Considering Shakespeare as a paid ‘provider of plays’, this comedic approach certainly may have been a trick of popular entertainment. Imagine the full weight of absurd humour hitting the audience at the final scene: Kate’s formerly sharp tongue now praising submission, the audience reacting demonstrably, the men cheering in macho gusto while their wives beside boo and roll their eyes. Fierce and caustic, news of Shrew would have spread like wildfire. Audiences delighted with domestic female subordination would have gone to see it, those disgusted would also. Shock sells.

To appeal to the lowest common denominator is hardly foreign to our popular storytelling. It’s akin to the standard 90-minute action film where a muscled smart-ass imaginatively kills countless ethnic baddies while shapely young actresses appear topless. Smart? Tasteful? Enlightened? No, but it will in all likely-hood make a ton of cash. In the 1590s, misogyny just might have kept the coffers full…

Shrew’s an odd one. Reworked or rewritten? Misogynistic or ironic? Is it William Shakespeare’s most anachronistic work or is it relevant fodder for teen-Hollywood adaption? For what it’s worth, The Taming of The Shrew’s lingering cultural presence and controversy implies there’s something effective about the piece. It is hardly Shakespeare at his best, but it’s unforgettable. Personally, I will always think fondly of the opening events of Act 2: ‘girl meets boy, boy proposes, then girl declares him to be an ass and punches him in the face’…

Anthony

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January 31, 2011 at 9:26 am

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Two Gents… The Debut.

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Deft screen writing force Aaron Sorkin recently explained the thinking behind his latest piece The Social Network with a shrug,

‘Well… Shakespeare would have written about it’.

The story of geeky college kids battling over their accidental online empire had it all apparently: ambition, genius, greed, a battle of wills, all that general, ill-defined dramatic stuff Ben mentioned. Apparently, Facebook is even ‘Shakespearean’.

As Ben already noted in his comparisons, were William Shakespeare working today he’d probably be a creative force in screen media. For the purposes of this hypothetical modern-equivalent, if he were to retain the status of writer he’d primarily be a screenwriter/producer figure. As much as this assertion savors of battery-acid on my reticent tongue, the theatre is now largely the entertainment of affluent, intellectual and rather left-wing folk. The standard 18-24 year old crowd with buckets of disposable income, Mum plus Dad or the guy that runs the deli on the corner all go to film and TV for their flights of fancy. To go and sit in that empty space and watch real humans in real time is largely novelty or nostalgia for many, no matter the degree the absence of theatre has impoverished our society. Popular storytelling for the masses happens on screens now, and that is where the Bard would be peddling his wares, right alongside Aaron Sorkin, or Aaron Spelling for that matter.

These comparisons and hypotheticals are healthy. They remind us that Shakespeare is one of many great but dead writers we celebrate and enjoy- a mere mortal. The common implication that Shakespeare practically invented the stuff of characterization and dramatic conflict is akin to the idea that The Beatles created string instruments and blues scales.

I am reminded of a myth spoken in my childhood that William Shakespeare did in fact author the King James Bible. Apparently if you traveled a certain amount of books, chapters and verses into the King James Bible you found the word ‘shake’ and if you repeated the process backwards you found the word ‘spear’. Incontrovertible proof, regardless of the Biblical texts in existence centuries before Shakespeare’s birth. To suggest that Shakespeare wrote the Bible or invented the concept of ‘The Human’ (I’m looking at you Bloom) is to cast him directly as God. Give the man some credit, but not your worship.

Now, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

For this my first review, I’ll be brief. Early days, much to say still and more final thoughts on Shakespeare’s treatment of humour, gender and love will come as the comedies wrap up and we head into the great tragedies.

For all involved I concur with Ben regarding the usefulness of a story’s bones, so here’s my plot summary in an irritating sound-byte; two mates chase the same girl while on a gap year. It begins in Verona, where two cohorts Valentine and Proteus fancy a girl each, Sylvia and Julia. Valentine takes of to Milan for his working holiday, soon followed by Proteus who just has nothing better to do. Once reunited, they commence to argue about whose girl is hotter. Valentine can talk upside down and underwater and so wins the argument, the downside being that Proteus then declares his undying love for Sylvia. Valentine and Proteus then attempt to ingratiate themselves to the Duke of Milan, Sylvia’s father.

