Friday, March 31, 2006
Speaking of Shakespeare and George Bush, we have seen two films on the last two nights which could only have been made in the Bush years, I think. They were June-Bug and The Three Burials of Melquides Estrada -- in that order. I thought they were both very good, especially the latter, which strikes me as quite Shakespearean in its breadth and (thanks, Bill Matchett) its concern with forgiveness and personal cleansing. Maybe this is the closet Episcopalian in me. I found it powerful.
In today's Times, referring to developments in Iraq, Paul Krugman comments, "When politicians decide they can get ahead by appealing more to fear than to hope, national reconcilliation goes up in smoke. And that's about Iraq!
Thursday, March 30, 2006
It's hard not to start with nervous laughter.
I have three memories of Titus Andronicus. At age 20, while stationed in the US Army in Watford, England, during the Korean War, I saw a production at Stratford with Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, and Anthony Quayle. I knew nothing about the play, but I took along a couple of my army buddies, probably to show off I was a class above our daily culture of picking up cigarette butts and complaining about the chow. The production is now famous, directed by Peter Brook, and I remember more of it than I seemed to have retained from many plays I saw when I was that callow. Aaron the Moor (Quayle) dominated my focus, and I remember 17 murders (actually there are 14 if you count the poor rustic who is executed for delivering a letter to Saturninus and Aaron who is condemned to die, licked to death by earthworms (?), but not actually disemboweled on stage). The ragout served up to Tamora at the banquet of course arrested my attention, good stuff for a twenty-year-old seeking any sort of ironic dissonance from army life (remember we were required to complain about the food).
And I remember Vivian Leigh. She played Lavinia who is mutilated horribly at the end of Act II, hands amputated, tongue cut out, to prevent witness about her rapists. Brook displayed her with vivid scarlet ribbons flowing from her mouth and from her empty sleeves. Lavinia is on stage for much of the remainder of the play, as a silent reactor and accomplice to her father's grief. She wept. She touched Titus. She moaned. I have never forgotten this tableau, though in my subsequent drama watching, I regret that I have only seen Vivian Leigh that once, and her most memorable lines were "mmumh... mummph... mmamum." If only she had read Christy Brown's My Left Foot. [Nervous laughter]
But that made Titus my play. Only I knew about it. The next scene is my PhD oral exams. Seven professorial interrogators and just me. Two and a half hours. No witnesses. It all went very well, and I became more and more confident. I gave a fulsome answer to a 300-word question that I could see into as merely "Alexander Pope? yes or no?" I could quote from Beowulf (in Anglo Saxon, for God's sake). I knew the difference between Una and Duessa in The Faerie Queene (I'm sure my answer was not just "plus one"). We got toward the end, and there was time for the profs to just fool around, so one asked me if on the first day of classes, I was suddenly given a Shakespeare course to teach, what three plays would I choose. Really loaded. I fell silent (at which point Jean was listening outside the door and thought perhaps I had dropped dead) until the questioner said, "just what three plays; we won't ask you to explain your choices." "Whew!" goes my mind, and I blurted out Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Titus Andronicus ("my" play). So, of course, I spent another ten minutes trying to explain a play I had never read and had not seen for ten years.
Once, I went to see The Long Riders with some friends. The Keaches, the Quaids, and the Carradines raid Northfield. MN. Horses leap through glass, the Youngers die in slow motion. JoeBob says check it out. Great movie, but the three wives all went out to the lobby to eat popcorn for half an hour. So, third memory, there is the Julie Taymor/Anthony Hopkins movie. In my life of movie going, it is the only time I have had to turn away from the screen. "Perhaps we could make more dramatic sense out of Titus Andronicus if we could see it as an unharrowed hell, a satyr-play of obscene and gibbering demons," says Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism, 292).
So, fourth, I am shocked by Titus Andronicus. I'm shocked that Shakespeare goes from "Long live our Emperor Saturnine!' (I.i.233) to Mutius: "Help, Lucius, help!" [Titus kills him] (I.i.291); from "Lavinia will I make my empress" (I.i.240) to "Thanks, noble Titus, father of my life!" (I.i.253) to "No, Titus, no, the Emperor needs her [Lavinia] not,/ Nor her, nor thee, nor any of thy stock" (I.i.299-300). Look, guys, this is only 67 lines. Mercutiio takes twice as long just to footnote Queen Mab.
