Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Merry Wives of Windsor - Musings

Gilbert writes:


“It will hardly be necessary to deal at any length with The Merry Wives of Windsor,” says Derek Traversi in his Approaches to Shakespeare, and then, indeed, he doesn’t. I am pretty sympathetic, but then I thought that won’t start much conversation either. So I began to think about language. What happens to an audience who settle into a theatre and the first four or five scenes assault one with a—no, two—malapropists (Slender and Mistress Quickly), a bombastic literary allusion mangler (Pistol, and Nym who has a humor to say “humor”), and a—no, two—“foreigners” (Welsh Evans and French Caius) who abuse the King’s English so severely that the Folger Shakespeare Library edition’s facing gloss pages exceed the text itself in length?

I really do look to the opening of a play to orient me – exposition, grace notes to character, setting, maybe a little plot complication – and it was discouraging to find I had spent two hours over the first three scenes, not yet even encountering Dr. Caius or the focative lesson on the obscenity of Latin grammar. Perhaps I was disadvantaged because the last time I saw this play all the lines, alas unmemorable, were sung and translated from Italian.

Anyway, my impression is this is the most language-playful (or –jerked around) play since Love’s Labour’s Lost. What gives with language? Could we say that the subtext insists that the inverse of all this language miasma is a newly accepted default English, that “King’s English” that all the above mangle?

It is inevitable we should talk about Falstaff. Yet who is this guy? Fat, of course, and transported to the twenty-first century bearing the traditional theatrical tradition that Merry Wives of Windsor was written because Queen Elizabeth told Shakespeare she would like to see Falstaff in love (though this myth was not recorded until 1702 by John Dennis, a century after the appearance of the play, and anyway why would Elizabeth tell this to Shakespeare if Edward de Vere wrote Merry Wives?) But this Falstaff is hard to recognize if we have already known the witty, inventive, playful quick-study Falstaff of 1 Henry IV and the aging, touchingly emotional, outsider Falstaff of 2 Henry IV. This one is primarily a wencher, gullible, bombastic without wit. He is alazon, self-deluded, ripe to be deflated. What has the playwright done with my Falstaff?

Yet, this is a comedy. Forget, for a while, the “banish fat Jack and banish all the world” Falstaff, and think of the conventions of comedy. Boy meets girl; obstacles arise; boy gets girl; all dance. Falstaff is no boy and much of the plot iterates and reiterates and rereiterates Falstaff arranging to assignate with Mistresses Page and Ford, revealing his plan (and rerevealing and rererevealing) to “Mr. Brook,” and then being abused—dirty laundry, then cudgels, then exorcism while wearing horns at midnight. He is the butt of all these intrigues, hoist by his own self-inflated ego, left fallen (literally) in the forest and pinched black and blue by fairies/children, then finally invited home to sit with the families by a country fire—only by an afterthought reintegrated into the harmonious society of “all dance.”

Still there is the Anne Page plot: boy (Fenton) sees girl; obstacles arise as alternative suitors engage in courting plots, Slender backed by William Page and Caius backed by Margaret Page until both are drawn away by boys in disguise in the forest; and Fenton gets Anne (oh, wait, like Bassanio and Portia, they have known and been bonded to each other from sometime before). Anyway, all ends in harmony, except Dr. Caius finds himself married to “oon garsoon, a boy: oon pesant” (I gloss that last piss-ant, but then my French is not so good any more). A comic plot, indeed, but notice Verdi entitled his opera Falstaff, not Fenton. Still, Merry Wives of Windsor is “comedy of intrigue” slightly “comedy of manners,” somewhat anticipatory of the great comedies of the Restoration. I think I’d like to come back to intrigue before we are finished with Merry Wives, remembering that intrigue is artificially manipulated social situation, contrived comic artifice, not to be tested by reality.

Merry Wives of Windsor is unique for Shakespeare in its English setting and its class. This is "city comedy." There will be more of this in Jacobean drama. It is unflinchingly middle-class. Page and Ford are merchants, and Falstaff targets their wives, at first, because they control their husbands’ purse strings (even Fenton confesses he wishes to repair his fortune with Anne Page’s money). We’ve often seen English folk (in addition to the histories), especially among the Warwickshire guildsmen and rustics (do you suppose Edward de Vere ever met Nick Bottom or Dogberry or Elbow or Launce?) but they show up in Athens or Verona, whereas all these Merry Wives folk live within a mile of Brainford, Hearne’s oak, Frogmore, Eton all surrounding Windsor. So, what does the introduction of middle-class values do to the crux between the feudal-romantic (Hotspur) and the mercantile (Joseph Addison’s Sir Andrew Freeport)? Is this money-oriented play the true fulcrum between Claudius who knows how to run his kingdom-corporation and Hamlet who finds, therefore, the world is out of joint?