Meanwhile, back in Verona, Julia is suspicious she is being cheated on, so naturally disguises herself and travels to Milan disguised as a boy named Sebastion. Valentine plans on sneaking into Sylvia’s bedroom via a rope ladder, but the envious Proteus tips off the Duke. The Duke banishes Valentine to the woods at which point some Merry Men style outlaws show up. Valentine does his patented make-up-any-old-crap-and-make-people-do-exactly-what-you-want-schtick and suddenly finds himself in charge of rural organised crime. So Valentine is loitering in the forest with criminals, Sylvia is heartbroken, Proteus is a doosh and Julia is a cross-dressing reject. It’s all pretty terrible with no one happy.

Now, at this point, there is a page left in the thing and I got that sinking feeling that the wrap up will be the speed (and weight) of light. As I had hoped, or suspected, the denouement threaded itself back into a pretty bow just in time. Friends are friends, lovers are lovers. All that’s needed for reconciliation is a bare moment of repentance, at which point forgiveness is extended and all is forgotten. The outlaws are set free and the weddings are planned:

“One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.”

You can’t deny the sheer, sugary sunrise, barbituate-flavoured happiness this perfect ending induces. Shakespeare’s techniques here are epic: repentance, forgiveness, literal redemption, a marriage and a feast. This is a Biblical resolution thematically spanning the New Testament. Love wins. The end.

Pity the play still struggles a little.

Two Gents is charming enough and generally funny. The characterisation can often be arbitrary, submitting to the needs of the rather plodding plot. After two reads, I’m still can’t find a climactic moment, some sort of decisive action that turned the events. It’s almost as if the plot seemed to find itself running out of room and just finished, characters behaving as they were required to ease the abrupt halt. Maybe that’s the genius of the ending, like the magician’s flick of the wrist where the bouquet suddenly appears out of nowhere. I mean, we all know the happy ending’s coming right, best to make no bones about it (I guess that’s what makes Romeo and Juliet notable). Shakespeare likely lifted Two Gents’ basic plot from the earlier Spanish romance Diana Enamorada by Portugese writer Jorge de Montemayor. Diana Enamorada’s structure featured a fight scene in the forest before the final resolution. A good fight is just the kind of climactic beat Two Gents’ lacks, so the plot of the original romance here may indeed be stronger than Shakespeare’s reimagining.

Aside: as a student of storytelling, I find myself thinking more and more about characterization, plot, style and subtext in everything I encounter. I’m always trying to find the meat of a story, no matter how small the morsel. Recently I found myself internally analysing the 70s sitcom Mork and Mindy as a possible text on Cold War era immigration. So as we go further, I am humbled and eager to see more of the old man behind the Shakespearean curtain.

Also, as Ben explained, this is the Bard’s debut- a rollicking good first crack. A couple of years ago I wrote a short novella in five weeks, my first real piece of prose fiction in years. While my affection for this book is large, my critique grows every time I pick it up. Every incomplete character, loose thread and torpid passage scream like alarm bells warning the general populace that another inexperienced writer is at it again. So when I hand an inquisitive friend a copy of the book, I wink and ask them to ‘be gentle, it was my first time’. Even Shakespeare had to start somewhere and he deserves much more grace than most.

A few quick notes. For the first recorded instance, Shakespeare employs the ‘male performer portraying a female character who then disguises herself as male’ motif. Not actually Shakespeare’s idea but he stamped it as such. We’ll touch on the cross-dressing heroine again.

The word play and literal use of humour amongst the clowns Launce and Speed is genuinely clever. ‘Tale’ and ‘tail’, ‘tide’ and ‘tied’ are bantered together with nimble accuracy. For the record my favourite moment in the play was one of the clown’s punchlines: Launce shares an anecdote about the time his dog Crab urinated under the Duke’s table. Crab is set to be whipped for the deed but Launce loves the dog so much he takes the blame for the “pissing while”. The clowns pop in for a laugh every now and again, but don’t really show up again at the end. Given the improbable goodwill inherent in the conclusion, they’re probably not needed anyway.