I'm going to break now, but I plan to come back to genre (unless Ernst gets me off the hook about Seneca); about character (from Stratford in 1954, I still think Aaron is the most compelling); about Randall's tracing through honor, loyalty, justice, vengeance to the feeble little "Then, afterwards, to order well the state" (all Shakespearean tragedy ends with a world well shrunk, e.g., Duncan, MACBETH, Malcolm. And my impulse is to think about Ernst's "camp" in terms of irony rather than send-up. If you gang up on me, I could be persuaded to read The Changeling or Bussy D'Ambois or reread The Duchess of Malfi. I have seen, recently, Jude Law at the New Vic in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Perhaps I will get up the courage to watch Titus or, at least, Jane Howells's BBC version, too chicken to be set in Northern Ireland.
Which brings us to the note that Laura Bush started exercising when she married George W because it was part of his lifestyle, which explains why she's also stopped reading. But our discovery is George W. Bush has read Titus Andronicus! ("We are but shrubs, no cedars we")
Talk to you soon,
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
To judge by Pistol’s ravings in the Henry IV, pt. II, one suspects that Marlowe must have been pretty "old hat" by 1594. The Spanish Tragedy (the English Renaissance's most popular play) was obviously loved, but perhaps on its way to becoming camp. Certainly Ben Jonson's elaborate "additions," made just a few years later, took Kyd's initial purple passages and imitated them to an extreme, something at once cornball and delightful. Add to this the fact that Shakespeare was fresh off a play full of parody (Love's Labor's Lost), it seems to me quite possible that Titus itself is at once an attempt to do Kyd (The Spanish Tragedy) and Marlowe (The Jew of Malta) one better and, at the same time, an exercise in camp (as was, I believe, Tourneur's wonderfully hammy The Revenger's Tragedy ).
So, the question arises — to what extent do we take this play seriously, and to what extent do we take it as camp. How, indeed, do we treat camp? Do we do it a disservice and ignore its presence, or do we find a way of achieving some sort of whole vision that includes both dramatic consistency and overwriting, spoof, and take-off?
Sunday, March 26, 2006
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
Chaos is a fearsome thing, especially when it comes to the state, that fragile ideal at which so few governments consistently succeed and on which people depend for the order of their daily lives. Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is all about the difficulties of achieving order. But what kind of order?
In Titus, honor and loyalty are forms of order. In a fragmenting situation that requires a decision or action, both honor and loyalty dictate responses that fulfill predetermined expectations -- that is order. During the Watergate scandal, FBI administrator Mark Felt went to the press, anonymously as Deep Throat, and gave enough information to Woodward and Bernstein that they were able to expose administration corruption, resulting in the near-impeachment and resignation of the president of the United States. Nixon, perhaps, was relying on a certain amount of loyalty within his administration. If the loyal remained quiet there would have been no impeachment hearings, and no resignation. Sail on, sail on, O mighty ship of state.
But Mark Felt was disloyal to the president (although he was loyal to the constitution). It may not seem like Felt's actions, leaking info to The Washington Post, raise the question of loyalty; after all he was a member of the FBI, in charge of investigating the Watergate break-in and not part of the White House staff. However, "FBI Acting Director L. Patrick Gray -- who had been appointed by Nixon immediately after J. Edgar Hoover's sudden death in May -- was cooperating with the White House to thwart a full FBI investigation, and the White House was pressuring him to shut off the various leaks to the media" (Nation, June 13, 2005). They did this by having Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, "a Nixon loyalist," put pressure on Gray, asking him to fire Felt, whom they suspected of leaking information. Gray demurred, assuring Kleindienst that Felt was "completely loyal."
This is where loyalty and honor diverge. Felt did "the honorable thing," not the loyal thing. If you search "do the honorable thing" on Google, you get all sorts of scenarios in which people act or are encouraged to act in accordance with some principled concept (marry the pregnant girlfriend, concede a close election, resign if you've engaged in criminal acts while in public office) and often in disregard for their own objectives, benefit or needs. They do what's "right." Loyalty, because it frequently obligates one to an individual or group instead of a principle, may distract us from what is right, the honorable.
