THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for March 2012

Some briefer thoughts on Othello…

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I don’t love Othello. I’d like to say the race issues are a turn off, but if anything, I find it all a little curious (case in point). Perhaps it’s Iago’s villainous ambiguity, but a predator without clear rationale also seems more of a hook. My suspicion is that the issue may lie with our core couple.

Our Moorish general seems not to deserve the deception to which he is subject, though manages to become unlikeable once it undoes his character, first abusive then suicidal. Desdemona is weakly virtuous and frustrates with all the wrong notes. The secret marriage falls apart once Roderigo spills the beans, then war and storm descends and I begin to wonder what brought these two together to start with.

Trite, I know. If I am to offer some brief thoughts on the play, then my lack of devotion is the primary response. The play is certainly well written and there’s surely the usual fist shaking at our tragic protagonists. The theme of the green impulse is historically effective and its execution is seamless… but that doesn’t mean I have to dig it like chocolate cake.

Of course, tragedy is not intended to entertain in the usual ways. It is cathartic, not popcorn, and in that sense The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will long be celebrated as esteemed work long after my episode of mediocre apathy gathers dust. Othello doesn’t have the spooks and gore of Macbeth or the epic doom of Lear, it has racism and desire and jealousy, far more mundane, and far more tragic…




March 27, 2012 at 10:23 am

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Some brief thoughts on Macbeth…

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So, I first found the Scottish play at the age of 16, somewhere in english or drama classes at school. I think maybe both. Deeply, I knew this story. It seemed written into my adolescent psyche already along with a glut of horror movies, heavy metal and protestant caution. ‘Vaulting ambition’ was the crux of the tale; the desire to grasp more, to be more, than you naturally were and its inevitably dark consequences.

Thinking back, this sentiment is not greatly alien to the teenage mentality. Those years are a time of striving for transformation, for prestige, a figurative slaughter of innocence. Teens often turn to things unholy in a bid to outrun their meager station in life, and Macbeth’s yearning to climb the ranks of the elite through magic and murder does not differ too greatly from many young people who hope to ascend the social ladder by adopting rituals of sexual experimentation, the occult, drugs, subterfuge, gossip or a bit of boyish biffo.

Think of Lady Macbeth’s unholy invocation in Act 5, that all her humanity would be taken and replaced with dark determination:

Under my battlements, come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take milk for gall, you murdering ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

I still recall reading this passage for the first time when I was a teen, maybe disturbed by its stygian resolve. The imagery of this sacrifice is unforgettable, that her softer, feminine instincts be undone, her breast-milk be taken with gall in its place. She begs murdering phantoms the numbing of her emotion and the dumbing of her conscience. Effectively, she sells her soul.

Think, how many aching teens tried to spurn their childhood, burn their birth certificate, embrace all that’s wrong and set their feet on paths of destruction? In cruelty, new names, secrets, addictions or acts of destruction the young often make their way. How many lost children opened up their tremulous hearts to the impenetrable night and wept as they watched corruption take hold?

… anyway, with that very ilk of melodrama is how I viewed Macbeth when I first read it, through a teenage lens of Marilyn Manson and the pre-millennial spate of apocalyptic horror films, so inspired as to even once write an essay designing a cyberpunk stage production of Macbeth (it got an A). There’s rivers of angst there, but I’m getting nostalgic again.

As a morality tale, Macbeth is finely crafted and formidable. As did the snake in Eden, the witches actually speak a degree of truth, though the deception is subtle and not realised until the Caesarian twist. So the righteous rise and run through our foolish protagonist, his head soon on a spike and throughout the sound of swords and screaming children, the sight of fingers perennially stained with blood, it is evident that good stories must have plenty of badness, and often blood and guts.

