THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for August 2011


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When Ben and I first embarked upon reviewing William Shakespeare’s historic tetralogies, with their multiple installments, prequels and western meta-narrative, the inevitable Star Wars comparisons arose. Initially, when discussing the Henriad, Ben wisely suggested that Henry IV Part 1’s clown/foil Fallstaff, who appeared in both historic and unrelated comedic plays, was similar to how the Ewoks generated their own franchise from Return of The Jedi. I then suggested the drunken knight was more akin to C3PO due to his reoccurring presence across installments of the same narrative. Tense silence ensued… or maybe neither of us really cared. Either way, let’s do the hard science, crash through HIV1, HIV2, HV and TMWW and finally lay the matter to rest…

After Richard II, the narrative recommences in an England ruled by Henry IV, the brawler who earlier dispatched that whiner King Richard. Bollingbroke however has lost his touch and finds himself struggling with the political threats of holy war, Scots and the Welsh (you gotta love an era where the Welsh pose a threat, as opposed to our current time where we fear them only as much as the next Tom Jones album). Meanwhile, his son Prince Hal has terrorised England with his adolescent hedonism, egged on by the yellow, gross and preening knight Sir John Fallstaff. The nobility is unimpressed, rebels draw swords and battles break out.

However, the young Hal is no gad-about as first thought, but actually waiting for just the right moment where he can appear gallant and regal. So as the Battle of Shrewsbury brews, Hal and his sidekick gather troops (though Fallstaff does all he can to con cash and feigns death to avoid battle). The Prince strikes down the rebel leader Hotspur and the day is won, though the wider struggle is continued in HIV2.

HIV2 opens with Hal and Fallstaff already gone their separate ways. Sir John has been trawling the usual haunts, undergoing urine tests and picking up prostitutes. Hal has been attempting to convince his father that his change of heart has been genuine and no political ploy. Inevitably another rebellion rises up, and Fallstaff gathers some more troops to get back into the thick of the action. Suddenly, Henry IV falls sick and dies and Hal becomes king. Fallstaff arrives anticipating a favoured place at court and finds himself cast out and rejected by the now noble monarch, Henry V.

So HV details Hal’s transformation into the brave, determined and politically savvy Henry V. Henry V avoids assassination, rallies his troops with valour, delivers momentous speeches and knocks all opposing forces back, even marrying a French princess and duly becoming heir to the French throne. Now a capable and powerful king, Hal’s old mate Fallstaff is nowhere to be seen and is in fact announced dead, almost as an afterthought.

Overall, Fallstaff could be considered analogue to any number of Star Wars characters (or maybe it should be the other way round). The only characters to link all six Star Wars films are of course the droids R2D2 and C3PO, who weave in and out of each film offering a commentary on events like a combination of Toto and the Tin-man, a Greek chorus and an old gay couple.

However, Fallstaff enters the tetralogy only to exit again, resurfacing in a comedy spin-off, in which case he is more akin to the Ewok character Wicket, the savage teddy who appeared in Return of The Jedi before getting a TV movie, Caravan of Courage (a film which as Ben points out can only truly be appreciated by those unfamiliar with the production standards present in the previous Star Wars films… as well as those diagnosed with severe dementia).

Though the significance of Fallstaff’s exit may depend largely on the purpose of a clown’s presence within a narrative, which is usually to amplify the genre of the work, primarily comedy, or in contrast to lighten the tone of a tragedy. Here, Fallstaff is a clown who highlights the flaws of our young protagonist until the dramatic turn of events pushes him aside. As our hero journeys through the changes that fulfill his quest for the throne, this very incarnation of his underhanded, carnal id must be left behind. The more Hal becomes Henry, the more the story cannot abide Fallstaff, which leads me to compare him to that famed Star Wars misfire, yep, you guessed it… Jar Jar Binks.

Jar Jar Binks was a CGI character developed for the Stars Wars prequels, a largely incoherent mix of bunny, frog and a Rastafarian Looney Tunes figure. Jar Jar’s comedic presence was defined by his clumsiness, bad luck with bodily functions and dialogue that mirrored a toddler with a speech impediment. The character was an obvious attempt to give the film even more toyetic capacity and attract the pre-school audiences to the pulp adventure, space opera.

However, as the character debuted it seemed he was hardly Chewbacca 2.0 as Lucasfilm might have hoped, but more like Richard Simmons. For the many who loathe the Star Wars prequels, Jar Jar Binks was a key culprit in dragging an epic cinematic legacy through the mud. The instant dislike the media and internet took to Jar Jar resulted in the character being side-lined in consequent films, at least that was the general consensus for his growing absence from the franchise.

