Sunday, October 7, 2007

Twelfth Night - Performance Log (October 2007)

Twelfe Night, Or What You Will
Directed by David Esbjornson
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Seattle, WA
Oct. 3, 2007

Last Wednesday I went into Seattle to the Seattle Rep to a matinee of Twelfe Night [sic - just to be clever SRT uses the spelling from the First Folio, ] — I worried it would be in modern dress, but it was in eclectic theater costumes, a bright yellow suit here (Sir Andrew), Russian soldiers’ jackets there (Orsino’s followers), breathtaking velvet ball gowns for Olivia.

I would say I was the youngest person in the audience, until I noticed a couple of crocodiles of school kids, some ordinary scruffy sophomores not certain it was worth a day out of study hall, and twenty or so from Providence Classical Christian School (whom I thought to engage in a debate about oxymorons, Hellenic vs. Hebraic and all that, but the lights winked on for the second act), the latter in uniforms blue and gray, with the school crest over their hearts—nota bene SPA.

I was in row C, seat 7 in front of a breathtaking abstract set reaching 50 feet (?) or more up. Weathered planks the width of the stage, suggestively shattered in a couple of places (think shipwreck for a moment), a slightly raked acting area backed by a ridge or wave of the same planks, a tall twisted flat spire in the same planks, ragged at the ends, rising forty or so feet in front of the cyclorama. Gee, it’s really hard to describe an abstract set other than to say it was powerfully effective. Two ladies’ voices in the row behind me admired it, and one said if she were to come back for another life, it would be as a set designer.

Anyway, the play opened with an ornately made-up Feste, in a non-glaring spot on the apron, chanting the first three verses of “When that I was and a little tiny boy,” stage right a black-gowned Olivia bent in silent prayer over a flower-covered coffin, blue light and bubbles on the cyclorama, and the Captain and Viola, in sea-bedraggled clothes, “sinking” on ropes from the gods and, when they made landfall on the beach, he carried her off, and then Orsino appeared center stage through a door in the spire-thingee with a declamatory “If music be the food of love.”

Maybe not definitive, but I finished thinking it was top ten all time productions I’ve seen. Some curiosities: Fabian inexplicably was costumed as a flaming transvestite, fucia eye-shadow, a short black skirt and frilly blouse, but nothing in character or behavior made anything of this. The roistering scenes were excessive: Sir Toby had too many crotch-grabs and fart fannings, nor did I much cotton to Sir Andrew until he was clad in a suit of armor so heavy he could hardly walk for his duel with Cesario/Viola.

Mourning Olivia (Cheyenne Casebier) was severe, but after she is smitten she changed to a lively purple with flashy jewels and was effectively kittenish and coy. Viola handled the conflicted cross-gender duality powerfully (when Orsino is explaining love to Cesario there was almost a kiss).

Malvolio, an African American actor named Frank X (you can Google him as “actor Frank X” at the Lantern Theatre of Philadelphia) played an elegant English butler, until the M, O, A, I trick, after which he is grotesque, which is, I guess, appropriate. Then, he did remind me of a Snake (School for Scandal) I had seen in Ashland, also, curiously, an African-American. They cut down the Sir Topas torture (Malvolio was understage with his hands reaching up through bars) enough to get the spirit, but short enough that I was not uncomfortable.

For asides, there would be a spot on the speaker and the rest of the characters would be freeze framed in dimmer light. Very effective. For the first time, I noticed that Fabian setting on Augucheek is parallel to Maria and Toby setting on Malvolio. Very virile Sebastian, “twinned” to Viola by costume and red hair. Plausible with willing suspension. For the recognition scene, the cyclorama glowed violet.

At the end, Malvolio is in a straight jacket; Fabian pleads reasonably for forgiveness. Feste reprised his “little tiny boy” and curtain calls. Here’s something interesting: the company came on in groups, and the four lovers were next to last, while Feste and Malvolio were the “stars.” For the first time ever, I, from row C, led a standing O, joined by those in the audience who were physically able to stand and clap at the same time. Good show.

Posted by Gil

Photo: Christine Marie Brown as Viola/Cesario and Barzin Akhavan as Orsino in the Seattle Rep's Twelfe Night. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Midsummer Night's Dream - Late From Our Northern Arcadia

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a wonderful play. And Shakespeare, who might be said to have reached some sort of “maturity” with this play—especially as far as plotting goes—is a dramatist to be reckoned with. Here, his interweaving of three character types (tradesmen, aristocrats, and fairies) and his supplying attitudes for, and comments on, each, makes his mastery total.

We have all taught, and probably seen, the play many times, so it is a bit hard to provide tools and/or ideas to use in dealing with it. But I am already behind, so here goes:

1. In terms of “speaking” to me now, at this moment in this world, I would choose the following three characters in the following order, as my favorites: (a) Bottom; (b) Theseus, and (c) Helena. Which characters would YOU choose, and in which order? And why? And are there other ways of ranking them?

2. Notice the similarities between the beginning of Midsummer Night's Dream and Richard II. Both begin with a challenge, a kind of trial; and both are introduced by speeches rich in dark, dignified sounds. Notice also the lovely drawn-out metaphors in lines I.i.1-19, and the use of “Lingered” as a transitive verb. I would assign a line to each student, and ask him or her to find all the images, assonance, consonance, and other verbal tricks in that line (and in its pointing to other, nearby lines). What sorts of things are established in the first 127 lines of the scene? In terms of setting up the play’s larger shape and issues, the relationship between future seriousness and frivolity, etc.?

3. In the later part of the first scene (128 ff.), we are given many of the earmarks of a “pastoral romance.” How would you (or someone else) define the term, and in what ways does the play accord with your definition. Again, look at the language: our old friend stichomythia, the similes and metaphors. At such an early point, can one see any differences between Hermia and Helena (the tall, blond one—Shakespeare sometimes used taller, blonder female characters as a flattering references to the [tall, blond] Queen Elizabeth)?

4. In I.ii, we meet the tradesmen, or “mechanicals,” as they are sometimes called (we get the fairies in the next scene). For a country fellow, Shakespeare doesn’t choose to know very much about the moon—as the only moon that would appear during the last three days before the new moon would be a tiny sliver—shortly before dawn (despite Lysander’sand Quince’s intention to make use of it at an earlier point in the night. Bottom, all eagerness and willingness to plunge in, dominates the scene, but also serves as a foil for the other tradesmen, each of whose character is somewhat individuated here. Can one name the types? How would you describe Bottom’s character and its singular appeal?

5. In II.i.1-187, we spend an extended time in the fairy world and meet the principal characters there. Notice the Fairy’s rhymed tetrameter, Puck’s rhymed pentameter and Oberon and Titania’s more dignified blank verse. Oberon and Titania, of course, parallel Theseus and Hippolyta. To what effect? Sure, Oberon is a male chauvinist pig. At the same time, he has a lot going for him as a member of the whole cast. Such as? And, having thought about this, what do Puck and Titania add? And, finally,what does the whole fairy realm introduced here add?

6. So what carries over to us after the play is certainly (a) the magical world it embodies, (b) the unforgettable characters, including minor characters such as Aegeus and Snout, (c) the songs and the various pieces of almost pure poetry, and the folk-pure, archetypal structure of its plot and its characters’ careers – for starters. Then, finally, come the larger thematic questions: What does the play have to say or suggest about (a) the uses of the Imagination, (b) rulers and forms of government, (c) love, (d) marriage, (e) parents and children, (f) the unconventional, and (g) different classes and their relationships with one another – this too, only for starters. You may now plunge in.

Productions: For me, a Regent’s Park version of the play I saw years ago remains a delight. There were probably 10-15 fairies who rushed and tumbled across the set-in-the-woods scene during the earlier parts of the play. By its end, however, it had grown dark and all one could see of the fairies were tiny lights moving in and out of the trees. I remember finding that charming. A massive stump served as the mainstage. There is also an older production (BBC?) from which I have shown the final act to my classes. I used it because I loved its Bottom character. Someone out there will have to tell me which production it is. The one otherwise distinguishing thing I can remember is that Philostrate was played by a black man. Gilbert? Randall?


Monday, July 23, 2007

RE: Rhetorical Richard II and History Plays

I am humbled and inspired by Gil's eloquence. I am indebted to him for his vision of this as a play containing a romantic element. I had not seen it before his post.

I have to now confess to an odd response I am having to these plays. Romeo and Juliet set me reflecting on the Old Norse story of the wooing of Gerd. The gods are in mortal battle with the giants, yet Njorthr, the sea god,falls in love with and woos Gerd, a mountain giant. (One happy outcome of their marriage is the invention of the sport of skiing, as a means of rapid transit between their two abodes.)