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Merry Wives of Windsor - Witchcraft

Jim writes:

Hi Everyone,

I just finished Merry Wives of Windsor and can think a several topics to discuss – most center on Falstaff and how different and weaker he seems in this play than in the histories. But before we get into that I have a question for Randall that relates to his last TSI post on the blog.

The last practical joke played on the fat knight is centered on him dressing as Terne the Hunter and being set upon by Satyrs and Faeries in the forest. Falstaff is beaten earlier in the play when impersonating Mistress Ford’s maid’s aunt, who is not only large enough for the impersonation to work but also considered a witch. Mr. Ford says of the aunt: “A witch, a quean, an old cozening quean! Have I not forbid her my house? She comes of errands, does she? We are simple men, we do not know what’s to brought to pass under the profession of fortune-telling. She works by charms, by spells, by th’ figure, and such daub’ry as this is, beyond our element; we know nothing. Come down, you witch, you hag you, come down, I say!”

My first thought was that this passage is probably a better representation of the common perception of witchcraft and who practiced it in Elizabethan society than Macbeth, though I’d need to do some work before I could back that up.

But it seems to me that the kind of “forest magic” that is being faked in the last practical joke (faeries, satyrs, etc.) is more common in Shakespeare than the type of dark magic seen in Macbeth’s witches. The other thing that struck me is that the “forest magic” elements seem odder and more foreign for modern readers and audiences than Macbeth’s witches. My daughters think that A Midsummer’s Night Dream has a very strange story, with Puck and the Faeries, but Macbeth makes perfect sense to them on the level of magic. The very brief examples of laws you quoted in your TSI entry in the blog made me wonder if you saw evidence that the apparent view of witchcraft changed over time, moving toward the “modern” view that witches were evil, in league with dark forces, dealing with the devil, etc.

Was there a change in what audiences believed about witchcraft during Shakespeare’s lifetime? Or is this more of an American/English divide, with American falling with King James on the Puritan side and viewing all witches as in league with the devil and refusing to believe in faeries, while the English still hold the realm of Faerie in their cosmology (hence Peter Pan….)?

It’s kind of a convoluted question, but I’ve reached the point where I have enough data that I would easily have been able to write the five paragraph essay in college arguing the point but nowhere near enough to know if actually have a sustainable case either way.

Randall, what do you think?

Jim Darling

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

TSI 2010 - Final Thoughts

My students are always asking me what my favorite book or movie is. And I’ve reached a point where I’ve experienced so much of both that picking a favorite is no longer a sensible activity. Do I like Lolita more than Angle of Repose or Great Expectations? The Incredibles more than Good Night, and Good Luck or Cool Hand Luke? At some point, one just wants to respond, “why choose?” I like blue and purple.

So I’m not going to try to isolate one favorite aspect of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. There are too many moments, lessons, and people to single any one out. I could go on about Mike Lomonico taking my favorite Shakespearean film clip lesson to the next level by breaking student responses into different film-making components. Or Sue Hench’s masterful ability to structure a student-centered experience. Or Stephen Dickey changing much of what I thought I knew of Twelfth Night. Or Synetic Theater’s silent production of Othello. Or Amber Caron’s awesome “why is this man head-butting a cat” presentation. Or Kevin Costa prefacing every question with an experience or book recommendation I wanted to follow up on. Or Chris Lavold’s “Joe Shakespeare” moment. I could go on.

One moment, though, captures the excitement I felt throughout my four weeks at the Folger – finding the Statutes of the Realm. My research paper ended up focusing on witchcraft in Macbeth. To prepare I had read Marston’s The Wonder of Women, or The Tragedy or Sophonisba and Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, as well as various section of a variety of Shakespeare’s plays that included examples of or allusions to witchcraft. In the library I pursued original documents that defined witchcraft: Lambert Daneau’s Dialogue of Witches (1575), Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), George Gifford’s A Discourse of the Subtill Practices of Devilles (1587), Nicholas Remy’s Demonolatry (1595), and King James’s Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue (1597). And, as I narrowed my focus to Shakespeare’s historical plays, I read relevant sections of Edward Hall and Raphaell Holinshed’s chronicles.

