THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for June 2011

Ill met by moonlight: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a play I’m intimately familiar with, nor is it a play that especially resonates with me, but the play and I do have some history.

The text features one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays within plays, The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus & Thisby, performed by Bottom and his band of amateur players. My own initial exposure to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was, funnily enough, appearing in a high school production of another play, Michael Gow’s Away, which itself featured a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in its opening scenes. So my introduction to this famous Shakespeare play (featuring a play within the play) was starring in a high school production of a different play featuring Shakespeare’s play as a play within the play… I guess it’s less confusing if you were there. (On a side note, A Midummer Night’s Dream seems to be THE high school Shakespeare production of choice as far as popular culture is concerned: see Porky’s II, Dead Poet’s Society, Get Over It et al, or maybe just Dead Poet’s Society come to think of it).

I returned to A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years later in my second year of university, when I wrote an essay on the play focusing on Titania & Oberon’s similarity to old married couples. That essay was an EPIC fail, with the tutor slamming me for “sweeping generalisations” and “ignorance”, among other things. In a sense, it was the most valuable essay I ever wrote, because I learned a hell of a lot from the tutor’s criticisms, and for at least the next year I’d revisit that paper and those criticisms before handing in any new work, just to ensure I hadn’t made those same mistakes again. But in retrospect, it’s remarkable I set foot near Shakespeare again, let alone devoted years of my life to a PhD on the subject. Thankfully nobody’s accused me of sweeping ignorance on the subject since then… apart from some Oxfordians of course.

So, my history with A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been interesting to say the least. Not a patch on Anthony’s history with Romeo and Juliet, beautifully recounted here, but interesting nonetheless.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream shifts back and forth between the mortal and immortal planes. Against the backdrop of the impending nuptials of the Duke of Athens and Queen of the Amazons, Bottom and an assortment of amateur actors work to put on a play, and four young lovers do the sorts of things young lovers do in Shakespeare’s comedies. Meanwhile, Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Faeries, spar with one another, and Oberon commissions the mischievous Puck to – not to put too fine a point on it – fuck with a bunch of folk, including the lovers, Bottom, and his bride.

Plot mechanics and narrative logic have been pressing on my mind recently, and with good reason: they’re important. I’ve been reading lots of different takes on the Disney-Pixar film Cars recently (in the lead-up to the release of its sequel), each grappling with the internal logic of a world where human buildings and human services exist alongside sentient cars but no actual humans are present. My favourite take on this warped world comes from Hitfix film blogger Drew McWeeny, who asks “Is this an understated horror film where there are mass graves of humans, remnants from the Great Auto Uprising, that are just off-camera, never mentioned but always there?” and suggests that “every one of those machines is fueled by Soylent Green”.

Recently I watched the Clint Eastwood film The Eiger Sanction (you can read my review at Brazzavillian’s) and while I love Eastwood films in general for their simplicity and clarity of voice, this one bugged the shit out of me because of its unnecessarily cluttered and distinctly wonky internal logic. Example: in the film’s first few minutes, we learn that Eastwood’s character Hemlock is a former assassin turned art historian & collector and mountain-climbing enthusiast: that’s a hell of a lot of pills to swallow at once, and that’s before the story even gets going. Another example: the criminal kingpin who commissions Hemlock for a hit-job is an albino who resides in a darkened apartment… and that’s pretty much that. There’s no thematic or narrative reason for this. I thought there’d be some payoff near the end of the film, like Hemlock throwing a chair out the window and burning sunlight shining in and searing the albino to a crisp, but no, nothing comes of it. I could go on…

So yeah, that stuff’s been nagging away at me recently, and that nagging has extended to my Slings & Arrows reading, as yesterday’s post on Romeo and Juliet demonstrates. After revisiting that play I simply couldn’t reconcile Romeo’s pining for Rosaline in the early scenes with his subsequent veneration of Juliet, simply because, in storytelling terms, it undermined the validity of his love for Juliet and the notion of their transcendental romance. While that criticism still stands, in retrospect I find myself wondering if that was a deliberate (if unflattering) character affectation on Shakespeare’s part. After all, the notion of Romeo and Juliet’s transcendental love is as much a product of 400 years cultural investment as it is a product of Shakespeare’s original play text. Maybe Shakespeare didn’t see their love as transcendental, and sought to subtly undermine their union by suggesting that Romeo was, you know, a dick.

Whatever the case, I went into A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the question of plot mechanics and narrative logic on my mind. To my surprise, I found a unity and coherence to the play that I’d never fully appreciated before, probably because I hadn’t been looking for it previously. That’s not to suggest the play’s an exercise in realism – it is, after all, distinctly fantastical – but there’s a clarity to the storytelling that isn’t always guaranteed when juggling three distinct narrative threads that intertwine and overlap. There’s a lot going on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it never feels cluttered, and the Bard alternates fluidly between each of the story threads. I didn’t really care for the four lovers – they’re the equivalent of the straight (i.e. boring) romantic couples in Marx Brothers movies – but I enjoyed the hell out of Bottom’s interactions with his fellow players and his misadventures with Titania.

I’ve said before that I have a harder time connecting to Shakespeare’s comedies than I do the tragedies and histories, and this was no exception. My own hang-ups about the comedies aside though, it’s obvious why the warm, energetic A Midsummer Night’s Dream is widely regarded as one of the greats. 