This story, according to many scholars (including that Anglo-Saxonist famous for his popular story telling, Tolkien), is reflected in the story of Ingeld and Freawaru, referred to in the Beowulf. Desires across irreconcilable boundaries are a deep part of the spirit and lore of the North (and of my life). I know there are many sources identified for this tale, most of them from the Romance languages, but I think an old Northern theme reverberates here as well.

As I am preparing now to teach something of the Arthurian tradition this fall, I am keenly aware of the tradition of the threat to kingship when the king is away fighting foreign wars. (What an advantage to our current "king"George that the tradition no longer holds that the king must accompany his soldiers in foreign wars.)

In the two versions I am working with (the metrical and alliterative Middle English "Morte D'Arthur"s), the king is away on foreign expeditions (to fight Lancelot or the Roman Emperor Lucius, respectively) when the regent at home (Mordred) decides to usurp the queen's bed and the throne (equivalent?).This story seems to supply the essential plot line of our play. Are there other overt or covert references to that most English (yet most un-Anglo-Saxon) of stories – Arthur and his knights – in Shakespeare? If not,why not?

Forgive me for again seeing a striking connection between ancient story and early modern dramatic representation. I think Will is drawing on some pretty deep wells in both cases. The yet deeper issue of the legitimacy of kings (or of any authority) is, of course, implied in both stories. What makes rule legitimate? What makes it illegitimate? These are deep and lasting questions for any society…why do we docilely accept the legitimacy of a 'ruler' who did not win the majority, nor even the peculiar electoral college in his first "election" while he drags us into a futile and fruitless, illegal war?

Enough mythopeia and realpolitik for one e-mail.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rhetorical Richard II and History Plays

Shakespeare as a master organizer of materials—in speeches, in scenes, in arrangement of scenes. Then he makes it harder and harder to hold it all together inside a structure of which he is the master ironist (e.g., making such things as Richard II’s deposition evanescent; giving Falstaff a role that potentially unbalances the politics of Hal and his father; making the villain Shylock “sympathetic”). Eventually, it all blows up, starting in Hamlet, where the master ironist leaves and the hero is set loose to decide his and his play’s motions and outcomes.

Ernst has said Shakespeare is writing a [second] series of history plays, and I agree, though I don’t think he sat down in some ur-Starbucks in Scotland and outlined the plots of the four Lancastrian plays on a napkin, as the myth of JK Rowling and Harry Potter asserts. Certainly there is “intertextuality” and projection; for instance, an almost gratuitous appearance of someone named Henry Percy in Richard II, and the insistence on the stain against order that must be punished even generations afterward, which is created by the usurpation of Richard II’s throne. This latter is even a motif in the earlier tetralogy, as we follow the anti-Henry V, his son Henry VI, to decadence and doom, then the apocalyptic scourge, Richard III, followed ironically with Justice for England’s wound with the rise of Tudor Henry VII (ironically, in that Richmond as Henry VII has less legitimate claim to succession than did Henry Herford called Bolingbroke to become Henry IV).

When I prepared for my swan song Shakespeare course, I spent a summer in the Northwest trying to think anew the plays before 1603, Hamlet. I read and read around and talked at length with my friend Roger Sale, and so I started my thirty-third University course with Richard III, Richard II, Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, Henry V, and Julius Caesar. This summer, as I sit here back in Washington, I cannot seem to remember whatever wonderful bridge I had in mind, other than a memory that the students did not carry me triumphantly through the halls of academe. I do remember intending to follow the Lancastrian histories with Julius Caesar, lined up “as if” history was of the linear Lancastrian sort, then rattling the cage by suggesting Shakespeare could write Hamlet-like tragedies with Brutus and Cassius as central figures. Richard III would be the last of the “circular” histories, rise and inevitable fall.

My memory of discussions with Sale recalls the pattern of the Henry VI plays as simple inexorableness. Remember the rise and fall of powerful figures: Lord Talbot (part 1); Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and the commoner Jack Cade (part 2); Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (part 3); and finally, gloriously, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, crook-backed Dick himself. They rise, they flourish, they are killed, and the pattern of history does not stop. Sale says that what is important here is not so much that one enjoy the pattern, or that Shakespeare has developed an interesting idea of history, but that we feel the pattern and so feel that the characters are placed and caught in it, controlled by history.

A real chronological confusion that I mentioned in my last posting is that the historical reigns in these earlier plays follow the age of Richard II, but the composition of the Lancastrian plays and my reading of them comes after. And the new point is that Richard himself is an enigma, God’s anointed King, but vacillating (zig-zag), petulant, petty, vindictive. Think only for a moment to Richard III’s calculations, his master manipulation, his control of all in his path, his joy in the game. And I remember Sale saying that after Richard II returns from Ireland, Shakespeare turns away from the drama of factions of the Yorkist plays and for the first time he allows a character to shape his destiny and the play’s action. And to commit to this character as improviser rather than committing to an inexorable pageant is to leave that character exposed, vulnerable. Can you see Hamlet leaving the green room, getting ready to make an entrance?

Shakespeare seeks order and finds disorder and violence tragic. True in the histories, but we have seen it true in the comedies too. And Derek Traversi classes histories (and tragedies) as exploring the implications, personal and public alike, of political behavior, whereas comedies focus on the validity and the limitations of love in brittle and scintillating society, yet disorder must be addressed in both.

Richard II’s role is more central to his play than the protagonists of the Henry IVs or the Henry VIs. So the comparison is Richard III. But Richard III’s development is historically/ politically driven. He reaches for the throne, then he, alas, achieves it, while Richard II’s is improvisation of his self-images, of his roles. Richard II is a self-centered man and an inept ruler, so his fall seems both deserved and inevitable. For whom did you have the most sympathy, Shylock or Richard II? I have referred to Richard as zig-zag (both the “down-down”scene, III.ii, in which I count 7 diametrical shifts from arrogance to abject resignation and back, and the deposition scene, IV.i), and Charles Brice calls him “narcissistic and arrogant,; he does not rule; he enjoys himself in the role of ruler.”

The play’s most renowned passage is Gaunt’s famous peon to:

“This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings…. (II.i.40-68),

a passage which I have known since I was an English schoolboy. I had it, on my bedroom wall, superimposed on an outline of England on a tea towel (which was, ironically, made in Ireland). This passage, however, does not quite belong in this play, as Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech does not bear careful analysis for honesty in Merchant of Venice. Gaunt’s speech is elegiac, expressing the traditional spirit of a feudal England associated with Edward III, a nostalgic image which Richard II betrays and Henry IV sweeps away. It is more than symbolic that on the instant of Gaunt’s death, when Richard seizes Gaunt’s estate, he “usurps” the ancient law of succession, the “customary rights” of England’s landed gentry.

Richard, rather than declamatory, is eloquent and expansive, even verbose, and for me this texture, this poetic heightened rhetoric is striking contrast to the play’s content, a military coup. I choose three indelible passages, two of which I previously cited. Aumerle addresses Richard’s pessimism with “Comfort, my liege, remember who you are,” and Richard begins to seize the play from the pattern of history:

“I had forgot myself; am I not King?
Awake, thou coward majesty! Thou sleepest.
Is not the King’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm my name! (III.ii.82-86)

But Scroop reports Bolingbroke’s rising power and many defections from Richard’s followers. Down goes Richard’s self-assertion, and he humbly makes his ‘I’m but a man’ appeal:

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings….
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends—subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?” (III.ii.155…177)

Soon, Bolingbroke arrives at Flint Castle, and Richard asks:

“What must the King do now? Must he submit?…
nd my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little, little grave, an obscure grave…
Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaethon.” (III.iii.142-174, 177-182)

Notice how often Richard improvises, with rhetorical flourishes on the question of who he is, fascinated with the expression itself: “and my large kingdom for a little grave [melancholy contrast], a little, little grave [pathos], an obscure grave [bathos].”

Thirdly, Richard’s soliloquy in Pomfret Castle:

“I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world….
But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing” (V.I.1-41),

in which Richard’s energy is mostly devoted to finding the right metaphor.

All these illustrate Richard’s unique self-shaping with language, not so much “character” as rhetorical constructs. The laconic Bolingbroke is only about opportunity and power. After the formal, chivalric exchanges with Mowbray, does Bolingroke have any extended utterance apart from the irrelevant—to this play—foreshadow, “Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?” (V.iii.1)? But Richard seems to be fascinated with what he hears from himself about himself. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I’m reminded of the hyperromantic Cyrano, improvising a ballade during a duel or exploring all the variations of an insult to his nose: “when it bleeds, the Red Sea.” Cyrano, as Richard II, is a personage from history. Both, I think, rise by the power of rhetoric up into the clouds.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Richard II - Toothy Rick

Patient Will Readers,

When John asked about the specific political situation when Richard II was composed, I shied away in that I have little New Historicist impulse, yet I have been thinking a little about complex chronologies. Indeed, Richard II was written in 1595 late in Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603), for an audience that had some awareness of history (which always arrives at the present subject to editing and cultural interpretation) including the reign of Richard II (1377-1399).