Is honor important in Titus? Yes, indeed. The words "honor" and "honorable" occur 23 times in Act 1, scene 1. This frequency signals the presence of order in Roman society - Titus has done valiant things in the service of Rome, and he is being rewarded; Saturninus and Bassianus both claim the honor of becoming emperor, in continuation of their father’s honors; Titus’s sons lie in "honor’s bed," the appropriate conclusion after having given their lives for Rome, "slain manfully in arms in right and service of their noble country," and Titus’s eulogy at their burial is "in peace and honor rest you here, my sons" (1.1.196-197, 150, 156). They have earned both.
Offered the emperorship, Titus turns it down and confers the position on Saturninus.
"And here in the sight of Rome to Saturnine ...,
The wide world’s emperor, do I consecrate
My sword, my chariot, and my prisoners,
Presents well worthy Rome’s imperious lord.
Receive them, then, the tribute that I owe,
Mine honor’s ensigns humbled at they feet." (1.1.248, 250-254)
For Titus there is no division between loyalty and honor. What honor he has won in battle --betokened by his sword, chariot and prisoners -- he has done for Rome; these tokens of honor easily become "tribute." But Titus gets his Mark Felt moment. Or, more appropriately, he gets his Oliver North moment.
You remember Lieutenant Colonel North. In the mid-1980s, during the Reagan administration, North coordinated the clandestine and illegal sale of weapons to Iran, funneling the profits to the Contras in Nicaragua in violation of both administration policy and congressional legislation (the Boland Amendment, which stopped aid to the rebels in 1984). North was indicted (16 felony counts) and convicted on three (though later the convictions were overturned). But the popular image of him will always remain ‘the loyal Marine,’ mostly because he wore his uniform to the hearings even though he had dressed as a civilian during his time with the NSC. On the witness stand, North admitted his actions were illegal but defended himself by claiming that what he did made him a "national hero" in the eyes of the president. He saw no problem with circumventing the law because he was working for the president. He was loyal. Reagan was not seriously implicated; North, and John Poindexter, took the fall.
Now Titus is no Ollie North, whose contempt for constitutional process and the law voided one side of the honor/loyalty equation, but one of the most startling moments, for me, in Titus Andronicus, is when Titus kills his son Mutius. Saturninus’s claim to Lavinia is contested by Bassianus, who says she is betrothed to him. All the Andronici, save Titus, back him up, and they abscond with Lavinia; disorder threatens Rome.
When Titus attempts to pursue Lavinia and return her to Saturninus, Mutius stops him. "What, villain boy, / Barr'st me my way in Rome?" he yells, committing filicide (1.1.295-96). Titus’s loyalty is to Rome, even before family, whom he brands "traitors" a few lines earlier. His act is horrific because it so clearly wrong, but for Titus it is a matter of honor:
My lord, you are unjust, and more than so!
In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son.
Nor thou nor he are any sons of mine.
My sons would never so dishonor me. (1.1.298-301)
Thus, the murder of his son is an attempt to restore order, an order in which he is honored by Rome for his loyalty even at the expense of his family. If Titus has a tragic flaw, it is this: he cannot see that loyalty to the corrupt is not honorable and that honor bestowed by such people should not command loyalty. It seems to me that the various tragic flaws we focus on with the literary tragic heroes are all individual forms of blindness (most directly and figuratively evidenced by Oedipus). Titus does not see past the verbiage of "honor" and "noble" to the true quality of the individuals who utter these terms. (And Saturninus, almost bipolar in his characterization, is pretty obviously someone not to be trusted.) Titus is vain that way, and this vanity is fatal to his family.
I don’t know much about Elizabethan political attitudes but I wonder if even then blood wasn’t thicker than Roman water, and Titus reduces his heroic stature by his rashness and disloyalty to his family. We have moved to the "dis-" side of Act 1 scene 1 - disorder, disloyalty, and dishonor. In fact, the word "dishonor" turns up eight times after line 300, and two occurrences of "honor" are negative: "mine honor thou has wounded" (1.1.372) and "Lord Titus here is in opinion and in honor wronged" (1.1.423-424). One could argue that all the "honor" and "honorable" and "noble" thrown around in the first place was false, in the mouths of dissemblers, like Tamora and Saturninus, and the self-deceived, like Titus. True order there never was.
