THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for July 2011

The Merchant of Venice: Part 1.

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So Mel Gibson gets pulled over by the cops…

This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, and in a sense it is. The Hollywood actor reacts abusively as he’s arrested DUI in Malibu. As the media later caught on, it became apparent that the subject of his drunken tirade was not the police force or road safety legislation, but oddly, the ‘f*#@ing Jews!’

In one sense we can’t be too surprised. Gibson’s precocious childhood spanned continents, spawned by exotic talent and eccentric intelligence. Born in New York, he moved to Sydney with his opera singer mother and game show champion and holocaust-denier father. Ultra-conservative Catholicism and post-war anti-semitism were bread and butter in his home.

Consequently, Gibson built a career playing characters driven to extreme rage and violence, (Mad Max, Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, etc). Similar to Roman Polanski, who has spent his life fleeing charges of pedophile rape and making movies featuring abusive sexuality (What?, Chinatown, Bitter Moon), Gibson seems to use art as exorcism, making films that deal in anger, mental illness and messianic themes. So behind the image of a drunk slurring racist obscenities in Malibu, we can dimly spot a skilled artist with some bad wiring and bad habits.

Charges of anti-semitism against the leading man were not new. After it’s controversial release, Gibson revealed that in the seminal scene of The Passion of The Christ (a genre-crossing mix of Biblical epic, gore-fest and inspirational sports film), it was himself that drove the nails into Christ’s hands. Gibson suggested such a gesture might annul any anti-semitic overtones, the Anti-Defamation League disagreed and the furor ensued.

This momentary scene actually drew a fascinating parallel: Jesus Christ, another Jew executed by an oppressive dictatorship was not just the salvation of humanity but also a portrait of anti-semitic politics. In those moments, we saw a glimpse of Gibson, desperately working out his own personal salvation, ironically enshrining the bigotry he was raised with along with the gospel that should cure it.

As a commercial performer, he’s always balanced charm and fury in a rare manner. As an individual, we find the same powers at play in a figure sometimes a raging, alcoholic racist and a sometimes a philanthropist family man that donates millions to charity and the arts. After each public burst of druken, bigoted abuse, he offers eloquent apologies for his behaviour, defended by minority group celebrities. However, Gibson is an actor and deceit is his art, which attitude truly marks the man we may never know.

The issue may not be so complex. Somewhere along the way, Mel Gibson may have just decided that he doesn’t like Jewish people. Ben was right to draw attention to this in his last post, Gibson’s sentiment is the latest in an historic species of prejudice. Whether it’s the Black Death sweeping Europe or the twin towers falling to the New York streets, Jews are often blamed by some. Particularly evident when that diminutive, vegetarian painter paired German nationalism with Nietzchean bluster, Jews have often been victims of atrocity and genocide. In a time when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wishes Israel would vanish from history while refusing to rule out weaponising his nation’s nuclear program, anti-semitism still haunts the 21st century in fearful ways.

So we begin William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, knowing it references thousands of years of human bigotry and countless lives lost in misery.

Gee… baggage much?

Continued in part 2.

Anthony

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July 16, 2011 at 11:47 am

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“You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ focked”: The Merchant of Venice

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A few weeks ago Tony Montana joined me for a discussion of Love’s Labour’s Lost. People seemed to like it, and I’m not surprised. The cultural longevity of Mr Montana and Scarface never ceases to impress me, though sometimes I wonder if the most ardent admirers kinda miss the point, like those people who wear Fight Club tshirts while drinking at Starbucks and talking on their I-Phones, pandering to the very corporate branding that film strives to demolish. I get why this gangster-philosopher remains popular, but I don’t get those people who embrace Montana’s ethos unironically, who wanna “be” badass gangsters like Tony Montana; after all, if the film shows us anything, it’s that being an incestuously inclined cokehead with a tiger in your backyard and a fountain in your house and more money than your bank can hold is an unsustainable lifestyle choice.

Shakespeare’s works are filled with characters who live unsustainable lifestyles or make unsustainable lifestyle choices, and who come to unfortunate ends. Macbeth thought he could keep the chips piling up in his favour, but a miscalculation saw that pile of chips come crashing down with a C-section of decapitating proportions. Lear thinks he’s got his retirement sorted, but living in three kingdoms with three daughters, two of whom don’t like you, one of whom has Aspergers, isn’t the right gameplan. And in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare shows audiences that being a Jewish moneylender in a predominantly Christian city isn’t sound practice.

