THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for November 2011

On Anonymous

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A few months ago I took a sledgehammer to the movie Anonymous on this blog, and explicitly discouraged people from going to see it. A few days ago, I saw it. Yes, I’m a whore. What’s more though, I actually really liked it.

To say it’s the best movie director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day after Tomorrow, 10 000 BC, 2012) has made probably sounds like faint praise (though the dude did direct this, which is pretty damn cool), but not only is it the best movie he’s made, it’s actually a pretty good movie by most standards. It’s on the nose, hyperbolic, and completely lacking in subtlety, but it makes up for that in pulpy, soapy fun and political intrigue. Performances are good across the board: Rhys Ifans is great as the tragic Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere; Edward Hogg sets himself up for a potentially lucrative career as the British Jeffrey Combs or Brad Dourif as Robert Cecil; and Rafe Spall, who Edgar Wright fans should (but probably won’t) recognise from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, is awesome playing Shakespeare as an Entourage-type douchebag. There are many nice touches, like the opening and closing segues with Derek Jacobi which riff on both Olivier’s and Branagh’s Henry Vs, channelling the history of Shakespeare film and folding it into this meditation on alternative authorship. On the whole, Anonymous is very entertaining fare and I recommend seeing it wholeheartedly.

But do I believe the theory of authorship that it endorses? Not in the slightest. My enjoyment of this is similar to my enjoyment of Errol Flynn historical romps like The Sea Hawk or The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex, where historical fact is injected with soap and pulp and is all the more entertaining for it. The same could of course be said for Shakespeare’s histories, which bend and fudge the facts for dramatic effect, and the comparison is quite fitting here. But perhaps more precisely, I enjoyed this the way I enjoy Ghostbusters or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, films whose fundamental belief systems – ghosts, UFOs – I hold little stock in, but I can suspend disbelief sufficiently to roll with and invest in the story.  

Lest it sound like I’m dismissing an entire belief system based solely on one popcorn movie, let me point out that in the aftermath of the heated discussion following my initial dismissal of Anonymous and the anti-Stratfordian movement, I did some reading on some of the alternative authorship theories floating around, starting with de Vere and from there looking at some of the other popular contenders like Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe. The fact was I had little to no prior knowledge of these theories (apart of course from the fact that they existed), and like many Shakespeareans had simply dismissed them automatically and thought of their advocates as vague, amorphous entities at best, or as the lonely parasites at the party – the way Superman IV’s Nuclear Man and Ghostbusters II’s Vigo the Carpathian would be at a Super-villain party honouring The Joker and Rene Belloq – at worst. So when some of those folks started commenting on this blog, however aggressive those comments may have been, it made me recognise their investment in these theories and made me genuinely curious to look into some of them. Which I did. And in doing so I was struck by the genuine affection for the plays shared by anti-Stratfordians. Where once I wrongly thought they were out to destroy the canon, I now recognise their affection for and investment in the canon, albeit with great distaste for what they see as its wrongly assigned figurehead. Nonetheless, their quest to dethrone this figurehead remains misguided, and after reading several books, skimming others on Google Books, and working through lots of webpages, I remain thoroughly unconvinced by the various theories and causes out there.

Samuel Schoenbaum, biographer of Shakespeare’s biographers, sums up most of my feelings more elegantly than I ever could in his work Shakespeare’s Lives. He observes that ‘much of the fundamental appeal… of anti-Stratfordian demonstrations’ lies in the fact that ‘Sober literary history is metamorphosed into a game of detection… To such a game the cultivated amateur can give his leisure hours in hopes of toppling the supreme literary idol and confounding the professionals’ (p. 434). This is undoubtedly what drew Delia Bacon to advocate for Bacon as the author of Shakespeare’s work, and likely what led the likes of Thomas Carlyle and Nigel Hawthorne to humour and endorse her argument, however much it went against their nature. It’s also likely what drew Thomas Looney and Charles Ogburn and Sigmund Freud to de Vere, and I can see the appeal: de Vere cuts a dashing, romantic, and tragic figure, compared to a small town guy of moderate education who went to the city, got rich, got fat, and left a bloated corpse and second best bed. It’s potent fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless.