But we also have the chronological anomaly that Shakespeare composed, and we read, the Henry VI plays, covering 1461-1483, before the historically preceding Ricardian History Plays or the Henriad we are just starting to address. So I’m reading Richard II in 2007, and I’m seeing a play called The Tragedy of…, with a beginning and middle and end (Aristotle would be pleased), often lyrical in poetry and introducing a complex character whose vacillations lead me to think of two or three major ideas (God’s anointed king and the fragile man; order and the precedent of rebellion; elegiac chivalry and practical politics) yet I know Richard, in history, is the first step toward that hollow figure, Henry, Earl of Richmond, afterwards King Henry VII, who triumphantly usurps Richard III’s throne on Bosworth Field and commissions “The Tudor Myth” of history that justifies the line that begets Shakespeare’s boss, Elizabeth I. Long live [some] king!

As Ernst said, it is Shakespeare “once more setting out on a group of history plays,” but he cites the well-known story of the Earl of Essex’s followers staging Richard II on the eve of their rebellion in 1601 (as a result of which rebellion Essex, Elizabeth’s former favorite, was beheaded). Randall earlier noted that none of the five Quarto editions, and it is presumed performances contemporary with Elizabeth’s reign, contain IV.i.154-318 (the actual deposition, from about “Alack, why am I sent for to a king/ Before I have shook off the regal thoughts/ Wherewith I reign’d?” to “O, good! Convey! Conveyers are you all,/ That rise thus nimbly by a true king’s fall”—no matter the politics, the play itself is diminished by this loss, for me especially the thematic crux in those last lines that those who rise by rebellion set the precedent for their own fall). These lines do not appear in print until the First Folio,1623. This censorship is attributed to concern for the perceived vulnerability of the aging Queen.

Lastly, I have several times seen the anecdote that, when in 1601 the historian William Lambarde was showing Elizabeth the fruits of his researches in the royal archives and arrived at the time of Richard II, she broke in: “I am Richard II. Know ye not that?” (e.g., cited in C.W.R.D. Moseley – and cwerd is the word – Shakespeare’s History Plays, 77).

So, I’ll tiptoe onto New Historicist ground for just a moment. Moseley says that Elizabeth acceded to the most insecure throne in Europe in 1558. The throne was claimed by Philip of Spain; the Catholic Northern Earls revolted in 1569; in 1570 Pope Pius V formally issued a papal bull deposing Elizabeth and advocating her assassination; Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, with strong connections to France, had a good claim to the throne and was imprisoned in 1568, beheaded in 1587; Philip attempted to take England by force in 1588, hoping that when the Armada landed, he would be supported by a revolt of the Catholic gentry (hummm—sounds like Bolingbroke or even Henry of Richmond). In 1594, Jesuit Robert Parsons published A Conference about the Next Succession in which he adduced historical and legal arguments to prove the right of the people to alter the line of succession for just causes. I don’t accept for a moment that Shakespeare is writing a political tract, a piece a clef so to speak, in which Bolingbroke is Essex, etc. But it seems reasonable to consider the difference between the Henry VI trilogy and this play, apart from a deft advance is skill as a dramatist and poet, is found in the questions the play permits about succession, governance, loyalty, and followers.

Another question John posed, discussing Richard’s psychology in reference to Act II, scene 2 when, after York’s brother, John of Gaunt, has died and Richard has immediately seized his estates to pay for his foreign wars (ignoring those great spondees: “Watch my lips; no new taxes”), York is appalled and really argues against the precedent Richard thus sets:

“Seek you to seize and grip into your hands
The royalties and rights of banish’d Herford [Bollingbroke]?…
Take Herford’s rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?…
If you do wrongfully seize Herford’s rights…
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts,
And prick my tender patience to those thoughts
Which honor and allegiance cannot think.” (II.i.189…208)

John says York is thinking of rebellion, and York asserts a finer argument that Richard, in seizing Bolingbroke’s inheritance, violates the ancient law of succession which is the identical law that justifies Richard’s succession from his father Edward the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III. York is right. It is as fundamental as tomorrow follows today, and to break this law justifies breaking any parallel law of succession. Executive privilege is no excuse. Bolingbroke’s subsequent claim (‘I just returned to claim what is rightfully and legally mine’) is just. Richard breaks the chain of order and succession. But Richard brushes off York’s argument with “think what you will, we seize into our hands/ His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.” I am the Decider. Exit York, and Richard says “We will for Ireland” yet he tells Bushy, Bagot, and Green that he appoints York governor of England while he is absent.

I looked at David Gilles BBC production (1979), and there is no significant directorial touch here. The camera swings briefly to the lavishly clad courtiers, who do look at one another, but nothing, to me, that suggests they have suddenly fallen from Richard’s protection, though this moment will lead much later to their executions.

Richard seizes Gaunt’s huge estates because he is profligate and deep into deficit spending (York has noted that Richard’s noble father “did win what he did spend, and spent not that which his triumphant father’s hand had won”). His court is lavish. Do I remember a reference to 10,000 knights? Anyway, Richard is a character whom it is particularly easy to identify with homosexuality, says Stanley Wells, influenced as he is by “the caterpillars of the commonwealth" (II.iii.166).

Michael Redgrave is described as playing him in 1951 as “an out-and-out pussy queer, with mincing gestures to match” (Malcolm Page, Richard II: Text and Performance, 49). I’m indifferent to this, more so than the Antonio-Bassiano relationship we discussed in Merchant of Venice, but to return to the subject of the political situation of 1595, Richard’s followers do draw attention to the nature of political power and the influence of counselors, Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber, and the political world thus divided into factions. Power grew out of personal access to the monarch, says Moseley. And though not really a New Historicist, I have done some research into arcane documents and come up with historical first names: they are Dick Bagot, Karl Green, and Scooter Bushy.

Enough for now.

Best, Gilbert

Monday, July 9, 2007

Richard II - Elizabethan Propaganda?

The only thing I know about Elizabethan politics is the well-known story of the Earl of Essex's followers staging Richard II around 1601 as a propoganda piece suggesting that, like Richard, Elizabeth was a weak ruler.

Weak? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I doubt it had much political significance when it was written, although I may be wrong. Mostly, I think it was Shakespeare once more setting out on a group of history plays.


Friday, June 22, 2007

RE: Richard II - Fathers and Sons

I agree with Gil that the pageantry in Richard II goes a long way toward making up for what could otherwise seem talky inaction (but it ain’t; the poetry is so wonderful). I do find myself wondering, in I.iii, how Richard moves from what must surely be the upper stage (where he is set to watch and, possibly, judge the duel) to the lower stage, where he (one would assume) holds out his sword for the two contestants to swear upon (I.iii.179)—but that is a small thing.

Actually, I think this play has a terrific beginning. There is none of the lengthy exposition that opens A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. (Midsummer Night's Dream also starts with people with complaints coming before a ruler to get things straightened out.) In Richard II, wham! and you are in the middle of a fight.

Shakespeare did an impressive job in developing Shylock, but the care he spends on thinking through Richard’s character (and, to some extent, Northumberland’s and Bolingbroke’s) is impressive. They are much more richly developed than any earlier characters I can think of.

The other thing Richard II does brilliantly is to lay open the disconnect between politicians’ words and their actions. Anyone in the contemporary audience would know that Mowbray worked for Richard and helped further the latter’s desires to free himself of his uncles’ control—especially the control of “Woodstock,” the nickname given the Duke of Gloucester (not the well-known little town northwest of Kingston).

Bolingbroke seems calculating from the start. He has pointed out the elephant in the room (or should I use the emperor-has-no clothes metaphor?). The big question is: does Bolingbroke place his challenge because he wants something (Richard’s embarrassment? The Crown?), or is it simply his nature to be prickly-“honest”? (Sometimes it’s good to be a “plain, blunt” fellow (like Kent’s “Gaius” in King Lear.) But more often it’s not—as in some malcontent characters I’ve studied. Betty has a sister who prides herself in her own frankness, worshipping the impractical god of ”practicality,” and hurting/judging people left and right.

I will also note here the uneven nature of parts of the play—most especially the old-style rhymed couplets that appear from time to time,and the miserably corny scene (V.iii) regarding Aumerle’s possible punishment. Some suggest that these show an earlier version of the play,one which Shakespeare wrote or from which he borrowed.

