THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for December 2011

Merry Christmas all…

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‘At christmas I no more desire a rose,

Than wish a snow in may’s new-fangled mirth:

But like of each thing that in season grows…’

Love’s Labour’s Lost

 

… and a suitably Shakespearean new year.

A

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December 26, 2011 at 1:03 am

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King Lear: A T-Rex attack without the funny bits

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THE PLOT: King Lear is living the dream. He’s on the verge of retiring, and he plans to distribute his kingdom between his three daughters and live comfortably off their hospitality. However, bad things are afoot: his favourite daughter questions his scheme and is banished, and his crap daughters prove inhospitable and banish him, sending him out into the storm of the century…

THE PLAY: My Shakespeare teacher and thesis supervisor at university, Robert Phiddian, often instructed students at the outset of lectures or tutorials on King Lear to close their eyes and imagine the very worst things imaginable, to put them in the Lear sphere. That’s not bad advice.

It always pisses me off when people criticise books or films or plays for being depressing or difficult or long. Someone – for the life of me I can’t remember who, and my brief Google search yielded no clarification alas – once criticised people who complained that Blood Meridian was too tough for them, and said that if you wanted to get something out of it you needed to work a little harder. I agree with that position, not just in relation to Blood Meridian but the digestion of art in general. But some people do just want entertainment with little hard work and maximum payoff, and complain when they don’t get that. In general, those people aren’t worth talking to. In the case of King Lear, though, I’m willing to sympathise. But only just a little bit. I’ve read Lear quite a few times now – in my last year of high school, my third year of undergraduate study, a couple of times while working on my PhD, and a couple of times when I taught the play to undergrads – and each and every time it’s a slog. Where in most cases familiarity breeds ease of reading and accessibility, in the case of Lear familiarity is actually, for me at least, a turnoff. Not because I dislike the play, not because I tire of it, but because I read it knowing all the terrible zigs and zags ahead, and am reluctant to work through them. Even so, I wouldn’t have it any other way: Lear is, simply put, one of the most intensely bleak mindbombs in the English language or any other language, and while its rewards might not be immediately gratifying, they are legion.

In my previous post on Othello I noted that play’s continued relevance in terms of racial and sexual politics, and on the surface King Lear may not seem to have that same immediate hook. Its vision of a monarchy’s collapse and the apocalypse are rooted firmly in and riff upon older power structures and beliefs. Exorcisms were public (or semi-public) spectacles at the time, and Stephen Greenblatt (1989) notes that Edgar’s performance as a mad hobo drew upon the tics and gestures of the supposedly demonically possessed. Meanwhile, behind the altars in churches across the land stood murals depicting Heaven and Hell and the End of Days – not unlike Michelangelo’s epic paint job on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – silently disciplining parishioners into Christian conduct, and Lear riffs on these images too. Given that society is much more secular, can Gloucester’s contention that “as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport” – or, for that matter, Melchett’s contention in Blackadder II that “As private parts to the Gods are we, they play with us for their sport” – still resonate as much as it did 400 years ago?

Well, no and yes. No, because society is more secular and belief systems are more varied. And yes, because there are still plenty of devout believers, and even those who don’t believe can still engage with the mythology and iconography of Heaven and Hell and God and Gods and the apocalypse, given their saturation in popular culture. After all, I imagine anyone who watches The Exorcist but isn’t a parishioner would still get by on the accumulated shorthand. However, more than anything, King Lear’s apocalyptic vision continues to resonate because even though the Christian apocalypse is a less pressing concern these days, other forms of apocalypse – nuclear, viral, and humanity’s inherent, inbred compulsion to destroy itself – remain pertinent. An excellent example of this would be Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, the greatest film of King Lear and one of the greatest films of Shakespeare ever made. Though set in feudal Japan, the invasion and burning of the Lear figure’s castle – substituting for the play’s storm sequence – riffs on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Kent figure’s final lines mull humanity’s predilection to destroy itself independent of heavenly intervention. You can watch the aforementioned incredible scene here, though I’d recommend watching it in the context of the film itself, preferably on the biggest screen possible with the best sound possible.