Until next time, Ben

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June 23, 2011 at 7:56 am

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Romeo and Juliet and McDonalds

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Anthony’s post on Romeo and Juliet celebrated the play in all its romantic, intoxicating, hormonal, DiCaprio-tinged glory. Me? I’m gonna be a bit of a jerk…

I once read somewhere that the best measure of a cartoon character or movie creature/monster’s memorability is whether or not those characters could be identified in silhouette. Using this measure, the Simpson family, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Batman, C3P0 and R2D2, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Godzilla, ET, the Daleks, and Stewie Griffin are pretty damn iconic. Ben 10… not so much, though he has his fans.

If Shakespeare is the Walt Disney of the Western canon, then Romeo and Juliet is the Mickey Mouse of the author’s magic kingdom. In terms of brand recognition and iconography, Romeo and Juliet is the literary equivalent of McDonalds or Coca Cola, a brand that is immediately recognisable, and that in many ways has transcended its author to achieve a life of its own. Even if you’ve never heard of Shakespeare, I’d say there’s a chance you’ve heard of Romeo and Juliet, and would recognise the broad iconography of the tragic star-crossed lovers, be it Romeo wooing Juliet below her balcony or Juliet cradling the corpse of her beloved before taking her own life. That iconography’s been painted enough times in art, quoted enough times in literature, and the archetypes and broad story strokes permeate popular culture, seeping into texts as diverse as the beloved musical West Side Story, Troma’s Schlockspeare Tromeo and Juliet, hip hop/kung fu vehicle Romeo Must Die, and action horror leather fantasy Underworld. Recent incarnations include Romeo and Juliet vs The Living Dead and Gnomeo and Juliet, featuring zombies and garden gnomes respectively. When we talk about young love or doomed love or familial issues interfering with love, Romeo and Juliet is the immediate, inevitable shorthand we use. Where in previous eras Helen & Paris, Lancelot & Guinevere, and Tristan & Isolde have been the emblematic “great and ruinous lovers” (to borrow a phrase from Jeanette Winterson), today Romeo & Juliet are the IT couple of literature.

Romeo and Juliet has transcended not just its author, but popular culture itself, and arguably affected Western culture and society in a very real and tangible way. In an earlier post I referred to Dympna Callaghan’s contention that the play helped legitimise heterosexual marriage as a cultural norm. Callaghan argues that “Shakespeare’s text has been used to perpetuate the dominant ideology of romantic love” (1994, p. 60) and to establish heterosexual love and marriage as “orthodoxy (tragically legitimated)” (p. 59). The downside to this is that:

The dominant ideology of (heterosexual, monogamous) romantic love relegates homosexuality to the sphere of deviance, secures women’s submission to the asymmetrical distribution of power between men and women, and bolsters individualism by positing sexual love as the expression of authentic identity. Men are not, of course, immune to these effects, but they are more likely than women to derive benefit from them (p. 60).

The play, thus, has been appropriated to suspect and reductive ideological ends. Whether that agenda is inherent in the play text itself or a product of its afterlife is a matter open to debate. Still, as conservative as these ends are, the play nonetheless packs some anti-patriarchal, counter-culture punch which still resonates today. Lloyd Kaufman, director of Tromeo and Juliet and co-founder of the Troma film empire, has this to say about the play’s ongoing relevance:

Today, the old are still feeding on the dreams of the young. My generation, the baby boomers, the largest segment of society, has manipulated the world to suit its own economic desires. The boomers trumpeted peace and emotional freedom in the sixties. Now they’ve given way to a blind elitism which preaches coolness over feeling. Meanwhile, they bombard today’s kids with rehashed sixties music and movies and big-budget versions of sixties TV shows; these boomers have thus plasticized their own pasts, making the values they once trumpeted no more real than the Partridge Family, and therefore no longer dangerous to the status quo: that is, themselves. Contemporary Americans in their teens and twenties have turned inward, concocting their own universe of the cool, cold, and uncaring. To me, they can hardly be blamed. It’s the same emotional response a man has after being repeatedly raped in prison. It’s the natural reaction to being fucked (1998, 286).

Oookay. The play’s also enormously quotable, featuring some of Shakespeare’s finest romantic poetry. On the whole, it’s difficult not to get swept into that crazy, passionate romance experienced by the titular characters, and I’d say even those with a cynical disposition would be saddened by the lovers’ plight.

But on a storytelling level, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of narrative and character-building, the glue doesn’t stick. I’m probably an asshole for nitpicking a 400+ year old play for its lack of feasibility by modern narrative and psychological standards, but the fact is, for me at least, the play does fall apart a bit outside of the romantic rush of reading it. Part of the problem is that Romeo as a character, on the page at least, is dead on arrival: while Juliet has plenty of spark, Romeo is soggy corn flakes, especially compared to his buddy Mercutio. A capable actor or garden gnome can certainly bring out nuance, but on the page there’s not much to work with, and for me this undermines the great romance at the core of the play. Example: this kid goes from pining for Rosaline in the opening scenes to falling head over heels for Juliet at the Capulet Ball almost instantly. Now, if there hadn’t been a Rosaline, the whole “love at first sight” thing would’ve worked a whole lot better, and the meeting of Romeo and Juliet truly would have been the world-changing, eye-opening, magical mindbomb it’s meant to be for the two characters. As it stands, that moment only works for Juliet, and Romeo’s a bit more like Steve Carrell’s Brick Tamland in Anchorman: “I love Rosaline… I love Juliet… I love carpet… I love desk… I love lamp”.