Finally, a brief note on diction: (A) The stately, dark-vowel-rich language that opens the play (Midsummer Night's Dream uses the same device); (B) the magnificent way Gaunt’s “This royal throne of Kings” (II.i.40-67) speech builds to “IS ALL LEASED OUT.” George Bush should have read this long ago.

Some central, if unanswerable questions:

1. With whom are we meant to sympathize—Richard or Bolingbroke.
2. Does Bolingbroke have long-range plans?
3. Is George Bush more the usurper or more the self-dramatist? In short, is this play a reflection of our own political times? Who is today’s Duke of York?
4. Does Richard have any choice but to banish Mowbray (a duke, after all) for life? Is Bolingbroke really (and perhaps ignorantly) in control from the get-go?
5. To what extent can this play be seen as a commentary on the Renaissance’s freeing of humans from the constraints of medieval codes?

Who’s to blame, or are such ripping-aparts of older structures inevitable (or built into 2000-year cycles, as with Yeats)? [Or, in the last century (1937) as von Rauffenstein muses in The Grand Illusion, “UnMarĂ©chal? Un Rosenthal?”]


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Richard II - Fathers and Sons

I want to follow up on what Gilbert was saying about the Bolingbroke banishment. I was struck by the structural parallelism of the father-son interactions involving the sons' alleged treason – Gaunt/Bolingbroke at the beginning and York/Aumerle toward the end. Both involve conflicts between allegiance to family and loyalty to king. Actually, there is no real conflict for York – he's a loyalist all the way (at this point). A bit ironic since he just turned his back on King Richard.

But Gaunt is more openly conflicted. He tells Richard, "You urged me as a judge; but I had rather /You would have bid me argue like a father." He loyally carries out his duty as judge for the king, even though it is against his own son, but it tears him apart emotionally as is clear even from Richard's description of him: "I see thy grieved heart, thy sad aspect…" This is deeper and more interesting psychologically, though not quite to the level of the turmoil of a Hamlet. The overarching formality and decorum that Gilbert mentioned seems to govern the tone even of this emotional conflict.

These both presage the conflict we see just beginning between Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, and the young Prince Hal, but we'll have plenty of time to dissect that peculiar relationship (though perhaps all father-son relationships are peculiar) in the next play in the sequence.

There are also notable and quotable passages about love of and devotion to land and country, especially Gaunt's "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England." But what is best for England is not always what is best for its king. Is Shakespeare suggesting a hierarchy of allegiance here? If so, how exactly is it structured? England, then family, then king? That doesn't sound very comforting to his royal sponsors. Does anyone know about the specific political situation at the time of this play's composition?

The psychology of Richard is another thing altogether. In Act II scene 1, York tells him quite clearly that he is thinking of rebellion: "You…prick my tender patience to those thoughts/ Which honor and allegiance cannot think."

But Richard immediately turns to Bushy (what a name!) and declares: "…we create in absence of ourself /Our Uncle York lord governor of England; /For he is just, and always loved us well."

Does anyone remember how this comes off on stage (or film)? It just seems so totally daft of Richard. Does Bushy just stare at him, dumbfounded at his sheer stupidity? I found it hard to imagine that bit being acted in any believable way.

I want to come back later to a deeper consideration of the rich and often self-referential language of the play, but this is enough for now.


Richard II - Dick the Tooth

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.

The last, of two, production of Richard II I saw was at Ashland, Oregon, on the Elizabethan Stage which is outdoors, on the site of a quondam Chatauqua Circle. It was a quality production, no gimmicks, an eloquent and poetic Richard, but the most memorable aspects were two. First, the Ashland director was committed to color-blind casting, but the acting was good enough that it only took me five minutes to forget that first cousins Richard and Bolingbroke were played by actors of different races. (The next season Ashland cast a couple of their gifted leading actresses in minor male parts, Peter Quince in Midsummer Night's Dream and Crabtree in School for Scandal and they were awful, so bad they warped the texture of both plays).

Second, it rained throughout the evening so it was played in rehearsal clothes so as not to spoil the costumes, and they cut out some planned acrobatics or dancing, something to do with the luxury of Richard’s court. But most memorable, despite the rain, they still laid Richard’s corpse out on a bier (there’s a word I’ve never had to spell before) in Act, and the actor lay stone still while his eye sockets filled with rainwater. There must be some sort of award for that.

Though Randall has noted how little action we find in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, only the trial by combat in Act 1 and the fight then murder of Richard in prison in Act 5, he misses one significant action. In Act 3.iii,. “s.d. The trumpets sound. Richard appeareth on the walls” of Flint Castle in Wales, and Bolingbroke exclaims:

"See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the east,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the occident"(3.iii.62-67),

a passage so richly imaged that his uncle York has to translate, “Yet looks he like a king!” Northumberland ascends to the balcony (“on the walls”) as representative of Bolingbroke, returns to the courtyard with the king’s offer to rescind banishment and restore the Lancastrian lands, then again meets Richard on the walls: “My lord, in the base court he [Bolingbroke] doth attend/ To speak with you, may it please you to come down” (3.iii.276-77), which sets off Richard, who has zig-zagged wildly between exultation and despair throughout the scene:

Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaeton,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitor’s calls and do them grace.
In the base court, come down? Down court! Down king!
For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing. [s.d. exeunt above] (3.iii.78-83)

Followed by [s.d. Enter King Richard and his Attendants below].

I realize that, when I promised action, you hoped I’d point out some version of Hamlet in Ophelia’s grave, or maybe the Queen and the Gardener demonstrating a bed of roses could be more than a metaphor, but I offer instead King Richard coming down from the battlements to the base court below as the crucial action in English history. God’s anointed, the highest earthly link in the Great Chain of Being, submits himself to the current of history, submits to power --“Well you deserve; they well deserve to have/ That know the strong’st and surest way to get…/ What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too,/ For do we must what force will have us do.”

There is nonetheless a huge movement. Here we are again astride my hobbyhorse (that’s from cheval to hors, Randall), opening in a culture which seems to adhere to the code of chivalry (medieval, feudal) and which exits with raw power (real politique we called it in Richard III) or what might be called bourgeois capitalism (how often does Bolingbroke refer or defer to “the commons”?). When I saw that wet production at Ashland, I didn’t know the play well (I only taught it once, and that was in my very last semester), and I was impatient to establish contexts, so we could cut to the deposition and get inside for a very dry martini. Instead there is matched accusation of treason between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, all quite formal, then rescheduled for trial by combat in the lists at Coventry. Extremely formal code for introductions and accusations, then “co-fightus interruptus” indeed, the joust stopped, really curious, with the two combatants both sent into exile. I wondered what this was about, and indeed Mowbray never appears again, but dies somewhere in France.

But reading the play now, what strikes me most forcibly is that very formality of the code. Act 1 illustrates perfectly the chivalric code of medieval England, and Richard, as whimsical as he appears on the surface, is the code keeper. So when he “comes down” at Flint Castle this symbolic sun is darkened forever. We will only see it again, and then in romantic self-delusion, when Harry Percy, called Hotspur, will burn, and burn out, across the battlefields at Shrewsbury.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

As You Like It - Performance Log (June 2007)

Ladies and gentlemen,

No, we're not reading a different play. When I was compiling my bio for the William Shakespeare Experience, I noted that I had been to more than 60 stage productions of Shakespeare's plays. What I didn't mention was that many of them have gone dark in my mind. I think when you see a lot of theater, this is the fate of much of it – fleeting shadows that play across the vision and vanish. Dad and I saw two Taming of the Shrew productions in two weeks a few years ago. Reviewing my programs, I found I couldn't remember a single thing from one of them, and it was the more lavish production.

What I do tend to remember is performers, if not performances. I can remember seeing James Earl Jones in Othello. I can remember seeing Claudia Wilkens in House of Bernarda Alba, and I can remember seeing Don Cheadle at the Guthrie, Mark Rylance at the RSC, Marcel Marceau at the Denver Center, and Sigourney Weaver at a Brass Tacks Theatre show. (She wasn't in it; I sat next to her because her husband, Jim Simpson, directed the show.)

But these are not moving images. They are snapshots. And largely of famous people. Can I remember what James Earl Jones did with Othello in, say, his presentation of his courtship of Desdemona before the Venetian court? Or John Gilbert with any of The Imaginary Invalid? Or Ian McKellan with Richard III, other than shrugging that great coat on and off with only one functional arm? Not so much. (I remember pretty clearly what Claudia did with La Poncia, but I saw it twice.)

One can now, thanks to video and DVD, watch movies over and over and on demand. But theater remains an art of the memory. Since my early days as a theater critic, this has bothered me. One reason I loved that job was because it gave the theater I saw permanence. Interesting, though, is that when I reread stuff I wrote in 1986, it is like reading something written by a stranger. Was that my experience?