"Ask not what you have done for your country; ask what your country has done for you."
With the peace broken and order disarrayed, loyalty and honor, the proactive agents of order, exit stage left, and we become interested in a different, reactive, form of order: Justice. It’s an understatement to say that, in Titus Andronicus, there’s not a lot of justice. The play makes this point indirectly as the term occurs most frequently in Act 4, the scenes depicting Titus’s madness. Specifically in Act 4, scene 3 Justice is both personified (Astraea) and abstract, but we are really asked to take not justice but its absence seriously:
"...sith there’s no justice in earth nor hell,
We will solicit heaven and move the gods
To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs." (4.3.51-53)
Talk about appealing to a higher court. An interesting thing to note here is that for all the appeals to heaven (both Roman and anachronistically Christian), the gods are pretty deaf. To return for a minute to Frank Kermode’s indication that the revenge tragedy conventionally suggests "that vengeance properly belongs to God alone," can mortals be blamed for taking God’s place when God, or the any one of the gods, fails to act? I thought for a bit that one could attribute the impotence of the gods to Elizabethan attitudes about Roman paganism, but then the anachronisms start popping up: the country fellow’s evocation of the Virgin Mary, "By’r Lady"; the "ruinous monastery" where the Goth captures Aaron; and most significantly Aaron’s argument as to why Lucius should swear not to harm his child:
"...I know thou art religious
And hast a thing within thee called conscience,
With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies
Which I have seen thee careful to observe" (5.1.75-78)
And Lucius does swear; God’s law matters. And surely Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have taken these things seriously. Yet throughout the rest of the play the gods provide no order, no justice. And when justice fails to restore order, there is one more form of order: Vengeance.
"Ask not what you have done for your country; ask what your country has done to you."
Revenge masquerades as Justice the way Tamora masquerades as Revenge; it’s a disguise that’s easy to see through. For one, vengeance is not inclined to satisfy all parties, only the one. Hence, vengeance achieved falls short of justice (public order), lacks honor, and fails to reestablish order. Vengeance as a path to justice is also ambiguous, and I thought Shakespeare amplified the ambiguity by making it confusing who might legitimately be called this play’s "revenger." Is it Tamora, who pleads eloquently and convincingly for the life of her son only to have him slaughtered to satisfy some obscure ritual sacrifice? Or is it Titus, against whom "unspeakable" acts are committed? For his part, Titus vows revenge when his sons’ heads are delivered to him, even before he knows they are innocent of the crime for which they have been executed.
"Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave?
For these two heads [of his sons] do seem to speak to me
And threat me I shall never come to bliss
Till all these mischiefs be returned again
Even in their throats that hath committed them." (3.1.275-279)
His timing is a little galling. Rather than vow vengeance earlier when he discovers his despoiled daughter or later when he learns of his sons’ innocence, he chooses the moment when he’s been tricked into cutting off his own hand, even while he refers to "all these mischiefs."
Still, Titus has cause, and Shakespeare amplifies it by surrounding him with increasingly cartoonish villainy - Aaron outdoes Iago for embracing evil for evil’s sake - and outrageous acts of gruesome mayhem. These, in light of government corruption - indeed, collusion - present a validation of vengeance in the absence of justice. But vengeance fails to restore true order, and in the end a whole lotta dead folks litter the stage or are table scraps (I’ll leave Gil to actually count them).
Perhaps this, then, is the purpose of revenge tragedy - to warn the ruling class of the doom of failed justice and honor. If a situation has resulted in people seeking vengeance, things have gotten way too far out of hand. Does Shakespeare offer a clear statement of such a message? Yes, he does. It’s not in the first Quarto, but in all subsequent editions the play ends with the following four lines by Emperor Lucius:
See justice done on Aaron, that damnèd Moor,
By whom our heavy haps had their beginning:
Then, afterwards, to order well the state,
That like events may ne’er it ruinate. (5.3.204-207)
Is that the closest Shakespeare ever comes to a moral?
Don't let your day get ruinated,
Monday, March 13, 2006
We continue to read our way through Shakespeare's early plays, and after two comedies -- one that twits the aristocracy with waves of rhetorical follies and one that explores the middle-class with the frolicsome antics of farce -- we find ourselves on the threshold of Shakespeare's first tragedy. Or as Monty Python's Flying Circus used to say: And now for something completely different: Murder. Rape. Cannibalism.