Central to the story’s machinations is an idea that crossed genres for the Bard, that love is often effected and transitory, though still capable of mobilizing motivation and driving drastic drama. Characters fall in love at a single glance or spoken word, and they’ll betray their friends or drop dead for less. The big question most ask is ‘Why this treatment of love?’ It would be naive of me to suggest this approach is naive of Shakespeare. Is this subversion, satire or relatively normal for the cultural context? At this point, I am not willing, qualified or ready to comment.

Prior to The Two Gentlemen of Verona coming to a happy close, Julia makes a morose statement about love as the ‘blinded god’, bestowing it both power and inaccuracy. Shakespeare’s curious treatment of love’s unwieldly nature will certainly surface again. Throughout the oeuvre, the ‘blinded god’ finds its will done even further among foolish mankind.

Next week, The Taming of The Shrew. See you then.

Anthony

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January 25, 2011 at 10:26 am

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In the beginning: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

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What precisely is ‘Shakespearean’? It’s a term thrown about fairly casually, sometimes quite recklessly. For some people, brooding royals, warring monarchs, political coups, power struggles, grandiose dialogue, and verbal sparring are Shakespearean. To this end, recent bits and pieces of popular culture as diverse as The Godfather films, the HBO TV series Deadwood, Vin Diesel’s The Chronicles of Riddick, the OJ Simpson murder trial, and Kevin Rudd’s deposition have been labelled Shakespearean. I guess if you squint hard enough, these things are Shakespearean, but it’s a bit of a stretch: the Greek and Roman playwrights wrote about all those things before the Bard, and so did many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. These things weren’t invented by him, though they certainly got a good workout in his plays. For other people, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, spunky heroines, and idiot sidekicks are Shakespearean. If that’s the case, then we can blame the Bard for 99.9% of all romantic comedies where seemingly normal but really quite sociopathic people lie, steal, and cheat each other in order to achieve happiness and true love. And Mrs Doubtfire. But Shakespeare was following in the footsteps of others here too.

So when people talk about something being ‘Shakespearean’, they tend to be skimming the surface, basing their concept of Shakespeare on components of his plays which were, predominantly, not his invention or idea. Most of Shakespeare’s plots were derived from existing texts, which is why if you take the plot of Othello, update the setting, update the language, and set it in an American high school or a British police station you don’t get Othello, just something maybe-kinda-sorta-vaguely like it. Shakespeare’s plots are secondhand and, dare I say it, frequently hackneyed and awkward. His use of language, mastery of tone, and nutting out of character are really the key ingredients, and they’re the sort of things that can’t really be replicated or recontextualised beat for beat.

I’ve been asked a number of times whether I think there’s any modern equivalent for Shakespeare. Not as many times as I’ve been asked if I think Shakespeare really did write all those plays (quick answer: yes), but often enough. It’s a bit of a goofy question, because the unique combination of historical, economic, and societal circumstances that lay the foundations for Shakespeare’s work on the London stage aren’t around today. For there to be an equivalent, you’d need equivalent circumstances. I personally like to think of Howard Hawks as a Shakespeare equivalent: a classic Hollywood director who moved back and forth between genres throughout the course of his career and directed popular works in relative anonymity but with a clear authorial signature. But there are other measures too. If we think of Shakespeare as a popular entertainer and prolific master craftsman churning out work after work catering to mainstream audiences, then maybe horror novelist Stephen King is the closest we have to Shakespeare. If we think of Shakespeare primarily as a tragedian and melancholic observer of the human condition, maybe Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s our guy; if he’s primarily a comic observer of the human condition, then perhaps Billy Wilder. If we think of Shakespeare as a creative biographer and chronicler of shifting historical tides, then maybe screenwriter Peter Morgan or director Oliver Stone fit the bill. Yet each of these possibilities is in some ways limiting.

