THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for December 2012

Overview of Tragedy, Part 2

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Merry Christmas one and all.

As a gift, here is the long-threatened follow up to the original overview of Shakespearean tragedy. While many may have observed our posts drifting further and further from traditional Shakespearean content over time, I am determined to keep to topic this time around. Let’s get started…

First, tragedy began thousands of years ago, with songs about goats. You see, the first dramatic tragedies were derived from the religious rites of Dionysus in ancient Greece. Consequently, they were known as ‘goat songs’, and involved lots of booze and chanting and probably resembled something like Catholic mass meets an AC/DC concert (that actually sounds pretty sweet).

These rites evolved into a spectacle separate from religion, incorporating legend and myth. In the 5th century BC, Aristotle began to theorise the function of drama. He suggested that dramatic tragedy had an identifiable structure, built from a beginning, a middle and then an end (known as the protasis, epitasis and the catastrophe). The three-act structure was born.

This dramatic structure should, Aristotle argued, consist of a unity of elements, incorporating one event, one location and one time. As centuries passed, the Greek tragedy continue to evolve and in 18 BC, the poet Horace argued for a five-act structure (later thoroughly theorized by Gustav Freytag in the 19th century).

Time passed, Rome rose, Christ was born, stuff happened and many, many stories were told over the centuries. During the Renaissance, the British theatre scene was bustling with bright young authors such as Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlow, the sharp-tongued Robert Greene and, of course, our humble Bard, all putting their pen to the traditional genre.

In the first decade of the 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote most of the tragedies that have come to define our modern understanding of the genre. From such works as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Othello, we have come to recognise the archetypal noble man with a fatal flaw. This character, harbouring one defect that rises to grasp at power just as a weed reaches for the sun, is now part of our cultural understanding.

Outside of the famed tragedies, Shakespeare wrote other lesser-known tales, and in Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, the elements of tragedy are present, though not in the typical forms. While Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists fit the classic Greek model, his work does not actually observe the Aristotelian unities, with multiple events stretching over many times and places

The Bard also tends to give his protagonists a stronger sense of free will, exhibiting complexity and ambivalence, without the sovereign, destined fate of Greek tragedy. So in keeping with the tradition of these overviews, let’s ask Dr. Ben some questions about how Shakespeare altered, and influenced, the genre of tragedy?

A: So Ben, do the lesser-known tragedies offer anything of interest that the big plays do not? Where do they fit in the oeuvre?

B: From a literary perspective, there’s a good reason that Hamlet, Othello, King Lear et al tower over the lesser known tragedies: they’re superior plays. But from a dramatic perspective, I think the lesser known ones can seem a lot fresher since they haven’t been so thoroughly processed and digested in the collective cultural consciousness. And they’re the sorts of plays that, while never going to sell out the stalls, offer interesting possibilities for those who stage them: see, for example, stage productions of Titus Andronicus from Peter Brook and Julie Taymor, or Ralph Fiennes’s recent film of Coriolanus.

A: In the instances of Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, how might we view the significance of Shakespeare’s departure from the Aristotelian unities? Was it revolutionary at the time, or simply the trend? What implications does this have for the stories themselves?

B: Shakespeare wasn’t especially interested in the Aristotelian unities, which is why a lot of critics and commentators of a more formalist disposition bagged him subsequently, but I think the works speak for themselves. The Tempest is probably the most successful play in conforming to the Aristotelian unities, and that’s dramatically fitting given both its place in the canon and the theme of resolution and restoration that runs throughout it.

A: Coriolanus himself is a rather stoic tragic hero, and earlier you suggested his primary sin is pride, refusing to work with the plebs. While hardly Oedipus, he also has an interesting relationship with his mother. Compared to Timon, is Coriolanus a more traditional tragic protagonist in a more traditional play?

B: Yes he most certainly is.

A: … of course… I probably should have asked a more specific question. Greek tragedy often depicted the workings of fate, but Shakespeare tends to give his tragic heroes more independent and nuanced psyches. Would you agree with that assertion, and if so, how do you see that evidenced particularly in Coriolanus and Timon?

B: Yes I would. It’s evidenced in their actions, which are plainly stupid to readers but are grounded and contextualized in personal idiosyncrasy.

A: The events of Timon bear a resemblance to a number of Biblical parables, not just the waste of the prodigal son, yet also the parables of the debtor, the great banquet and the hidden treasure. This tragic parable also functions a great deal like a problem play. What’s your take on the piece? Confused or eclectic?

B: Eclectic, as opposed to something like Pericles which is clearly confused.