My goal was to illustrate a connection between the perceived reality of witches and the theatrical depiction of them. In the process of writing the paper, I came across a number of Internet citations to sixteenth century “witchcraft acts,” laws in England that defined and penalized the practices of sorcerers. Now one of the big problems with the Internet is that lots of people who create web sites simply repurpose stuff from someone else’s site. You’ll notice this when you do a Google search, and the exact same info comes up on three different sites. It can be difficult to determine who posted it first, and doubly difficult to determine where it originally came from before it got on the web.

So it was with the Witchcraft Acts. The closest I got to a corroborating source were some weird numbers, like “1⁰ Jac. I c. 12.” I took these numbers to a Folger librarian, asking for help in finding the actual Witchcraft Act documents. I spent some time in the card catalog room looking under Great Britain – History – King James, to no avail. I did find some similar numbers in a secondary source, so I took them back to the librarian, who asked, “have you checked the Statutes of the Realm?”

Where are those, I asked.

In the basement of the Folger Shakespeare Library, on a shelf in the corner, there are a number of heavy brown folio-sized volumes. It turns out that George III, in the interest of historical preservation, had recorded a complete list of laws passed by his predecessors. These were organized by the year of each monarch’s reign, the monarch, and finally by law (listed as chapters). Quickly I found the statute passed under James I in 1603: “An acte against conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evill and wicked spirits.” But I had found a lot more.

Our laws define us; they define our fears, our culture, our knowledge and ignorance, our current events, and over time our history. The Statutes of the Realm opened an amazing window into Tudor and Stuart life. I wanted immediately to spend the next two months sitting in the Folger basement just reading statutes. Working my way backwards in my final forty minutes in the Library, I found Elizabeth’s, then Edward VI’s, then Henry VIII’s witchcraft acts. But I also found curios around which one could build an entertaining and scholarly career. In Edward VI’s laws, for example, exists an act that defines, thereafter, any death caused by poisoning as murder. Which begs the question: what was it before?

I made rapid xerox copies of the acts that pertained to my paper. There’s lots to think about, beginning with the easy comparisons that demonstrate how public opinion and concern about witches changed from 1541 to 1603. Henry VIII’s act begins: “Where dyvers and sundrie persones unlawfully have devised and practised Invocacons and conjuracons of Sprites, pretendying by such meanes to understande and get Knowledge for their own lucre in what treasure of golde and Silver shulde or mought be founde or had in the earthe or other secrete places” (33⁰ Hen. VIII c. 8). It goes on to condemn other, more fantastical, practices, but I think it’s interesting that it begins with the simple use of conjuration as a form of graft.

By James I, the concern over conning folks out of their money is gone. James repeals the Elizabethan laws, then replaces them: “for the better restrayninge of the said Offenses, and more severe punishinge the same, be it further enacted ... That if any pson or persons, after the saide Feaste of Saint Michaell the Archangell next coming, shall use, practise, or exercise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and wicked Spirit, or shall consult covenant with, entertaine, employ, feede, or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose; or take up any dead man, woman, or child out of his, her, or their grave, or any other place where the dead bodie resteth, or the skin, bone, or any other parte of any dead person, to be imployed or used in any manner of Witchcrafte, Inchantment, Charme, or Sorcerie ... that then everie such Offendor or Offendors, their Ayders, Abettors, and Counsellors, being of any the saide Offences dulie and lawfullie convicted and attainted, shall suffer pains of deathe as a Felon or Felons, and shall loose the priviledge and benefit of Clergie and Sanctuarie” (1⁰ Jac. I c. 12).

We learn from James I’s Daemonologie, a reaction to Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, that there’s a fairly significant tension between those that believe in the supernatural power of witches and those that don’t. That statutes clearly show that shift toward the more punitive view, and in doing so, reveal a fascinating aspect of Tudor and Stuart life.

I had been skeptical about my ability to take advantage of my reading card, which gives me a year to continue my studies at the Folger. School keeps me busy, even during my breaks. But now I know I’m going back, whatever it takes. Somewhere, there’s a statute waiting which will reveal untold contemporary attitudes about parts of Shakespeare’s plays that I know I currently overlook. It’s like being on a treasure hunt, and finding the Statutes is like being handed a reliable map. The “X” is at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Friday, July 23, 2010

TSI 2010 - Grasshopper Tacos

I have a conversation at least once a year with students about what they eat. It usually starts when I mention that I’ve had tacos with lengua (beef tongue) and they blanch. Who eats beef tongue? Ick!