The Merchant of Venice is another of the plays I encountered for the first time at university, back in 2000. I also recall seeing a State Theatre of South Australia performance of the play back in 2002 or thereabouts, where the actor playing Shylock didn’t hold back when it came to conveying the character’s Jewishness. At the time I thought he was a bit over-the-top, but on reflection I think that’s the ideal way to play Shylock: the character’s a stereotype and caricature (albeit one invested with pathos) so it makes sense to crank those qualities up to eleven, to exaggerate the very traits that distinguish him from the stiff Venetians surrounding him. Shylock’s the alienated outcast who stands outside respectable society and stands out among the Christian peoples of Venice, so it makes sense that there be no modesty, that the actor deliver a big, broad, Tony Montana-esque performance (on that note, it’s fitting that Pacino would play Shylock on film in the noughties).

Lots of people have accused The Merchant of Venice of being anti-Semitic. It’s certainly chockfull of nasty anti-Semitic content, and that does sully the “comedy” somewhat, in much the same way that the misogyny that pervades The Taming of the Shrew sullies that play. The big difference, though, is that Katherina in Shrew is voiceless: she screeches and snarks her way through proceedings, but never transcends the label of shrew and has only the faintest autonomous core. In contrast, The Merchant of Venice grants us brief but poignant access to Shylock’s inner world:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

It’s rhetoric, and somewhat calculated at that, but it gives us insight into Shylock that was never granted to Katherina, and generates sympathy for this alienated outcast. Consequently, it’s hard not to forge an empathetic response to Shylock, given the abuse poured on this minority by the Christian majority: after reading Antonio and Bassanio and Gratiano bag on him for the dozenth time, I wanted Shylock to take his pound of flesh and pound their flesh in the process. While the marked sympathy for Shylock that dominates contemporary perspectives on the play (except perhaps Mel Gibson’s) is undoubtedly symptomatic of these post-Holocaust times, not to mention the twentieth/twenty-first century affection for the monster/anti-hero figure in popular culture borne out of 1930s gangster flicks, King Kong, Tony Montana et al, I’d wager that sympathy for Shylock was always inherent in the play, albeit not always apparent to audiences at different points in history varying in the intensity of their anti-Semitic impulses. Ultimately, if you’re looking to demonise the Jewish, The Merchant of Venice is where it’s at, but if you’re looking to critique the demonising of the Jewish, then Merchant has much to offer that cause too.

At the time Shakespeare wrote the play, the Jewish were indeed demonised in England and were largely absent from the country, solidifying their status as insidious, alien Other. Was Shakespeare more enlightened than his fellow Englanders? Maybe, and maybe not. What he undoubtedly was, however, was a great artist who, foreshadowing Mary Shelley, James Whale, and Boris Karloff, knew how to mine the supposed monster figure/outsider for pathos.

Ben

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July 13, 2011 at 11:28 am

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King John: Less than meets the eye

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Shakespeare’s characters and stories were plucked from reality and mythology. He made mythical figures feel real and real-life figures feel mythical. We’re still telling stories about mythical archetypes today, as well as dramatising the lives of real-life figures, including the same sort of political & monarchical types  and powerful movers & shakers Shakespeare was drawn to. In the last few years we’ve seen TV miniseries made about John Adams and the Kennedys and Bob Hawke, and we’ve seen The King’s Speech scoop up multiple Academy Awards in spite of its thorough ordinariness. Later this year we’ll see Leonardo DiCaprio as J Edgar Hoover under Clint Eastwood’s direction and Meryl Streep creep the fuck out of us as Margaret Thatcher. And recently it was announced that the enigmatic Warren Beatty would be returning to film to direct and star in a film about the enigmatic Howard Hughes. Simply put, we’re drawn to the trials and triumphs and troubles and tribbles of the powerful, partly through morbid fascination with celebrity, partly because we’re tantalised by the behind-the-scenes glance at what goes on in the corridors and private jets of power, and partly because it often makes for enthralling drama.

King John is what happens when it doesn’t make for enthralling drama.

King John is one of those plays I’d never read before that I’ve dreaded reading since we initiated Slings and Arrows. My greatest exposure to the play previously had been through readings about Shakespeare on film: the play was the basis of the very first Shakespeare film ever made, a short silent film from 1899 starring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The fact that nobody’s rushed to make another film in the intervening years says a lot about the play’s popularity. Anthony’s brief treatment of the play confirmed my worst fears, and the play itself served as final confirmation: King John is a fairly underwhelming piece of literature.