I know, I know… me dissing Shakespeare for character logic and story construction is a bit like Taylor Lautner giving Daniel Day Lewis acting advice. I’m also fully aware that character logic and story construction usually come second to dramatic effect in most Shakespeare’s plays: the dude never prioritised internal logic or unity at the expense of an individual scene or character’s dramatic potential. While in most plays the Bard gets away with it, in Romeo and Juliet, for me at least, the kinks become glaringly obvious when reflecting back on the play afterwards, precisely because of its iconic stature. In this respect, the play truly is the McDonalds of the Bard’s oeuvre: instantly recognisable, superficially very tasty, but not especially nourishing or substantial in restrospect.

I’ll be back soon with my take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bottoms up…

Ben

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June 22, 2011 at 9:32 am

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Romeo and Juliet Are Dead- Long Live Love…

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I know Romeo and Juliet.

You see, sitting at the older end of the Gen Y spectrum, I’d just turned teenager when Baz Luhrman directed the much loved and abhorred MTV inspired adaptation Romeo + Juliet. I was roughly the same age as the film’s protagonists and within the target demographic at the moment of its cinematic debut in 1996.

However, as was the fashion in those days, the film truly left its cultural imprint upon its VHS release the following year. Romeo + Juliet was rented, pirated then traveled from school bags to movie nights and parties. My generation may still have been too young to truly appreciate the verse and sonnets, it was still written by William Shakespeare after all, but there was a sense of importance to the film. Many young people seemed to intuit something sacred amongst the film’s layers that paired material as ancient as Ovid with the bluntly-coloured décor and sour ‘Seattle’ mood of the 1990s.

Magically, the themes, faces and ambiance of Romeo + Juliet became real in the summer of 1997. Friends were turning fifteen and falling love-sick, the film often part of a steady weekend routine. One alpha-male type I knew watched the film and had an epiphany, swearing only to court girls chivalrously from that point on. A girl in my Math class named her band after some arcane turn of dialogue. The play Romeo and Juliet soon became a text in that year’s English curriculum, while the film’s singles could be found charting on Saturday morning TV or blaring out of radios as cars drove past. Romeo + Juliet was omnipresent.

So The Bard’s tragedy of young, ‘star-cross’d lovers’ came alive among my sparse gang of friends as we play-acted adulthood, strutting sun-bleached beaches and crashing parties. Elements of the story seemed familiar: the beautiful rich girl, the brooding romantic, the over-bearing parental expectations. I also recognised those brazen Capulet and Montague boys, willing to brawl at a moment’s notice and making late night trips to the local drug dealer like so many guys I knew. Similarly, suicide had a part in defining the 90s since Cobain’s iconic departure and was already a pop motif before Claire Danes spoke iambic with a gun at her temples.

Art can influence perception and I saw that summer awry as I watched teens mix and mingle in the streets or flirt and swing their fists on hot nights. I watched the film, read the play and saw the story acted out in moments and microcosms amongst my friends, enemies and crushes. This is young love, so strong that it hurts, kills and dies…

Forgive me for a little nostalgia. As you can see, it’s inevitable with this play, not simply because this particular film adaption is of my time, but the story itself deals in the passion and angst of youth. We have all been young, some of us even get to grow up, and we all remember the intense experiences of those younger years.

The term ‘nostalgia’, in its common usage, describes a fond celebration of past cultural forms, usually due to disillusionment with the current routine. A prime example may be the adult who turns on their radio only to hear barely pubescent boys sing saccharine platitudes penned by old men in LA, and so in disgust walks to their computer and buys Led Zeppelin 4, The Joshua Tree, Nevermind, Is This It or some other decade defining album from iTunes. This brand of nostalgia is the stuff of fashion revivals, reruns and Hollywood remakes and is inseparable from consumerism. Hell, even The Smurfs are getting their own movie this year.

More specifically nostalgia is a genuine psychological experience, even diagnosed and treated by physicians in times past. So every lifetime sees a few sullen moments, gingerly tracing the edges of old photos with your fingers or silently watching dust shift in the air, bright as stars, as the autumn sun rises through the window. Every morning as we drag our tired frames out of bed, we dimly recall a much earlier time when we awoke and bounced, warm and invincible, ready to eat cereal and slay dragons. In that sense, nostalgia is universal, as it doesn’t deal in times now past but in things now lost.

Indeed, the etymology of ‘nostalgia’ reveals that we describe that particular feeling as a ‘yearning for home’, a place left behind in maturity. In juxtaposition, young people are often more closely associated with angst, that deep anxiety regarding the fragile nature of our mortality, so much so that an entire industry has grown around the concept. Together, nostalgia and angst represent not only the pain of something lost but the pain of something to come.

Teens know both forms of pain, with an interior and profound suffering to the process of adolescence. After all, the term ‘growing pain’ refers to much more than a residual ache in the stretching bones. See for yourself, walk through a mall or order fast food and check them out. All teenagers have that look on their face, like they’re constantly being jabbed in the side with a sharp serving implement.

Teenagers are suffering, and rightly so, grieving for the evanescent magic of childhood, lying awake with nascent desire, discovering small tragedies as the ‘shades of the prison-house begin to close’. Adolescence can be a desperate awakening, as these powerless in-betweens realise for the first time that innocence passes and we’re all just ‘fellow-travellers to the grave’. They mourn what is lost, dread what is to come and manage the confusion between it all. No wonder they complain so much.

Consequently, the mystique of adolescent dissociation makes for good storytelling, whether it’s Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. or Meyer’s Twilight series. Mandatory mockery aside, the sparkly vampire books don’t sell like cups of coffee for no reason. This previously unpublished Mormon housewife dreamed of the intense angst of adolescence and packaged it with enough genre-trappings to change the pop landscape. Say what you will about the books themselves, Stephanie Meyers knows how to connect with a young audience, nostalgia and angst in hand.