A: It seems as if there’s little room for tragedy in our popular entertainment nowadays, Oscar-nominated pieces notwithstanding (Gran Torino, The Wrestler, Black Swan). Are we just too addicted to popcorn to stomach stories of sacrifice and loss? Where does tragedy fit in 21st century western storytelling?

B: I disagree somewhat. I think if you look at films like The Dark Knight series and other popcorn entertainment of that ilk, there’s often either a tragic dimension to the character or a kernel of tragedy that initiates or underlies the narrative. Having said that, I wouldn’t say that much of this stuff is genuinely tragic: a lot of it is what Joe Dante calls ‘non-content films’, but invested with a superficial dramatic heft.

A: Yeah, I thought Batman might fit in there somewhere- Hang on, there’s a new James Bond film out, have you seen it yet?

B: Hell yes.

A: Did you dig it?

B: Hell yes.

A: So, at this point, the James Bond franchise is reaching half a century. Hardly another fictional character has so consistently maintained such a visible cinematic presence. The reasons for the property’s appeal are clear, but how might you define its one lasting quality over the years?

B: I don’t think there’s a single lasting quality. If there is, it’d be that it’s maintained a half dozen or so qualities or recurring motifs while rolling with and adapting to popular tides. The DVDs for the Bond films that came out a few years ago had special menus that allowed you to access scenes featuring women, bad guys, gadgets, exotic locations, action beats, and staples like the gun barrel opening (now seemingly the gun barrel closing), theme song, M, Q, Moneypenny etc. So you’ve got those consistent ingredients across the whole series, plus narratives that adapted themselves to political tides (various gradations of the Cold War) and pop culture trends (blaxpoitation, science-fiction, 80s revenge thrillers etc). The Bond series is the ultimate chameleon: the same ugly lizard each and every time, but blending in and reinventing itself where needed.  

A: How might you suggest Skyfall embodies these successful elements?

B: Skyfall’s a pretty spectacular merging of the classic Bond ingredients with the modern action film aesthetic. It’s a fun and consistently entertaining piece of classic Bond escapism while also conceding to Dark Knight era expectations around pop heroes (tragic past, parental issues, engaging in mind games with warped mirror image villains etc). It both looks back to and celebrates the incredible rich history of the series while also looking forward to new possibilities.

A: The first Bond film starring Daniel Craig, Casino Royale, was both an elegant return to source material as well as a slick modernisation of the character. The following film, Quantum of Solace, though hampered by the writers’ strike, continued on with the thematic elements of Casino Royale as more of a traditional sequel. This move harkened to a more concrete continuity for the Bond films, as well as a character arc for the protagonist himself. Skyfall, however, appears to largely change tact and return us to the older Bond format where every film is essentially disconnected from a larger story. Do you see this as a virtue, a flaw, or a necessary evil?

B: I think Quantum of Solace, as a film in its own right, is terrible. As a direct continuation of the storyline of Casino Royale it’s fine, but it’s not a film I can watch independent of its companion piece and find satisfying. In this respect, the fact that Skyfall is a film with a complete beginning, middle and end, as opposed to two thirds of a film, makes it vastly more satisfying. By the same token, I think it does continue the storyline from those first two films, most notably in its development of Bond’s relationship with M, and I think at film’s end the stage is set for the series to move ahead with continuity in place while still allowing storylines to be disconnected.

A: The initial James Bond books and films captured so much of the machismo in the Cold War western zeitgeist. However, that mentality becomes impotent in the face of the post 9/11, 21st century climate. How does the character of Bond relate to the new threat of nationless fascism and terrorism?

B: He shoots it.

A: Of course, so  given that the post 9/11 worldview offers creative challenges for the Craig films, how might the post-cold war Pierce Brosnan films from the 90s fare in comparison? Did Brosnan’s Bond suffer from an absence of threat and a lack of things to shoot?

B: I find it very hard watching those four films these days. Goldeneye remains the best and remains pretty great, but I think nostalgia plays a big part. The others are flimsy at best and moronic at worst.

A: Which is the best Bond film and why?

B: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which like Skyfall is a merging of classic Bond ingredients with a dramatic weight and texture (which was then new to the series and would not be repeated for a long time). It’s both the archetypal Bond film and one of the weirdest, most peculiar in the series. And George Lazenby’s great. That’s right: GREAT.

A: Comparatively, which was the worst Bond film and why?

B: Moonraker and Die Another Day are so ludicrously over the top I instantly disconnect from them whenever I try to watch them.

A: In hindsight, does the James Bond franchise offer any relevance to our discussion on Shakespearean tragedy?