So I propose the following spin-off for our group: when we see Shakespeare, we might send a brief run down of the production's signature moments, a "performance log" if you will. By signature moments, I mean those instances, maybe three to five, in which the production defines itself or clearly separates itself from other productions of the same play. This is not a review; I am not interested in, and I never was, rating performances or giving a thumbs up/down kind of assessment. I want a record of the interpretive choices that distinguish a production. Please, allow me to demonstrate.

As You Like It
Cromulent Shakespeare Company
directed by Jody Bee
Powderhorn Park
June 15, 2007

1. Touchstone is played by a woman (Lisa Bol) made up in whiteface with dark, runny-mascara eyes and black mouth, sort of the opposite of blackface. Fools may be witty, they may be stupid, but this one is insane. In addition, Cromulent has removed Audrey, Touchstone's girlfriend and future wife, and replaced her with ... a doll's head. It goes like this. Touchstone has a festive staff, a long stick with ribbons and bells. Midway through the production, she comes out with a largish Barbie doll head stuck on top of it. This is "Audrey," and Touchstone speaks her lines in a high voice. Thus, she has long, romantic conversations with herself. And yes, she marries the doll's head at the end, and everyone else seems to go along with this. I guess they know she's crazy to begin with.

2. Jacques (Sheila Regan) is not melancholy. Rather he's kinda grumpy. But he smiles a lot and seems to have a good time in the forest and looks a bit disgruntled when people refer to him as "monsieur melancholy." He does the Seven Ages of Man speech, but skips the long disputation on various forms of melancholy, possibly because he doesn't know what melancholy is.

3. Shakespeare in the park is different from Shakespeare inside auditoriums where people pay actual money. For one, you have to contend constantly with ambient noises – airplanes, chatty Somali women who sit at the picnic table behind the acting area and yell at their kids oblivious of the live performance not 20 feet from them, barking dogs, rude adolescents on miniature bikes who holler at their friends oblivious of the live performance not 50 feet from them, and the constant thud-thumpa-thumpa-thud of passing cars blasting hip hop with their subwoofers set on "shake the 'hood." In addition, you often have inappropriate audiences like one-month-old to eight-year-old kids who aren't sure what to do with two hours of Shakespearean English. What to do?

Well with comedy often you blow off the subtle wit in favor of broader humor. Usually this means farce. For Cromulent it means really, really silly. Charles the wrestler (Paul Brutscher) becomes a growling World Wrestling Federation macho man. Duke Senior (Kiseung Rhee) is a careless, jovial, frequently drunk guy in the forest. Touchstone mugs. And the play's songs are turned into folk songs with accordion accompaniment (nice).

4. The music gets its own silly interlude between Act 4 and 5. Having established all the romantic relationships – Orlando and Rosalind/Ganymede, Celia and Oliver, Phoebe for Ganymede, Silvius for Phoebe, and Touchstone and a decapitated plastic Audrey – the play's producers have deduced that these different love struck individuals might be described by snatches from different popular love songs. Et voila, each sings a snippet from the Beatles or the Carpenters or the like. Touchstone's is "I want you! I want you so baaaad. I want you so bad, it's driving me mad, it's driving me mad!" Unfortunately, no one sings the refrain from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love." This whole set piece, which takes about five minutes is funny. The crowd laughs. We don't care a bit that it's jarringly out of tune, both with standard intonation and the Shakespeare play that surrounds it.

5. I think every Shakespeare production has at least one great moment, where the director has seen a way to handle one line or situation that is brilliant and wonderful. Cromulent's comes when Orlando's brother Oliver (Reier Erickson) enters the part of the forest where Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede) is living. He bears a bloody handkerchief, the remnant of Orlando's improbable struggle with a lion and which Orlando has sent by Oliver as excuse for his absence at his and Ganymede's wooing sessions. Rosalind (Kristen Springer) swoons. Oliver catches her from behind, accidentally grabbing her breasts. He is surprised, there is some humorous awkwardness, and the rest of their conversation focuses on her claim that she was just "counterfeiting."

Two scenes later (5.2) Orlando (Robin Everson) and Oliver meet Rosalind in the forest. She asks Orlando, "Did your brother tell you how I counterfeited to [swoon] when he showed me your handkerchief?" Orlando replies, "Ay, and greater wonders than that," while Oliver makes the universal "she's-got-really-big-breasts" motion behind her back. The audience cracks up. It's a great reading, and set up, of the line.

It also suggests that they've figure out ahead of time that Ganymede is a girl, something the company tries to play out a bit more in Rosalind's revelation scene, but not much is made of it.

Logged by R. Findlay

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Richard II - Opening Remarks

Most noble lieges,

I'm not sure really where to start with this one. When I was 15, I saw BBC's production on TV, part of its "Complete Works of William Shakespeare" series. It starred Derek Jacobi as Richard, Jon Finch as Bolingbroke, and John Gielgud as John of Gaunt. I remember it being very, very talky.

Reading it, I am impressed with the language, so much of it beautifully crafted, elevated, and carefully distinguishable between characters. Richard's flowery language is not like Bolingbroke's proud metaphor is not like Gaunt's aphoristic wisdom. But it is still talky. Gaunt, for example, seems to repeat everything three times. Hamlet is a long play, full of speeches ("words, words, words"), but you've got sword fights, a guy leaping into a grave to make out with a dead girl, creepy ghosts, manslaughter (oops), a morbid play within a morbid play, insanity, faux insanity, pirates (sort of), and unrequited love. Richard II has two moments of action – the first, a joust-to-the-death between Mowbray and Bolingbroke which Richard halts before it begins (co-fightus interruptus!) and the second, when Richard takes out a couple of assassins before Exton delivers the death blow. Other than that the whole thing is like a rather long cocktail party which, as the participants' tongues become loosened with alcohol, devolves to petty jealousies, malevolent posturing, and increasing flights of verbal fancy. So I wonder what Shakespeare thought would be the attraction of nobles standing around for two and a half hours, talking?

To step back a minute from narrative expectation, I could say that maybe this is a play about language. But I don't think it is. It is a play, mostly, about the deposition of a king, something that is not really achieved through mere talk. Perhaps this is the attraction – in a world where people believe in rule by divine right, deposition is a frightening thing. In this light, we might see Richard II as a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the horror is all in the threat and implication and very little in actual violence. Graham Holderness points out that Act 4, the deposition scene, was "apparently censored in its Elizabethan performances and in the earliest printed texts. Evidently the spectacle of a monarch voluntarily resigning the crown was thought to be matter too dangerous to be represented on the Elizabethan stage" (Penguin Critical Studies: Richard II, 11). So Richard's and Gaunt's and Bolingbroke's and York's and the Queen's speeches are all a product of people grappling with what deposition means, its horror.

The Elizabethan audience would have been intimately familiar with its implications: one hundred plus years of political unrest (neatly chronicled by Shakespeare in the two tetralogies). Even in this, the first play of the second group, Shakespeare includes plenty of foreshadowing of the result of Richard's deposition, from the specific (setting the scene for 1 Henry IV):

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is, ere foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption. (5.1.55-59)

to the general (setting the scene for everything through Richard III):

Ah, Richard! With the eyes of heavy mind
I see thy glory like a shooting star
Fall to the base earth from the firmament;
Thy sun sets weeping in the lowly west,
Witnessing storms to come, woe and unrest. (2.4.18-22)

So what do we make of this brilliant language, not yet in the service of strong narrative? (I want to head off the 'well, it's a history play' rejoinder by pointing out that the play is entitled The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, and so I think we are within our rights to expect an engaging structure.) And if you want to dig deeper in the language, there are a lot of couplets here, but they come with the suggestion that such versification is a bit, well, effeminate. I love Mowbray's shot at Bolingbroke: "'Tis not the trial of a woman's war, / The bitter clamor of two eager tongues, / Can arbitrate this cause betwixt us twain" (1.1.48-50). What is Shakespeare's take on language in this play, which seems at once elevated and criticized?

I've also mentioned "tongues" now twice. They seem a persistent image throughout the play. What's with that?

Finally, in teaching a history play (1 Henry IV) this year, I felt myself drawn to the consideration of the play as a metaphor for modern times. Does Richard II offer us any solace, warning, expiation, insight for our own political theater? Does the disturbing deposition of Richard remind us of the sturm und drang of Clinton's impeachment? Does Ross's comment about Richard, "The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes / And quite lost their hearts. The nobles hath he fined / For ancient quarrels and quite lost their hearts" (2.1.246-248) have any echo in Bush's abysmal approval ratings?