Actually, it’s quite good, and I use the example to make the point that what we consider edible depends primarily on what we’re used to eating by the time we’re adolescents, our attitudes are set, and the mere sensual experience of taste matters little. In other words, I think there’s a point where our appreciation of taste becomes not physical but psychological and cultural. And in the mix, novelty becomes intimidating while familiarity becomes comforting.

Case in point: I marinated and grilled chicken hearts for my book club last year as part of a Brazilian themed dinner. Grown men declined to try them, despite that fact that Americans, according to the American Meat Institute, consume over 85 pounds (based on “retail weight”) of chicken each year, and the heart, like much of the rest of the chicken we eat, is merely muscle.

Given that living involves experiencing, and experiencing involves one’s senses, it is curious to me that we so willfully limit the experience of one of the most pleasurable of senses – taste.

That's my preamble to the most interesting meal I had during the Teaching Shakespeare Institute which came from Oyamel, a restaurant near Chinatown that takes a fusion approach to regional Mexican cuisines and serves its offerings tapas style. My friend Martha Anderson and I began with an excellent ceviche de cayo de hacha con limon y chile. That’s a small bay scallop topped with a tiny slice of blood orange and sitting on top of a tequila and ancho chile sauce covered key lime. You pick up the key lime and take the whole scallop in your mouth while squeezing the lime gently to get a sort of citrus chaser.

(If you’re making this at home, know that Oyamel serves these on a plate of rocks, which keep the limes from rolling over and dumping the little scallop towers onto the plate. If you believe that great dining involves not just taste but a visually pleasing arrangement, then Oyamel’s plating adds a lot to the experience.)

Martha and I also selected a variety of tacos: chicken with guacamole, beef tongue with radishes, fish with red onions and cilantro, and chapulines. Chapulines is Spanish for grasshoppers. I’d never heard of grasshopper tacos let alone tried them. Oyamel claims they’re a Oaxacan specialty and sautées them in onion, garlic and tequila. They’re fairly salty and taste a little like dried, grilled beef, with a slight crunch. Right now, a number of you are probably thinking you'll never, ever, ever knowingly eat anything with bugs in it. All I ask is, if you've never tried something like chapulines, that you consider how much your attitude comes from a reality-free perception. Tasting is believing, and great food deserves a chance without prejudice.

In short, the chapulines tasted great. And it’s nice to know that in the coming economic or environmental apocalypse, I’ll be happily surviving the collapse and subsequent looting of Cub Food, Safeway, and Piggly Wiggly by capturing, sautéing, and eating the bugs in my backyard.


(Photo credit: The grasshopper taco pictured above comes from the blog “Girl Meets Food.” Many thanks to Mary for its use, and if you’re in the Washington, DC area and want great recommendations for adventures in dining, read Mary’s blog.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

RE4: Twelfth Night - The Language of Love

Viola is a fine actress, playing and making use of the Petrarchan game from time to time. It might be interesting to compare her brilliant use of it to Orsino's tired, self-indulgent use of it. Theirs is a marriage that was not exactly made in heaven. No wonder Feste is a bit cynical.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

RE3: Twelfth Night - The Language of Love

Randall writes:


That's a good question. Viola does not strike me as particularly Petrarchan, as Romeo is ("I ne'er saw true beauty till this night!"), nor does Orsino overwhelm her with beautiful language. So what is it that establishes her love for Orsino?

Is she susceptible to flattery? Orsino compliments her lips, her voice, and her womanliness, although to us it's ironic because he's seeing a boy. But Viola is not that kind of fool for love, the type who could be won over by mere appreciation of her physique. To work, that requires a certain vanity. If anything, Viola is full of humility.

Yet, after Orsino explains his expectations for Cesario's surrogate wooing, Viola says, "Yet a barful strife! Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife." She's in love. How?

In our seminar at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, we briefly considered one possibility. The following exchange occurs in Act 1, scene 2, between the recently shipwrecked Viola and Captain:

Who governs here?
A noble duke, in nature as in name.
What is his name?
Orsino. I have heard my father name him. He was a bachelor then.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Say you're at a party and you see someone vaguely familiar across the room. You turn to your friend and ask who it is. When he tells you, which of the following are you most likely to ask?

a. Oh, I've heard of him; isn't he a Republican?
b. Oh, I've heard of him; doesn't he work at Home Depot?
c. Oh, I've heard of him; he's single, isn't he?

Viola's response is suggestive. Is she thinking about Orsino's availability already? Is she already in love with him? Add this: Under what circumstances did her father "name him"? We're too deep in speculation land here, with too little textual evidence, but comparing fathers and daughters' conversations in other plays, notably Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, they often focus on appropriate husbands.

