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

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