To think that audiences might yearn for an emotive suffering is an odd thought, to find the unlikely mix of ‘such sweet sorrow’ worth the price of admission. However, if such storytelling deals in the throes of first love, we begin to understand the excitement and grief it elicits. After all, the first love is inevitably a lost love and as humans always want things they can’t have, so we long not for a person in particular, but the tremulous, virgin passion that first arose. Romeo and Juliet immortalises such young love, in all its adolescent sexuality, rebellion, angst and suicide.

Young love is exactly that, and no man or woman finding their first precarious footfalls in this adult world could possibly hold onto it. It is not the kind of love that is shared over years of breakfasts, tiffs, tax returns or warm evenings on the couch. This young love couldn’t possible picture relationship breakdown or ever expect the monotony of the mundane. Building a life together begins with romance but takes patience, playfulness and selective amnesia to seal the deal. Young love knows only a few things: emotional turmoil, sexual ecstasy and death. As I said before, love so strong that it hurts, kills and dies…

In hindsight, it would be wrong of me to treat Baz Lurhman’s film Romeo + Juliet and William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet as the same beast. They are different productions in different mediums with different approaches for different audiences. In revisiting the text, however, I have only revisited my own initial imprint upon it. Given enough cold scholarship, I may be able to separate Shakespeare’s play from its pop culture legacy, but after some thought, I just don’t want to. Romeo and Juliet works for me as it is. I’d rather be audience than critic on this one. Take it as a testament to the play’s longevity and relevance that it is still hot property, shifting its shape after all these years and finding itself breathing and palpable on blogs in the 21st century.

I know Romeo and Juliet. In fact, we all do. Shakespeare’s play has become a valentine to the ardour and fear of our younger years, recalling the unforgettable passion, blood, loss and first kiss we all knew. It is the love letter to end all love letters, marking the young love we either outgrow or die holding onto.

Anthony

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June 22, 2011 at 5:53 am

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Richard II: Words vs Actions

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Similar to many other sparks of common sense, to suggest that ‘actions speak louder than words’ may indeed not be so common or so sensible. To read William Shakespeare’s depiction of the fated King Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke that commences the Henriad, we no doubt feel the political parlance of that old chest-nut, words versus action, wheeled out once again. Often, leaders are sought amongst the duality of the ‘inspirational speaker’ or the ‘man of action’, as if ideas and behaviours aren’t as inextricably intertwined as inhaling and exhaling. Leaders are frequently revered or lynched depending on what they say, what they do and the congruency between the two. However, as we look back through popular culture and history, we tend to remember some leaders for their words and others for their actions. Traditionally, we divide the two and judge the distance.

In increasing generalities, we categorise them differently as well. For the case of actions over words, there are those icons that suffer a dramatic death. For instance, many can explain the manner and significance of the death of Jesus Christ, though the core of his message or his primary commands often remain a mystery (clearly the case for many in the ‘Bible-belt’). Similarly, millennia later, Abraham Lincoln and JFK’s actual policies can seem a little foggy, though most know they both took bullets in their brains for the U.S. brand of democracy.

In the same camp, sin also trumps speeches. Mud sticks, as well as blood, and those who have wrought violent havoc in history often find their words lost. After all, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Hussein, Mugabe, (insert standard fascist dictator here), have all offered many stirring platitudes, but their reputations as murderous a-holes is what has rightly remained.

Now, when it comes to the wise men of history, the words win. We still hear of Solomon’s great wisdom, his erotic poetry from Song of Songs or post-modern queries in Ecclesiastes still haunts our language, though we hardly speak of his dalliances and overall prodigality that, as the story goes, corrupted his kingdom. Likewise, the annals of classical Greek philosophy are also an appropriate example, with the lineage of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle famed for what they taught (the Socratic method, Plato’s folk in the cave, Aristotelian ethics, etc), rather than their biographies, though their quotables sadly don’t always make a Facebook News Feed.

Broadly, I’m of the mind that we are a people of the sound-byte and the slogan and in consequence we remember great figures for their words. Indeed, there is a primal magic to speech that sets our species apart from the beast of the field, words being the semantic matrices with which we build our understanding of reality. First, God spoke and the cosmos came into being. Later, Descartes said that he existed and so he did. Muhammed Ali revealed he was the greatest and he was. Finally, Charlie Sheen went clinically insane and became an online beat poet. Sure, you can find exceptions where great figures’ words are eclipsed by actions (Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Napoleon wore a funny hat) but usually only for those who aren’t anglophone. Often what remains imprinted into our collective memories are the words, precisely because words are the prisms through which we perceive.

So when we recall the defiant Winston Churchill, omnipresent cigar planted amongst his chins and the bit about fighting them ‘on the beaches’, we don’t often know his string of woeful miscalculations (opposing Ghandi’s peaceful resistance movement, backing Mussolini, legislating eugenics or overseeing the fatal Gallipoli Campaign). We know Martin Luther King Jr had ‘a dream’, we may even be able to imitate the preacher’s delivery, though how many times he was arrested, attacked or where he faced martyrdom for that dream may be details that elude us.

Alternatively, we know Nixon declared he was ‘not a crook’, though we may require a little Googling to properly understand the Watergate scandal and the escalation of Vietnam. So, according to our bias and cultural limitations, we strike the influence of leaders in twain and memorialise them for their words or actions, but rarely both.

Aside: The only exception I can recall off the cuff is the misunderestimated president, George W Bush, who is equally famed for his poorly executed public speeches and policy decisions. It’s a booby prize, but history apparently favours the reputedly incompetent.