The critics are frequently skeptical about Titus Andronicus and divided too: Shakespeare didn't write it, Peele did. Nunh-uh, Shakespeare wrote it all. Collaboration? Not! Well, he wrote it in the mid-1580s. No, it was written in 1594. It's a bad play. No it isn't. Is! Isn't! (If the critics were my kids, I'd send them to their rooms until they learned to behave themselves.) I've read Titus once and only seen it in odd, adaptative forms, like the 60-minute San Francisco Fringe Festival version Mondo Andronicus by the Thrillpeddlers which promoted its production with words like "gorefest" and "shocksploitation." (It won "Best of the Fringe" in 1997.) While I found the Thrillpeddlers' production gratuitous and trivial -- hard to avoid when you remove 70% of the text -- it did raise one of the questions I want offer as we begin to read this play, about genre.
We have seen in both Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost Shakespeare's adeptness at exploring human nature within a genre or form that would distract lesser playwrights from such insight. Titus Andronicus gives us an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. According to Frank Kermode in his introduction to Titus in the Riverside Shakespeare, the revenge genre has specific conventions, including a loss of sympathy for the revenger, in fact a transformation of revenger into villain, "the pretended madness or 'feigned ecstasy' of the revenger, ... and the delay in revenge." How does Shakespeare see the double-edged sword of revenge, playing as it does on our intrinsic desire for justice even as it makes villains of those who pursue it outside of God's jurisdiction?
Full confession: I have used the first days of my spring break to read Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, so it seems that Elizabethans had a taste for this sort of entertainment (and I think we do as well, although we've buried it lesser literary achievements like the films Billy Jack and Death Wish and Hard to Kill and The Punisher). But Kyd's and Marlowe's plays are tame in comparison to the mayhem carried out in Titus. What is the social and political value of this play's horror? What aspect of the human do we find in it? Perhaps I am asking about the nature of catharsis here, but I want to be more specific. And finally, perhaps one of you college boys can limn the differing influences of Senecan vs Aristotelian tragedy on Mr. Shakespeare and Titus.
Second, I am interested in our thoughts on character. In 1984, I saw Hugh Whitemore's Pack of Lies, a tight modern drama in which a middle-aged British couple are torn between their loyalties to their intimate neighbors, who turn out to be foreign spies, and their government. As Americans, we are not as finely attuned to this crisis -- our friends come and go easily, we distrust our government as a matter of pride. So where will we find ourselves in Shakespeare's story of a man whose loyalty to state and family is exaggerated even by the British standards suggested in Pack of Lies and who finds himself betrayed by one at the expense of the other?
In The Spanish Tragedy, Kyd's revengers, Don Andrea and Heironimo, are the victims of relatively simplistic political and amorous machinations -- Don Andrea has been brought down in battle and Heironimo's son has been murdered to make way for a different lover for his girlfriend. They are not much more than simple victims though. Titus, on the other hand, may be a victim of political forces beyond his control, but he is also a man of honor and some nobility. Theodore Weiss, in The Breath of Clowns and Kings, quotes Adriana's speech about her husband:
His company must do his minions grace
Wilst I at home starve for a merry look ...
Since that my beauty cannot please his eye,
I'll weep what's left away, and weeping die. (2.1.92-93, 119-120)
Weiss also notes how it is far beyond the "shrill screed of a shrew" (15). Shakespeare has given life to a cariacature. So, we can expect him to do as much with Titus the revenger and more. Wherein lies Titus's complexities and what are they?
Third, a more canonical question: I am curious what groundwork Titus Andronicus lays for Shakespeare's future, major tragedies: Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, etc. As we read, what foreshadowing echoes do we hear?
Last, where do we stand on the play's quality? What are its qualities? What are its weaknesses? And couldn't it be true that the critics are all wrong and, as the Reduced Shakespeare Company has argued, Titus Andronicus is simply Shakespeare's early attempt at a pre-PBS/Food Channel cooking show?