B: Characters and stories that are reflections and embodiments of their times, heroes whose fates are intertwined with the fate of their societies (symbolically in the Bard’s work, often literally in Bond’s case), popular entertainments consistently delivering expected ingredients while working in new variations and tweaks to formula. Yeah, I think so.

A: Fantastic. So, there we are, knowing a little bit more about Shakespearean tragedy and a lot more about James Bond… right on topic.

Merry Christmas




December 22, 2012 at 10:39 am

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There’s a bear in there: The Winter’s Tale

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herbert-west1The Winter’s Tale is a welcome breath of fresh air after the tonally strange Pericles and the stuffy Cymbeline. Shakespeare had quite clearly mastered the art of the romances by this point, and the resulting play is pretty damn great, infusing the weirder melancholic and soap operatic tides of his earlier romances with confidence and considerable technical polish. The play also contains my very favourite stage direction, not just in Shakespeare but the whole of theatre itself: “Exit, pursued by a bear”. I love it! I even homaged it in the penultimate issue of my comic book series Hamlet vs Faustus, in which overweight dumbass police officer Javert is chased out of the narrative by a bear.

The mind spins with possibilities. Did Shakespeare’s crew dress up an actor in a bear costume and have him stumble around stage after whoever played Antigonus, in the very best vintage Doctor Who style? Or did they actually use a real-life bear (bear-baiting was a form of recreational entertainment after all) on the stage? Either way, it’s awesome. I regret that I’ve never actually seen The Winter’s Tale performed live: I hope to do so one day, as I want to see how a theatre company handles this oddball exit, which, let’s be honest, is almost Family Guy-esque in its randomness and ultimate inconsequentiality. I have seen a BBC Shakespeare version of the scene though, which pleased me greatly as it conformed to the aforementioned Doctor Who aesthetic.

In honour of “Exit, pursed by a bear”, I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate some other great bears in popular culture. For the sake of brevity I’ll limit this list to just four others. On any list of this modest size it goes without saying that some feelings will be hurt, so please don’t be too upset that I don’t discuss Paddington Bear or Rupert Bear or Winnie the Pooh or Fozzie Bear or South Park’s Sexual Harassment Panda, all of whom brought me great pleasure in my younger years, or the bear that roughs up Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge or does, well, bear stuff in The Bear. If it’s any consolation, you may wish to look at Wikipedia’s List of fictional bears. Yes, that’s right, Wikipedia has a list especially devoted to fictional bears. That’s almost as awesome as “Exit, pursued by a bear”.

Anyhow, to the list…

Ted (Ted, 2012)

Ted, the star of Seth MacFarlane’s movie of the same name, is a heavy-drinking, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed teddy bear. He’s a former celebrity and Bostonian with a voice like Peter Griffin, a fear of thunder, and a thing for Flash Gordon. It boggles the mind that nobody ever thought to do a heavy-drinking, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed teddy bear movie until now, but now that it exists, it’s a thing of beauty.

Teddy (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, 2001)

Another teddy bear, this time a robotic one. Teddy is the companion to Hayley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, accompanying H.J.O’s orphaned robot kid David as he navigates a somewhat dystopian future. I’m not the biggest fan of this film, and can’t shake the feeling that veteran filmmakers Spielberg and co-creator Stanley Kubrick were a little off the mark in what they wanted to do (see my previous post on artists disconnecting as they grow older for related thoughts). But you can’t deny the wizardry that went into making Teddy such a compelling and human character, way more moving than the film’s titular futuristic Pinnochio.

Sooty (The Sooty Show, Sooty & Co, Sooty Heights et al)

A soft-spoken yellow magician with a hand permanently lodged up his butt, Sooty has been entertaining British kids for over 60 years. I grew up with the Matthew Corbett incarnation of the show, and as I’ve never seen any other version I’m going to say with ignorant and egocentric gusto that the Corbett years were and always will be the very best in the show’s history. What makes Sooty so great is that he’s basically an evil little bastard who used his adorability to deflect blame and punishment after committing heinous crimes against his owner (or pet) Matthew. Sooty could put pin-pricks in condoms, causing unwanted pregnancies, or swap your cocaine with your heroin, causing unwanted ODs, just to amuse himself, and all he’d have to do is wave at the camera or pretend to cry to get off the hook. There’s much we can learn from this furry little demon.