I suppose, it's time to end our repose, and expose our thoughts on what it means to depose. Who knows?


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Closing Remarks

It's May. What's been said has been said well:

The Merchant of Venice
rhymes with tennis
and so we went
back and forth.

Love all,

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Merchant of Venice - A Little Bit More of This and That


Re: Portia’s quality of mercy speech, there was a trial in Tacoma this week, Cecil Emile Davis accused of a brutally appalling rape and ruthless murder of a 65-year-old woman. He threw her in a bathtub and smothered her with towels soaked in a toxic solvent. In the summing up, his defense attorney asked the jury to show mercy in that “Earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.” I wonder what they teach in law school? Davis got the death penalty.

Cindy cited sources about the Jewish ghetto in Venice in the sixteenth century. May I call your attention to a novel for young people, Miriam Pressler’s Shylock’s Daughter: Sixteen-year-old Jessica, who longs to be free of the restrictions of her father and life in the Jewish ghetto of 16th C. Venice, falls in love with a Christian aristocrat. Translated from German. Pressler is co-editor of the definitive edition of Anne Frank’s Diary of Young Girl. Well researched and pretty well written, though gushy about teen romance.

I’ve only seen the much discussed Radford film once, but I was impressed with Pacino as Shylock. Like Cindy, I ached for Shylock. I also thought Jeremy Irons gave a convincing reading of Antonio in love with Bassanio. Certainly not necessary, but sufficient. A couple of years before, I saw a good Merchant of Venice at Ashland, Oregon, and their Antonio was also gay, enough like Irons that I now conflate the two productions in my memory. I do remember Ashland set the Rialto as the Bourse or the Big Board on Wall Street, with stock prices (and maybe “argosy futures”) running across the screen. The Christians were all “suits.” After I praised the Radford, my friend Roger Sale dismissed it as too narrowly focused on Shylock. I’m anxious to see it again. I guess maybe I should buy a DVD player.

I’ve just read Stanley Wells, Looking for Sex in Shakespeare. Pretty slight. He says “the meanings of works of art are stimulated and guided by the mind of the artist but exist finally only in the minds of those who experience them.” Amen. But then he devotes much of his lecture to refuting homosexual presentations, including Merchant of Venice.

Mike’s early question of how one might cast Shylock immediately tempted me to Mel Gibson. Delicious. One could consider it part of his “community service” punishment to say in front of millions “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?” When it was announce Gibson would play Hamlet in Zefirelli’s film there was much scoffing about how Mad Max would mumble “To be or not to be,” but actually I though Gibson was entirely credible. My other suggestion might be one of the great British actresses, Judi Dench, Glenda Jackson, Janet Suzman, maybe Helen Mirren. I don’t know what I would expect.

Cindy wonders about whether anti-gay prejudice would equal anti-Jew bigotry. I think not because the Christians are such a closed circle. They know, support, forgive. When Bassanio is sent to find a loan of three thousand ducats, backed by Antonio, notice he goes to Shylock. Why? The Christians all owe Antonio for paying off their debts, etc. But they also know that Bassanio is not a good risk so they would not loan him the money to keep Antonio from making a foolish deal.

Sorry if I damaged Randall’s and Cindy’s affection for Portia. All you need as antidote is see a couple of quality actresses, as Portia, not as Shylock.

Basta, as we say in Venice,

Merchant of Venice - Portia and Power

Patient, I hope, fellow posters,

I was bemused by Randall’s report of the paper he received arguing that Portia is a “tragic hero.” I’m no Aristotelian purist, but…, then Randall said, ya’ know—ninth-graders. My tragic sympathies are with Cindy and go toward Shylock, though I think we need a different term that could better fit Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman: “pathetic hero.” Alas, pathetic is one of those words that has eroded in our current usage [John?], as in “You heard Paris Hilton has claimed her jail sentence is cruel and unusual? That’s pathetic.” Sort of like “What do you mean Antonio is gay? It says right here ‘In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” Pathos evokes emotions, less cosmic than tragedy, more sincere than bathos. Shylock’s “If you prick [a Jew doth he] not bleed,” even if it a logical argument justifying revenge, strikes me as legitimately pathetic as anything in Shakespeare.

What, then, about “hero”? Aristotle reserves “hero” for tragedy, but I tend to corrupt the term to refer to the protagonist, the character who embodies the author’s values, or the character who has the most power at the end, who “wins.” Can we say the protagonist is Antonio, the eponymous “merchant,” no? The value bearing character hardly works in Shakespeare, who is of all authors the one about whom is most difficult to claim “Shakespeare believes,” in that he so deftly distributes all sides of any issue among competing characters (despite the 7,892 books expounding Shakespeare’s world view). So I almost choose Portia as the hero of The Merchant of Venice. She is in control of every situation, and yet…

Who is the merchant here? Portia. She says of Bassanio “since you are dear bought, I will love you dear” (III.2.313). After Nerissa has said of the casket lottery “who chooses [your father’s] meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love” (I.230-32), Portia indicates a clear preference for Bassanio from the beginning. I earlier noted that she has known him from her pre-heiress days. Nerissa says “he, of all the men that ever my foolish eyes looked upon, was the best deserving a fair lady,” and Portia subtly replies, “I remember him well, and I remember him worthy of thy praise.” She has already chosen. But she cannot be ignorant of who he is. She is economically informed. She must know he is a bankrupt, who has grubstaked himself with Antonio’s loan in order to make a little splash in Belmont. After he met her before she inherited her wealth, Bassanio has pursued other wealthy women. Remember the arrow metaphor:

“In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft
I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight
The selfsame way, with more advised watch,
To find the other forth; and by adventuring both
I oft found both…
I owe you [Antonio] much, and like a willful youth
That which I owe is lost; but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self same way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both,
Or bring your latter hazard back again
And thankfully rest debtor for the first” (I.1.140-144, 146-152)

Bassanio’s business is speculation on rich women, though his previous “arrows” have miscarried. To him Portia is a commodity.

Meanwhile, her choice is a done deal. At risk of making a hot pad out of a kitchen knife, let me show how this works. We know Portia has eliminated half a dozen suitors without giving them a chance at the lottery. We know she would eliminate “all of Morocco’s complexion,” despite her two-faced declaration that he stands “as fair” as any comer, and she dismisses Aragon as typical of “all these deliberate fools.” Enter a Venetian, and Portia immediately says “come, come, Nerissa, for I long to see/ Quick Cupid’s post that comes so mannerly.” Who is it but the (pre-chosen) Bassanio? How does he win? Cindy and I agree that he has hints, “I stand for sacrifice” and the lead rhymes. Not enough? I earlier said the fairy tale conventions demand prince charming solve the secret riddle. But given Portia’s control there is nothing that says that her portrait was in any of the caskets when the despised Morocco and the pitiful Aragon chose, and now we have the desired Venetian choosing, there would be portraits in all three caskets. Ta, da!

You think I’m cheating, but look at the Portia who follows. Bassanio “wins” and Portia closes the transaction with the language of commerce:

“I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousands times more fair, ten thousand times more rich,
That only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account…
Happiest of all, is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; and even know, but now,
This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours, my lord’s” (III.2.153-157, 163-171).

Though Bassiano/Gratiano exult, “We are Jasons, we have won the Fleece,” Graham Holderness notes this is identical to a line in Taming of the Shrew which we agree the woman cannot be saying what she means. At least, though knowing about Elizabethan “woman as chattel” legality, I still cringe as the controlled Portia gives up all of her sovereignty. But wait. In the next half line, she says “I give them with this ring,/ Which when you part from, lose, of give away,/ Let it presage the ruin of your love/ And be my vantage to exclaim on you.” (III.2.171-73). She gave him all, but it is on a contingency contract. And how long does it take for him to give up the ring in IV.1? Three lines.

So to the trial scene. Randall wonders how Portia she could come by a law degree in the time it takes to ferry from Belmont to Venice. But I speculated on that pre-trail mission she sends her servant Balthasar on to deliver a letter to her cousin, Doctor Bellario, and return with notes and garments. If you have not given up on me over the portraits-in-the-caskets trick, I’ll try this – she only needs three things: first the disguise together with enough law court decorum sufficient to sway a court predisposed to condemn the Jew; second, the clause in Venetian law that condemns an alien against a Christian; third, assurance that Antonio is no longer in jeopardy because some of his argosies have survived, this latter in a letter she can later present, as “manna,” to the suffering Antonio. Once she knows Antonio is good for the loan, the trial is moot, but she can continue with it to destroy Shylock, dazzle Bassanio, and humble Antonio. Hey ho, Nerissa, let’s put on some breeches and put on a show!