In Richard II, Shakespeare meets us at this false dichotomy, again arranging words or actions as exclusive alternatives. Our antagonist and protagonist are incarnations of either form of influence. Richard II is a poet, a sincere poseur, a thinker and a romantic. He wields stately language like a sword while fussing with his royal jewels and crown. Henry Bolingbroke is a warhorse, a pragmatist who speaks with his hands. He picks fights, raises rebellions and steals thrones. So when our play opens with Bolingbroke coming before King Richard for arbitration, accusing Mowbray and spoiling for a fight, the inevitable clash of personalities results in banishments rather than execution and frustration rather than fury. Consequently, the nobles murmur and tension over leadership styles grows. Eventually, Richard is dethroned, jailed, then becomes a martyr. In turn, Bolingbroke rises through conflict and becomes king of England. In terms of this particular dramatisation of history, action beats words hands down.

So it is inevitable that when discussing Shakespeare’s historical works we turn to contemporary politics for our usual strained analogies. First, let me set the scene: there was a moment, just a moment, where Australia had an impossible Prime Minister. As we turfed a long-running conservative government in the spring of 2007, we elected a man who seemed to simultaneously embody a series of cultural paradoxes. He was traditional yet left-of-centre, a Christian socialist (the best kind of either) and economically conservative, benign with a temper, a family man with a sailor’s tongue and a multi-lingual diplomat who was as daggy as a maths teacher. He was officious in language, obtuse in his manner, adopted a cat and ate vegemite on toast. He was Kevin Rudd, and this odd nation, with a pejoratively anglo culture tucked away in Asia, simultaneously wealthy and low-brow and obsessed with the underdog, just did not quite understand this leader.

In hindsight, Rudd became known for his words: his political parlance, cussing, long speeches and essays, and finally, one particular adjective… sorry. Now, enter our antagonist: Tony Abbot, a new opposition leader prone to public running, swimming, and cycling in various states of undress, whose sole sentiment seemed to be to react to most situations with decisive declination. He was an athlete of zero tolerance, with the sun damage, aero-dynamic cropped hair and abs to prove it. Naturally, it was on.

As the two figureheads tussled for the spirit of the nation, Australia began to perceive Rudd as a man of words, speeches, documents and rhetoric. Abbot, on the other hand came across as a man of action and pragmatic hyperactivity. Australia watched and wondered, like that moment at lunch when faced with the dilemma of chicken or fish, as to which option would truly make a better leader. Soon, Rudd was deposed by his own party and the rest was, and continues to be, history as Australia enters into a vapid political depression and crisis of vision. However, Rudd’s formal apology to the Indigenous peoples of the nation will likely outlast Abbot’s speedos. Australia may warm to the idea of action (though action against the warming of the planet, not so much), but quite often history remembers words.

In the larger framework of this tetralogy, Richard’s death becomes the first blood of the Henriad, the crime that first spoiled the godly order of England, the wages borne out in the body count and tug of war in the sequels to come. If Rudd and Abbot can be somewhat analogous to Richard II and Bolingbroke, then the political mire that Australia now faces may be the curse that fell upon England for the sin of treason. Rudd, like Richard II, is now viewed as a well-spoken and unfairly ditched martyr, he disappearance resulting in a confused drought of political ideas.

Our analogy breaks down of course as Rudd was deposed by his own deputy Julia Gillard (who does not fit any Richard II character, but seems more like Lady Macbeth wandering mistakenly onstage). Whether our Bolingbroke, the politically ADHD Tony Abbot, eventually takes the throne ‘down under’ is a plot point that remains to be seen. Regardless, people look to the words and actions of their leaders, in Elizabethan England or 21st century Australia, with sword or ballots respectively in hand.

Anthony

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June 15, 2011 at 2:55 am

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Richard II: Bolingbroke Begins

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No Tony Montana this week, I’m sorry to say. Hired assassins broke into his Florida estate and shot him about a hundred thousand times. We might have more special guests in the future, but for the time being it’s back to me, Anthony, and Shakespeare.

Speaking of Shakespeare: as stated in my post on Henry VI Part I, the Bard authored two sets of history plays (or tetralogies) dealing with various Kings named Henry and Richard. We’ve already discussed the first tetralogy, which consists of Parts 1 to 3 of Henry VI and caps off with Richard III. Today we kick off the second tetralogy (aka the Henriad), the events of which, historically speaking, take place before those of the first tetralogy, taking us from Richard II’s deposition by Henry Bolingbroke through to Henry V’s triumphant victory at Agincourt and marriage to the Princess of France. Confused? It’s been known to happen.

This was my first time reading Richard II, and I dug it. Part of the play’s appeal is its portrait of diametrically opposed leaders, namely King Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, aka the future Henry IV. Richard is a fairly shitty King, imposing exhorbitant taxes on the masses and demonstrating a distinctly flaky approach to leading the nation: if Richard III is like Tony Montana, then Richard II is like his wife Elvira Montana, spoilt and high and confused and emotionally fragile. Henry Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is a steely and determined character, and is driven to pursue the throne not so much for personal gain and glory but for justice, both personal and national. And although critical of Richard’s irresponsible and hedonistic ways (and of similar impulses in his own son, the future Henry V), he nonetheless mourns Richard’s death at play’s end and is regretful of betraying the divinely appointed King, even though he did so for the good of the nation.