In some of my previous write-ups on the history plays, I’ve referred to the histories as monarchical potboilers, and I stand by that statement. They’re royal soap operas, and like soap operas they can be rubbish one minute and captivating the next. Sometimes they even transcend the level of soap and achieve the status of art, like Richard III and Richard II. King John never transcends the level of soap, and sometimes it doesn’t even achieve the level of soap. All the ingredients of a stirring monarchical soap opera are there on the page, in the characterisations and plotting, but as a reader I never really got drawn into proceedings. There’s royal intrigue, pomp and ceremony, vain and foolish leaders, bastards and battles for power, but these ingredients never add up to anything especially engaging.

Anthony talked about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in his discussion, but for me the shitty recent film that came to mind while reading King John was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a text with infinitely tasty ingredients – pirates, mermaids, swordfights, the quest for the fountain of youth – that was thoroughly bland, flat, and lacking in distinguishable personality. Guess that explains why it has made a billion dollars (no joke). Compare POTC:OST with the first film in its franchise, or King John with the Henriad: they all have the same ingredients for rollicking theatrics and pulpy panache, but where one soars, the other just lies there inert and static.

Like POTC:OST, I can’t work out whether King John is too flimsy or too flabby. Maybe it’s both at once, which defies physics but makes for bad reading. It’s not a bad play by any means, but it’s not a good play by any means either. Next up, though, is The Merchant of Venice, which is a very fine play, though not without its problems. Stick around…  

Ben

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July 9, 2011 at 7:54 am

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A Dream Within A Dream…

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‘Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?’

The poet Edgar Allen Poe was the child of actors, in all probability named after the figure from King Lear, and while his immediate literary influences seemed to be the romantics rather than The Bard, he understood the powerful lens that fantasy and dream-like realms brings to storytelling. In fact, most forms of enacted narrative (theatre, screen media) can be understood as a form of communal dreaming, this is then a handy notion for deconstructing a medium for audiences, with Christopher Nolan’s Inception an astonishing recent example.

For now, I will spare you my personal adoration for both Poe and Nolan. After the reflective quality of my last post on Romeo and Juliet, some readers may feel they know me probably a little too well. While I’ll try and keep the biography to a minimum from this point onwards, it would simply be dishonest of me to say A Midsummer Night’s Dream has no personal significance. I have a little history with this play, and will share it now… this is a blog, after all.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the only dramatic work of William Shakespeare that I chose to read, simply for the enjoyment of it. When first making my way at university, I bought a paperback of the play for $2 from a stall in King William Street one winter’s morning. The play was scheduled to pop up in first year Drama and English topics, so I bought the discount text in a bid to keep the student costs at bay. I climbed aboard my bus, opened the paperback and from that point onwards, the play went with me everywhere.

The text could be found folded into the pocket of my overcoat as I haunted train stations, slept on busses, killed time in coffee houses or drew pictures of Batman in boring lectures. As a matter of habit, I began to mine the yellowing pages for the mythical characters, outlandish romping and intoxicating verse. That paperback of Dream seemed like a totem of balmy fantasy that transcended the chilly, banal months of winter study.

So, I fell in love with Dream, and felt a keen sympathy for its warm sense of mischief, quirky magic, poetic yearning and outright smut. I quickly turned to the films, hiring the then new cheesy adaption with Michelle Pfeiffer as a breath-taking Titania, then also the classic cheesy adaption with Mickey Rooney hamming about as Puck. I even taped a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream ballet… I only lasted about thirty seconds into that but I gave it a shot out of respect. Sadly, to this day I have never seen the play actually performed.

Broadly, I suspect there is something universal to Dream. For those of us with more anglo-european backgrounds, deep within our cultural memory we can recall the pagan notion that there is a reality within nocturnal spaces, not a domain of cold darkness, but a plane of bright, chirping life where fairy gods pine and muck about. This recollection evokes those hot summers when the night is softer than the day, when the heat of noon subsides and the breeze that falls after dusk is warm and sweet. We can imagine kids bolting through the streets laughing, playing pranks in Puck-like fashion. We picture weary tradesmen, drinking beer on porches, figuratively acting like jack-asses. This redolent time is often when people fall in love, become heartbroken and gather round to tell stories and dream of something exotic and divine. This distant memory, whether archetypal or trivial, is where A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes something in us all.