Finally, back at Belmont, where as Mike notes “the callow Christians frollick,” Portia still has the edge in all the transactions. Antonio, once THE merchant of Venice, is beholden: “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living” in return for which he swears he will pledge his soul that Bassiano will hereafter be Portia’s lap dog, “I dare be bound again,/ My soul upon the forfeit, that you lord/ Will never more break faith advisedly” (V.1.251-253). And all the sovereignty Bassanio had for a moment (he didn’t even get to consummate the marriage; he was not on top for a single thrust) was forfeit in the circle of a ring.

Why, when we first meet her, is Portia so sad? “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world” (I.2.1-2). She, like Antonio, is melancholy [see Randall’s “black bile”], despite possessing all the riches the world affords. Sated. Imprisoned, Margery Garber says, in self-sufficient self. So she acts. Portia is not a fairytale princess, she is a woman in charge to anything she wants to be in charge of, is absolutely ‘her own woman.” One last Gil surprise: I really like this play. And though Cindy and I seem opposed, I see the same things, the little ennui at the beginning, the smack talk revealing her prejudice, the stacking of the casket lottery. But there is much to admire in this woman who, in the face of so much economic and cultural power, is able to grab the brass ring.

Free, free, at last


P.S. Sometime, somewhere, perhaps with another play—Twelfth Night or As You Like It—we might refute all of the above in a little posting entitled:

Portia Takes Off Her Breeches

It might begin…

Not until Portia commits herself to the world is she able to transcend her schoolgirl self. “But now I was the lord/ Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,/ Queen o’er myself” (3.2.167-9). After betrothal, Portia cedes this sovereignty and wealth to Bassanio (though attached to the ring), and after she then gets power from her male disguise as the young doctor of laws (Bassanio is helpless to save Antonio, despite access to Portia’s wealth), she regains her power as a woman when she returns (compare Odysseus), presents Antonio with evidence of his restored wealth, drops manna on Lorenzo and Jessica, and enthralls Bassanio with the conditions following the “ring trick.”

“Portia returns to Belmont from Venice, from disguise as Balthazar, a transformed character,” enhancing her status in the play world as a whole” (Leah Scragg), no longer dutifully submissive of her father’s will nor gender—traditionally resigning complete sovereignty to the fortune-hunting Bassiano, she asserts a strength of her own character more fully than the legalistic, anti-merciful quibbler of the trial scene.

Or not.

Monday, May 21, 2007

RE2: Merchant of Venice - Portia and Prejudice


“Portia and Power” may be only an hour away. As to goodness, this is a problem play, which to me means there are no solutions, only complex questions—prejudice, power, gender, class, commerce (as Elizabethan England is caught in the crux between feudal and mercantile, this play explores the ambivalences. No wonder it is the focal point for more Marxist criticism than any other).


RE: Merchant of Venice - Portia and Prejudice


I don't think I like Portia any more. Maybe Gil's final installment – "Portia and Power" – will resurrect my faith in her, but his previous two posts have all but put out that light. Both "Portia and the Caskets" and "Portia and Prejudice," combined with Ernst's comment on Merchant's "sickeningly prejudiced world" have left me with the impression that this is an extremely cynical play.

I preferred to read Bassanio's casket choice speech rather naively; you know, "look past my outward surface, for I, like the lead box, am more than ornament." That kind of stuff. But Gil's reading renders him spectacularly hypocritical.

And Gil's readings of Portia are awesome – especially that little observation about "I stand for sacrifice" and the song rhyming with "lead." Throw in a little farce and this could be one of the funniest scenes in the play, but to do so would completely reduce Portia to dishonesty. Maybe that's appropriate, given her assessment of the characters that Gil noted. I had said that Portia could be one of the most prejudiced characters in the play. Lo, and behold.

Finally, the "quality of mercy" speech, which I have really found to be powerful, takes a major hit in this reading, and also seems cynical in this light. Is there no where to turn in Merchant for goodness?

I realize this is not the only way to read the play, but Portia seems less fairy princess now than the evil witch princess from something like "King Stork." If Bassanio's not careful, he'll find his head on a pike. Now, where did he leave his ring … ?


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Merchant of Venice - A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

Fellow Readers,

I promised a snippet of this and that between assignments that I am furiously grading to close out the school year.

I finally watched the Radford film of Merchant of Venice this weekend. I liked it. A lot. Something I recognized in myself was how I've always been sooooooo wrapped up in the characters, their prejudices, and my mixed reactions to them that I completely missed the setting itself. Merchant of Venice, Cindy. Duh. Should be obvious. But Venice never winked her exotic little eye in my mind until I saw the lush setting of the film. *sigh* (love Venice!) Radford's opening lines – not Shakespeare's – set the scene for an anti-Semitic Venice, a Venice of 1596. Sources I have consulted say that Europe's first Jewish ghetto was the foundry in Venice in 1516, so this Venice has been living with segregation for 80 years. The film clearly refers to the ghetto. Does Shakespeare? If so, I missed it. But I also missed the manna line; Randall, that was brilliant.

Other movie tidbits. In the category of the "way too obvious," was the slaughter of the goat in the market where Shylock is clearly purchasing a pound of animal flesh. The "baa" of the goats parallel the "baa" of sheep, yes? Slaughter of the lamb? Also the ageless excuse the Christians had for their scapegoating of those Christ-killing Jews. I would like to watch this with students to see if they catch that one.

Before this discussion and before this film, I had never thought to interpret Antonio as gay. Whoa. Any of that male bonding/friendship textual evidence merely fit with the value of male friendship over all other relationships. But hey, if we can make assumptions about Achilles and Patroclus, then why not Antonio and Bassanio? Radford's Antonio has either frolicked in the daisies with Bassanio or has always wanted to. The whispered name when he sees Bassanio glide by in gondola. The look of unrequited love as he peers out the window to Bassanio's arrival. In Act I, scene I, Bassanio and Antonio leave the table to discuss Bassanio's quest for Portia. Where do they go? The bedroom. C'mon, is that where these guys typically hang out? Question: if Antonio is actually gay, would he not be subject to the same – if not worse – prejudices as Shylock?

I'm with you, Randall, on your interpretation of Radford's last shot of Jessica with her ring. Despite "conversion" to Christianity, she was raised a Jewish girl and IS different from the Portias, Nerissas, and bare-breasted Venetian prostitutes (hi ho! Ooops, different movie. Serious laughter, Gil!). No stage or film production made that more clear than the stage production I saw last summer at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder. In the last scene, the ships have come in, the ring debacle resolved, and all are happy as they enter the house behind them. The doors close, leaving a forlorn Jessica ALONE onstage. Poignant indeed. How I ached for her.

Unlike her father in the CSF production. Shylock here was overblown, unlikeable, a caricature. I saw no motivation for his anger, for his revenge. And for me, Shylock is THE KEY to success. I WANT to ache for Shylock. I want to be angry with the "frolicking callow Christians" (nod to Ernst). I want to be left agitated and unresolved, having left a problem play, not a comedy where all the ends are tied up nicely in a bow. CSF's production last summer, despite a strong Portia and that bit of brilliant staging at the end, fell flat for me without a richly complex Shylock. Now, a few years ago, the Denver Center also staged Merchant of Venice, with John Hutton in the role of Shylock. I can still hear his voice, "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" (III.i.61). Gil, you may remember him in a number of roles at Denver Center; he played Claudius in the production of Hamlet – our chance meeting in the city! :-) His Shylock had those richly conceived layers, and the motivation behind his anger and need for revenge. I can still hear his voice… Pacino's Shylock worked for me as well. His weeping tore my heart out. Did you catch when Shylock left the court and somebody ripped his head covering off? And another spit on him? Yikes.

Women in this play? Radford's film? I used to think I liked Portia quite a lot. She's clearly very smart. I've changed my mind. Her little ennui bit at the beginning is too "poor little rich girl" a la Gloria Vanderbilt or Paris Hilton for me. "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world" (I.ii.1). Waaaaah. She's catty as she "talks smack" about her suitors: "…when he is worst he is little better than a beast" (I.ii.88). And she lures Shylock into her trap where she can talk up a great song and dance about mercy, but deliver none? Hypocrite. Her bigotry? Totally distasteful. Strong woman? No. She has succumbed to her father's ploy of snagging her a husband. Sure, it inevitably works out in her favor, but the clues are all there to suggest she leads Bassanio to the correct casket (yes, pun intended). One of them, "To the sea monster, I stand for sacrifice" (III.ii.57) and the other clues lie in the song Gil already discussed. It's no coincidence that all the lines rhyme with lead. (Shakespeare doesn't throw away a line, right?!) Portia? Big game player. Don't confront this one at the tables in Vegas. She'll win every hand, rings and all.