Apart from the play’s pronounced apocalyptic thread, other threads resonate today as well. Mentally ill hobos continue to roam the streets and countryside without proper treatment. Families continue to bicker over fortunes and estates. We still have dictators, we still have power struggles and political coups, and we still have wars. These miseries are multiple and relentless in Lear. I mean really relentless. I’ve always thought one of the very best set pieces in film history is the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park, and what makes it magic is that just when the scene gets too intense to bear Spielberg throws in a laugh to release the tension, then starts all over again. As Drew McWeeny has noted, “that’s what makes Spielberg so great.  He knew full well that the sequence would cause an animal panic in people, and he made sure to punctuate the entire sequence with gags that gave people an out, a pressure valve, a way to defuse the pure terror.  Each of the laughs built into the scene landed perfectly. Fear, fear, fear, laugh.  Fear, fear, fear, laugh.” Hamlet is a bit like that scene in Jurassic Park, alternating between intense drama and strategically embedded humour. So is much of Shakespeare’s other work. But not King Lear. No, King Lear is like the T-Rex attack if it had played out without the funny bits. It’s unrelenting and brutal, without the simple base pleasure of seeing a T-Rex eating a man sitting on a toilet to relieve us. That’s one of the reasons it’s a slog to read and read again. Gloucester’s eyes getting gouged out is tough to read, and I’m a Saw apologist. Lear cradling his deceased daughter at the end is tough to read, and I’m a The Mist apologist. Lear wandering the countryside cracked is tough to read, and I’m a fan of crazy old people. But all this is precisely why Lear is so great. It pushes buttons, envelopes, readers, viewers, actors, the works. It might not give you the reassuring pat on the head you may want from your reading, but you can certainly pat yourself on the head for reading it. You’ll have earned it.

Ben

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December 13, 2011 at 5:40 am

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Othello: sex, death, and green-eyed monsters

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THE PLOT: Othello is living the dream. He’s the talk of the town, a celebrated soldier at the height of his military career, and has a smokin’ hot wife named Desdemona. However, bad things are afoot: Iago is angry about ***insert here*** and seeks to destroy Othello’s life, first by persuading him that Desdemona is having an affair, then by conspiring with him to kill her.

THE PLAY: Othello, not to put too fine a point on it, is awesome. I’ve said elsewhere that Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play, and I’d wager it’s the greatest, but Othello is, for me, the most entertaining. It’s epic Shakespearean tragedy delivered on a domestic scale: the plight of Othello et al affects a circle of about a dozen people rather than an entire nation or kingdom (sure, some battles might pan out differently in future due to the loss of Othello’s military prowess, but that’s minor compared to the vast tragic outcomes of Hamlet and Lear). In many ways this makes Othello the most soap operatic of all Shakespeare’s great tragedies, but this intense focus also makes it one of the most compelling.

First off, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: Othello, like The Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus, contains racist undercurrents. Ania Loomba lists Othello alongside the likes of Shylock, Jessica, Aaron, Tamora, Caliban and Cleopatra as one of “Shakespeare’s Others” (1996, p. 180), figures representing European interaction with less “civilized” worlds both old and, in the case of Caliban, New, and the play’s something of a permanent hot topic due to its racial politics. For instance, it was evoked during the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s as a point of comparison – both O.J. and Othello, after all, are revered black warriors overcome by jealousy over their white wives’ adulterous affairs (non-existent in Othello, very existent in the case of Simpson) and driven to murder – and Tim Blake Nelson’s high-school-set Othello film O made pointed, on-the-nose references to Simpson. I’m not sure if it’s a positive reflection on Shakespeare’s timelessness or a negative reflection on our own collective cultural backwardness that the racist attitudes of a 400 year old play hold currency today among white bigots. Either way, they do. Even so, while Othello’s blackness serves, as Stephen Greenblatt (1980) notes, as “the sign of all that [his] society finds frightening and dangerous” (p. 240) and casts him in a fragmented position as both “the institution and the alien, the conqueror and the infidel” (p. 234), in other respects the portrait Shakespeare paints of this black soldier is unusually progressive and heroic for its time. As A.C. Bradley observed over a century ago:

There is in most of [Shakespeare’s] later heroes something colossal, something which reminds us of Michelangelo’s figures. They are not merely exceptional men, they are huge men; as it were, survivors of the heroic age living in a later and smaller world … Othello is the first of these men, a being essentially large and grand towering above his fellows, holding a volume of force which in repose ensures pre-eminence without an effort, and in commotion reminds us rather of the fury of the elements than of the tumult of common human passion (1904, p. 176).