While Shakespeare depicts Richard in a negative light in contrast to Bolingbroke, Richard becomes sympathetic – and a great deal more complex and layered – as the play progresses. The character’s very much a blank to begin with, not making much of an impression in the early stages of the play, in much the same way that Henry VI didn’t make much of a dent in the earlier tetralogy. No real connection is forged between Richard and the audience until Act 3 Scene 2, when the tide starts to turn for the worse and he delivers this famous speech:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of Kings:

How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d,

Some poison’d by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,

All murder’d: for within the hollow crown,

That rounds the mortal temples of a King,

Keeps Death his court; and there the antick sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchise, be fear’d, and kill with looks;

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh, which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and – farewell, King!

Still waters run deep, as they say. A character who didn’t register beyond surface action and superficial posturing is revealed to be a melancholic poet. There’s the faintest whiff of Love’s Labour’s Lost-style over-writing in this passage and in the King’s other musings, but here it’s in the service of something meaningful rather than sound and fury signifying nothing.

I wonder if Shakespeare was playing with audience expectations, setting up viewers to think they were in store for an empty leader ala Henry VI only to spring a dramatically striking protagonist on them. It changes the dynamic of the play considerably, and the switcheroo is almost From Dusk til Dawn-esque, except where that story switched from Tarantino caper to vampire extravaganza this one switches from melodramatic potboiler and royal soap opera to a tragic meditation on power and mortality (on a side note, I may well be the very first person in the history of Shakespeare scholarship to compare Richard II to From Dusk til Dawn, so there’s my contribution to knowledge in the bag for 2011). In investing this monarch with such tragic and human dimensions, Shakespeare foreshadows some of his later tortured heroes like Hamlet, Macbeth et al, and in some respects this brings Richard II a lot closer to the realm of tragedy than its other historical counterparts. The main difference is that unlike, say, King Lear, the tragic sweep is contained primarily to the character of the monarch and not as over-arching or devastating. And while the King’s reflections and musings sometimes come rather close to the realm of the whiney, it’s testament to Shakespeare’s skill as a playwright that it never veers completely in this direction. I’m thankful of this, because after seeing The King’s Speech my tolerance for whiney British monarchs is at breaking point.

Speaking of Britain: John of Gaunt’s speech about his country is quite the travel brochure.

This royal throne of Kings, this scept’red isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress, built by Nature for herself,

Against infection and the hand of war;

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands;

This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal Kings,

Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home

(For Christian service and true chivalry),

As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry

Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son

I’ve mentioned Gary Taylor a couple of times on this blog already, and will continue to do so, since Reinventing Shakespeare (1989) is one of the best books on Shakespeare’s reputation ever written. Taylor charts the trajectory of Shakespeare’s reputation over time, demonstrating that his status today as high priest of the English literary canon is a product of shifting historical tides and ideological agendas as much as it is a product of transcendent literary talent. Taylor notes that in the Victorian era in particular “The rise of Shakespeare coincided with the growth of cultural conservatism… upsurgent nationalism and expansive imperialism” (Taylor 1989, p. 121), and the Bard became an emblem and icon of England, synonymous with national identity, and a useful vessel to export that identity around the globe. Countless examples from the nineteenth and twentieth century testify to the bond forged between the Bard and Britannia, like the mammoth two-volume Shakespeare’s England (1916) and Laurence Olivier’s jingoistic Henry V (1944), both of which were useful propagandist tools during their respective World Wars. While there are numerous reasons the Bard came to occupy the position of Britannia’s Best over other writers – his talent, his prolific output, his rise to the top of the theatrical repertoire in the late 1600s/early 1700s when few new tragedies were being written, his important place in Britain’s expanding print culture where “For over a century the finest practitioners of the English language, from Dryden to Pope to Johnson, contributed to the public remodelling and transmission of Shakespeare’s plays, while he in turn contributed to the[ir] stylistic development” (Taylor 1989, p. 71), etc – the speech above provides a pretty on-the-nose indication of why Shakespeare became synonymous with Britain. Heck, I want to become British after reading that.

On a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Richard II was also the object of one of the first and most famous political appropriations of Shakespeare’s art. In early 1601, supporters of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, gave Shakespeare’s company considerable booty to perform the play in order to generate support for the Essex uprising, hoping to highlight parallels between Richard & the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, as weak leaders and Bolingbroke & Devereux as dynamic new blood. The uprising was thwarted and Essex was executed. True story.

All in all, Richard II is entertaining and frequently compelling , and a nice change of pace after The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost. However, we won’t be following this new tetralogy in a straight line as we did with the first one. We’re using (when it suits us at least) the chronology of plays proposed by Wells & Taylor and used by Penguin for their Shakespeare series, which means we’ll be visiting Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King John and The Merchant of Venice before checking back in with the House of Lancaster in Henry IV, Part I. Before all that, though, Anthony will be chiming in with his thoughts on Richard II. Stay tuned…

Ben

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June 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm

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A Conversation with Tony Montana about Love’s Labour’s Lost

with 2 comments

Today, something a little different. I’m pleased to have, for the very first time here at Slings and Arrows, a special guest reviewer, Mr Tony Montana, who’s joining us today to talk about Love’s Labour’s Lost. How you doing Tony?

I never focked anybody over in my life. All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for no one.

Cool, no messing about. I like a straight shooter. So Tony, have you read much Shakespeare?

My father used to take me to movies. I watched the guys like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, they teach me to talk. I like those guys.

Right, so you probably would have seen Reinhardt & Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with James Cagney and Mickey Rooney?

Mickey Rooney’s a cockroach. You know what a haza is? That’s a pig who don’t fly straight. Neither does Mickey Rooney.

Yeah, I’d agree. So, Love’s Labour’s Lost. The play opens in the Kingdom of Navarre, in Northern Spain…

This town is like a great big pussy waitin’ to get focked. This country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman.