"A little bit of this, a little bit of that…"Opening lines from "Anatevka," the song from Fiddler on the Roof at the end of the play where the Jews have been exiled from their little village. Most of them had a place to go. What happened to Shylock? *sniff*

Respectfully yours,

Merchant of Venice - Echoes


A benefit of having to read a folio of Shakespeare plays at the same time is that sometimes the plays seem to talk to each other. As I said earlier, I'm reading Othello even as we discuss Merchant of Venice. And I noticed the following (identified by italics):

SHYLOCK (arguing that Jews are human and that mistreatment by Christians will have consequences):
[Antonio] hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
(Merchant of Venice, Folger edition, 3.1.53-72)

EMILIA (Iago's wife, arguing that women's faults are a product of their husbands' transgressions):
But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps;
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us. Or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite.
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet we have some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have.
What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is 't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well. Else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

(Othello, Folger edition, 4.3.97-115)

Wow. Setting aside for a moment the transposition of husbands for Christians and wives for Jews, how are these not the same speech?


Friday, May 18, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Jessica's Ring and Directorial License

Team Shakespeare,

Ernst sent the following conclusion to our conversation about Michael Radford's depiction of Jessica's ring, after my insistence that the movie's final scene had meaning:

"Well, that, of course, is the director's choice. As for the original dramatist--one doesn't show a knife on a kitchen sink early on in a filmand then turn it into a hot pad in the last scene."

I reproduce it because Ernst brings up something that's been nagging me since I started in on both the Radford and Nunn film versions of the play, and I thought I'd share it with the entire group. Once one sees a production, it is difficult to talk about just the text. And that has happened to me. My posts have largely focused on one interpretation of the text rather than just the text. So Ernst is right in pointing out the difference between the director's choice and the dramatist's work. Shakespeare clearly gives us a scene in which Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica traded the ring from Leah for a monkey. Period.

Radford adds a concluding silent moment that forces us to reflect on that scene, and which may or may not change our impression of the text. Ernst feels that the final scene deviates from the implication of the earlier one. I feel it shifts our understanding of the earlier one. But it is Ernst's analogy that I find interesting because I think film-makers, who deal so explicitly in a visual medium, do make hot pads out of kitchen knives. And that we love them for doing so. Let's call it a moment of misdirection.

[Spoiler alert! Skip the next two paragraphs if you haven't seen this movie.] In George Roy Hill's The Sting (1973), Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) concoct an elaborate con to fleece a Chicago mobster named Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) without his knowing he's been conned. In a minor scene Hill's narrative jumps back and forth between Gondorff and Hooker who are preparing for the big day in their separate ways. Hooker puts on his tuxedo, opens a dresser drawer, removes a handkerchief, and – oddly – puts his fingers in his mouth. He seems to be checking his teeth. My even bringing it up makes it more of a moment than it actually is, the kind of thing you see but don't see because it has no significance or context.

Later, they pull the con, but things go awry. The best laid plans, etc. Gondorff realizes that Hooker is in cahoots with Lonnegan and has betrayed him. The cops bust in. Hooker is shot, and falls dead, blood spilling from his mouth. Lonnegan is hurried from the scene so that he is neither involved nor caught, but he has to leave his money. When the coast is clear, lo and behold, Hooker gets up and spits out two false blood packs, the items he inserted in his mouth in the earlier scene. Gondorff laughs and they escape with Lonnegan's money.

What happens here is typical of modern heist, con, and caper films in general. The general plot follows a pattern: thieves make an elaborate plan and set plan in motion; something goes wrong (a woman is often involved) and thieves must improvise; the improvisation works but with twists. In the end it turns out the twists were anticipated and prepared for, and what's more the director shows you the preparation but because you don't know what you are seeing you tend to overlook it. In the end, the viewer gets a double pleasure. First, the pleasure of the satisfactory resolution of the plot. Second, the realization that the plot involved a clever sleight of hand, in full view but not recognized until the closure. This sleight of hand is a film version of the magician's use of misdirection, and George Roy Hill does it magnificently in The Sting, converting the insignificant to the critically meaningful. Looking back, one's impression of the critical moment changes – what originally looked like a mere kitchen knife turns out to be the hot pad.

Or take Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). A surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired to record a conversation between a young man and woman (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) who are walking through a crowded public square. Caul gets his recording – it involves multiple mikes and a lot of careful editing – and hears the man utter the following whispered sentence: "He'd kill us if he got the chance." Despite his vow not to get personally involved in his assignments, Caul doesn't want to turn the tape over, worried about what might happen to the couple, but the tape is stolen (a woman is involved). Hoping to prevent a crime, Caul remembers a hotel room mentioned and checks into the one next door. He hears a murder committed.

In the end, the victim is not who Caul thought it was, and what's more the couple turn out not to be victims but something very different. When Caul gets to hear his tape again, we find out why. Coppola applies a kind of aural misdirection, changing the inflection of the words the second time we hear it. What was "He'd KILL us if he got the chance" becomes "He'd kill US if he got the chance." What was a kitchen knife has become a hot pad.

Perhaps the most explicit recent examples of the use of misdirection are Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) and David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001). When the studio released a DVD of Mulholland Dr., it included a list of ten clues to look for as you watch the movie. These clues are supposed to make your drive home happier because they'll give you a better chance of sorting out what you just saw – a narrative populated by images that don't mean what they appear to the first time you see them. Nolan's Memento, famously, is a story about a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce) with severe short-term memory damage – cannot remember what just happened a few minutes after it happens – who is trying to find the man who killed his wife. The narrative is structured in reverse, so that you see the final scene first, etc. The brilliance of this is that it unites, to a certain extent, the experience of the main character with the experience of the audience. Watching the opening moments of the movie, the culmination of the movie's plot, we don't have a clue what happened before. But mixed into this is that even as we gain information, conclusions we have recently drawn must be revised as new information is delivered. Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) has a scene in which we find her bleeding, claiming she's been attacked, and demanding that Leonard help her. In the next scene (which precedes the previous one in time), it turns out that she has staged the injuries, then sits back waiting for Leonard to forget what has happened so she can blame her boyfriend.

(Although the visual element of film intensifies the use of misdirection, it is not exclusive to film. Ian McEwan's Atonement has a spectacular moment not unlike what I'm describing here.)

What I like about this is the transformation of the film-goer's experience. First it's one thing, then another. But my appreciation of it requires a certain willingness to grant the director the license to shift reality on the fly. I expect it to be done craftily and, in retrospect, coherently. With Radford, I wonder if my interpretation of the "false report" ring-for-monkey trade scene grants the director too much license. Could he have more clearly established the speculative nature of the intercut scene? Probably.

With Shakespeare, directors are often piecing together the narrative visually as much as with the text, especially because they are so liberally cutting the text. Branagh's inserted sex scene between Ophelia and Hamlet shapes the tone of their "are you honest" scene (interesting because he doesn't do any text cutting at all). Taymor's Titus (1999) begins with a really kooky framing device in which modern troops rush into a kitchen, terrorizing a boy having breakfast. The film seems to be viewed through the eyes of this boy, and he even moves from his 20th-century medium to assume a role with in the story. While her technique is not misdirection it does ask the viewer to see the story from two perspectives, one as a straight narrative, one as an outsider looking in and trying synthesize the context of Titus with the events of our own world (Bosnia?).

Baz Luhrmann uses frequent flash-forwards in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, a technique that amplifies the play's concern with Fate because he's showing you pieces of the story's outcome in advance. The uninitiated viewer – if there is one – will see these scenes (Romeo walking toward Juliet's bier, for example) as mysterious, only later realizing both their significance within the linear narrative and their significance as intercut non-linear scenes (why did we see that when Romeo agreed to marry Juliet?).

I am young enough in my experience of Shakespeare that I approach aggressive interpretation with a rather callow appreciation. I like the cleverness of making Shakespeare's play do this or that. Loncraine's Richard III with Ian McKellan sets the play in an imagined 20th-century fascist England. Luhrmann transplants Romeo and Juliet to "Verona Beach," a modern heavily Hispanic Miami-like place, and infuses the play with a lot of Catholic imagery. Branagh turns Love's Labor's Lost into a 1930s Busby Berkeley/Cole Porter musical. These are fun, but even though they retain Shakespeare's language they border on the adaptative. And as such, they heavily rely on directorial license both with Shakespeare and our expectations. As a result, when I watch one of these films, I find myself reading the film's "text" as much as Shakespeare's. And the two are very different.

Perhaps as an interlude, at some future date, we could all toss out our vote for favorite filmed Shakespeare. I would be curious what each of us is drawn to. Welles? Branagh? Olivier? Zeffirelli? Lloyd Kaufman?