The play contains quite sexist undercurrents as well. Desdemona is demonised by Iago and subsequently by Othello, and the language and rhetoric they deploy is distinctly misogynistic. The play also draws correspondences between Othello’s racial otherness and Desdemona’s gendered otherness. Helen Carr observes that:

In the language of colonialism, non-Europeans occupy the same symbolic space as women. Both are seen as part of nature, not culture, and with the same ambivalence: either they are ripe for government, passive, child-like, unsophisticated, needing leadership and guidance, described always in terms of lack – no initiative, no intellectual powers, no perseverance; or on the other hand, they are outside society, dangerous, treacherous, emotional, inconstant, wild, threatening, fickle, sexually aberrant, irrational, near animal, lascivious, disruptive, evil, unpredictable (Carr 1985, cited in Loomba 1998, pp. 159-160).

The sort of misogyny we see in Othello also persists today, as does the perpetuation of the otherness of women (every time a female character does something irrational on a film or TV show and a male character says “Women!” I want to punch the screen in). The passivity of Desdemona in the face of Othello’s accusations and her ultimate submission to his authority and murderous rage are also problematic (and also persistent, as anyone unfortunate enough to watch Bella in a Twilight movie can attest). Once again, I’m not sure if this persistance is a testament to Shakespeare or a condemnation of our times.

So, we have racism, sexism, misogyny, faux-adultery and murder, and connotations of sexual otherness and monstrosity. At the risk of making Othello sound like a trashy Shakespearean version of Jerry Springer, let me assure you that in addition to its ongoing topicality and pulpy thrills it’s also a masterful play and one of the finest examples of Shakespeare’s command of characterisation, plotting (though of course its over-arching plot was borrowed from elsewhere), language and tension. In regards to the latter, it has few rivals within or outside the Shakespeare canon, which is no small feat given that we know where the play is going based upon its status as tragedy. It’s inevitable that our protagonist will fall, so the tension Shakespeare generates derives not so much from not knowing what will happen, but from not knowing how it will happen (for new readers at least), and the Bard milks Iago’s chilling seduction of Othello to maximum infuriating effect. Iago’s manipulation of Othello is gradual and agonising, and in that character Shakespeare has crafted not only his greatest villain since Richard III but his greatest villain, full stop. He is a terrifying villain because he lacks cause and ambition. Where Richard III wants to be King, Iago just wants to fuck with people. Is it because he was not promoted, because he’s racist, because he hates women, because he’s gay, because he’s impotent and bitter? All these theories have been thrown about, and different versions have been promoted in different readings of the play – for example, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud have played Iago as a gay man in love with Othello on stage, as have Michel MacLiammoir and possibly Kenneth Branagh on film – but reading the play it could be any or all or none of these things. He transcends human ambition in his “motiveless malignity”, as Coleridge put it, and is more akin to a force of evil. As Michael Caine’s Alfred says of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, “some men just want to watch the world burn”, and Iago’s one of those men.

Perhaps it’s the masochist in me (now where did I put that ballgag…?) that finds such a painful play so enthralling and entertaining, but it’s worth pointing out I don’t get an equivalent kick from King Lear, a play that’s even more painful. I think what I like most about Othello, as I intimated in the introduction to this post, is that it channels all this misery and gravitas into an intimate chamber drama. The stakes may not be as high as Hamlet or Lear, but they’re all the more tangible as a result. In sum, Othello is badass. And the Arden Shakespeare can quote me on that…

Ben

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December 13, 2011 at 5:20 am

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Julius Caesar: Et tu, Libya?

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Tragedies are often tales of the rise, and fall, of power. So at the dawn of the 17th century, when Queen Elizabeth was nearing the grave without an heir and amidst murmurs of civil war, William Shakespeare wrote his take on the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, exploring what may come of directing a ruler to exit the political stage too soon.

Julius Caesar’s Rome was not a monarchy, of course, but a republic not yet an empire. In fact, it was the fear that Caesar would institute a monarchy with himself as king that drove the conspirators to the act of murder. The political systems are divergent here, but the currency between the two worlds, and our own, remains the same: power.

So the rise and fall of power becomes the arc of the piece (with the tenth commandment the dramatic axis). The play opens with the banter of tradesmen in the street, then takes us through the halls of power into the Senate where Caesar is slaughtered and on to the bloody battlefield. The motivations for the conspirators appear to be jealousy and ambition. The fate of those is then suicide, the marked death of the shameful and powerless.