Overall, I remain quite unpersuaded by the host of alternative authorship theories floating around, but I’m happy to have finally looked into them, and to be reasonably informed enough to not simply dismiss them without cause. More than anything, though, I’m grateful that this got me really thinking about Shakespeare the ‘man’ for the first time in a long stretch. Because quite often I forget that Shakespeare was indeed a man, and get caught up thinking of Shakespeare as merely a body of work, an academic and entertainment industry. Linda Charnes has called Shakespeare a ‘transcendental cultural signifier’ (1993, p. 157), while Courtney Lehmann describes Shakespeare as the ‘ultimate commodity fetish’ (2002, p. 232). These descriptions bespeak a body of texts, an industry, an entity, quite detached from any human origin, and if you’d asked me a year ago whether the Stratford man really mattered anymore as ground zero for that body of work, I’d have argued that he mattered little. Ironically, the discussion around authorship that’s taken place on this blog and my viewing of Anonymous have put in perspective just how much William Shakespeare, man and author, means to me, and while I’m happy to pimp Anonymous as a work of entertainment, I’ll be sorry if its take on Shakespeare increases in cultural currency. While the anti-Stratfordians look down on Shakespeare incredulous that someone of his lowly origins could’ve authored the greatest body of work in the English language, I remain in awe of Shakespeare for that very reason. 

So, for all the Oxfordians and anti-Stratfordians out there reading this blog: Anonymous was pretty good, but I remain unconverted. I might not get your cause, much as I don’t get roller derby enthusiasts or Browncoats, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all get along. Let’s agree to disagree…

Ben

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November 29, 2011 at 10:29 am

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The blitzkrieg and the future…

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For those of you who come here often, rarely, or begrudgingly through a sense of relational obligation, there will be a few changes here at theslingsandarrows.

For one, we shall be wrapping up our reviews of William Shakespeare’s plays by the end of next January. This will bring our reading-and-reviewing-the Bard-over-12-months shtick to an orderly close. Between now and then, we are declaring a blitzkrieg on the remaining plays.

We shall blog quickly, we shall blog often. We shall blog topsy-turvy, upside down, inside out and in all manner of minute and manic methods. Expect the unexpected as we rush to squeeze some major works into the ludicrously busy remaining months of this dying year. We have shucked the status quo and if anything, it will be diverting and equally diverted stuff.

Also, as Shakespeare’s work transcends the standard dramatic oeuvre so we will keep this blog active indefinitely as we meander through the remaining sonnets and collaborations at our own pace. Whether that takes all of 2012 or beyond, we do not know and reserve the right to later choose. Either way, the future will be fun and we will keep you posted.

For now, meander through some old posts or alternatively do something more worthy of your time (Google kitten clips, help the poor, etc). So, coming up next? I don’t actually know…

A

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November 22, 2011 at 11:36 pm

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Hamlet, Hughes, Who and more…

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First of all, a very big upper case THANK YOU to Anthony for his thoughtful post on Hamlet vs Faustus, the comic book series I’ve been writing and illustrating since 2004. Lest you think this was a strategic self-promotional exercise designed to make HVF a hit, a very palpable hit, let me assure you that was not the case. Each issue of HVF has an average print run of about 40 copies, which are distributed mainly among friends and family, with a few copies deposited at my friendly neighbourhood comic book store where they sit unnoticed and gather dust. Its production schedule is erratic to say the least, and while I’m up to the final issue, I have big plans for it and may well fail to pull them off and never complete the story. Basically, I have little to gain from the series being thrust in the spotlight, but am nonetheless delighted that Anthony saw fit to thrust it into the spotlight.

The idea for the series, in case you were wondering, came to me around the time I started doing my PhD in early 2004. I read Doctor Faustus and Hamlet in close proximity to one another, and took note of the fact that both titular characters were affiliated with Wittenberg University, as scholar and student respectively. This was also around the time that I first read Alan Moore’s tremendous League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the less than tremendous film of that series had been released the previous year. Freddy vs Jason had also been released that same year, and Alien vs Predator was just around the corner. All of this got me thinking that a team-up or showdown between these two literary icons might make for an entertaining story.