Now this comparison strains either characterization almost beyond recognition. One figure is a long-esteemed literary icon with an immeasurable legacy upon dramatic storytelling, the other is a stunted, minor blip on the recent pop culture radar. Nor is there an abundance of similarity. The Gungan klutz is not deceitful, obese, licentious or vain like Sir John, but one can’t help but see a little resemblance between Jar Jar bumbling around the battle in The Phantom Menace and Fallstaff larking it up at Shrewsbury. Either way, Jar Jar’s presence in the film formed a vapid piece of the young Annakin Skywalker’s childhood. However, the more Annakin Skywalk outgrew the things of innocence and took on his own throne of dark power, the more Jar Jar just wasn’t necessary for the narrative. That is the brief moment where John and Jar Jar play the same role: as the protagonists rise, the clowns fall to the side.

This is why clowns are always just a little sad, they are all ultimately rejected or left behind as the narrative progresses. So when Sir John Fallstaff is cast from the king’s presence in HIV2 or Jar Jar Binks strolls momentarily in mourning at the finish of Revenge of The Sith, we can’t help but feel for their loneliness. We ask the question that amongst all the politics, battles, shrieking deaths and frustrated destinies, who is it that cheers up the clowns when the story casts them aside?

The Elizabethan crowds must have been thrilled at first when they heard that Sir John Fallstaff was getting his own comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. It might have seemed that their delightful old jester had survived death after all and returned to his wild ways. Alas, they were shafted. TMWW is a standard piece of bawdy Bardotary, which places Fallstaff chasing cash and skirt amongst the then current 16th century context. The audiences must have been left scratching their heads, much like my own childhood bewilderment at how Happy Days characters like Al or Mork would appear in the spin-off sitcoms set in the 1970s. Sir John Fallstaff had exited the stage for a reason, and no amount of cash-in, context fudging could change that… the clown was dead.

So Fallstaff would not surface in the Shakesperean oeuvre again, whether in spin-off comedies or the historical works. The Henriad was done, both for the Elizabethans and now for those of us at theslingsandarrows. So in closing, the narrative returns us to the opening part of the first tetralogy, the funeral of Henry V, where increasing reports of French rebels haunt an empty throne…


P.S. I just realised I managed that whole post without responding to Ben’s baited reference to Superman IV… maybe next time.



August 21, 2011 at 11:02 am

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Regarding Henry: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V

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In the interest of recovering some lost ground, this post will be an epic Henry-palooza, covering the remaining three instalments of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of history plays, the Henriad (we looked at Richard II, the first part of the tetralogy, a few weeks back), and  its Falstaff-centric spin-off The Merry Wives of Windsor.

First, Henry IV, Part I. The scene is England. Henry Lancaster sits upon the English throne as Henry IV, having deposed the previous monarch, Richard II. His son Hal, the future King Henry V, is a bit of a wastrel, spending his time with the hedonistic, obese, drunken knight Falstaff instead of undertaking more princely pursuits. Falstaff, meanwhile, sees Hal as his ticket to the big-time, as the future King’s wingman. But all is not as it seems: Hal isn’t a wastrel, but is biding his time, and both father and son feel the pinch of guilt for their coup against the Yorks. As these personal dramas unfold, the chivalrous Hotspur seeks to dethrone the King.

As the above summary indicates, there’s a lot going on in Henry IV, Part I (HIV1 from here on out). But unlike King John, the last history play we read and a sluggish, somewhat inert text that neither Anthony nor myself took to, HIV1 is Shakespeare firing on all cylinders. It’s pulpy and soapy and witty and extremely confident writing, with rounded and compelling characters. I’ve mentioned before that studying a Shakespeare-centric course in my third year at university in 2002 is what turned me into a Bardolater (albeit a fluctuating one), and the play that sold me on Shakespeare was in fact HIV1, so revisiting it for the first time in almost a decade was a genuine delight.

Interestingly, most people fall head over heels for the play on the basis of Falstaff, but that didn’t happen to me the first time around. What initially drew me to the play was the chilly father-son dynamics and the opposition between Hal and Hotspur. Falstaff was fine, don’t get me wrong, but had perhaps been a touch over-hyped: I’d read Harold Bloom’s chapter on HIV1 in his entertaining but pompous Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) in preparation for my own reading of the play, and if you’ve read that chapter, and indeed the book as a whole, you’ll know that a good proportion of it is comprised of Bloom sucking Falstaff’s staff. Bloom’s overriding argument is that Shakespeare invented the human, or humanity as we see it today, and he posits Falstaff and Hamlet as the figureheads of this innovation. Needless to say, I expected the character of Falstaff to be all things to all people: a fat Son of Jor-El, a Stephen Hawking with moving body parts. As a result of the hype, I was left slightly underwhelmed. On revisiting the play after a solid stretch, though, I find myself appreciating the Falstaff character a whole lot more. I don’t think Shakespeare invented the human, but he certainly contributed immensely to the representation of human thought and personality in literature and theatre, and the witty, tragic Knight is certainly a key player in that project. The character, along with those other qualities mentioned above, make HIV1 dynamic reading.   