Of the conspirators, Brutus is our noble and pragmatic exception, the sole conspirator to stab Caesar with the best of intentions in mind. There is no desire for, or fear of, power for Brutus. When he reluctantly decides to collaborate, he is deceived as much as he is naïve. He acts to spare Rome the tyranny of a monarchy. The irony and pertinence must have been delicious for an Elizabethan audience.

For a moment, emotionalism struggles with rationality as the politicians and the public attempt to make sense of the murder. The response is uncertain, at first. It is the passionate call for justice by Marcus Antonius that sways public opinion against the conspiracy. It is the exact type of violence the murder was purported to avoid that then breaks out. That precise moment, when power was assaulted in ancient Rome, ‘let slip the dogs of war’.

We could see something similar in Libya recently, when the rebel forces rose against Muammar Gadaffi’s regime. Amidst the growing Arab spring, the capitol was green with flags of loyalty but the outer towns had become warzones under a transitional government. The casualties were high, intimidation and coercion everywhere. As the chaos grew, no one knew where the die would fall.

The global response was also uncertain. The West wanted Gadaffi gone, yet had sworn off foreign interventions. He was clearly a madman, but had once been greeted with open arms by almost all. Meanwhile, the rebels died for freedom and many shook their heads as oil prices rose. Largely, there can be a sense of confusion, an uncertainty of perception, when power topples and falls. We must all take a position, though what is safe and what is right is not always the same and certainly not always clear.

However, the rest is history. Gadaffi, once declared a hero for ‘emancipating’ Libya in a bloodless coup, now showed no distaste for the ‘dictator’ title by ferociously stamping on the uprisings, even appearing in a series of audio messages, akin to Caesar’s ghost warning his enemies prior to battle. However, the powers-that-be continued to supply weaponry and air support to the Libyan rebels. It was civil war, and it ended with Gadaffi’s body on pubic display in a supermarket meat-locker.

As Gadaffi’s punctured corpse flashed across TV, laptop and phone screens, eliciting vindication and disgust from the world, there was a sentiment akin to Antony’s response to Caesar’s corpse in Act III Scene 1.

O mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low?

Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,

Shrunk to this little measure?

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,

That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!

Thou art the ruins of the noblest man

That ever lived in the tide of times.

Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!

Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,-

Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips,

To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue-

That’s not to say that Gadaffi had been a noble leader, or that more war will result from his ruin, but there is something in Antony’s blunt eulogy that is reminiscent, more than just the imagery of bleeding wounds. It is the genuine awe at witnessing someone so strong, brought down so pitifully by his own people and then die in utter confusion.

Old Gadaffi died in a manner much more unpleasant than Caesar. On the run from Libyan rebels, he was yanked from a drainpipe and underwent a kind of progressive lynching. The ‘king of kings’ was manhandled, sexually assaulted with a stick, beaten then shot. He spent his last moments in fear, confusion and pain, probably still just an ounce of the measure he inflicted on countless others for decades. Some of his last recorded words?

“What did I do?”

Gadaffi had shaken hands with American presidents as he sponsored terrorism. His sons had been hosted like rock stars in Washington as he exploited his own people. Gadaffi was the fascist who proclaimed himself a ‘king’ yet consistently managed to elude the full scorn of the political scene (even Nelson Mandela named one of his children after him). A ‘Teflon’ dictator.

However, Africa and the middle-east had caught a whiff of democracy and now almost all who had called him friend had begun baying for his blood. How odd it must have been for Gadaffi to realise that it was not a NATO air strike or a foreign soldier that brought his end, but a gang of his own people. Similar to Caesar’s last words of pitiful disbelief, ‘et tu, Brute?’, Gadaffi’s final query, reveals that the uncertainty of perception that can surround violent political struggle doesn’t just extend to power, but in fact originates from it.

As Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, states prior to the assassination, ‘When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
 The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’. Too many Libyans to count have been oppressed over the last half-century, their stories gone untold, but Gadaffi’s fall was the stuff of worldwide media (this blog included). As the play suggests, power blazes and blinds those near, and as it falls it is seen from east to west.