I raise these questions of what exactly is Shakespearean and what makes somebody Shakespearean (either then or now) not because I have answers, but because they’re questions worth asking as we embark on our year of Shakespeare. Indeed, these questions are among the motivators underpinning and driving this whole enterprise, and they’re questions we’ll likely be asking ourselves as we work through this potentially maddening endeavour, but not necessarily answering.

It’s always interesting looking at where the career of someone acclaimed or celebrated began, to return to ground zero, so to speak. After all, cats like Pollock and Picasso didn’t start out painting Blue Poles, or indeed blue periods, but worked their way there. The aforementioned Stone’s first film as a director was a piece of horror schlock called Seizure starring midget Herve Villechaize. And Quentin Tarantino’s first (but unfinished) film My Best Friend’s Birthday is a lot more like Kevin Smith’s debut Clerks than his own ‘official’ debut, Reservoir Dogs. The list goes on. Sometimes artists and authors and directors hit the ground running with their earliest works, and sometimes there are teething issues. In the case of Shakespeare’s first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, there are definitely teething issues.

I don’t think it’s a bad play, but I don’t think it’s a good play either. It’s not especially tight or compelling or polished, like later comedic works. Where the narrative resolutions of later comedies are usually amiable albeit patriarchal, there’s a strong dose of misogyny to the narrative resolution here, one that would unfortunately carry over big-time into Shakespeare’s next play, The Taming of the Shrew. And where in his superior comedies the dramatic stakes escalate throughout, here it feels a bit more meandering. In retrospect, I wish I’d read a plot synopsis before delving into the play: it’s one I’d never read before, and because it’s not an especially well-known play the narrative trajectory hasn’t really seeped into the collective consciousness. This might have added to the sense of meandering, and might have been remedied if I’d had a stronger idea of the narrative through-line. Don’t judge me on that: when it comes to reading 420 year old plays, it’s not cheating to look up the plot, and can help facilitate the reading experience.

Having said all that, promise of things to come shines through in spite of the play’s technical flaws and authorial baby steps: there are some funny scenes, such as the opening with Valentine and Proteus and Speed and later exchanges between moronic servants Speed and Launce, and it’s interesting to see Shakespeare playing with some of the ingredients (cross dressing, false identity, complicated couplings etc) that will become key components of later comedies.

All in all, though, watching Seizure might’ve been a bit more fun…

Ben

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January 23, 2011 at 10:50 pm

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There and back again…

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I first encountered Shakespeare in comic book form. I was in primary school, about so high, and my local lending library had comic book versions of Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. I didn’t really understand the words, but was oddly captivated by the illustrations. They weren’t any good – they were too tightly framed, the characters looked kind of stilted, it was all garishly coloured – but were oddly captivating nonetheless. And credit where credit’s due: the pictures of Macbeth’s severed head and the bloody baby conjured up by the witches scared the crap out of me, and I didn’t sleep well for two nights in a row.

As a teenager I encountered Shakespeare in films. The first was Franco Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew, where Elizabeth Taylor yells a lot and real-life husband Richard Burton laughs a lot and treats his wife like shit. There was also Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, where Mel Gibson also did a lot of yelling (and probably went home afterwards and treated his wife like shit), and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, and a host of others, all perfectly fine but not really selling me on the established idea of Shakespeare as one of the great – if not the greatest of – writers. And while I read plays like Macbeth and King Lear in high school, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice in the first couple of years of university, I use the term ‘read’ loosely: in all honesty, I skimmed big chunks for convenience’s sake.

Things change though. In my third year at university I did a course devoted entirely to Shakespeare, and the combination of a strong curriculum and the best teacher on the face of the planet (I salute you, Dr Robert Phiddian) sold me on the Bard and, consequently, changed the course of my life significantly. I ended up doing an Honours thesis on Shakespeare, followed by a PhD on Shakespeare in film, which I wrapped up in late 2009. I became, to all intents and purposes, a Bardfucker.

But not really. Doing the PhD also burned me out on the Bard. Obsessing over a single author’s work every day – seriously, every. single. day – for six whole years was exhausting, so in the year since wrapping up my thesis I’ve read no Shakespeare, watched no Shakespeare, and have only done a moderate amount of academic work on Shakespeare. Which is a problem. See, it’s standard operating procedure for PhD graduates to take the work they’ve done over the tenure of their degree, strip the meat from the bones, and disseminate that knowledge out into the world in the form of journal articles or book chapters or conference papers or other things like that. I haven’t really done that yet. And while the downtime’s been nice, when you spend six years producing 100,000 words on a subject, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of words that are written but never used, you want more people than your supervisors, your examiners, your parents, and your girlfriend to read the damn thing (and to the best of my knowledge, neither my girlfriend nor my parents have read the damn thing).

So when the roguishly handsome Anthony Castle suggested we spend a year working through and blogging about the complete works of Shakespeare, I was immediately taken with the idea for four reasons. The first – and most mercenary – reason was that it seemed a good way to get re-acquainted with Shakespeareana and ease myself back into the rigours of reading and writing on the Bard. Secondly, it seemed like a good opportunity to fill some holes in my Shakespeare knowledge. Anthony says in his opening post that I know more about Shakespeare than most people, but in all honesty, I’ve still got plenty of ground to cover, and I’m genuinely looking forward to plugging gaps like Richard II, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and so on. Thirdly, Anthony’s a lovely guy, and we’ve almost collaborated a couple of times on comics and things in the past but haven’t quite gotten our shit together (or maybe I just suck… one or the other), so this seemed like a great opportunity to have a go at collaborating once again. Finally, it’s an opportunity to engage with Shakespeare purely as a reader for the first time in a long, long time. Sure, we’ll each be blogging our impressions of the plays, as well as responding to and maybe even debating each other’s impressions and interpretations, and as I indicated earlier it’s a chance to ease back into thinking and writing about the Bard on a regular basis. But it’s also a chance to simply read the plays and respond to them as a reader rather than a student or scholar (even if I won’t be able to shake off the mortar board completely), and that’s mighty attractive.

As Anthony’s already pointed out – and indeed it’s become so proverbial that it probably doesn’t need pointing out – Shakespeare is hailed as the world’s greatest writer by many. He may well be, or he may not be. Historical circumstances have certainly helped his reputation. If the Spanish Armada had given the British a royal ass-whooping in the 1580s, I’d probably be speaking the global lingua franca of Spanish today, blogging in Spanish, and writing about a Spanish writer hailed as the greatest of all (Jonathan Bate (1997) proposes Lope de Vega as the author who would inhabit Shakespeare’s post had the Spanish defeated the British, but of course that didn’t pan out, and historical circumstances have seen most of de Vega’s works destroyed and the playwright largely forgotten). Similarly, had the Napoleonic Wars ended differently, I’d be speaking French and blogging in French about a universally revered French writer. Ditto if World War Two had taken a different trajectory, and the US hadn’t succeeded Britain as the dominant world power, thereby preserving English’s status as the dominant lingua franca and Shakespeare’s status as the world’s most revered author.

In any of these parallel worlds or alternate realities, Shakespeare may be an author of minor importance or of no importance at all. In the future that fate may well eventuate: Gary Taylor (1999) suggests that Shakespeare’s status is steadily decreasing and will only continue to decrease over time. Whatever the case, Shakespeare currently is – and I suspect will remain for the majority of my lifetime – the most recognisable author in the Western world, an object of considerable and ongoing cultural investment. The English canon and English language would be very different without the Bard’s body of work, and now, for better or worse, Anthony and I are about to dive into that body of work. Will we survive the slings and arrows? Keep reading true believers…

Ben

Bate, J 1997, The Genius of Shakespeare, Picador, London.

Taylor, G 1999, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Bard’, in C Desmet & R Sawyer (eds), Shakespeare and Appropriation, Routledge, London, pp. 197-205.

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January 20, 2011 at 11:03 pm

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The Slings and Arrows: A Year of Shakespeare…

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Now, here’s the rub; two writers read and review the entire works of William Shakespeare over twelve months.