Have at it, and I'll look forward to our continuing conversation soon,
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Love's Labor's Lost -- evolution: I have had an interesting evolution this month. I have worked out an understanding that Love's Labor's Lost really does have a solid center, except it is unconventional. THE plot of comedy is boy sees girl, obstacles arise, boy gets girl, but in Love's Labor's Lost boy(s) eschew girls, the girls are the witty obstacles, and then the boys don't get the girls until they have proved they can demonstrate common sense in lieu of unnatural foolishness. Or instead of chaos-to-order, the plot goes from disharmony (the academe) to another sort of disharmony (the self-smitten guys paying court to the smarter girls) to a stasis (come back next year). As Randall notes, they substitute attempts at the language of love, no more sincere than their devotion to study, but it is dismissed by the ladies as "bombast."
Part of my original difficulty was being distracted too much by all the language play, though I never focused on Armado-Holofenes-Nathanial-Dull-Costard to solve them. But the more we worked with the play, the more I came to see that it is the language of the court that is excessive -- the "heroic" opening, the lovers' poems, Berowne's flights of eloquence -- and this is counterpointed or at least parodied by the language quirks of the clowns. When we first see Berowne trying to apply common-sense analysis to Navarre's "barren tasks," after "then I swore in jest" (the schoolboy defense of "my fingers were crossed"), he wings away against the shallowness of study (I warned Mike and Randall to bowdlerize these passages lest their students embrace them): "Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile" and "Small have continual plodders ever won,/ Save base authority from others' books" (I.i.77, 86-7), but Navarre himself correctly articulates something that applies to the whole play: "How well he's read, to reason against reading!"(I.i.94).
In truth, I think Navarre's comment is my motto for appreciating this play, Shakespeare is having a glorious time using language to twit the excessive uses of language. So I don't think I need worry about Lyly or Raleigh or Florio. Language exploded in the Renaissance, and Shakespeare here is both a major part of the explosion and a commentator on the resultant intemperance. At the end of Ben Jonson's Volpone, after Volpone has improvised close to the most glorious language ever in order to create worlds beyond imagination, e.g.:
Good morning to the day; and next my gold!
Open the shrine, that I may see my saint.
Hail the world's soul, and mine! More glad than is
The teeming earth to see the longed-for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram
Am I, to view thy splendour, darkening his. (I.i.1-6, and on through the rest of the play)
The play ends with Volpone before a ridiculously self-serving court to whom he confesses with the sparest line in the play: "I am Volpone, and this is my knave." Love's Labor's Lost , after all the rhetorical wonders' comes down to "Sans 'sans,' I pray you" (V.ii.416), "A right description of our sport, my lord" (V.ii.521), "This is not generous, not gentle, not humble" (V.ii.629), "The scene begins to cloud" (V.ii.721), "Jack hath not Gill" (V.ii.876), "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo" (V.ii.930) and, though it may be only a misplaced editorial stage direction, "You that way; we this way" (V.ii.931). I am Berowne, and these are my fools.
Randall cites Barton's "fatally self-indulgent," so in the interest of synonymity, I'd like to add Theodore Weiss's "veritable froth of language" and "fruitless persiflage." And Randall's commentary on the role of comedy in a suffering world sends me to Trevor Griffith's Comedians where the central question argues whether comedy is possible after Auschwitz. I'm not sure that is a stretch when I consider the nature of the penance Rosaline has set for Berowne -- the harshest sentence because Berowne has more understanding than the others and therefore is more guilty of self-delusion?
I have not read Auden yet, but considering "affectation," in both the applications, really works. "Trying out ideas of what they are and succeed in finding out about themselves" makes this a comedy of identity. Unlike The Comedy of Errors here the mistaken identities are the bookmen mistaking themselves, so, to address Randall's questions, no, I don't think they do succeed in figuring out who they are. They, or at least Berowne, sees reality more clearly, expelled from arrested adolescence. Berowne-up-a-tree unmasks them all as forsworn, but only Berowne overtly tries to swear off "Three-pil'd hyperboles."
Randall's critque of Branagh's Love's Labor's Lost is right on (and wonderfully written). It inspired me to watch it again. Alas, I dozed off after the sonnets in the library and didn't rewake until "There's No Business like Show Business," and as I tried to rewind, I got a serious phone call from my brother-in-law, that certainly did not go with Nathan Lane. Thus, my only advance in Love's Labor's Lost experience was watching with fascination Alicia Silverstone's lips.