So dramatic tragedy teaches that power blinds us, or at least obscures our perspective. Particularly political status, it invokes fear, desire and invites betrayal. It blurs ethics and sways tides of opinion. It also blinds those who wield it, believing themselves to be good when they are bad, or loved when they are despised. Caesar’s seer had prophesied doom, so to had Gadaffi seen the media’s picture of the Arab spring. Both were forewarned and both were blinded by power. This theme is evident maybe never more so in the Shakespearean oeuvre than in King Lear, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Rebel and despot, Muammar Gadaffi died like so many other rulers in history, and also like Julius Caesar: in pitiful confusion, rendered blind by the power for which they died. What will come of Gadaffi’s death in Libya’s future, and Julius Caesar’s death in Antony and Cleopatra, we will soon see as the tragedies continue…

A

P.S. And because I too am committed in this enterprise becoming the Community of Shakespeare blogs, here’s another Tragedy.

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December 11, 2011 at 2:30 am

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The Problem Plays, with Hannibal Lecter

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BK. After revisiting several of Shakespeare’s most renowned and revered works recently – Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra – it’s time to turn to several works commonly regarded as problem plays. Given his expertise in the abject, that which enthralls and repulses us, I’ve invited a special guest to contribute to this discussion, Doctor Hannibal Lecter. Hello Doctor Lecter. How are you?

HL. I’ve followed with enthusiasm the course of your disgrace and public shaming. My own never bothered me except for the inconvenience of being incarcerated, but you may lack perspective.

BK. Um… okay. We can talk about that later. Anyway, the problem plays. These are works which have been labelled problematic on the basis of generic blurring, caustic characterisations and unsatisfactory or awkward resolutions. They tend to cast aside barnstorming crowd-pleasing theatrics in favour of lower key dramatics and moral ambiguities. That’s not to say plays like Hamlet or Macbeth are easy reads lacking in moral complexities and uncertainties, but there is a pronounced difference. Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well: these are muddy waters, and that’s what makes them fascinating on an intellectual level and unappetising on a populist level. Their characters are unsavoury, their tone is indecisive (but deliberately so), and they’re bleak in a way that’s unfitting for comedies but they lack the tragic thrust to qualify as tragedies.

HL. As your mother tells you, and my mother certainly told me, it is important, she always used to say, always to try new things.

BK. Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. That’s what Shakespeare did, and that’s what we should do as readers. So let’s start with Troilus and Cressida, which is my favourite of these problem plays and probably one of my ten favourite Shakespeare plays as well (not that I’m keeping a record). What Shakespeare does with Homer’s heroes is quite brilliant. He could easily have written a glossy, bombastic, heroic version of this story in the vein of Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. He could have made the relationship between the titular couple romantic and swoony in the vein of Romeo and Juliet. But he does the exact opposite. It’s anti-romantic and anti-heroic. It feels small and many of its characters feel small, feel petty, even though they’re titans of the Heroic Age. Take Achilles, who sends his dogs to take care of Hector…

HL. You know what he looks like to me, with his good bag and his cheap shoes? He looks like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition’s given him some length of bone, but he’s not more than one generation from poor white trash.

BK. Mmmm, yes. I agree, you’re right. He’s the son of deities, he’s the ultimate warrior, but he really is just well-scrubbed white trash. It’s really rather subversive how Shakespeare depicts Achilles, even though the British mindset did of course tend to romanticise the Trojans over the Greeks, given their nation’s mythologised Trojan heritage. The play’s a very striking rumination on the moral decay and degeneracy of this so-called Heroic Age. Measure for Measure entertains similar themes and ideas, and it’s another great piece of work, fascinating precisely because its outlook is so unsavoury. The Duke of Vienna sees that his society has turned to crap, and goes undercover to get the inside story. Angelo, on the surface a puritanical force to be reckoned with, finds himself using his position of power to get it on with a virgin and future nun, Isabella, who’s begging for her imprisoned brother Claudio’s life.

HL. Angelo covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet? Do we seek out things to covet? No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Ben? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?

BK. Well, that’s… not really your business. But you’re right. He submits to baser desires when they’re paraded before him, and abuses the power at his disposal. And he’s hypocritical: the reason Claudio is in prison in the first place is because he had pre-marital sex.

HL. Our Claudio wasn’t born a criminal. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Claudio hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.