First, for a writer, Shakespeare can be history and myth, totem and patron saint, a chore, a bore and a mountain to climb. He can be relevant stock, still Hollywood property after all these years, and a dead man’s bones beneath a whitewashed academic tomb. Shakespeare is to a writer what Elvis Presley is to a vocal performer, Alfred Hitchcock to a film director, Alan Moore to a comic creator or Tiger Woods to a professional golpher (or philandering adulterer apparently). The precedent and the standard and damned intimidating at that.

So to be a writer in the 21st century is to at some point pay your dues, make the offering and do your homework. Whether we like it or not, even if the status isn’t even accurate, planet earth has decided that when it comes to words and stories- Shakespeare’s the thing. The general consensus, long established, is that ‘Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history’. To which I offer the obvious response…

What the hell does that even mean?

You see, I have it on very good authority that my mother makes the best roast potatoes in the world. I have eaten them repeatedly, referencing points of comparison in multiple cities in multiple countries. My friends and family all agree. Does that mean that my mum’s spuds are actually the prime pinnacle of potato preparation?

I recall the first moment my English teacher in high school first dragged out that age-old maxim and promptly informed us that Shakespeare was the greatest writer etc, etc. As she waited for the awe to sink in, my mate alongside raised his hand,

“Why?”

“Sorry?” the teacher asked.

“Why is he the greatest?”

“Well, his plays have been long studied and everyone believes that.”

“Really? Everyone?”

“Yes, everyone!” At this point the teacher is all arched eye-brows and taught lips, so he dropped it and she began to wax lyrical about the Bard’s epic status. Now, a fortnight earlier this particular teacher had attempted to summarise Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in class, relaying plot points clearly from James Whale’s film Frankenstein, not Shelley’s story (which I had read earlier that year while feigning illness) so she was on thin ice already. My friend and I briefly conferred and our suspicions were confirmed- the establishment knew nothing and were nought but the parrots of yesteryear’s half-bottomed conclusions. Shakespeare’s greatness just might turn out like Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy and the moon landing- faked. Years later, we would find these sentiments shared by the famed poet and social commentator John Lydon, who recalled his own high school education,

“We were doing Shakespeare… I’d ask outright questions and you’re not supposed to do that. You’re just supposed to accept it’s Shakespeare’s, it’s great, you’re not! That’s not good enough for me!”

Rotten’s not wrong.

So, William Shakespeare, great and revered, uncontested and commonly untested remains a figure of legend and a cipher of academic momentum and cultural baggage. Alternatively and more importantly, Shakespeare is a respected and popular author that I simply need to know better. These are the reasons why this blog occurred to me.

Second, having decided to read and review the entire works of Shakespeare in a year, I immediately thought of the esteemed Dr. Ben Kooyman. Ben knows more about Shakespeare than most others could, and maybe most should. Ben is also one of the best writers I know.

Here, the past is the prologue, because I’ve known Ben since my early days at university where we found ourselves in many of the same classes and wasted no time in swapping all manner of comics, VHS tapes and Bowie CDs. Ben introduced me to Simon and Garfunkle, Woody Allen movies and unwittingly showed me how to write the great academic essay. So given the topic here, I thought it best to see if he wanted to hop on board. Thankfully, he did. Ben’s a stand up guy and will no doubt be a heroic Lone Ranger to my beaten Tonto on the Bard frontier.

In fact, I recently discovered that Ben had actually taken on the very first Shakespeare course we took as undergrad teenagers a decade earlier. I laughed and remarked how often we were distracted, practically spending the entire class drawing pictures of Batman. I hoped his teaching skills would engender a little more devotion for the Bard’s genius. Ben shrugged and responded by saying that sketching Batman was pretty much what he planned to do this time around as well. The moral of the story? Even the greatest writer in history can get a little old after a while, so expect the blogging equivalent of some Batman sketches from time to time.

So the short of it- Ben and I will be working through a conventional chronology of Shakespeare’s plays here over the next 12 months. Our reviews will feature in a dialogued manner, exploring the texts, and all manner of implications and cultural impact the plays possess. The sonnets may or may not feature in the fray, you’ll have to keep negotiating the slings and arrows to find out.

Finally, here’s to an exceedingly well-read year. Next week’s opening review is The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Anthony

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January 16, 2011 at 3:36 am

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