While it often pains me to look back at the storytelling and art in the early issues of the series (and allows me to sympathise, however fleetingly, with George Lucas’s obsessive compulsion to continue tweaking and tinkering with his original Star Wars films) I’m proud of my work on the series as a whole. Looking back over it, it provides a fascinating time capsule of what I was reading and watching and interested in at various points in its lifespan. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was one of the big influences, so there’s a lot of wannabe Alan Moore intertextuality in the early issues. Around the time I was reading Brian Michael Bendis’s classic run on Daredevil my characters started speaking with lots of ellipses and repetition, just like Bendis’s characters. Whenever I was reading Garth Ennis I’d inject lots of gross-out humour. If I was reading Frank Miller I’d try and do dynamic stuff with the artwork (within the confines of my rather limited abilities as an artist), and so forth.

More than anything, though, the series testifies to the archetypal, mythical status of Shakespeare’s play and its protagonist (and of course Marlowe’s), and the infinite possibilities for interpretation and engagement they offer writers and artists. I’m by no means the first person to homage or play with the moody Prince of Denmark, nor am I the last. I am possibly the first and last to pit Hamlet against zombies, werewolves, pirates, ninjas, and mythological figures, and to depict Hamlet removing a crucifix from Rosencrantz’s anus (I don’t think that scenario ever crossed Tom Stoppard’s mind), but that’s beside the point. As Harold Bloom notes, somewhat hyperbolically but not without cause:

The phenomenon of Hamlet, the prince without the play, is unsurpassed in the West’s imaginative literature. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Falstaff, and perhaps Mr Pickwick approximate Hamlet’s career as literary inventions who have become independent myths. Approximation can extend here to a few figures from ancient literature: Helen of Troy, Odysseus (Ulysses), Achilles among them. Hamlet remains apart; something transcendent about him places him more aptly with the biblical King David, or with even more exalted scriptural figures (Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p. 384).

If it sounds like I’m procrastinating talking about Hamlet, that’s because I am, and I have been for a couple of weeks now. Which is fitting I suppose, given the character’s own famous tendency to procrastinate. This avoidance of the task is not for lack of interest or enthusiasm: Hamlet is undoubtedly my favourite Shakespeare play, and most likely my favourite play and favourite piece of canonical literature. At the outset of writing for this blog, it was one of the plays I most looked forward to revisiting and writing about. The problem, I think, is that I’m too close to the play and have spent so much time writing about the play already – in my Honours thesis, in my PhD thesis, in Hamlet vs Faustus – that I don’t think I have anything else of merit to add to what I’ve already said about the play elsewhere. I’m also acutely aware of the large volume of people before me who’ve had more or less similar things to say about it, and the large volume of commentators waiting in the wings. That’s the problem with something as prolific as Hamlet: there’s so much to say about it, and yet so much has already been said that adding to this body of commentary sometimes seems repetitious and redundant.

And yet, the play has a way of insinuating and endearing itself into all areas of my brain that I can’t help but find new ways of looking at it. Steven Berkoff, the talented playwright and go-to-Hollywood-bad-guy du jour of the early 1980s, says of Hamlet that “In every actor there is a Hamlet struggling to get out. In fact, in most directors too. For whatever reason, and there are many, Hamlet is the accumulation of all our values and beliefs” (Berkoff, I Am Hamlet, p. VII). More to the point, he writes “I am Hamlet, since when you play Hamlet he becomes you. When you play Hamlet, you play yourself and play the instrument which is you” (p. VII). This principle – finding Hamlet within yourself and projecting yourself upon Hamlet – applies to readers as well as performers. Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously had “a smack of Hamlet myself”, while Jonathan Bate points out that Hamlet “remains a living icon for the very reason that he is a character in whom reader after reader has recognised something of himself” (Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare, pp. 285-286). Hamlet isn’t so much a blank screen upon which we project our fantasies, but a vessel of human experiences and emotions so archetypal and yet so complex that it’s hard not to find something of oneself in Hamlet. Which sort of explains why, in the case of Hamlet vs Faustus, the character was flexible enough to bend to and roll with whatever else I was reading or thinking at the time, be it Bendis speak, crude Ennis humour, pulpy Miller action, or zombies and werewolves.