BK. Um… I think we might be talking about completely different plays here. But you’re right, he’s not a criminal. So all this is going on, the stakes are quite serious at times, but there’s a happy ending typical of the comedies where the Duke swans in and rectifies the situation and people get married off and all that business… and it’s completely ill-fitting to the tone of the rest of the play, which is far more pessimistic. This is of course partly what makes it problematic, that mismatching of conventions. It’s not dramatically satisfying in the conventional sense. Still, it’s interesting watching Shakespeare fit these Tetris pieces in the wrong places, asjusting his trade.

HL. Trade? How does that word taste to you, Ben? Hmm? Cheap and metallic, like sucking on a greasy coin?

BK. Okay, sorry. His art, or his style, are probably more appropriate. So, the final problem play is All’s Well That Ends Well

HL. Tell me, Ben, did your mother nurse you? Did she breast-feed you?

BK. Um, yes. As far as I know. I haven’t brought it up recently, but I’d assume so.

HL. Toughened her nipples, didn’t it? Amputate a man’s leg and he can still feel it tickling. Tell me, Ben, when you’re on the slab, where will it tickle her?

BK. Uh, that’s… that’s kind of messed up, so let’s not go there. Back to the Bard. I’d never read All’s Well before, unlike the other two problem plays. I quite enjoyed it, but I can see where it gets its reputation as a problem play. The heroine, Helena, on the surface seems an ingenious and sincere character in some parts, and manipulative and near sociopathic in others. The object of her affection is a bit of a douchebag too, and…

HL. You stink of fear under that cheap lotion. You stink of fear Ben, but you’re not a coward. You fear me, but still you came here. You fear this shy boy, yet still you seek him out. Don’t you understand, Ben? You caught me because we’re very much alike. Without our imaginations, we’d be like all those other poor dullards. Fear is the price of our instrument. But I can help you bear it. 

BK. No, that’s… that’s quite all right. You know, I think we should probably call it a day. I think we’ve covered things reasonably well and you’ve probably got more important stuff to be getting on with…

HL. You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs.

BK. Okay, let’s wrap up there. Thanks for reading. Keep busy true believers…

Ben

PS: Special thanks (and apologies) to Thomas Harris, Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally, Anthony Hopkins, Ridley Scott, Steven Zaillian, David Mamet, and Brett Ratner for my pillaging of their work.

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December 8, 2011 at 9:15 am

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Carry on Shakespeare: Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra

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Over a period of roughly 20 years, a core ensemble of talented players churned out a remarkable number of popular entertainments set across a range of locales and time periods, dealing with a range of topical issues, which were eaten up by the British masses.

Sounds like Shakespeare and his peeps? Well, yes, but I’m really talking about the Carry On team, that other British institution which thrived from the late 50s through to the late 70s. Produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas, with many of the best penned by Talbot Rothwell, this comedy film series was filled to the brim with sexual innuendo and featured a fine rotating roster of comic talent including Sid James, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Peter Butterworth, and one of the funniest men to ever walk the earth, Kenneth Williams.

Why am I talking about Carry On films on this blog? Well, apart from the fact that I (and possibly Anthony, though I can’t verify) am intent on turning this blog into the Community of Shakespeare blogs, it’s actually time to talk about Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra (written and performed many years apart, but joined in this post on account of their Roman-ness and for the sake of brevity). And given that my previous post was on a film that played fast and loose with Shakespeare and with history (Anonymous), it seemed fitting to look at another film that plays fast and loose with Shakespeare and with history: Carry on Cleo.

Released in 1964, Cleo is one of the many history-based comedies (Up the Khyber, Henry, Dick) and movie parodies (Screaming, Cowboy) produced by the Carry On team. Its satirical target was the bombastic blockbuster Cleopatra featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but even if you’ve never seen its object of parody there’s still a lot of entertainment to get out of Cleo (probably moreso than out of Cleopatra in fact). Same goes for if you’ve never read Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. It does help though, as there are many jokes which riff on the plays. When Antony tells Caesar of his father-in-law’s prophecy to ‘Beware the ides of March’ Caesar dismisses it, noting that last week it was ‘Beware the nuts in May’. Whenever Caesar begins a speech with ‘Friends, Romans…’ someone chimes in with ‘Countrymen’ and he retorts ‘I KNOW THAT!’ There’s even a Macbeth joke thrown in: when Caesar has a vision of his potential death, lying on the ground with a dagger sticking out of his chest, he croaks ‘Is this a dagger that I see before me? It iiiis uuuurgh…’ The film folds the plots of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra together by splicing in the historically documented Roman subjugation of the British caveman. After a slave from the British isle, Angus Pod, is mistakenly credited with saving Caesar from an assassination attempt and recruited as his bodyguard, Caesar travels to Egypt to forge an alliance with Cleo. Little does he know that Antony is in love with Cleo and they’re plotting to kill him.