Right. I didn’t know that. So, Anthony made some really good points in his post about the play’s over-writing and lack of plot, about the King and his courtiers’ decision to renounce romance in favour of knowledge, and of course their ultimate, indeed inevitable, renunciation of that renunciation. You know, people always talk about Shakespeare as the universal author, the author that speaks to all eras and all people, but of course there are those like Gary Taylor who suggest, and I quote, “Shakespeare’s intellectual and moral preoccupations are not necessarily ours” (Reinventing Shakespeare 1989, p. 404). He goes on to ask “Do we believe that illegitimate children are, and behave like, ‘bastards’?… Do we believe that people with money, or people whose parents had money, should be dignified by speaking verse, while people without money are relegated to speaking prose? Do we believe Joan of Arc was a witch? Do we even believe in witches? Do we satirize the ills of contemporary society by complaining that nowadays there are ‘No Heretiques burn’d’? Do we think cuckolds are uproariously funny? Do we think wars are decided by single combat between the men who stand to gain or lose most by the outcome?” (pp. 403 – 404).

Fock.

Uh huh. So on the one hand we have this romantic portrait of a transcendental author, and on the other we have the practical reality of an author whose works, written 400 years ago, are anachronistic in other respects and don’t necessarily connect to the extent that Bardolaters would suggest. I mean, I get the idea that Hamlet’s an angsty teen and teens today are angsty and so of course Hamlet speaks to angsty teens, but does Hamlet speak to angsty teens louder than, say, Robert Pattinson or Rihanna?  

She got a look in her eye like she haven’t been focked in a year. I can’t even have a kid with her man. Her womb is so polluted, I can’t even have a fockin’ little baby with her.

That… that’s kinda messed up, what you just said… but you’re packing a weapon so we won’t go there. To get back to what I was saying, I think Love’s Labour’s Lost is a fine example of that tension and disjunction I was talking about. You have a bunch of intellectuals abstaining from romance to broaden their knowledge of the world, only to discover that love is the richest form of knowledge, or something like that, and I guess on one level it’s not really relatable to modern readers and audiences. And the over-the-top language just erects another wall between the reader and the text. And yet when you think about it on a more abstract level, the notion of devoting one’s self to a particular life or career path, only for that to be derailed by romance or family – that whole notion of life zigging when we were intent on it zagging – that is, I’d argue, still very relevant and relatable. What do you think Tony: what do you make of the King and his courtiers and their decision to forsake romance and passion?

They’re all a bunch of fockin’ assholes. You know why? They don’t have the guts to be what they wanna be.

Right. That’s interesting. So do you think they really wanted to be intellectuals, but didn’t have the guts to follow through and gave in to romantic urges, or do you think they’re really romantics, and they were misguided in their pursuit of intellectual booty? I’d say the character of Biron probably provides the most compelling case for the latter argument…

That guys soft. The look on his face. The booze and the concha tell him what to do.

Right, that’s a good point. He’s the most outspoken in his ambivalence about their plan, and he seems to waver the strongest. But I wouldn’t call it soft. The idea of individual agency was gaining momentum in the Renaissance. This was after all the birth of early modern capitalism…

You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ focked.

I… I see.

You tell your guys in Miami, your friend, I kill Communists for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.

Okay, now I’m just confused. Let’s move slightly off topic before we wrap up. I’ve recently gotten into a spot of dialogue with some anti-Stratfordians about the whole Shakespearean authorship issue. I’m doing some reading into the debate now and it’s interesting food for thought, and I’ll formulate a more detailed reply to the facts of the case at some point in the future, but I was just wondering, do you have any thoughts on the matter?

They need people like Shakespeare. They need people like Shakespeare so they can point their fockin’ fingers and say that’s the bad guy.

That’s very perceptive. Okay Tony, we’re just about done. Do you have any final words for our readers?

I’m Tony Montana. You fock with me, you fockin’ with the best.

Okay, great. Thanks Tony. I’ll be back some time next week to talk about Richard II. Remember kids, the world is yours…

Ben

PS: In the interest of observing copyright, Tony Montana’s dialogue (with a couple of tweaks) comes courtesy of Scarface (Universal, 1983). Special thanks, and apologies, to Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, and Al Pacino, big beautiful brains one and all. If you’ve never seen Scarface, get onto it pronto…

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June 1, 2011 at 11:48 pm

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Love’s Labour’s Language: The Bard Overwriting…

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Aside: Don’t underestimate this post, its existence defies the odds. One morning last week, I awoke to find myself beaten, hung-over and with a throat raw from sword-swallowing. Given that I am a pacifist teetotaler with an aversion to all performance-based weaponry stunts, I was forced to conclude that I was in fact sick instead. Nine days of aches, exhaustion and nausea ensued and somewhere in that shivering, weakened haze I read a play. So this is my post, a little late but present nevertheless, come hell or high-water (given the recent predictions of apocalyptic fundamentalists and climate experts, both outcomes may indeed be likely).

“Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme, for I am sure I shall turn sonnet; Devise, wit: write, pen: for I am whole volumes in folio.”

As Armado, our charming ‘king of codpieces’, declares his intention to woo through verse at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost Act 1, we could be forgiven for mistaking this prayer as the author’s. What follows is a wide and rich fabric of sonnets, iambic, rhyming verse and riddles in an unfettered pursuit of words.