Given that we bring what we want to Hamlet and the play and protagonist inevitably accommodate it, rather than talking about the play per se I’ll instead talk about a few things that are interesting to me at the moment and how Hamlet relates to them.

John Hughes

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is like the original John Hughes teen movie: it’s a comic drama mixing broad low comedy with darker dramatic tides, witty and articulate entertainment that’s nonetheless unafraid to go for the cheap laugh or obvious emotional punch. Hamlet himself is the precursor to all of Hughes’ troubled and not so troubled teens. He’s the brain, the beauty, the jock, the rebel and the recluse of The Breakfast Club. He’s Ferris Bueller, as well as the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies and dickheads who think he’s a righteous dude. And while black’s his colour in the popular consciousness, I’m sure he looks pretty in pink.  

Doctor Who

Hamlet and Doctor Who are both British institutions that will likely survive the apocalypse along with the cockroaches (that’s a compliment by the way). Following David Tennant’s successful stage run as Hamlet a couple of years back, I’ve harboured a grand crazy dream of mounting a Hamlet production featuring all surviving Doctors. Tennant could play the lead again, and Bakers Tom and Colin could play his ghostly father and uncle Claudius respectively. Sylvester McCoy would be an awesome Polonius, and Christopher Eccleston and Matt Smith could play Horatio and Laertes, either respectively or the other way around. Peter Davison could play Reynaldo and Paul McGann could play Osric kinda like that fop he played in The Three Musketeers. As for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we could probably fold them into the Whoniverse too, but there really should be a law that nobody except Gary Oldman and Tim Roth play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Occupy Wall Street

Hamlet, no doubt about it, is the 1%. Yet we can easily read the character, as many have done, as distinctly counter-cultural. Like Romeo and Juliet, he’s the victim of a corrupt older order which he rejects and mocks, best exemplified in his contempt and ‘tude towards spymaster Polonius and his uncle’s court & their hardcore partying ways. In the 60s David Warner, before being decapitated by that flying sheet of glass while trying to track down the Anti-Christ with Gregory Peck, famously played Hamlet as counter-culture student. In this respect, Hamlet would be relatively at home occupying Wall Street. Then again, maybe Hamlet’s more a Tea Party kinda guy, longing to restore his nation from the supposed rut it’s found itself in and longing for a fantastical imaginary patriarchy that’ll restore things, and indulging in downright vile behaviour to achieve it. I’ve said before that Shakespeare’s work is fascinating because it bends and conforms to so many different ideological positions, to left and right and everything in between, and Hamlet’s no exception.

Kim Kardashian

I really have no idea who this is, but I’m hoping we’ll instantly get a million hits if we include her name here. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, that’s Hamlet. The somewhat random and haphazard nature of this post no doubt reflects my mental state as I wrap up the academic year and look ahead to the next one. As Anthony and I work our way through the final third of the Bard’s theatrical oeuvre, we’ll be breaking our structured blogging system a bit and just putting up stuff when we’re able to. A few more classics on the horizon, so stay tuned…

Ben

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November 17, 2011 at 9:58 pm

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HAMLET PART 2: Melancholy and The Infinite Sadness.

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Up until recently, I had never read, heard nor seen William Shakespeare’s dramatic work The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. I’m not sure how that one slipped through. This is HamletHAMLET! Renowned. Revered. Re-staged each and every generation for the masses, the grand character-based, tragedy of grief, madness and vengeance. Hamlet

For those who are not familiar with the play, other than myself, it’s the one with the ghost, the skull, the poisoned sword fight and THAT line, (oft-repeated, reworked and mocked… you know the one). It’s the story of the young prince, haunted and mourning, still fodder today for films, comic books and TV dramas about warring bikers. Prince Hamlet is an existential everyman, an early Renaissance humanist, a brooding teen and an archetypal wounded hero, first emerging from texts centuries before Shakespeare and still resounding with the contemporary psyche today. It’s kind of a big deal.