Brody (Grizzly Park, 2007)

The only bear in the conventional sense (i.e. real) on this list, and a murderous one at that. I first sought out the film Grizzly Park because CHUD’s Nick Nunziata, one of my favourite film critics and commentators and a bit of a hero of mine, is credited as a co-producer on the film (and since went on to associate produce Don’t be Afraid of the Dark). It deals with a bunch of juveline delinquents doing community service at the titular national park and being picked off by a bear. Based upon that premise I think it’s safe to say you know precisely what you’re getting into when you sit down and watch the film, and if you can roll with that, then it’s a lot of fun. Most of the horror is in the last fifteen or so minutes, so you need a high tolerance level of young people moaning and bitching at one another for the first 75 minutes or so, but if you’ve watched a lot of horror you’re probably already acclimatised to that. It’s fun schlock, and the bear, played method-style by one credited Brody the Bear (with fake appendages standing in at various points), is good value.

There you have it. Four great bears. I’ll be back some time in the near (or at least not too distant) future to toast Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, The Tempest. Until then…

*Exit, pursued by a bear*



December 19, 2012 at 5:25 am

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Cymbeline and the Bard’s twilight years

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Don’t let the title of this post put you off: at no point do I discuss the works of Stephanie Meyer…

In my last piece on Pericles I expressed some hesitancy about navigating the romances, and wondered if that was purely a result of that very peculiar and, to my mind, somewhat ‘off’ play or merely circumstantial. Having now read Cymbeline for the first time too, the second of this quartet of romances, I’m still not entirely sure. It has the same melancholic tone with neat resolution, and its narrative of a weakling King, his scheming wife, an Iago-esque manipulator, and absent and returned sons is soap operatic, though not as weird tonally as Pericles. In retrospect, some of that Pericles weirdness might’ve been added value; as it stands Cymbeline comes across as rather sluggish and ornamental.

So is Shakespeare at fault, or am I a bad reader? I remain undecided, but pondering this question and thinking about Cymbeline’s place in the canon as one of the last performed plays got me thinking back to an article I read recently.

The article in question features snippets from an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he muses that he would not want to continue directing into his twilight years. The director’s logic was that he did not want to lose touch with audiences or muddy his filmography. He stated “I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker… I want to stop at a certain point. Directors don’t get better as they get older. Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end. I am all about my filmography, and one bad film f***s up three good ones. I don’t want that bad, out-of-touch comedy in my filmography, the movie that makes people think, ‘Oh man, he still thinks it’s 20 years ago.’ When directors get out-of-date, it’s not pretty”. While it would be easy to dismiss Tarantino’s comments as ageist, the fact remains that so many great filmmakers do lose their touch as they grow older. Francis Ford Coppola made four masterpieces within the space of a decade in the 1970s – The Godfather I and II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now – and while he has made many interesting and fascinating films since he has never replicated those highs. Filmmakers like George Romero, Woody Allen and Brian De Palma, to name just several, are capable of great things but much of what they’ve done over the last decade could be regarded as interesting failures. And last year I saw the first theatrically released feature films (on DVD alas) in however many years of John Carpenter, John Landis and Joe Dante – The Ward, Burke and Hare, The Hole – and while these films had their virtues their shortcomings were also quite apparent. 
As intimated above my mind gravitated back to this article when I was thinking about Cymbeline’s station in the canon. It came after a pair of lesser known and rarely performed (nowadays at least) tragedies, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, as well as the first of the romances, Pericles, a somewhat rough play tonally. Cymbeline itself is not without its problems, and like these three plays isn’t performed very frequently. If one were to apply Tarantino’s logic to Shakespeare, these could be considered “old-man” plays, slightly out of touch, and evidence that the fire that previously burned within and drove their author – he had after all penned Othello, King Lear and Macbeth just a few years earlier – had died down somewhat. Was Shakespeare past it then? Was he writing with one foot in London and the other in Stratford, where he would retire to within a few years?

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say no. Given that both The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, much better plays, were percolating I think it’s safe to say the fire was still burning, and while he may well have seen the end in sight he wasn’t lounging on the job. Rather, Cymbeline along with Coriolanus, Timon of Athens and Pericles are what we might call transition plays, representing the author’s transition from his shattering tragedies to more subdued and melancholic dramatic tides. The scale and emphasis of the plays was shifting, and it shows. That transition is rough in places, as evidenced by the plays themselves, but in these same texts we can see the author adapting and acclimatising to his new genre and eventually, with The Tempest, marching off stage in triumph. And just as I’ll happily take a lower quality Romero zombie film over the best zombie films that two dozen other filmmakers have to offer, or a sub-par thriller from De Palma or sub-standard comedy from Allen over the best that younger specialists in those fields can conjure up, likewise I can roll with the worst of the Bard, especially in lieu of the fact that one of the very best is waiting in the wings.



December 18, 2012 at 7:30 am

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