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

“The play’s the thing”

Guest blogger, Caroline Astley, writes…

This summer brought Shakespeare’s Globe’s performance of Hamlet to the Bodleian Library Quad. After a string of wet evenings, I ventured down to the open-air Old Schools Quadrangle in the hope that, weather permitting, I would be in for an evening of theatre in classic Shakespearean style; given that Hamlet is considered the Bard’s most popular and performed play, and the Bodleian provided The Globe with a majestic, historical setting with which to bring it to life, I was not to be disappointed.

The Shakespeare’s Globe season at the Bodleian is a well-lived tradition, now in its fifth year. The Oxfordian location is ideal, almost rivalling The Globe’s own Elizabethan-style theatre, famously situated on London’s South Bank. Completed in 1619, three years after Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian Library’s Old Schools Quadrangle is a suitably epic setting for a production of the well-known tragedy. Hamlet‘s touring set was similarly designed to feel contemporary with a seventeenth-century aesthetic; although more bare and stripped-down in appearance than the decadent Globe, the modest staging served as a perfect backdrop to the dramatic performance of a play which, as the Globe’s own flyer puts it, is “the fullest expression of Shakespeare’s genius”.

As seats filled and the sun remained out, the players gathered on stage in true Globeian style, with a handful of instruments, and began to strum a simple tune. Tom Lawrence (Horatio) came forward, introducing the play with a cry of “we have played a rainy Portsmouth, a wet and windy Poole and a stormy Cambridge: and, now, here we are in sunny Oxford!” The relief among audience and actors was unanimous.

Yet, regardless of the miraculous sunshine, Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst’s direction would have withstood any weather: fresh and fast-paced, it made the two-and-a-half-hour performance fly by, despite dropping temperatures as the evening wore on. Michael Benz was raw yet dynamic as Hamlet, perfectly capturing the frantic paranoia of the Danish prince. Refreshingly youthful, Benz sold the angst and insecurity of his character, exposing his vulnerability beneath a carefully-constructed veneer of bravado. Treading the line between madness and sanity, Benz agitatedly dramatized the grief, frustration, anger and hysteria of the young prince.

A tragedy in the traditional sense, the production remained light in the first half through plenty of witty humour; lines delivered in a smart, subtle fashion from Benz and Christopher Saul (Polonius) kept the audience laughing. A comic interpretation of the play within the play, The Murder of Gonzalo, saw the end of the first half and, also, an end to the humour. After a brief interval, in which members of the audience could peruse the Bodleian’s Hamlet display in the Proscholium (as well as a warm bar set up in the stunning Divinity School), the production turned into a spiralling descent of tragic death and despair. In quick succession, Polonius’s murder, Ophelia’s madness (played with poignancy by Carlyss Peer), and the demise of Hamlet himself were executed with a deft handling of the catastrophic drama.

In a perfect kick-off to the summer of Sprint for Shakespeare, Dromgoole and Buckhurst’s Hamlet did not fail to meet expectations of the much-anticipated performance at the Bodleian Library. An exciting rendition of a traditional classic, The Globe managed to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s most popular play while remaining stripped down to its bare essentials. Not to be missed.

Shakespeare’s Globe is on tour with Hamlet until 1 September 2012.

Caroline Astley

Teach young babes

Guest blogger, Judith Siefring, writes…

Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks

Othello, IV, ii

Like so many of us, I love reading and watching Shakespeare. And like many book-loving parents, I perhaps think a little too much about how to pass on my favourite works to my children. I’m a digital editor at the Bodleian and having had the good fortune to work on the Shakespeare Quartos Archive in 2009, when my son was only two years old, I pondered the question of when to introduce a child to Shakespeare rather earlier than most!

I would often sit at my laptop surrounded by different editions of Hamlet, while my son played happily on the floor beside me. I have a treasured photograph of him absorbed in a paperback Hamlet; any secret desires I may have had to circulate it as evidence of my son’s incipient genius were scuppered by the fact that the book is upside down.