As I noted in my post on As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, comedy’s fairly subjective, so your enjoyment of Cleo depends largely on your comic wiring. This clip should provide as good an indication as any of whether the film would ring your bell. If it does, then I’m sure you’ll go far in the world and we’d probably go far in a conversation.

As for the Shakespeare plays themselves? Well, they’re excellent of course.

Ben

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December 7, 2011 at 11:43 pm

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Tragic beginnings…

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Once I knew girl who was rather odd. As a result she did not have any friends in primary school. When she approached girls of her own age, they would giggle as they ran from her. Maybe it was her weight. She was a thick girl with a large build. It might have been her social awkwardness. She often did not behave like the others around her. She was a little odd and mostly alone.

Over time, this girl grew older and became more distant and angrier in her manner. This only served to isolate her further from other girls her age. Then, a year or two later, she was diagnosed with a fatal condition. She died soon after.

Just a few years ago I knew a man, not too different from myself and only a little older. As he became a young adult, he began to work towards his future. He went out and found his first job, saving all his paychecks for an engagement ring. He made his girlfriend his wife and she soon became pregnant. He was a husband, a father of a newborn child and then one day he didn’t wake up.

Earlier this year I watched news footage of a young Libyan woman protesting during the revolt against Muammar Gadaffi’s regime. She approached the foreign media and told of how she had demonstrated against the dictator’s cruelty then been gang raped by his soldiers as punishment. The regime’s forces took objection to her reporting this incident and arrested her as she cried out in anguish. The media attempted to intervene to ensure her safety but were stopped by the armed soldiers. That woman was not seen again.

There is a single word often employed for these awful ends, a status for these deaths, and that is tragedy. Everyday, there are families torn apart, good folk beaten, exploited and tortured and countless lives lost. In fact, right now there are eight million refugees currently fleeing persecution across the world, forty wars raging and approximately 40,000 children dying of hunger. Tragedy is something we become deeply intimate with in our time on this earth.

Indeed, ‘tragedy’ is common parlance for any dire and unfortunate circumstance, but there are specific and diverse breeds. There is the tragedy of fate, a random illness or accident suffering those certain salvos of outrageous fortune. It is the infant lost suddenly in the night, the mother taken in traffic on the way home or the benevolent village wiped from the map by surging tides. Those tragic victims are they who are taken by the chance, chaotic mouths that open up and swallow the undeserving.

There is also the tragedy of crime, where due to the acts of others, someone’s life or liberty is stolen. It is the boy wounded in the unjust battle, the soul lost in a burst of petty crime or the child taken from their mother’s arms and placed in shackles. Those tragic victims are they who become the victims, patsies and canon fodder of the world.

Then finally, there is the tragedy of individual sin, or hamartia as the Greeks called it, where an individual possesses a particular flaw that sets into motion a number of circumstances that ends their lives. It is the televangelist’s conservative media empire tumbling as his licentiousness is revealed or the powerful man’s growing fondness of a drink that slowly unwinds his life from within. It is the chink in the armour, the Achilles heel or Bathsheeba bathing on the rooftop. Those tragic victims are they who become cautionary tales and legends of woe. They are the heroes of dramatic tragedy, the long-told deaths of characters like Oedipus, Faust and Hamlet.

Now, these awful breeds of fate often intertwine in the dramatic tragedy on the stages of history. It is in this form of dramatic tragedy where we will find ourselves repeatedly during the last stretch here at theslingsandarrows. As we near the tragedies of Rome, Othello, Lear and the Scottish play, etc, we will face any number of grand, bloody and sad deaths. These are some of the great plays of William Shakespeare and ancient tales that underpin central ideas in Western civilisation.

So fun times ahead. Caesar up next…

A

P.S. Anyone interested in Allen’s aforementioned Midnight in Paris should check out Ben’s other blog.

Written by THE SLINGS AND ARROWS...

December 6, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized