Shakespeare at Play in a Bookish Space

Guest blogger, Micah Coston, writes…

The rain it raineth every day.

Twelfth Night, V i

And it came down above the vaulted ceiling, as the players played in a modified thrust space at the Divinity School, Bodleian Library, Oxford. The ornate room, completed nearly a century before Shakespeare’s birth, provided a dark and delicious setting for his Twelfth Night. The conventional treatment with its “summery garden,” bemoaned by Director Krishna Omkar at the pre-performance panel in the neighbouring Convocation House, was a distant thought, as the Divinity School became a stone, Perpendicular Gothic, not-so-black box to play in.

It began. The lights cut out. The side door thrown open. The light comes through. “What country, friend[s], is this?” grabbed our ears first and replaced the famed opening line, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Happily, the memorable verse surfaced later with melancholic, luted accompaniment. Sovereign Arts’ adaptation cleverly swapped the scenes, sharply prompting a heightened awareness of place. “What country is this?” became, “Where are we?” spotlighting the unique location and the one-off playing space. It also reminded us of the true foreignness of the room for the actors, who mastered the movements with only one day of blocking in this location.

Twelfth Night or What You Will, frequently called a play of words and one of several Shakespearean plays only experienced now thanks to its inclusion in the First Folio, provided an excellent choice for a production so close to the reveal of the digitized form of the Bodleian’s copy. The Friends of the Bodleian, who sponsored this performance, also helped to promote the Sprint for Shakespeare campaign. With a featured presence in the theatre programme, Sprint for Shakespeare was forefronted and, in sense, transferred onto the performance, making the audience acutely aware of the significance of the Folio in preserving Shakespeare’s play and enabling the production we were seeing and hearing.

Hey, ho, the wind and the rain.

The final words echoed, as the entire cast joined in Feste’s song. As I exited the School, I didn’t enter the foyer of a theatre, but the entrance to the old Bodleian, a collection of books and papers and texts used for centuries as a site of verbal discovery. Shakespeare’s play of words fit right in. And this night, twelfth or not, became a fusion of the literary and the performative in a place just perfect for the two.

Micah Coston
@micahcoston

Voices of Performance in the Collected Works of Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Edmund G. C. King, writes…

Ever since the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays — the First Folio — was printed in 1623, there have been two sets of competing voices present in scholarly editions of his works. The first are the voices of the many theatrical agents — actors, revisers, collaborators — whose words found their way into Shakespeare’s works. The second are the voices of Shakespeare’s editors, who sought to suppress the stylistic imprint of the stage entirely, leaving Shakespeare’s words to stand in their place. The result was something of a paradox — play-texts purged of the theatre, yet interpolated with the argumentative voices of his many subsequent editors, all competing to restore the “authentic” Shakespeare. Anyone who has flicked through the pages of an eighteenth-century “variorum” Shakespeare, with its dizzying array of signed footnotes (which sometimes threaten to crowd out the main text altogether!) has seen this paradox at first hand. In seeking to exclude the theatrical and restore the “authentic” voice of the author, Shakespeare’s early editors ultimately placed themselves — their names and their voices — at the centre of the project.

One of the most pressing concerns of eighteenth-century editors of Shakespeare was to identify — and, if possible, to weed out — the contributions of his collaborators, whether dramatists or actors. Alexander Pope in 1725, for instance, identified no fewer than 1,560 lines “unworthy” of Shakespeare that he believed had been foisted into the text by improvising actors or revising “hack” playwrights after Shakespeare’s death. These he cast to the bottom of the page of his edition, relegated to the status of footnotes. Other eighteenth-century editors and commentators were less drastic in their interventions, but no less scathing of the theatre personnel and inferior co-authors they believed had “corrupted” Shakespeare’s text. In 1767, Shakespeare critic Richard Farmer singled out Titus Andronicus as being almost wholly inauthentic, declaring,

I have not the least doubt but this horrible Piece was originally written by the Author of the Lines thrown into the mouth of the Player in Hamlet, and of the Tragedy of Locrine: which likewise from some assistance perhaps given to his Friend, hath been unjustly and ignorantly charged upon Shakespeare.

In Farmer’s view, Shakespeare had only fleetingly revised Titus Andronicus as a favour to its original author (Farmer suspected this had been Thomas Kyd), and anyone who ascribed the play to Shakespeare on that basis was casting an “ignorant” and “unjust” slur upon Shakespeare’s authorial reputation. Other eighteenth-century critics denied Shakespeare’s authorship of Pericles, parts of Cymbeline, The Taming of the Shrew, and Troilus and Cressida on similar grounds. These scholars saw their task as above all preserving Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation, something that could be harmed by the attribution to him of material — or, in the case of Titus, whole plays — that seemed “inferior.”

No Shakespeare critic would now use the kinds of words Richard Farmer employed against Titus Andronicus. We understand that we should not base our editorial decisions on our own, subjective responses to the texts we work on. But the lengths that eighteenth-century editors went to to “purge” Shakespeare of non-Shakespearean elements should give us pause. A large part of the Shakespearean editorial project has been reclaiming Shakespeare as a literary author and denying — or at least downplaying — the theatrical context from which his plays arose. As we work from the ground up to reconstruct dramatic authorship as it actually was — social, malleable, intensely collaborative — we are realising just how distorting that ideal of singular authorial presence is. Shakespeare’s works were necessarily multivalent, shot through with the voices of actors, revisers, and collaborators. Shakespeare himself was only one of these voices — in the foreground, to be sure, but never entirely a solo presence.

Edmund G. C. King

The First Folio: what is left out

Guest blogger, Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, writes…

Without the First Folio we would not have almost twenty plays by Shakespeare. The Tempest, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, and many more plays, had not been printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime and are available to us only because of the Folio, and the initiative and ambition of its facilitators John Heminge and Henry Condell. It might seem churlish, then, to comment on what is left out – but it also tells us something about the preferences of the folio-makers, the early modern printing trade, and Shakespeare’s reputation in his lifetime. The first folio does not include Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, Sir Thomas More and Pericles (added in the third folio); these are all now thought to be at least partially by Shakespeare. But more striking than this is the omission of Shakespeare’s poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which were all printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and under his name.

Why was this? One argument is that the Folio is a work composed by actors not poets. Heminge and Condell had known and worked with Shakespeare, and saw him – and wanted the public to see him – as a man of the theatre. But the reason is probably less ideological and more financial. The texts of those plays which had not been published were owned by the group of actors who produced the Folio. The poems, however, had already been published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the right to print them passed hands several times in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At the time of the Folio’s creation, the right to print them was owned by Roger Jackson and John Parker (Venus and Adonis and Lucrece), and Thomas Thorpe for Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Before the publication of the folio, and especially in the earlier phase of his career in the 1590s, Shakespeare was more famous for his poetry than his drama, and especially for the titillating classical poem, Venus and Adonis (1593). Instead of praising the characters, plots and action of his drama, early commentators spoke of Shakespeare’s poetic style. In 1598, Francis Meres famously referred to Shakespeare as “mellifluous and honey-tongued … witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets”. John Milton may have been picking up on such praise, his poem in the Folio admires “sweetest Shakespeare fancies childe”. Michael Schoenfeldt has said that “Shakespeare’s greatest publishing success in his lifetime was Venus and Adonis”.

In 1599 the printer William Jaggard cashed in on the success of Shakespeare’s poems by producing a collection which claimed to be by Shakespeare: The Passionate Pilgrim. Jaggard marketed this collection of largely non-Shakespearean verse on the basis of its Shakespearean style, and he included poems that are about Venus and Adonis and also poems in the Venus and Adonis stanza, suggesting the popularity and ubiquity of Shakespeare’s first printed poem and the public appetite for more of the same.

During his lifetime, Shakespeare was a print poet in a way that he was not a print dramatist. There is an irony that the omission of the narrative poems from the Folio was due to their popularity, but it has contributed to them becoming the least popular of all Shakespeare’s works– a trend that is only now being reversed.

Elizabeth Scott-Baumann
University of Leicester

Considering Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Paul Kasay, writes…

I used to be relatively confident in my idea of Shakespeare. Or at least I thought there wasn’t much to know, and that seemed almost the same thing as having an opinion. I’m relieved to say I no longer have that kind of confidence. Instead, I have more doubt as to what he meant than ever before: every critic and authoritative text always seeming to offer another lovely contradiction. I’m also more confident in the idea that this kind of doubt is the point.

Much has been said about William Shakespeare: historic analysis from various schools of thought; ideas on the importance of the author; or the importance of his context; or the importance of his later editors; or the influence of his contemporaries. With everything from complex close readings on character intent to the more subtle debates on how to properly act out “Exit, pursued by a bear” (The Winter’s Tale, III, iii). For all that has been said, there are always more words, and always more room for them.

In the end, the questions Shakespeare poses are more powerful when they are considered, not when they are answered: considerations of identity and death, love and folly, the uses of power, and the psychological responses to grief. In every raging soliloquy to every spritely aside, Shakespeare defies the attempts to assign easy morals or quiet conclusions. Whether this is due to the veil of history or the fog of fame or the clear expressions of a master artist, and more than likely it is all of these things, there is always the sense that “this our life exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones and good in everything” (As You Like It, II, i). A good life is, after all, filled with heroes and villains, the ordinary and the complex, and the odd ways they switch roles.

If mystery most properly describes life, then Shakespeare as an artist, and then as a man, comes as close as possible to saying it truly. In the end, he is one of the only authors great enough to encompass it, touching on more than many can consider. Not simplicity in fiction, but a recasting of life recognizable yet elevated, shown for all its potentially brilliant tragedy and oscillating beauty. Even now, Shakespeare seems far more alive than dead, no matter what you thought of him in high school.

Paul Kasay

Staging King Lear

Guest blogger, Jonny Patrick, writes…

My favourite moment in Shakespeare is the scene in King Lear where the blind Gloucester is led by his son Edgar to the cliffs of Dover, where he intends to commit suicide. Gloucester does not know that his guide is Edgar, who has taken on the disguise of the madman Poor Tom.

Gloucester has lost his sight; we have ours. However, what we are about to see will make us question its reliability, morality, even its desirability. We watch as Edgar leads his father forward, telling him that he is now “within a foot / Of th’extreme verge” (IV, vi). He gives a dizzying verbal picture of the view from the precipice. Gloucester tells him to leave and Edgar does so. What, we ask ourselves, is Edgar playing at? Will he really let his father jump? Is this some kind of revenge for Gloucester’s earlier injustices towards him? In an aside, Edgar addresses the question, but tells us merely “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it”. In this play about eyes, where should we look: at the man about to leap or at his son, who must surely stop this from happening?

Then Gloucester jumps. He falls, and is prostrate onstage. So he’s dead? Have we really just watched a man leap to his death? Edgar himself is unsure and runs up to Gloucester. Assuming a new accent and persona, he shouts to Gloucester, who wakes up. Once again, Shakespeare pitches us into confusion. Have we just watched a man jump from a cliff and survive? Or have we just seen him die then rise from the dead? Gloucester himself is unsure: “But have I fallen or no?” Ultimately, we can work out that this is an elaborate ruse by Edgar, designed to trick his father out of his suicidal despair by convincing him that he has been miraculously preserved. Gloucester’s leap landed him on the ground before him; Edgar never took him to the edge. But Edgar/Shakespeare is toying with us too: was that really what we saw?

I can think of nothing more purely theatrical than this scene. On the radio or on film, it just can’t work in the same way. It has to be done on a bare stage; make the staging realistic and you give away that Gloucester hasn’t jumped at all. It’s a soul-saving experience for Gloucester and a theatrical miracle.

Jonny Patrick
Head of English, St Paul’s Girls’ School

A Production of Many Colours: RSC’s Glistering King John

Guest blogger, Annie Martirosyan, writes…

RSC is always a treat when I am in fair Stratford-upon-Avon. I have seen performances I adored and performances I disliked. I could not predict what I would make of King John. I am mostly a purist when it comes to adapting Shakespeare and I heard King John was very modernized.

It was raining as I left the Shakespeare Institute. I intentionally forgot the umbrella at the guest house as I did not want to shun the English rain. I had little time for usual pottering in the foyer, so I grabbed my RSC Key ticket and ran to the Gallery.

There were balloons! They must burst onto the stage at some point, I thought. Something splendid seemed to be unfolding…

RSC's King John

Photo: Annie Martirosyan

Pippa Nixon appeared – in colourful tights, with bright red lipstick and a guitar. She was loud, modern-Englished, talking to us randomly and playing the guitar accompanied with her high-spirited singing. I laughed. I definitely was not in the early 13th century – but whatever it was, it looked like it was going to be a blast!

…The lights lit up, the cast rushed in, loud, colourful, fidgety. Blanche, blonde, and excellently portrayed by Natalie Klamar. Did Shakespeare conceive of Blanche as a modern stereotypical silly blonde? And so perfectly modern did Shakespearean English sound from the mouth of the Spanish princess!

Blanche and Dauphin’s wedding was the most hilarious I have ever witnessed, on and off stage. How naturally gifted a non-native director must be to combine modern posh pomp and Shakespeare’s tongue so gracefully and fluently! And all was to such a very appropriate music that the audience laughed themselves into stitches with delight at this musical comedy, while not hating this unimaginable interpretation of King John – indeed, nodding at the very wild and brilliant adaptation. This is what the Swedish director Maria Aberg achieved.

Alex Waldmann played King John – so young and yet so worthy to stand on RSC’s stage as an English king. Susie Trayling as a mad Constance, in a vibrant purple dress and with reddish curls, was noisy and chilling. Paola Dionisotti as a female Pandulph looked smart. John Stahl as Philip of France, in a trim aquamarine suit, was funny and appropriate. Sandra Duncan was hilarity itself as a motorcycling Lady Faulconbridge!  Strangely, the boy playing Arthur is not mentioned in the “King John cast and creative” on RSC’s website – he was apt and voiced, so young and so talented! They were all excellent.

Siobhan Redmond, in a long emerald silky dress and with her fiery head, a gift from nature – slightly incestuous, slightly silly but snobbish – was almost an ideal grandmother to Arthur.

The Bastard: you would not make much of the character, would you, other than term him a slimy, insolent illegitimate social climber or some such? Maria Aberg unsexed him, made her a central character and what’s more – had Pippa Nixon cope with this. And cope she did, top-drawer. She sprang onto stage as if from the street, with the casualness of her outfit, the resonant powerful voice spontaneously spitting Shakespeare’s lines from her throat and her being – this slim young actress besieged the audience. If Pippa Nixon can make so much out of such an unpleasing, neglected character and give shape to a plot Shakespeare cared not to define, I don’t doubt I’ll see her doing King Lear and Falstaff one day with similar dazzle!

…The lights went out, there was confetti in the air, Pippa Nixon was singing…

With balloons, hoops, pomp, a silly blonde, slight incest and comedy, RSC’s King John was an absolute delight. In a mingled play of mixed feelings and a plot that baffles a single-sentence definition, Maria Aberg’s exquisite production attempted not to confirm it as a black-and-white historical trauma, but succeeded in accentuating the jumbled plot with physical colours and emphasized characters, turning King John into a glittering show that was incredibly likeable! Indeed, the production deserves as many stars as there were balloons! Shakespeare would have been entertained.

The RSC’s King John was on at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from April to September 2012.

You can read the longer review and the full writ on Avon’s stages on Talk Like Shakespeare website.

Annie Martirosyan
PhD Shakespeare researcher, linguist, English Language Lecturer
www.talklikeshakespeare.gobsplat.com

Contemporary Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Charlotte Highcock, writes…

Throughout my education within English Literature, Shakespeare has always played a vital role. The diversity of plays, poems and sonnets is what makes each new encounter of Shakespeare so innovative and enjoyable. Personally, the best aspect of Shakespeare is how unique each interpretation of his work can be. For example, my first viewing of a theatrical adaptation of a Shakespearean play was a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. As a pre-GCSE student, this allowed me to gain easy access to Shakespeare and ensured the start of my enthusiasm of his works.

One of my favourite plays is Othello. The way in which Shakespeare was able to capture the “Moor’s” degrading treatment within society, humbly referring to others as “most potent, grave and reverend signors,” shows how racism was even seen within the Jacobean era, enhancing how contemporary Shakespeare can be. Additionally, the focus on tragedy is another key aspect which I find is what distinctly makes Shakespeare one of the best, if not the best, English playwright, and makes plays such as Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet so successful on stage.

Projects such as this are vital to keeping Shakespeare alive. It will be wonderful to make Shakespeare even more accessible, particularly to students studying at GCSE or A-Level, who may only be exposed to certain set texts.

Charlotte Highcock

Apropos Macbeth

Guest blogger, Ligia Luckhurst, writes…

In the winter of 1980, I saw Peter O’Toole as Macbeth at the Old Vic. Yes, that production, and for all the wrong reasons: at that time, aged 28, I was, as I still am at age of 60, in love with O’Toole.

On the evening, my normal reasoning and perceiving faculties were cancelled out. I started getting ready hours before the show, and only minutes later discovered that I had half an hour left to traverse London from north to south, find the Old Vic theatre, present my ticket and take my seat.

Sean Feeney was already on the stage when I got in. He was grey-haired and spectral, speaking the verses in that peculiar staccato way that is uniquely his. I was full of awe. I felt I was in the presence of a being who knew everything and who had experienced everything.

And that is what is wrong with most productions of Macbeth: Macbeth is wise, doomed and despairing from the start, whilst the play is in fact about acquiring pointless wisdom at a terrible price.

Years later, I saw Sam Walters’ production at The Orange tree in Richmond. It was an eye-opener.

Who is Macbeth, really? A soldier, a Joe Bloggs inhabiting a clean-cut world of dos and don’ts, who suddenly receives notification of having won the Reader’s Digest Prize Draw, provided he returns his lucky numbers in the envelope labelled ‘Yes’?

When he does, he wades through rivers of blood to learn that the world is a tale told by an idiot, with sound and fury.

At that stage, of course, he is no longer Joe Bloggs, nor is there anything left for him to do but to die: the whole of his life’s potential has been used up as payment for this obscene knowledge.

And why was he chosen as winner of the Prize Draw? Because Macbeth is the sort of bloke who can be depended upon to return his lucky numbers. Blokes who return their numbers make the tale told by an idiot go round. That is Macbeth in a nutshell.

Joe Bloggs, however, is one thing O’Toole could not be and he was right not to have tried to. He was grand and extravagant; he made us sit up and listen, whether we liked it or not. And that was good and as it should be.

Ligia Luckhurst

Malleable Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Jakub Boguszak, writes…

What surprises me again and again each time I get to perform in a Shakespeare play is how malleable one’s own reading of a play can become once the rehearsal process begins.

There are so many inflections the text acquires only when a situation is physically enacted, when one is forced to respond to other people’s ideas of what their characters and scenes are about; one can look forward to playing the solemn, magisterial and cool Prospero only to discover that he can be actually quite funny in front of an audience (The Tempest); apparently routine lines can gain profound significance when spoken out loud to somebody else (as in Antony and Cleopatra, when Charmian responds with her dying breath: “Ah, soldier!”); the presence of silent characters on stage can turn out to be essential for the architecture of a scene.

I was fortunate to perform in 4 Shakespeare plays produced by an experienced director who gave us the freedom to explore the text ourselves and find its meaning through dialogue – on stage and off. In this sense, the plays became ours as we had to negotiate the meaning of the scenes and the overall progress of the story, while at the beginning only some of us were acquainted with more than our own parts and the basic premise of the play (as indeed was the case with Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men).

A director can always explain what he or she thinks a particular situation is about and make the actors channel the idea, but I believe that Shakespeare in performance tends to be more rewarding when the actors themselves surprise and challenge one another: whenever the manner of an actor’s response prevents me from acting in the way I imagined my character to act when I was reading the play, I learn something new.

This process can be confusing and frustrating, as all sacrifices and compromises tend to be, but when a director can serve as a moderator of these exchanges, the chance that something both original and true emerges in the performance increases dramatically. If, in the end, the collective effort does not bring about a spectacular production rich with fresh insights, we can always return to the texts themselves and stage the plays in our minds the way we would like them to be staged. Pity we can then only bow to ourselves.

Jakub Boguszak

The Merchant’s Servant

Guest blogger, David Schajer, writes…

my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run, fiend; my heels are at your command; I will run.

 

The Merchant of Venice, II ii

My favourite Shakespeare experience was when I was re-reading The Merchant of Venice, specifically the speech by Shylock’s servant Launcelot where he debates whether or not to leave his master.

Launcelot speaks of the “fiend” who tells him to leave Shylock, and his “conscience” which tells him not to leave. Finally the fiend wins out. Launcelot decides to run away.

I wondered why Shakespeare wrote such a long speech for such a minor character. Who cares if he leaves Shylock? Was there some deeper meaning?

Then it hit me. The role of Launcelot would have been first performed, on the stage of the Theatre in Shoreditch perhaps, by the famous Elizabethan actor Will Kemp, known for comedic roles.

What I realized is that there is no deeper meaning — the speech is a comedy routine. Kemp is taking the temperature of his audience, to see how they feel about Shylock. He wants the crowd to make noise, and speak their minds aloud.

At first I thought that the entire audience would be unsympathetic to Shylock, and would yell at Launcelot to leave him. Shylock has long been portrayed as a villain, sometimes an inhuman villain and more recently as a human being, a good man undone by his anger. So, I imagined that Shakespeare’s audience would hate Shylock, the villain.

Then it dawned on me that Shakespeare would not have written the speech if the entire audience hated Shylock. The speech invites debate and disagreement from the audience. The fact that the question is asked at all is an indication that there would be some sympathy for Shylock, the Jew, even in Elizabethan London.

Why would be there any sympathy for Shylock? Because Shylock is not the villain but in fact the hero of the play.

At the time, I did not know how or why he is the hero, but it was this this speech that was the key to unlocking the play and proving that this, arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem play” is not a tragicomedy where Shylock is the villain, but in fact a very bawdy farce where the only character with any character is Shylock.

David Schajer