When my son was four, I decided to dip our toes together into Shakespeare in performance by taking him to the wonderful Shakespeare4Kidz production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any doubts I may have had about whether it is possible to make Shakespeare truly appealing for kids were quickly dispelled by a theatre full of children in hysterics at the antics of Puck and company. Well over a year later, my son still talks about “the funny fairy guy”. I must confess, too, to feeling just a tiny bit smug when my boy pointed excitedly at a theatre poster recently at a crowded traffic crossing and bellowed, “Look Mummy – Hamlet!!

Now with the fantastic Sprint for Shakespeare initiative for inspiration, the time might be right to get to work on my two-year-old daughter…

 Judith Siefring

My Relevant Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Celia Smith, writes…

November 2008 is a significant date for me for two reasons: it was the first time I sought literary theory outside the classroom, and the first time I saw a Shakespeare play that was not in the rotation of classics with which I was familiar. The literary comment was a defence of T.S. Eliot’s anti-semitism by Jeanette Winterson.  The play was Tim Caroll’s 2008 The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Angus Wright as Shylock. I remember the two together because both were moments that offered ambivalent representations of the Jewish faith; something which interests me.

The set production of Merchant stood out to me in a way I hadn’t previously considered a Shakespearean performance. The floors, walls and furniture props took on hues of a musty, heat-burnt red – it reminded me of the Mediterranean marketplace setting and the gory blood money theme.  The experience marked a departure from the way I had watched Shakespeare plays as a child. When I was at school I had been used to uncritically sitting through versions of the plays you might typically be taken to see at that age (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet). I think the teachers hoped the trips would sow a seed of intellectual curiosity about the writer’s more obscure gold. Yet it’s a mark of my irrepressible juvenilia that plays like Henry VIII or The Winter’s Tale or Pericles will always exist for me outside the well-established set of Shakespeare texts that are – as they are for so many – imprinted permanently on my adolescent brain. It’s the language from the grand plays that have stayed with me all these years; the cadences of the lines that I have hung my heart on year after years of growing up.

I remember at university, the finalists in the years above me used Antony and Cleopatra and Henry V as they slogged through their exams. One girl wrote on Facebook as she approached the first night of her exams: “the bright day is done / And we are for the dark”. I remember when they were nearly done too because she wrote: “once more unto the breach dear friends!” Those lines returned to me as spurs of encouragement by the time I was doing my own finals. At that time I was comforted by the melodrama I could call on. When I felt like a misery-guts and I could see younger students still having fun, I would grumble: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth”. I would later eventually drop off after a sleepless night with grouchy resolve: “put out the light, and then put out the light”.

Nowadays working in my graduate job, I still find Shakespeare quotations lift my spirits. After a month working for Nightingale House (a Jewish care home for the elderly), and after a month waiting for social care reforms to come from the House of Commons, I was suddenly struck by how close the company’s talk of quality of care was making me think of Merchant’s speech on quality of mercy.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest:

The Merchant of Venice, IV, i

In the light of the challenging future that faces the elderly community in Britain today, I feel that Shakespeare writes about care (or rather mercy) with a moral fibre that would make me gibber with guilt were I in Government. And that reminder of Merchant brings me back to that date of November 2008, when I was first exploring the world of literary theory. I came across this apologia for poetry in Winterson’s feature in The Guardian. Her argument for the relevance of T.S. Eliot is exactly how I feel about the relevance of Shakespeare:

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

 

Celia Smith

De-editing Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Gerald Baker, writes…

I can no longer see William Shakespeare straight, nor feel him any longer on the bone or in the blood. By which I mean that over years (50 last month since I had my first Complete Works) of watching, reading, performing in the plays, and of being in a liberal humanist education (and still today working through a reading list that started when I was 18).

I have been told so many different versions or ideas that I often cannot disentangle my perception or understanding of a scene, or speech, or play, from other people’s reactions. Where I can do so, I find myself querying whether it’s my imagination/sensitivity at fault or merely different.

Case in point: Twelfth Night – for many people their favourite comedy, evoking terms like ‘bittersweet’ or ‘Mozartian’ – for me almost a total blind-spot; toneless, moodless, recycling bits he did better elsewhere (though I very much like the pieces often grouped with it, such as As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing). I know this is a discrepancy, and because I love the companion pieces so much I’m not much bothered about it being a failure or deficiency in me, but I go on giving Twelfth Night chances, attempting to get more from it that I know I can’t find.