William Shakespeare uses Love’s as a platform for multiple poems, puns, gags and double entendres. Characters jump from Elizabethan stage English to Spanish and Latin and pick on each other’s pronunciation letter by letter. It’s a tour de force of wordplay. Even the play’s title may have inspired the common phrase ‘labour of love’, officially originating in the King James Bible a decade later, and is also an exercise in alliteration (I wonder how many options Shakespeare sorted through first, Affection Action’s Astray, Besotted Burden’s Begone, Care Chore’s Chucked, etc). Suitably, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, William Shakespeare labours over what he loves most… language.

There are a few mechanisms Shakespeare employs to set up this trick. The first is characterisation, namely the educated schoolmaster Helofornes, a traveling pedant, and the smooth talking Armado, a sword-fighting Spaniard. These characters are principally created for their ability to speak, write and perform ludicrous amounts of verse. They are a caricature of the overly intellectual and pretentious. Together, they compose, bicker, posture and make a fetish object out of word-smithing for our enjoyment.

Also, Shakespeare stages a play within a play, a device not seen since Shrew, and uses the notion of performing to excuse a brusque and luxurious use of words. The actors pose as actors and chew the scenery with fun and ridiculous dialogue before it all falls in a quibbling heap, all the while Shakespeare letting his quill run wild.

In reviewing Love’s, if it seems that I’m spending more time so far on the language than the plot or characterisation, then that’s precisely the point. So did William Shakespeare. In terms of characterization, the King, Princess and accompanying entourage are all attractive ciphers, nought but young and in love. Costard is a standard clown. To be fair, Amado is unforgettable (imitated many times, even in feline form in those Drek, I mean Shrek cartoons). However, Shakespeare is hardly breaking the mold with any of these faces.

In terms of plot, nothing happens in Love’s. Well, that’s not true, some stuff happens, but there is no real drive or necessity to the plot. No one’s success, freedom, happiness or life is threatened. There is nothing to gain, nothing gained and nowhere to go. In fact, so little happens, the characters decide to stage a play, within the play, for entertainment. Act after act, scene after scene, the play’s stage notes are the same, literally ‘the same’, ‘the same’ and ‘the same’, etc. The few events alter nothing and even then the play doesn’t finish, the lovers left unmatched and the story unresolved (presumably to be tied up in the mythical, long-lost sequel Love’s Labour’s Won). Overall, some characters fall in love, then not much happens and it doesn’t end. That’s it really.

As for themes, it’s hardly subtle but the author wants us to know that education can make people pretentious and irritating, and conversely, pragmatic knowledge comes from love and nature. Apparently, romance is more useful than theory. From the moment the king and his cohorts swear off the ladies in Act 1 in order to focus on three years of study, falling hopelessly in love shortly after, we get the point. The men want to transcend the common knowledge found in nature and fail to even get out of the blocks.

I find the sentiment reminiscent of a friend I once knew. Fresh from high school, this fellow had no desire to go to university or to pick up a trade. His deepest desire was to move outback and work on a farm. The bush, beer, barbecues and girls were all he wanted from life, though not in some macho-hedonist sense, but from some yearning for a simpler, agricultural existence. He didn’t want to spend three years buried in books to get a degree, he felt like he could learn more building and growing, connected to love and life. At least, that’s the way I imagined his motivations, he could’ve just wanted the beer and girls (he was clearly misinformed as to how many spend their university years).

As for this theme, Shakespeare does have a point. A moment’s trawling online proves that plenty of academics can speak out of turn and some everyday mums have a strong grasp on reality. I instantly recall the archetypal philosophy students, wearing out the booths in coffee houses critiquing relativism while none of them could change a tire or build a fire in the woods if called upon. Hence, knowledge may be power but it isn’t always instructive and it certainly isn’t wisdom. Here, Shakespeare is declaring that low-brow rules, albeit in a very high brow fashion.

This theme may explain the emphasis on word play here. Shakespeare was a country boy himself, the son of a wool merchant, and maybe Love’s was his response to the pretentious airs of the educated city folk he entertained in London. It might have been culture shock for The Bard from the bush, his accent or pronunciation critiqued at pubs or parties amongst the boasting about education and class distinction. I can just imagine the preened, bearded Elizabethan jaws dropping as the rural playwright actually pulled the urban crowds with his slick productions. How strange to think that William Shakespeare, now the high-brow boogeyman of school boys across the world, may once have been the bumpkin in the city, with empty pockets, mud on his boots and a bunch of unfinished scripts in his back pocket.

Consequently, Shakespeare is pulling out all the stops here and neglecting any other duties other than his use of words. That’s not to say that the play is flawed as a result. The play is what it is: Shakespeare indulging, showing off, wringing the weight out of every last word and stretching the silver sounds from every single syllable. Not one word is wasted and every breath counts. As such the play is rather enjoyable, in a Woody Allen kind of way, with lots of banter, witticisms and dialogue-focused character moments drawing out the stumbling plot.

To continue the cinema analogies, think of the much imitated but rarely matched set-pieces of dialogue in a Tarantino film (notably in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds). As a result, similar to those films, Love may have made cultural impact despite whether the general audience appreciated the tongue twisting. The masses may have just wanted their regular wars and weddings, preferring the latest Marlowe play, or for another celluloid reference, flick from Hitchcock, who looked at scenes of dialogue with disdain as ‘pictures of people talking’.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is William Shakespeare overwriting, and not coincidentally the first play on our journey so far with no discernible prior source. Indeed, Shakespeare may have written this from scratch, with no existing plot to borrow. As a result he could have drawn together a scenario that enabled him to play with language as much as possible, proving his literary mettle and sending a stinging barb at his upper class critics. Whether the general audience loved or loathed it is unknown. Either way, when one of the most popular and celebrated writers of history is overwriting, it is hard not to be impressed.

 

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June 1, 2011 at 8:50 am

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