One of the great myths floating around Shakespeareana is that Falstaff struck such a chord with one original audience member in particular, Queen Elizabeth I, that a Falstaff-centric play was commissioned. Thus, before Shakespeare and his company went to work on Henry IV, Part II, there was The Merry Wives of Windsor. Whether or not Merry Wives was written specifically for the Queen or simply for a public that ate up the character, the result was, unfortunately, not very good. Long before Hollywood cranked out rushed, inferior sequels to satisfy a target market with ultimately unsatisfying results, Shakespeare did the very same thing. In a perceptive review of one of those aforementioned rushed, inferior sequels, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Carson Reeves observes:

The reason sequels tend to be bad is because the writing period is rushed. It’s hard to write a fully fleshed out compelling story with original twists and turns in a matter of months. The Matrix had over 40 drafts. The Sixth Sense was in the mid-twenties. Look at what happened to those same screenwriters when they had half that time [i.e. The Matrix Reloaded, Lady in the Water].

Another of the great myths about Shakespeare, first imparted by fellow playwright and fan Ben Jonson and readily perpetuated by the Bard’s admirers, was that he “never blotted out a line”. While this appeals to the romantic in me, it does nothing for the pragmatist. All writers rework, rejig, and revise their work to perfection (or whatever passes for perfection; I’d say Michael Chabon and Michael Crichton have different standards), and I’d wager Shakespeare was no different. So rushing Merry Wives into theatres probably was not the best idea, as it resulted in a rather slight, ineffectual comedy, one that is largely decontextualised from the exciting, riveting drama unfolding in the Henry IV plays and whose lead character is greatly reduced in terms of personality despite the increased stage presence. Merry Wives is not without some laughs and charms, but it’s the Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure to the Henry IV plays’ Star Wars, or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace to Superman: The Movie, or S.P.Y.S to M.A.S.H.

On that note, and because it’s always best to change topic when you start talking about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, I’ll turn to Henry IV, Part II. HIV2 (as I’ll call it from here on) is a fascinating companion piece to HIV1. It’s a muted and more sombre affair, kinda like The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers to HIV1’s A New Hope or Fellowship of the Ring (which I guess makes Henry V the Return of the Jedi/King of the Henriad, which really is rather fitting). It’s not quite as entertaining as its precursor, but contains some beautiful writing and strong dramatic moments, none more so than the passing of King Henry IV and, subsequently, the coronation of Hal as Henry V, where Falstaff is outcast by his former drinking companion. It’s a heartbreaking moment of calculated cruelty on Hal’s part, one that nonetheless reveals his steely determination to be a fine King, and to step out of his father’s shadow and the shadow of Bolingbroke’s crime against Richard II. It also plays on emotional ties forged with both characters in the previous play, heightening the emotional blow.

This brings us to the final episode in the Henriad, Henry V. In this play, Hal proves his mettle as King of England by defeating the French at the Battle of Agincourt, hanging old friends, killing prisoners, and marrying the French princess. He’s the Captain Kirk of the British monarchy, killing and fucking everything that moves (on that note, how awesome would it be to see William Shatner as Henry V? Scroop sabataaged…The system!). It’s a tremendously entertaining play in a Boys Own adventure kind of way, though it lacks the substance and poignance of the Henry IV plays and is almost obscene in its patriotism. In my post on Richard II I discussed John of Gaunt’s speech about England as patriotic propaganda, but that speech was child’s play compared to the St Crispin’s day speech Hal delivers on the morning of Agincourt (yes, that’s Batman in the left corner). Unsurprisingly, the speech has been co-opted by various “How to succeed in business according to Shakespeare” type manuals which posit Hal as the perfect model of an effective, inspirational, motivational leader (as opposed to, say, Hamlet). The play’s fame has also been fed considerably by two very fine films made nearly half a century apart, which were indeed my own introductions to the text: the first by Laurence Olivier in 1944, which as mentioned previously was a piece of wartime propaganda, the latter (which I just linked to) by Kenneth Branagh in 1989, which went for a darker, more anti-war tone largely derivative of Vietnam War films.

All in all, three pretty damn good plays, one middling one. I’ll now hand things over to Anthony to share his thoughts on this quartet. Stay classy San Diego…



August 12, 2011 at 12:20 am

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The Merchant of Venice: Part 2.