Indeed, the evocative notion of ‘the dream’ represents the interior realm in which our desires know no bounds, and the text sees the characters transcend restraint, logic and even reality and species. Shakespeare typically invokes structures of authority into his work: kings, dukes, priests, soldiers, etc. These figures bring a sense of parameter and consequence to the drama (the prince banishes Romeo, the duke sentences Egeon to death, etc). Such figures are absent from Dream’s plot, un-tethered havoc being the result. In fact, Shakespeare shucks the whole status quo for this play, with no political figures or larger Judeo-Christian framework to be seen. With no kings, no cops and no God anywhere to be seen, this is Shakespeare having an awful lot of fun.

Aside: The Elizabethans had quite an eclectic religious experience. King Henry 8th had of course devised his own ecclesiastical structure for political reasons. His daughter Elizabeth had managed to keep the social chaos of the Protestant/Catholic schism at bay. This was also the Renaissance and a young humanism (a broad term then and now) had begun to gather momentum.

So Shakespeare’s audience had inherited an English depiction of Yahweh, arguably the first universal deity, whose existence was coherent with Greek philosophy thanks to Augustine and whose will approved the throes of empire thanks to Constantine. The King James Bible was about to hit the presses, but the Bishop’s Bible had already become the society’s central text, offering cosmology, morality, folklore, hygienic protocols and the general mythos that any coherent civilization requires. Shakespeare’s work is inseparable from this fascinating religious ethos… except for Dream, which abandons all restraint for the magical antics of fairy jesters with love potions and gigolo donkeys named Bottom.

More specifically, Dream takes place within a genre-crossing framework of ancient Greek mythology and Renaissance fantasy, with Athenian characters mixing with figures drawn from Germanic myth. So the play weds the worlds of such diverse figures as the Greek gods Theseus and Hyppolyta, the Renaissance fairies Oberon and Titania and the English trickster Puck. It may be difficult to understand how this rearranging of ancient icons, literary characters and pop clowns may have struck the Elizabethans, but let’s try a contemporary allusion: imagine a love story involving a number of young 21st century couples bumbling around beneath the capricious antics of St Peter, Superman and Bugs Bunny. A flawed parallel, but it’s a start.

Textually, there’s more than enough traditional Shakespearean motifs at work here: a play within a play, mistaken identity, love triangles, clowns, class distinction, marriage as resolution etc. There may not be prior sources at work here, akin to Love Labour’s Lost, and Shakespeare seems to be writing from scratch, relishing every opportunity to crank the mayhem and subvert the craft. Given the results, this bodes well for the Bard’s sole creative spirit.

Now, as I read Dream again it seems hard to separate the text from my time intimately spent with the play. I could continue to spin some evocative prose around how the book impacted my world, riffing off the sweet melancholy of youth and resonant potency of Shakespeare’s verse. Indeed, I have a ton of ripe guff I could throw about, but I did that last week. In closing, all I will say is this: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare at his most fantastic, bawdy and mischievous and it is unforgettable as a result.

I was amused by Ben’s recollection of the poor essay he wrote on Dream years before at university. You see, I wrote that exact essay as well, making the usual drab observations (the gods as an old married couple fussing over child custody in a rom-com with a fantasy plot-wheel) and getting an academic beat down from one very unimpressed tutor. Maybe it’s a rite of passage for young literature students to draw some banal analogies on this play and receive the dreaded red ink as punishment. The irony here was that I adored this play, yet my analysis was so trite as a result.

History repeats itself and taste trumps critique (see my last post). In instances where we feel unable to rise above the audience stalls, higher observations are often absent. I’ve said nothing new on A Midsummer Night’s Dream here. Perhaps that is the power of the play, as an escapist vision of unfettered fantasy and desire that leaves dryer thoughts behind.

At the play’s end, the characters each conclude that the magic mayhem they have witnessed must have been a dream. Puck even suggests this of the play itself:

‘And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream,’

For William Shakespeare to frame the play’s occurrence as a communal dream is to contextualise the event as something simultaneously fantasy and reality, for a dream is both an abstract vision and a keen experience. Here, the play becomes something universal, transcending reality for the audience.

As did my $2 paperback all those years ago…

Anthony

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July 1, 2011 at 7:01 am

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