And so with others: Coriolanus is firmly on the side of the people, exposing the flaws of the wealthy and individualistic ruling faction; Coriolanus has a proper scorn of the unwashed mob and endorses the virtues and strong leadership of its heroic general. It can’t be both (though it demonstrably is as a script) because Shakespeare the man can’t have been both – everything we know, what little everything there is, tends to place him on the side of the rulers against the people. Therefore the two-sidedness, the multi-facetedness, is a product or function not of Shakespeare’s myriad-mindedness, but of a variety of viewpoints and experiences of the play’s consumers and agents.

Othello is a terrible and poetic tragedy of a noble soul: no, actually, it’s a woman strangled in her marital bed by her bombastic and selfish, brutish husband. Desdemona is the one who undergoes the bloody tragedy, but the script manipulates you to forget or ignore this and foregrounds and privileges the killer. I know this, and nowadays this would not be reckoned a perverse interpretation, but all the time I watch, or read, or think of, Othello, I have this undertow pulling me back of Wilson Knight on “The Othello Music”, of images and reviews of noble Moors and “motiveless malignancy”.

And don’t get me started on Hamlet, and the idealizations and canonizations of the Prince as archetypal modern man, or the “claustrophobia” of Elsinore…

It’s not a universal feeling, and there are still parts of Shakespeare’s work that get to me very directly: the Macbeths immediately after killing Duncan, the moodshift of Marcade’s eleventh-hour irruption (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Lear’s and Timon’s denunciations of how their worlds are organized (King Lear and Timon of Athens), the gracefulness and good humour of As You Like It, the tumbling headlong spillage of images in the language of Antony and Cleopatra. But much doesn’t reach me anymore, and I feel tired, and it feels tired, when we meet.

The delights of Shakespeare are varied and multitudinous, but they are not infinite and he is not comprehensive. Let me suggest that mothers and daughters would not find him very engaged with their interrelated concerns.

Where I am happiest at the moment, and for many years past, with Shakespeare, is on the margins, the bits where there are fewer preconceptions to prejudice or handcuff me: parts of Timon of Athens fascinate me, and I have a disproportionate interest in The Two Noble Kinsmen.

I remember my first postgraduate reading of the May Day scene in Sir Thomas More and being blown away by a new bit of Shakespeare. And as I wrote before, I am trying to make all of this new by going back to facsimiles or lightly edited editions where I can see the scripts unmediated, or much less mediated, at least. And Hamlet makes more sense when you find there’s a case for him being only 18, and one of the greatest but least satisfactory scenes in King Lear (III, vi) is more intelligible when you can see that what we know is in fact a conflation of two quite different scenes in the first two editions of the play.

Scholars and academics have been moving on the margins and “de-editing” Shakespeare for a couple of decades now, at least, but not many of us outside universities have tried scraping the varnish off, I think.

It’s almost as if that whole paramountcy that the First Folio established by preserving 50% of the plays from extinction, and distinguishing Shakespeare by collecting a writer’s plays for the first time,* has actually also made it possible to separate him from his contemporaries, his co-workers and his peers.

What I’m trying to say is that the more I can break Shakespeare down in my head and see him in the same fragmented and partial way we perforce do his fellows, the more I have a direct and personal, excited and engaged, response to the work.

 

*I know the Folio of Ben Jonson’s work came first, but it wasn’t just plays, and more importantly he collected his work himself, whereas other people did it for Shakespeare.

 Gerald Baker

Some Lines from King John

Guest blogger, Jonathan Blaney, writes…

I was interested to hear that King John is, from the evidence of wear, the least read of the plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio. For me, it contains the most touching lines in all of Shakespeare’s writing. When Constance is separated from her son, Arthur, she says:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

King John, III, iii. 93-7

The play is often dated to 1596. The Arden edition, edited by Honigmann, remarks tersely of this passage: “Some edd. think Shakespeare remembers the death of his son Hamnet, ob. 1596.”