I really have begun more thoughts on affectation -- courtiers who affect scholars who then affect lovers, echoed by affectations of the braggart Armado and the pedant Holofernes, so when Armado surrenders to the eye of Jaquenetta it anticipates the collapse of the courtiers' vows before the eyes of the French ladies. And the courtiers mock the Nine Worthies after having been mocked by the ladies. Well, our time is really up, so on to Titus and ...
You that way, me this way.
Monday, March 6, 2006
In the Kenneth Branagh movie review, I quoted Harley Granville-Barker saying that Love's Labor's Lost is a "comedy of affectations." Separate from Branagh's film, I think I misread this statement. I kinda thought more about Shakespeare's affectations -- all that deservedly smug toying with Neo-Platonics, Euphuism, and mock sonnets -- than the characters' affectations. Then I came across this comment by W. H. Auden from Lectures on Shakespeare:
"Affectation is a way people try out ideas of what they are and succeed in finding out about themselves. Affectation is very good at college age. If it's lacking, in five years a person will become a bore. But if it goes on into middle age, it is unpleasant" (2000, 41).
In Love's Labor's Lost Shakespeare gives us four men, who if they are not in college, are at least still collegiate. Ferdinand says "Our court shall be a little academe, / Still and contemplative in living art" (Signet, 1.1.13-14) and calls his colleagues his "fellow scholars." Youths or not, they adopt the trappings and goals of identity-searching youth.
So, if Auden's definition of affectation works here, then Act I, scene i presents us with four guys trying to figure out who they are. Do they succeed? What specific affectations do they demonstrate? (Berowne may see these more clearly than the rest, but I think the women see it most clearly.) How do these affectations affect their interactions? Does not the comedy (of affectations) resolve itself completely on the grounds that the men succeed in finding themselves, even though they have not united with their chosen brides? I think many of the answers to these questions come in Act V and maybe some in Act IV, scene iii, but Auden encourages me to think more deeply about them.
Certainly more than I did yesterday. Perhaps this is the curse of Shakespeare: there's always more to think about.
Sunday, March 5, 2006
Ernst asked about productions. I was going to write about the Cal Shakes production I saw in Orinda five years ago, but I didn't make any notes on the play nor can I remember very much. Press clippings tell me it was a good show, but little of it comes back to me. For these moments there is always film. Messieurs Findlay attended the Shakespeare-on-Screen Centenary Conference (the irony of which one of us may go into at a later date, probably when we read King John) in Spain in 1999. There, we met maybe 75% of the world's academic experts on Shakespearean films. The vibe was congenial and, a welcome shock to those who also attend the regular Shakespeare crit conferences, replete with comaraderie. I thought it was interesting though how frequently participants seemed to gently justify their particular corner of the lit/crit world even while surrounded by the converted. Apparently, producing scholarly material on the cinematic Shakespeare experience is akin to offering graduate courses on "Queer Theories of Star Trek" or "Semiotics and Sanford and Son." But, call me a groundling, I'm all for it. And so, as we go forward, I'm interested in throwing out some criticism of various film productions of the plays we're reading.
And so: Mike and I watched Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film production of Love's Labour's Lost, starring Branagh (as Berowne), Alessandro Nivola (as Ferdinand), Natascha McElhone (as Rosaline), Richard Briers (as Nathaniel), Geraldine McEwan (as Holofernia [sic] ), Nathan Lane (as Nathan Lane ... uh ... Costard), and, depressingly, Alicia Silverstone (as the Princess).
From a production viewpoint, Love's Labor's Lost puts the theatrical company in a bit of a pickle. What to do with all the jokes that require extensive glossaries and 400-year-old pop cultural knowledge? How does one approach an audience weaned on Schwarzenegger ("something's rotten in the state of Denmark ... and Hamlet is taking out the trash!") and Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, in which Mercutio's frenetic Queen Mab speech is the result of an acid trip? In his Prefaces to Shakespeare, Harley Granville-Barker calls Love's Labor's Lost a "comedy of affectations" and laments that Shakespeare finds himself a little too impressed with the things he sets out to mock. "And these academic follies of Navarre, the fantastic folly of Armado, the pedantic folly of the schoolmaster and the parson -- sometimes the satire is so fine that the folly seems [Shakespeare's] own" (1947, 415).