Indeed, when first we meet our Prince of Denmark, he seems most modern, racked with sorrow and dressed in black as he mourns his late father. When it is soon reported that the king’s ghost is haunting the area, Hamlet seeks out the apparition. The ghost reveals that he was murdered, poisoned by his own brother Claudius. A revenge pact is made.

However, instead of inflicting swift justice, Hamlet questions the legitimacy of the spirit and even his own sanity. Hamlet’s resolve is strengthened once he stages a play re-enacting his father’s death to confirm his uncle’s guilt, though it does not result in direct action. Just when swords should be drawn, Hamlet seems inconstant, emotional, philosophical, either feigning or falling prey to madness. Meanwhile, Claudius knows he is suspected and a new murder is plotted.

So the hero lingers over his uncertainty, the love interest kills herself and the antagonist begins to plot. Only when it seems all is lost does Hamlet rise to action and slay the villains, though many around are already murdered, and he then falls dead himself. So this tragedy comes to its close, beginning in grief, continuing with insanity and ending in death.

At this bloody finale, we can’t help but find the plot rather unsatisfying, though I suspect that is precisely the point. Hamlet is of course Shakespeare’s character-based work of note and a tragedy at that. Long since Aristotle’s Poetics, plot-based drama was considered preferential. Each story was to revolve around one event, in one location and at one time, all neatly handled in five narrative beats. Hamlet provides us with a wending exploration of grief, depression, mental illness, angst and justice (the play contains the most lines of all Shakespeare’s). Characters emote, discuss, agonise and yearn from scene to scene rather than scheme, run and brawl. In fact, Hamlet spends entire scenes analysing the events around him and no matter the ghosts, suicidal girlfriends or bloody battles the prince encounters, he does not remove the murderous usurper, take the throne and marry Ophelia. Hamlet refuses to be the hero the play, or we the audience, expect.

Over time many have attributed different reasons for Hamlet’s inertia- Inaction. Indecision. Reticence. Reluctance. Ambivalence. Procrastination. Some consider his contrary motives and actions a flaw of the text, badly patched together from previous drafts. Others apply a philosophical skepticism to the character or a Freudian Oedipal complex. It goes on. Seeing as there is no shortage of rationales for our hero’s decline and demise, there’s little harm in proffering my own.

Earlier I mentioned that line, a question our protagonist asks of himself (‘to be, or not to be’… to be precise). Sheer cliché as its reference might be, I’m not alone in suspecting this famed indicator of the play’s core tension. Considering revenge, suicide and mortality, the struggles he faces, Hamlet honestly cannot find the will to act. Ultimately, this is what makes a tragedy of our protagonist… the inability to act in the uncertainty of sadness.

As individuals, as complex characters playing our own tragedies from time to time, we can all find it difficult to sort our future from our past, our will from our desires or our duty from our despair. We cannot always make sense of our sad sentiments or our brute circumstances, let alone resolve the tensions within them. We wait, we capitulate, hesitate, we wrestle. Even as our world falls down around us and the ghosts of our past keep reminding us of the path ahead… we wait. We stray, wander, meander and doubt. Melancholy overcomes and people mistreat their loved ones, doubt their convictions, go a little mad and think of old friends long gone. Despite the archetypal nature, Hamlet is only human.

Any who have seen the struggle of depression know that to rise and act amidst the tides of emotion is easier said than done. It is a titanic task, attempting to pull free of the infinite sadness that bereavement and angst brings. It asks all of a person, risking all. Hamlet is no different. Ghosts command him to murder, the fate of a kingdom rests in his hands, yet he simply grieves the loss of his father and ponders his own fate. Any who have seen someone lose the struggle with depression also know how high the stakes can be.

Finally, even though all fall dead, Hamlet does indeed destroy those conspiring against him. His opponent Laertes is slain with his own sword and Claudius is forced to the drink from the cup he himself poisoned. As Hamlet dies, having dispatched the evil around him, he names his successor and the kingdom of Denmark is somewhat purged and restored. Hamlet’s famed question is answered, one way or another, and as the final curtain falls there is one solemn lesson the prince has taught us:

when overcome with grief, madness and our own mortality, we must rise and act, or the uncertainty of sadness can kill us…

Anthony

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November 1, 2011 at 2:00 am

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