It’s a benefit of not being a Shakespeare scholar to be able to say, “of course he’s remembering Hamnet”. The writing in this part of the play, quite drab by Shakespeare’s standards, briefly takes wing. It’s incongruous and deeply felt. As long as the dating is correct, then of course it’s about Hamnet.

The curious thing is that at this point in the play Arthur is not dead. It seems to me that very often in Shakespeare death is attended by some kind of misprision: Lear thinks Cordelia is alive but she is dead; Romeo thinks Juliet is dead but she is alive. And death frequently strikes blindly, as though through an arras: Hamlet thinks he is killing Claudius but he’s killing Polonius; Claudius thinks he is killing Hamlet but he’s killing Gertrude. Most insistently, Shakespeare works away obsessively at the idea that characters thought to be dead are, in various ways, redeemed from death and restored by drama: Imogen, Ferdinand, Perdita and Marina are just the most explicit examples, as if in the late plays Shakespeare allowed himself licence to write about what interested him most.

I cannot help noticing that after the restoration of the nuclear family in The Winter’s Tale one character is not brought back to the life of Leontes: his son Mamillius, who was perhaps the age of Arthur and of Hamnet.

It may be that I am just partial to such scenes: nothing in Henry V stays in my mind except the death of Falstaff. Or it may be that, as the poet (and wonderful Shakespeare translator) Paul Celan wrote shortly before his own death, “when is great poetry not about last things?”

Jonathan Blaney

Shakespeare Abroad

We’re grateful to Peter Parkinson for our second guest blog post. He writes…

A spectacular feature on the island of Cyprus is the restored Roman amphitheatre of Curium, some dozen miles west of Limassol. Carved out of the hillside and looking outwards high above the sea, its restoration was begun little more than half a century ago. The theatre is idyllic but, of an evening when the darkness falls and there is a performance, the effect is truly magical.

Some 50 years ago, a British sergeant working in the (UK-administered) Western Sovereign Base Area, spotted the potential of a theatre in ruins. And so began the annual production of Shakespeare. The first play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the cast coming mainly from amateur companies associated with the British Forces. But because the venture was intended as a joint British/Cypriot affair, locals were also drafted in, and the proceeds went to Cypriot charities.

I was fortunate to have been in five productions, from 1973 to 1977. My first appearance was in Hamlet. I was new to the island and unused to acting. The director that year was a British schoolmaster and he it was who cajoled me into the part of Fortinbras. I was later promoted to Player King and I will never forget my first entrance. Not only was I a tiro who had some pretty dramatic stuff to deliver, but it was also before an audience of 2,000. My feelings were a mix of terror and bewilderment.

My daughter, not yet four, had already announced herself and amused the audience. When the Ghost coaxed Hamlet on to the battlements, her small but clear voice rang out: “Don’t go, Hamlet! Don’t go!”

Two other memories. One involved a large beetle lurching and scratching a path towards my ear as I lay on the stone stage. Hamlet, spotting the danger, put in an unscheduled move and crushed it beneath his heel. So decisive, I thought, and so uncharacteristic of Hamlet. Then there was the incident of the snake that decided to share the stage-side bunker with the lady prompt.

I remember too we had a Cypriot Laertes who addressed his adversary as “Noble Omelette” but very dramatically, as one would expect of a Greek. Another recollection is of our script discussion as to whether we should omit the potentially controversial line: “striking short at Greeks”.

In 1974 there was the failed coup against Makarios, followed by the Turkish invasion. These dramatic events occurred a month after our production of Twelfth Night. We did wonder, in all the confusion, whether the tradition could survive the island’s partition and the mass of real life tragedies all around us. But come the summer of 1975 we were up and running again with The Merry Wives of Windsor. Audience numbers were understandably down, but Makarios’s Vice President, Glavkos Clerides, honoured us with his presence, making us feel that the decision to carry on regardless had been right.

Last summer in Paris, I met a group of Cypriot tourists and asked whether the performances still happened. They hastened to assure me they did, and I discovered this year that the production was The Merchant of Venice, billed as the 49th in the sequence.

Peter Parkinson