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Whoa, ok, apparently I need to complete, or begin as the case may be, my review of The Merchant of Venice. Problem is I’ve been a little distracted. You see, if all went according to plan I’d currently be sitting on a beach in Hawaii, busily reading and reviewing absolutely nothing. However, due to a pernicious bout of pneumonia, my wife and I are unable to fly and are battling the blues and bluster of a Melbourne winter instead. The adjective ‘awesome’ possesses many antonyms I could employ to describe my predicament, but I’m too tired. So I’ll be brief finishing up, I really need a vacation…

Consequently, The Merchant of Venice fits into the controversial category of the Shakespearean oeuvre: there’s the misogynist play Taming of the Shrew, then there’s the gross play Titus Andronicus, given our last posts there’s the boring play King John, (whether Othello ticks the racist box is still debated). Now there is the alleged anti-semitic play, The Merchant of Venice, and unfortunately that is where our discussion of this work really begins and ends.

This play’s reputation is deserved. The villain of the piece, a loan-shark named Shylock, is a caricature, a 2D image of the medieval Jew. He is a moneylender, greedy and mean, asking for flesh where he cannot ask for commercial interest. Make no mistake, Shakespeare wrote this character with good measures of clown and villain and we find a sliver, a noble sliver, but just a sliver nonetheless of sympathetic complexity introduced at the very end. Shylock stalks onto the scene and similar to watching Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the slaves in Gone With the Wind, the stereotype sits uncomfortably in a work of such dramatic skill.

Indeed, the presence of Shylock seems rather odd being that this is all some sort of comedy. Sure, we have a standard ‘comedy of errors’ set-up, (bloke chases girl, girls disguise themselves as blokes, etc) but with a racial stereotype sharply wedged in the midst of it. That’s not to say that the play does not work as a cohesive drama and racist stereotypes often pop up in all manner of low brow comedies, simply that a contemporary whiff of anti-semitism infuses the play’s politics. The point at which life and limb are genuinely threatened on all sides is when the gags begin to fall fairly flat. This was no concern for the Elizabethans familiar with anti-semitic sentiment, but I’m led to wonder just how many recent stage and screen adaptations have even been played for laughs in these modern times.

For our times, the term anti-semitism is inevitably paired with the word ‘holocaust’. Not great baggage for a comedy to negotiate, unless your Mel Brooks of course, at which point a Jewish sense of humour can wrangle a musical titled Springtime for Hitler, but only as an absurd proposition. We can laugh at the notion of turning anti-semitism into light entertainment, but we can’t actually laugh at anti-semitism as light entertainment, regardless of whether The Bard’s genius is behind it all.

So anti-semitism marks this play for the ages, whether we embrace the controversy and decry it or revise the text and redeem it. Sure, there’s the famed ‘hath not a Jew eyes’ speech, but how far does a little character complexity really go in the midst of a lot of bigoted caricature. I feel it’s almost akin to the colloquial ‘I’m not racist’ preamble before the clearly racist joke.

Nor is there a tapestry of social political themes to muse over here either. As with much of Shakespeare’s work, Merchant’s scenario and plot gimmick was hacked from an earlier work. The inclusion of Shylock is the only real innovative material Shakespeare brought to an already popular genre of ‘loans gone bad’ plays. As a result, anti-semitism is the only theme to really define this work.

So we are led over and over to the same question: What are we to make of the anti-semitism in The Merchant of Venice?

Well, when Mel Gibson stumbles drunk from his car, staring into the police car headlights in Malibu, he reaches back and throws out the worst insults he can recall from childhood, ‘the f*#!@ing jews’, so to does Shakespeare rework the bigotry his culture offered. Just like Gibson himself, Shakespeare’s play is born from an environment of anti-semitism and has recalled its bigoted norms in every dramatic detail. Just as Gibson has tried and failed to understand his flaws through his art, so too does Merchant offer us a layered but still prejudiced portrait of Renaissance anti-semitism. As I said in the first part of this review, Gibson is a skilled artist with some bad habits and bad wiring. So we too can understand The Merchant of Venice as a skilled work of art emerging from a culture of bad race relations.

To return to the question of genre and character, it is interesting to note that the comedic nature of the play hinges on how the figure of Shylock is portrayed. A crude, villainous Shylock would be just right for the standard comedy, but the politically correct sympathetic portrayal would turn it into a drama, or even a tragedy. We can stage a funny but bigoted play, or a serious and ethical play, but we can’t have both. Check the original folio… William Shakespeare wrote Merchant as a comedy.

Mel Gibson’s only Shakespearean adaptation to date was his accomplished film of the tragedy of Hamlet. I’m waiting for him to lead and direct an adaption of The Merchant of Venice




August 2, 2011 at 2:17 am

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