Revisiting the text again now, I find it still offers profound lessons in the counsel we keep, the methods we use and the motivations that guide us as we journey through life. It is a valuable fable in what ambition costs for the old and young alike. A cautionary tale. Not all of us sold our soul to Satan in their teen years, some saw Macbeth and thought better of it…



March 21, 2012 at 8:54 am

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Overview of Tragedy, Part 1…

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As we’ve been revisiting the tragedies of Shakespeare I’ve found myself more and more fascinated with the structures and overarching themes used in the genre’s plays. There are some things constant, others adaptive, so I thought it best to review the remaining tragedies in a wending discussion on form… mostly where I throw questions at Ben and he answers them. I will offer some brief thoughts on the individual plays later, for now, let us begin…

A: My suspicion is that all Shakespearean tragedies revolve around some form of power yeah? So, gaining and losing that power becomes the character arcs for the plays’ protagonists. This power can be political, social, as well as emotive and relational. The tragic heroes gain or lose this power through a single character flaw. Correct Dr. Ben?

B: I think that assertion’s accurate, though each play bends and mutates the formula in its own way, much as heroic narratives will each do their own thing with Campbell’s hero’s journey formula.

A: How do you see Romeo and Juliet varying from that formula then? Two segregated lovers seeking reunion doesn’t seem too political…

B: Well, the fundamentals are more or less the same – protagonists wanting something they can’t have, defying authority to achieve it, losing out in the process – but the devils are in the details. The fact that they’re young lovers makes them in many ways more empathetic than some of the tragic titans that followed. Some would argue that they’re smaller figures and their tragedy has less real-world repercussions, but I’d say that because they’re young and represent the future their tragic deaths resonate a lot more than, say, Othello’s or Macbeth’s.

A: Power seems the constant dynamic in tragedy though, the fall of characters linked to forms of control and authority…

B: Power is a constant, though it takes different forms: in Othello, Iago the disgruntled subordinate lacks the trappings of power in the conventional sense but exerts considerable power over those who do supposedly have power; in Lear the King wants to discard responsibility while still maintaining all the trappings of power, and his daughters eventually gain power over him, then there’s a struggle for the throne etc; in Macbeth the dude’s got the monkey on his back and is chasing, then achieving, then desperately clinging to his power, etc.

The character flaw is a big thing too: in Othello it’s the titular character’s jealousy, in Lear it’s his vanity, in Macbeth it’s his hubris, in Antony & Cleopatra it’s their fatal attraction, and so on.

A: What is the significance of power being the constant tragic dynamic? Is it purely political, warning audiences off of thoughts of treason or tapping into the topical zeitgeist? Is it more religious, expressing the Judeo-Christian ideology that striving for power is an affront to the natural order and beckons flaws to fall into grief (the ambition in Eden, the fall of the Morning Star, even King David’s one error)? Is it a natural expression of the general social ethic, whereby order is maintained in the status quo by refraining from conflict? Or is it all of the above?

B: All of the above, though to different intensities in different plays. In Lear, for example, overthrowing the King is a disastrous act of political uprising, it’s an affront to God because the monarchy was believed to have been chosen by and in cahoots with God at the time of the play’s composition (even though Lear’s not Christian-set, the theme still resonates), and it has repercussions on the social order (rich dudes become beggars, fools become wise men, kings become hobos etc).

A: Overall, to start at the start, the Greeks developed the formula for dramatic tragedy, the Romans refined it, how does Shakespeare build on this dramatic tradition that spans civilisations? Does he innovate at all, or simply adapt?

B: Both. He’s an adapter whose adaptations were innovative. Obviously his gift for language and characterisation is one of the greatest contributions to the genre, enabling him to create characters a whole lot more complicated and layered than those of the Greek and Roman tragedies, where characters are largely archetypes and ciphers and embodiments of ideas. He also broke the whole unity of time & place thing, so his tragedies are very much shaggy dog stories compared to more refined precursors…

So, some suspicions confirmed but bigger questions still to be asked. Will we complete our review of Shakespeare’s tragedies? Will Ben get sick of answering my naggings? Only time will tell, continued in Part 2…



March 13, 2012 at 4:40 am

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