THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for February 2011

Henry VI, Part II: The Squeakquel

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“I don’t like Shakespeare. I’d rather be in Malibu” (Anthony Hopkins).

That quote cracks me up. Some would lament it as indicative of the plight of high culture, as Shakespeare’s status declines in the face of the Hollywood machine. I prefer to think of it as a case of shifting cultural capital, forging synergies between old and new, high and low, literature/theatre and film/television. After all, Hopkins’ next starring role is playing a Norse deity in the film adaptation of Marvel’s iconic Thor, a role that will no doubt milk and exploit his “Shakespearean” baggage. That film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, is another player who brings Shakespearean baggage to the game.

The thing to remember is, Shakespeare was a capitalist too. Like me (I’m sorry to say) and probably like you (don’t deny it, and take off your Che beret). I imagine Shakespeare at one point in his lifetime said “I don’t like Stratford-upon-Avon. I’d rather be in London”, and proceeded to trade rural life for the London entertainment industry. As suggested in my last post, the Henry VI plays are testament to this, as early modern examples of franchise building. They were also, like most of Shakespeare’s plays, drawn from existing source material with some brand recognition attached.

Anthony (Castle, not Hopkins) rightly pointed out in his post on Henry VI, Part I that the plays are intersections of history and myth. I’d go further than that, and say that history and myth also intersect closely with ideology and commerce in these plays. The Joan of Arc we saw in Part I isn’t the hero she’s usually depicted as, but a bit of an unlikeable slag. Why? Because she was Catholic, and England at the time Shakespeare wrote the play was ruled by the Church of England. And she was French, which obviously didn’t help either. Richard III, who we first meet in Part II and who will steadily rise through the ranks over the next couple of plays, is depicted as a villainous Machiavel rather than the intelligent leader that most modern historians would agree he was. Why? The dude who defeated Richard III was Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, so it was in Shakespeare’s interests to stick to the official spin perpetuated by Elizabeth’s family? And King Henry VI is depicted here and elsewhere as wet, ineffectual, and – Anthony probably put it best – ‘bland white meat’. Why? Again, it was in the interests of the Tudors to paint previous dynasties as flawed and ineffectual. Thus we see Shakespeare heavily informed by ideology and commerce: it’s treasonous to suggest that the French-Catholic Joan of Arc was heroic, that Richard III was nice to children, and that Henry VI was a good King, so it’s far better practice to keep spinning the spin and reap financial booty from perpetuating it for the masses.

Unfortunately, there’s something dramatically unsatisfying about the play, and that’s largely to do with its titular character. The play’s called Henry VI, Part II, which implies that the King is at its gravitational core and provides its emotional centre, and yet the King is… a blank. Passive. Uncharismatic. Boring. A dupe. But that sense of dramatic dissastisfaction is very deliberate on Shakespeare’s part, and not just for ideological reasons: he wants the reader/viewer to feel frustrated by this useless, impotent leader and this shitty situation. And you do. Or at least I did.

I used the term soap opera to describe Part I and that’s even more true of Part II, but I’d say this is also the Shakespearean equivalent of an Agatha Christie thriller. A victim – Henry VI – treads the stage with pretty much a big red target attached to his back, and we the reader/audience watch as Shakespeare moves all the different chess pieces across the board, as conspirators and co-conspirators sfuffle about and warring factions spar, and gradually we get closer and closer to the inevitable murder of the inevitable victim. The thing is, we don’t quite get there, and Shakespeare leaves us hanging. Of course, if you know history, you know who did it. If you don’t, you have to keep reading. Which is exactly what I hope you’ll keep doing, when I return next week with my take on Henry VI, Part III. Until then…

Ben

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February 24, 2011 at 9:32 am

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Lancaster vs York 2…

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Now, for my review on Henry VI Part 2, I’m afraid a little brevity is in order. I’d like to say that after much scholarly study and creative contemplation I have discovered the primary kernels of insight this play affords and will now discourse in the simplest of terms. Rather, I find that given my anticipated domestic relocation to Heidelberg and its accompanying workload of sorting/moving/painting, the play finds itself on the periphery of priorities.

You see, in our seven years of marriage, my wife and I have moved ten times, back and forth amongst four cities and three countries. Given the track record, it would be perfectly rational to conclude that we rather enjoy ‘moving house’- suffice to say, we do not. Packing your possessions and relocating your home has the uncanny effect of confronting you with your sentimentality, consumerism and carbon footprint while robbing you of peace and routine comforts. Never have I inconvenienced my life so much, simply to be made aware of how insignificant and easily audited it actually is.

The process actually grieves me, a faux burial: everything sorted, cleaned and laid to rest. Simply put, we often think our stuff defines us, never more so than when it ends up inanimate in a box. It requires us to quit and reboot our lives while routines, jobs and relationships continue… and blogs. I may be midway in the mundane mire of moving house, but the houses of Lancaster and York still struggle for their divine birthright amidst the pages of history and drama.

So, in other words, I’m just real busy packing right now and can’t be fudged cranking out thousands of words, so here’s your lot sunshine…

Henry VI Part 2 is the second instalment in ‘The Henriad’, the continuing events of The War of The Roses. In light of HVI Part 1, this appears a comparatively low-key affair at first: not many bloody battles, no defiant heroes of history or French rebels. This play takes place entirely in England, mostly based around the host of double agents and forked tongues circling our young king as it builds slowly to the royal showdown.

Patient deception is the central ingredient here and the threats are many. York may be our primary antagonist, but Suffolk is our ‘base dunghill villain’. Suffolk’s pernicious planning closed Part 1 and opens Part 2, as such he is mostly in the driver’s seat. Henry may sit on the throne, but Suffolk is king of the dirty deal, traversing a character arc that begins as a liar, turns to a murderer then ends as a decapitated head in a box.

Overall, it’s hard to spot a protagonist in the mix. In fact Henry VI himself, the play’s namesake, is just plain vanilla. Noble and devout for sure, but a totally passive figure. Seeing as he didn’t even appear in HVI Part 1 until Act 3, we can’t be that surprised. When the going gets tough, Henry gets absent. Key moments in the plot find Henry hiding or fainting. In Act 3 Scene 2, Margaret gives the king an absolute bollocking and he just looks the other way and cries. Dramatically, Henry VI is bait for predators. Not much but bland white meat, limply bleeding his naïve, blue blood into the dark and dangerous waters around him.

At first, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have as much grist for the mill here, using much of this installment to define motivations and move the players into their places. As such, The Bard seems to turn to the ‘good book’ for inspiration (and filler). For instance, Gloucester and Eleanor’s prophetic nightmares regarding royal favour and execution are vaguely similar to the dreams Joseph interprets in Genesis 40. More to the point, Eleanor’s midnight visit to the witch to consult a spirit on political power is straight out of Samuel 28. Even the gag scene where a conman is questioned before the king after faking divine healing, apes the story of John 9. Scripture was of course the central text for Elizabethan England’s culture, informing cosmology, morality and almost every element of literature. For whatever reason, Shakespeare rests particularly on ‘the Word’ for this work.

Henry VI Part 2 is generally considered the best of this tetralogy. Still, I can’t help but feel this play drags a little. Act 2 Scene 2 for instance, is nought but blunt exposition, characters standing around thoroughly detailing their strategies.  Sure, there’s a plethora of two-faced goons scheming towards inevitable conflict, albeit a little slowly. Occasionally through the reading, I begrudgingly checked the page count to see the space remaining. Also, for the first instance on this grand voyage I had to recheck the cast list from time to time to keep up with the myriad of characters (cut me a break, this play has the biggest cast of all the oeuvre).

Admittedly, I may be a little distracted with half my life currently in cardboard boxes and the remainder strewn across an increasingly bare home. I’m struggling to find the mental energy to discern the appropriate box for miscellaneous minutiae such as fridge magnets, spare keys and indoor plants, so there’s very little grey matter left to categorise the themes of The War of The Roses appropriately. Too busy packing boxes to unpack The Bard just now.

Ultimately, Henry VI Part 2 gets there in the end, with a staged rebellion, all out war for the throne and a chase across England. King Henry and Princess Margaret are on the run, heading for the safety of London. York and his mob are on their tail with their eyes on the crown. The stage is set for yet more royal smack-down so stay tuned.

Our esteemed Dr. Kooyman will surely have a more substantial review on Lancaster vs York 2 up his sleeve. For now, I need to take some Aspirin and screw my courage to the sticking place, it’s time to pack my record collection…

Anthony

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February 20, 2011 at 8:26 am

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Myths, movies, trilogies, trinities and Shakespeare’s sequels …

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Well played Ben… I see your Star Wars references, and I raise you…

Years ago, I would wear my Episode II: Attack of The Clones T-shirt to my cinema theory classes intentionally to irritate all the Eisenstein and Bergman devotees. When they saw Hayden Christenson and CGI Yoda’s equally blank eyes staring back at them, they were reminded that their directorial geniuses may sit on academic thrones of glory, but my schlock sci/fi fantasy changed pop culture. Dumb fun, excessive merchandising and multiple sequels is the legacy of Lucas’ experimental retro-pastiche, often and rightly to the chagrin of those who take the art-form a little more seriously. When it comes to the slew of sequels we negotiate in our day and age, whether it’s American Pie 5 or the rumoured Chinatown 3, I concur with Ben… Stars Wars is to blame.

Aside: Here is my take on Star Wars in 369 words. I’d say this story begins in a quaint 1940’s British pub, ‘The Eagle and Child’ to be exact, where an odd assortment of bookworms monikered ‘The Inklings’ gathered to tell stories. One of these men, J.R.R. Tolkien, went about creating his own epic myth, an entirely new world that took his Catholic philosophy and reframed it in pagan ephemera and rich detail. The story was of humility, kings, temptation and redemption but it was played out with wizards and monsters and pot smoking midgets. The battle to save an ancient world from ugly machines and greedy conquest was Tolkien’s take on a Europe forever altered by the industrial revolution and a brutal breed of global warfare.

Tolkien’s fellow ‘Inkling’ C.S. Lewis did something similar, drawing on his love of George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton’s fairytales to retell Anglican soteriology with cheerful British stoicism for the kids of the blitzkrieg. These were the first Western myths of the 20th century and they were disseminated into popular entertainment (it is actually the standard recipe now: create a fantasy world as a metaphor for your socio/political narrative and religious sentiment, then detail a protagonist’s cathartic journey within it. Add colourful action beats, maybe a love triangle, and you have everything from Harry Potter to Avatar).

Now, this story continues over the Atlantic where an American boy in the 1950s munched popcorn while watching reruns of the old pulp adventure serials. This boy, named George Lucas, later became a filmmaker and used Freud’s Oedipal complex, Jung’s archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s theoretic monomyth to reimagine the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon sci/fi serials (with elements of Metropolis, The Wizard of Oz, The Dam Busters and The Hidden Fortress thrown in). Where those original pulp serials dealt with America’s pre-war fear of the Chinese, Lucas cast British thespians as the villains of a ruthless ‘Empire’. What Tolkien and Lewis did in English literature, Lucas did in American cinema, giving us the first epic movie myth of the 20th century. Star Wars was retelling the American struggle for independence and the male rite of passage in the form of revisionist genre cinema. It became a trilogy. Good. Then Lucas made another lot. Bad. And I’m done.

Folks will tell you Spielberg’s Jaws was the first blockbuster. I can concede that on a technicality, but Star Wars took mainstream cinema and plugged it directly back into the daydreams of the collective unconscious. No film has entered into our cultural fabric with such magic and commercial cruelty and no film has demonstrated the mountains of money to be made from ‘more of the same’.

For better or worse, Star Wars really invented cinematic sequels as we understand them today. Sure, as Ben noted many popular literary characters had translated into film franchises (James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, the Earl of Greystoke) but these endless adventures did not offer installments in a larger sequential narrative. For instance, 007 was stuck on repeat for decades: Bond gets gadgets then goes somewhere exotic, meets beautiful woman/women, fends off eccentric thug, sleeps with woman/women, approaches villain’s lair, big explosion, more sex with woman/women and then it’s over, until it happens again that is. There is no character arc for Bond, at least not in the films, nor is there any narrative resolution. It’s Bond, James Bond, etc, etc, etc…

Star Wars gave us a big story, told in subsequent installments, particularly three films (though more specifically Star Wars works as a stand alone film where The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi function like two chapters of the same arc). The title given to this cinematic threesome was a ‘trilogy’, which was a relatively new term for films in the 70s. Now, everything gets a trilogy, even freaking Ironman! Ironman was a superhero that before a cinematic trilogy with Robert Downey Jr and an AC/DC soundtrack was just a B-level Marvel comics character Stan Lee developed as a writing challenge (could a military industrialist be a popular hero for counter cultural 60s youth?). Now, all things come in threes.

The only other recent cinematic trilogy has been the Lord of The Rings films (an adaptation of Tolkien). Popcorn fare like the Transformers ‘films’ don’t count, those sequels are just more of the same with less quality control. The motivation there is not drama but teenage pocket money (Transformers 3 comes out later this year, can you hear the piggy banks smashing already?). A story unravelling in larger and more intricate parts is rare, and ultimately harder to pull off convincingly. Even the guy who popularised the cinematic ‘trilogy’ to begin with screwed it up when he tried it a second time.

What’s that? Something about Shakespeare?

Oh yeah, in all seriousness, presenting a narrative in sequential installments offers an opportunity to tell a story with far more complexity and depth. A perfect example is Alan Moore’s 80’s epic Watchmen, the 12 issue comic book that plumbed the depths of the plot intricacy and psychological complexity possible within a story told in sequential installments. Moore forced the point that for a story to come to life, you gotta write the entire DNA strand first. For a funny book, Watchmen is a finely woven gold cloth, almost to a fault.

Ahem! Seriously, Shakespeare and stuff…

With his historical tetralogies, Shakespeare is not offering us more portions of the same product, nor is he giving us tidy symmetrical units. Shakespeare’s sequels snake out in surprising and non–linear ways. It would appear The Bard is creating something far messier and more organic than any typical sequel structure. This could be due to Shakespeare working with raw materials, with actual history, and as such following specific threads. You see, Shakespeare’s tetralogies don’t deal in myth, they deal in legend.

This distinction between myth and legend is significant here. A myth is a narrative that deals with gods and supernatural events, typically involving a hero’s journey. A legend is the narrative that accrues around a figure of history, detailing their relevance to their context. In terms of literary genres, the story of the hero Theseus is mythical, where the story of King Henry the VI is legendary. Shakespeare here is telling a legendary story in sequential installments, so the bones are historic and the drama fleshes out in particular ways. The Bard can’t hand us consumable trinities of order/chaos/order, because he’s working with the rough and brute factuality of events. For instance, no writer would willingly immolate a character as mesmerising as Joan of Arc and remove this heroin from the tale, unless history already dictated it to be so. This tension between the story that was told and the story that could be told, the gap betwixt historical fidelity and dramatic finesse must have been excruciating for Shakespeare at points. No doubt there’s much more to say on this as we go further into ‘The War of the Roses’.

Now, I should say something about Henry VI Part 1 to demonstrate that I actually read the play. Henry VI Part 1 opens at a funeral, Henry V’s to be precise, and three messengers arrive bringing increasingly worse news of rebellion in France. The late Henry V’s brothers discuss the political mire around them and how to prepare the young heir for rule. In France, Joan of Arc presents herself to Charles Dauphin leader of the French rebellion. She claims a divine anointing for victory in battle and defeats him in a sword fight to prove it. The lines are drawn: the political might of a kingless England against Joan of Arc’s French rebellion. I won’t outline the whole plot as Ben’s already detailed the play’s event, but suffice to say, French towns are won and lost and won, Joan of Arc is burnt at the stake and Henry VI is coronated and shipped off to marry a French princess. However, there’s a few skeletons in the royal closet and no throne is claimed without blood, so the seeds of revenge are already sown against the young Henry VI. Our stage is set for the next installment…

At this point I am immediately aware that we are traversing far more serious territory than our previous outings. The plot is history and the stakes are high. Power is coveted, death is common and unpleasant. The cast is large and the characters rich. Grief, war and messianic heroes dominate this drama so far, and the imagery of roses deciding the fate of a kingdom foretells the great beauty, pain and poetry of the events to come. After the flirting and fussing of Two Gents and Shrew, this is definitely more of what I was expecting from a Bard-bender.

Generally, Henry VI Part 1 is a tough play to address quickly. It often cops some bad press, then there’s the slew of authorship queries and literary carbon-dating that are as complicated as they are boring. This is an early play, probably Shakespeare’s first crack at a historical work, maybe one of the first English historical plays at all, so we can offer it more than a little slack. Regardless, we have glimpsed the first and intriguing dramatic chapter in a larger tale already written amongst the bloody pages of history.

Next week, my take on… Hang on, let me get back to you on that…

Anthony

Note: I’d argue Falstaff is more like C3PO than an Ewok…

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February 11, 2011 at 6:01 am

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Star Wars of the Roses

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Anthony’s gonna be mighty pissed I beat him to the Star Wars references, but here goes.

Shakespeare did the whole George Lucas thing a good 380 years or so before George Lucas. Between 1977-1983 Lucas produced Star Wars Episodes IV-VI, also known as the original trilogy, and returned to the well between 1999-2005 with Episodes I-III, also known as the prequel trilogy or, more precisely, the shit trilogy. Similarly, in the early 1590s, Shakespeare composed a quartet of history plays – known as the first tetralogy, or the War of the Roses cycle – chronicling the British monarchy from Henry VI through to Richard III. Then, later that decade, he composed another quartet of history plays – known as the second tetralogy, or the Henriad – set before the first cycle, this time tracing the monarchy from Richard II through to Henry V via Henry IV. An entrepeneur like Lucas, Shakespeare even took his very own Ewok, Sir John Falstaff, and did a spin-off titled The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Shakespearean equivalent of Caravan of Courage. There are a couple of differences between these two artists’ ventures though. Firstly, where Lucas’s earlier trilogy is all about rebirth and his later prequel trilogy is all about the original fall, Shakespeare’s earlier tetralogy is all about the fall of the monarchy while his later prequel trilogy is all about its original rise, culminating in the triumphant and jingoistic Henry V. Also, where Lucas’s earlier trilogy is better, I have to say I prefer Shakespeare’s later prequel tetralogy.

To avoid confusion (or, perhaps, even fan its flames), let me lay it out visually. The list below is the order in which Shakespeare’s histories were written.

Henry VI, Parts I-III (first tetralogy)
Richard III (first tetralogy)
Richard II (second tetralogy)
Henry IV, Parts I-II (second tetralogy)
Henry V (second tetralogy)

That might not be 100% precise, but I’ll return to that later. Next is the actual chronological order of the events recounted in these plays.    

Richard II (second tetralogy)
Henry IV, Parts I-II (second tetralogy)
Henry V (second tetralogy)
Henry VI, Parts I-III (first tetralogy)
Richard III (first tetralogy)

Ultimately, the plays collectively recount the struggles between the Houses of Lancaster and York for supremacy over Britain. Listed below are the affiliations.

Richard II (York)
Henry IV, Parts I-II (Lancaster)
Henry V (Lancaster)
Henry VI, Parts I-III (Lancaster)
Richard III (York)

Anthony’s been doing the heavy-lifting exposition-wise for our last couple of plays, so I’ll take the reins here for Henry VI, Part I. The play opens in mourning for the deceased Henry V. His son Henry VI, the new King of England, is nowhere to be seen though. Indeed, Henry VI doesn’t appear until Act 3, Scene 1, and is for the most part an incidental character in the play. There’s a lot going on elsewhere though, so he’s not sorely missed. War is raging between England and France, and King Charles of France deploys Joan of Arc to lead his army to victory. As we all know, that doesn’t pan out very well: Charles surrenders to England, and Joan is burned under orders from Richard Plantagenet, who becomes Duke of York (he’s also father of the villainous Richard III, who will appear in Parts II and III of the Henry VI plays). Meanwhile, the Earl of Suffolk orchestrates Henry’s union with French princess Margaret, through whom he intends to pull the strings of the King:

Thus Suffolk has prevailed, and thus he goes,
As did the youthful Paris once to Greece,
With hope to find the like event in love
But prosper better than the Trojan did.
Margaret shall now be queen and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king and realm.

If that’s not a cliffhanger, I don’t know what is…

The Star Wars comparisons possibly extend further. There’s some evidence to suggest that the Henry VI plays weren’t composed chronologically, and that this first entry in the series was actually composed later in the process. I’m not sure if that makes this The Phantom Menace or the Star Wars Christmas Special of the first tetralogy, but I’m relieved to say it’s better than either of those. It’s weird, for a long time I was down on Henry VI, Part I, and reading it again I’m puzzled as to why this was the case. I think I thought that the later two installments of this saga possessed a greater sense of unity and complemented one another better – which might have something to do with their escalating stakes and the synthesising presence of the future Richard III insinuating his way closer towards the throne – rendering the first part in the saga the odd one out. Maybe I’ll think that way once again when I revisit those plays over the next few weeks, but for the time being I was pleasantly surprised how much I got out of Part I. It’s the sort of sturdy political/monarchical soap opera the British do so well and Shakespeare does best. It also has a more interesting assortment of dramatis personae than either Two Gentlemen of Verona or Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio and Katharina are compelling in Shrew, but nobody around them warrants much consideration. In contrast, here characters like Joan and Suffolk and Talbolt and Gloucester and Plantagenet command and vie for attention. 

Henry VI Part I is fascinating to look at as an instance of early modern franchise storytelling, especially given the extent to which contemporary mainstream entertainment is saturated with and dominated by franchises and sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots and longform storytelling, in TV and literature and gaming and, most of all, in our own equivalent to Shakespeare’s stage: mainstream Hollywood cinema.

This wasn’t always so. While there were certainly sequels and serials in early 20th century Hollywood cinema, they were primarily B entertainments like the Universal Monster movies and the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes thrillers and the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan series. Sequels to A movies were rare. A sequel to Casablanca was mooted – its title, Brazzaville, now serves as the title for my blogging home away from Slings and Arrows – but never eventuated. Gone with the Wind became the most successful film of all time on its release, and indeed remains so – adjust its grosses into modern dollars and it made roughly twice as much money at the box office as Avatar – but producers didn’t return to that well. The Wizard of Oz was another big earner, and had a wealth of source material – all Frank L Baum’s other Oz books – to generate sequels from. Today, failing to tap that property for further riches would be unthinkable – and indeed clearly is, given efforts like this to capitalise on the Oz brand – and yet the powers that were declined to spin the brand out further.   

Part of the modern trend for sequels and franchising is that the definition of blockbuster entertainment, as well as A and B pictures, has changed. In 1942 Mrs Miniver was blockbuster entertainment; today Mrs Miniver would be a King’s Speech success story at best, lucrative in awards season but lost at sea if it opened in the midst of the American summer. In the 1930s Wuthering Heights was filmed as a major studio picture made with all the might of studio production values and marketing behind it; in the 1990s Wuthering Heights was filmed as a low-budget art film catering to a niche market. In the 1970s All the President’s Men was part of the cultural conversation; in the noughties Frost/Nixon barely registered (regrettably) on the collective radar.

Who’s to blame? Let’s blame Star Wars, which flipped the system on its head, birthed the modern blockbuster, irrevocably transformed Bs into As, and signalled the financial merit of excessive sequelizing. Of course, most pundits blame Star Wars, and it’s become almost too easy to blame Star Wars. There were, it’s worth remembering, A films that spawned sequels long before Star Wars, notably the James Bond movies, but the difference is that the early Bond movies all existed in a vaguely rather than explicitly defined relationship with one another and didn’t really amount to a cohesive story. In 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Blofeld kills Bond’s wife just as they’re about to embark on their honeymoon; in 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, Bond confronts Blofeld… and doesn’t really broach the topic. I mean, I’d probably bring it up, maybe raise my voice a little under those circumstances, but what do I know? It’s also worth keeping in mind that even after Star Wars hit big, the idea of longform storytelling across several films didn’t become entrenched: I’m guessing you could watch, say, Lethal Weapon 2 or Rambo: First Blood Part 2 without having seen Lethal Weapon or First Blood and not be too dazed or confused, even though they are direct continuations of those stories. And sequels didn’t become contractual givens after Star Wars either: ET was the most successful film of the 1980s, and that – amazingly and probably for the best – never got sequelized.

So, who should we really be blaming? The Star Wars prequels. These are the films that truly set up the template for the franchise storytelling that dominates the mainstream side of the medium today – set up a single story to be told across a pre-destined number of films spaced several years apart to achieve sustained and ongoing financial reward, ensure that each film will be incomprehensible to any viewers who haven’t seen the others, and watch the money roll in – as well as establishing the financial merit of revisiting long-dormant or nostalgic properties through further sequels or prequels or remakes or reboots. One of the consequences of this has been an abundance of franchises that are less special precisely because there are so many of them: when Star Wars and Superman were first released in the late 70s, they were special, one-of-a-kind experiences; fast forward 25 years later, and their most recent instalments, Revenge of the Sith and Superman Returns, aren’t one-of-a-kind but one-of-many blockbuster films competing with other blockbuster films, scrambling to make as much money in their two week window of maximum profit before the next major release. Another consequence is that these films frequently feel incomplete, either because they’re built in such a way as to leave the story open for expansion in sequels, and thus lack narrative resolution, or if they’re a sequel they’re built to directly follow on from the original, and thus do away with exposition and orientation, assuming shorthand will be sufficient for viewers familiar with their predecessor. Either way, they become texts without integrity and autonomy, because where once films were built to last, now it’s the franchises that are built to last, and the films themselves are merely biding time between episodes.    

Regardless of whether Part II was written before Part I or vice verca, the Henry VI plays show Shakespeare the entrepreneur setting up some early modern franchising, concocting a single story to be told across the expanse of several plays to ensure sustained and ongoing profits. And it worked: the plays clearly made a dent, a fact driven home most famously by the rantings of an impoverished former darling of the theatre scene, Robert Greene, whose jealousy of Shakespeare’s success was preserved for posterity in a pamphlet declaring:

There is an upstart Crow, beautiful in our feathers, that, with his tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shakescene in the country.

The reference to a ‘tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide’ riffs on a line from Henry VI, Part III, signifying the saga’s success and topicality as well as Shakespeare’s rising commercial cache. What’s more, while I can neither confirm nor deny whether Parts II and III stand alone as autonomous and cohesive works until I revisit them, I can happily report that Part I of the Henry VI saga does work as a self-contained text with a beginning, middle and end while still setting up in tantalising fashion, as the final lines quoted above suggest, the larger story and storytelling canvas. Marvel movie moguls should take note…

That’s it from me. Over to you, Mr Castle…

Ben

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February 9, 2011 at 2:02 am

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Shrew you Shakespeare

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As a child, I loved Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men and Little Miss books. But now they scare the shit out of me. I think my girlfriend summed it up best: one time we were discussing Mr Noisy and the townsfolk’s’ plot to discipline him into lowering his voice to a more socially acceptable pitch, and she compared it to Lou Reed’s parents sending him to electro-shock therapy as a teenager to cure his supposedly homosexual behaviour. In Hargreaves’ universe, if you’re Happy or Strong you’re okay, but if you’re Noisy or Greedy or Mean or Messy or Grumpy – in other words, if you have a personality trait that doesn’t quite fit in with or conform to socially acceptable behaviour – you’re a freak and you have to be reprimanded and punished in order to align with the status quo. That kind of intensely fascistic moral vision freaks me out, and it’s even freakier when it’s packaged as light popular entertainment, whether for children or adults. Forrest Gump is another example. Lloyd Kaufman sums up the moral of that movie better than anyone else: “Forrest Gump teaches you to follow orders like a retard, even if you get your ass shot off in Vietnam, and you will be rewarded… But if you’re a gyno-American, you will be punished and get AIDS”.

Why do I bring up Forrest Gump and Roger Hargreaves in this post on Taming of the Shrew? Because Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s Little Miss Shrew, in which Katharina is reprimanded and punished by her community and her husband for being a Shrew, and is disciplined into becoming a generic Renaissance housewife.

Anthony has already made the point that expecting political correctness from a nearly 450 year old dead white male is pushing things a bit. Certainly, many scholars would argue that Shakespeare is the most politically correct 450 year old dead white male that ever lived. And it’s worth noting that many of the cultural materialists, new historicists, feminists and Marxists who’ve chastised Shakespeare for his lack of political correctness have forged extremely lucrative careers out of it, and have often erred in their own conduct: for instance, Jonathan Bate points out that “very few of the ‘radical’ critics of the 1970s and 1980s who read The Tempest in the context of ‘the discourse of imperialism’ acknowledged that a revisionary reading of the play had already been undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s by non-white Europeans” (1997, p. 241). Indeed, in ignoring the progressive work of “West Indian Calibans like George Lamming, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Césaire, and Robert Fernández Retamar”, those “American Stephanos” only enacted the very colonial power imbalances they were criticizing Shakespeare’s play for (p. 241).

Having said that, while I don’t wish to criticize Shakespeare over issues of political correctness that were non-existent in his time, I still have to take issue with the play. The problem with Shakespeare, above all other writers, is that his work has “legs”. Sturdy, solid legs that have more than demonstrated their cultural longevity. And this is why his plays, or more precisely the practices they’re put to, are problematic. Othello, The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice (which we might well call Taming of the Jew) have all been routinely used to validate racist discourse. Romeo and Juliet, as Dympna Callaghan has noted, is “one of the preeminent cultural documents of love in the West” and aided in establishing “a new orthodoxy (tragically legitimated)” of heterosexual love and marriage (1994, p. 59); while Shakespeare’s message in that play appears to be the rejection of patriarchal culture and the transgressive power of forbidden love, Callaghan regards the play as an important part of the institutionalization and normalization of heterosexual marriage, as well as the cultural stigmatizing of homosexual love and marriage. And then there’s Taming of the Shrew, which perpetuated and validated the misogynistic discourse of its time and continued to do so for a long time. We can still see its seeds in contemporary popular culture, in movies like Overboard where a rich woman is disciplined into becoming a subservient wife and mother (cause, you know, it’s funny), or in any movie or TV show (and there are too many to count) where a guy says ‘Women!’ to another guy after witnessing some hysterical expression of femininity (cause, you know, it’s funny). I dunno about you, but movies like that make me wish movies didn’t exist…

There have of course been many defenses of Taming of the Shrew, most notably that Shakespeare was a Lee Harvey Oswald-type patsy at that point in his career, an innocent or victim of circumstance forced to perpetuate the discourse of the time while building the commercial cache that would later license him to craft far more progressive depictions of women. I don’t really buy that argument.

Some would say it’s actually a lampoon of patriarchy. Bate (1997) uses the wonderful image of the rabbit-duck as a means of illustrating Shakespeare’s gift of aspectuality. Just as we look at the image of the rabbit-duck and see both the rabbit and the duck simultaneously, or switch between the two, Bate argues that we can look at a play like The Tempest and see both an endorsement of colonialism via Prospero and a condemnation of colonialism via Caliban, or we can look at Henry V and see both a celebration and a deconstruction of military myth-making. This aspectuality is a gift that makes Shakespeare unique among authors, and explains why so many of his plays are so frequently appropriated by both left and right factions for ideologically opposed and quite contradictory causes. You don’t see that kind of balancing act much these days: I mean, nobody’s going to make a biopic of Harvey Milk or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela that both celebrates their achievements and struggles while suggesting that maybe those guys had it all wrong (even though I’m sure there’s no shortage of homophobes and bigots who’d take that stance). So you could apply the rabbit-duck to Taming of the Shrew, and argue that Shakespeare is both perpetuating misogynistic discourse while simultaneously parodying or deconstructing it. But I don’t buy that either.

Some would say that it’s all about the performance, and it’s in performances of the play that actors can mine the text for pockets of resistance and satire and critique, and bring those qualities to the surface. Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Taming of the Shrew ends with Katharina ducking out of the room and humiliating Petruchio while he’s delivering his farewell speech, thus implying that it’s all just a farcical lovers game between them. In contrast, the BBC Shakespeare adaptation starring John Cleese plays it all deadly serious, to the point where you wouldn’t think it was a comedy. While I agree that performances play a part in elucidating different dimensions in a text, I also think they can impose values and ideals on a text that weren’t there in the first place. As such, I don’t buy this argument either.

Does this mean I can’t read and enjoy the play? Not necessarily. As a fan of classic pulp literature and/or genre movies that often pre-date or simply ignore political correctness, you have to take this stuff in your stride. For instance, I love Clint Eastwood, but the gender politics of some of his films aren’t especially pretty, especially those films where Eastwood cast then-wife Sondra Locke as a stuck up or castrating bitch and proceeded to spar with, humiliate, or verbally, physically or sexually abuse her. I love Dario Argento and Brian DePalma, but get annoyed when they say that women make better victims in horror films than men because they’re prettier and more vulnerable (i.e. weaker). Still, I can watch all their films because I can recognize genre conventions, broader cultural contexts, and the facts that some texts are simply artifacts of their time. If anything, it’s newer films and literary works with dodgy gender politics that put me on edge. For instance, there’s a lot to like about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Inception, but their gender politics aren’t very good: Scott Pilgrim reduces its main female character to a token of competitive exchange, a passive prize to be fought over between past and present boyfriends (and, admittedly, one evil ex-girlfriend), while in Inception, and indeed most Christopher Nolan films, women are simply plot devices, while the focus is squarely on Nolan’s intense, driven, obsessive male protagonists. This makes me both intrigued and very scared about what Nolan will do with Catwoman in his third Batman film, but that’s another story, most likely for another blog…

Ultimately, I can stomach suspicious gender politics and violations of political correctness within the confines of genre conventions and broader cultural contexts. The thing is, Shakespeare, more than perhaps any other author, exists largely outside of cultural contexts. His works have been thoroughly decontextualised and promoted as timeless, universal, transcendental, and all that jazz. That’s what makes Taming of the Shrew problematic: we’re constantly told that Shakespeare is not for an age but for all time, and if the message that Taming of the Shrew perpetuates is for all time, well, then, we’re in serious trouble.

But if we put all that stuff aside, Taming of the Shrew is a decent enough play. In terms of craft and clarity of storytelling, I think it’s superior to Two Gentlemen of Verona. And in spite of its nastier undercurrents, I find the relationship between Petruchio and Katharina somewhat engaging, and can see that it’s clearly a precursor to Shakespeare’s future (and much better) sparring romantic couplings like Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

So that’s my take. I’ll strive for more matter with less art next week, when we tackle Henry VI Part One. Until then…

Ben

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

Callaghan, D 1994, ‘The Ideology of Romantic Love: The Case of Romeo and Juliet’, in D Callaghan, L Helms & J Singh (eds), The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 59–101.

Written by THE SLINGS AND ARROWS...

February 2, 2011 at 8:42 am

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