Branagh tackles both of these issues, first by cutting over 60% of the text to eliminate some of the play's more difficult language and character inconsistencies and dead sisters, second by embracing and recasting the play's affectation and folly in a modern context, staging it as a 1930s Hollywood musical. His emphasis is on the playful. Whereas Granville-Barker sums up Shakespeare's approach as "[i]nstead of dancing, however, we have a dance of dialogue" (422), Branagh reverses this; instead of dialogue, we have dancing, and singing -- Love's Labour's Lost as Fred Astaire romantic comedy.
Set on the eve of WWII (the presence of French royalty takes on more significance here), Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost gives us a trifling aristocratic Europe, oblivious of the political events beginning to cloud around them. He salts the movie with black-and-white Pathe-esque newsreels that allow him not only to provide extra-textual exposition, but to set a frivolous tone. The men's initial oath, for example, is portrayed as nothing but silly, rich boy hijinx by the arch newsreel voice-over. Still, Branagh's conceit works nicely. Take, for instance, the scene in which each of the men reads aloud his love sonnet. Branagh cuts all the poetry, replacing it with a show tune (Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You," I think), his idea being that the Renaissance sonnet is analogous to the tin pan alley hits of Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern: clever, rhymed verses of love. The muscovite/masque scene is rendered as a hot-jazz version of Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance." The Nine Worthies are cut short in favor of a full-cast musical revue, led by Lane (who actually sounds a little like Ethel Merman), singing Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business." And Lane's Costard zig-zags around the film with a raccoon coat and a cardboard suitcase, like a man looking for a temporarily misplaced vaudeville act; he does a nice job with the running "remuneration" gag.
It's all pretty light and frothy until the king dies. Branagh handles this two ways. In keeping with his romantic comedy, the four separating couples share verses of the song "You Can't Take That Away With Me," and while there is a clear allusion to Bogart and Bergman parting on the tarmac in Casablanca, no one says "we'll always have Navarre." In addition, Branagh, never one to leave any ambiguity, returns to the newsreel motif to show us the post-play year of each character until all (minus Boyet who is killed in the war) come together in triumphal reunion and V-E Day exuberance. Jack gets his Jill.
From a production angle, I think this is clever and satisfying. I pick nits with the fact that few of the actors can sing and dance. One's eyes sort of bug out at Branagh's casting choices here; if you're going to turn Shakespeare into an homage to the great Hollywood musical romantic comedies with some of the most recognizable show tunes ever, what's with choosing folks who look like the closest they got to the bright lights was summer stock in Dubuque? Matthew Lillard? He went from playing Longaville to Shaggy in two Scooby-Doo movies.
On the flip side, Branagh's choices are just as confounding sometimes. The most important Shakespeare left in the movie must be handled by three characters: Berowne (Branagh), Ferdinand (Nivola), and the Princess (Silverstone). Silverstone is stunning ... ly ... bad. One becomes mesmerized by the action of her lips, which sashay back and forth across her face, although not in sync, as if they were doing some show tune of their own, but the words she utters arrive without having been given the passport of comprehension.
This is a problem. The play's women are the engine of its plot, as they provide the opportunity for the men's self-realization. They lend gravitas to the language, simultaneously playing the rhetorical games and recognizing the realities that contextualize them. They put the consequence to the action -- their presence renders the men's neo-Platonic pretensions foolish; their departure requires life-adjusting decisions on the men's part. If Shakespeare has a feminist text, it seems to me this is it, for as Granville-Barker suggests "he puts them, in fact, on terms of equality with men" (434). I would argue that in this play, he puts them above men. Replace these with women like Kate in Shrew or Luciana and Adriana in Comedy of Errors, and what do you have?
The Princess, then, is the most important role. But Silverstone can't pull it off, and her performance rides into the apocalyptic badness of Keanu Reaves' Don John and Jack Lemmon's Marcellus. Oh. My. God. (Notice that all of these are Branagh castings; despite his talents, he has an agenda that sometimes extends him beyond Shakespeare's ability to make him look good.) The women go through the motions of shaping the play, but they don't quite get there. They're too busy dancing cheek to cheek. Branagh's production, then, says more about the style of Love's Labour's Lost than about its substance. It is, in fact, a triumph of style, while something less so of substance.