Then, there's the vaguery of Viola's plan. Originally, she wants to serve Olivia so that she "might not be delivered to the world/ Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,/ What my estate is." She wants to establish her social position, sure. But this position would also give her access to Orsino who, she learns, is currently seeking Olivia.

Finally, listen carefully to her instructions to the Captain:

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. (1.2.56-58)

What is her intent? No, what is the form of her intent? It would not be socially possible for her, as a woman, to approach Orsino in courtship. But disguised as a boy, taking on a new form, will give her access to Orsino. Is Orsino, then, as opposed to the mere establishment of social position, her intent? Or more specifically, is marriage to Orsino how she intends to make her own occasion "mellow"?

So, as we consider the origin of Viola's love for Orsino, we have to consider the possibility that we don't find it in the text, in the love-language, because it pre-dates the opening of the play.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

RE2: Twelfth Night - The Language of Love

Ooooooooooh! I LOVE this. :-)

It makes me think, just a little, about Viola's love for Orsino. Hmmmmm, from whence it springs?


RE: Twelfth Night - The Language of Love

Randall writes:

Hear me,

I’ve been thinking a bit about Gil’s argument that Orsino is a bad poet, and that Olivia loves language more than Cesario. The latter comment reminds me of Romeo, whom we frequently declaim in high school English classes for being in love with love rather than Juliet. Given the amazing words spilling from his heart to describe his love, we might argue that Romeo, too, is in love with language, for it is the words that create his passion. Or to put it another way, they are the food of his love.

So Orsino is wrong. It’s not music, it’s language, specifically Shakespeare’s language. Orsino’s mistake may confirm Gil’s point. As a bad poet (“most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty”), he finds no sustenance in love-language and so must turn to music. And certainly that’s no match for Shakespeare.

John Berryman is as impressed as Gil. In a section from Berryman’s Shakespeare, he calls Olivia’s response to Cesario’s delivery of Orsino’s overtures (“Your lord does know my mind, I cannot love him.”) an “utterance so perfect: it satisfies perfectly” (93). Looking at the sixteen lines that follow, including the “willow cabin” wooing, Berryman notes their intensity and concludes “Olivia falls in love upon her intuition that the person before her is capable of love” (94). Funny word, that: “intuition.” Of course, Berryman means it in its modern guise – implicit understanding without benefit of the five senses – but its closest usage to Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have associated it, according to the O.E.D., with spiritual insight. Do Cesario’s words penetrate to Olivia’s soul? Is that why she's so moved?

Again, this doesn’t reflect well on Orsino. After all, if Cesario’s capability for love is a revelation, then it would stand that Orsino, in Olivia’s eyes, is not so capable. No, that’s not quite right. I mean, in Olivia’s ears; in Shakespeare, lovers’ language does not enter through the eyes. Even Olivia gets this wrong: “Methinks,” she says, “I feel this youth’s perfections/ With an invisible and subtle stealth/ To creep in at mine eyes” (1.5.304-302). Notice the twin confusions, first that she feels (touch) that which enters through her eyes (sight) and second, that which is entering through her eyes is invisible. What’s more, her eyes are lying to her – she thinks she’s seeing a man. Berryman is right about intuition; the rest of her senses are pretty flummoxed.

Olivia repeats the mistake a few lines later: “I do I know not what, and fear to find/ Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.” She continues to miss that her heart has been wooed and won through her ears. Interesting that she began the conversation with Cesario by saying: “Once more we will hear Orsino’s embassy.” And further she dismissed her attendants, saying “We will hear this divinity.”

Yes, she did. Cesario’s “willow cabin” lament is a feast for the ears: “call upon my soul,” “sing them loud,” “hallow your name,” “babbling gossip of the air,” and “cry out ‘Olivia!’” Cesario’s love-language is all sound.

But once Olivia hears this divinity, its power is too great; she requires intuition to recognize its effect. So, let’s get back to Gil’s point about Orsino’s poetry being bad, being “Petrarch turned to cliché.” Remember that eyes, especially as a path through which we are trapped by love (love at first sight?) are a persistent Petrarchan motif. We find, then, that Shakespeare once again has his way with his rivals, aligning Petrarch with Orsino (the bad poet), establishing the ears, not the eyes, as the true path of passion, and filling Gil’s, Berryman’s, and ours with perfect language, so that like Olivia we are won over. Completely.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

TSI 2010 - Sonnet

For fun, in between the performance practices, the research, the curriculum sessions, the lectures, the seminars, and the colloquia, we've been give the opportunity to write a sonnet, with the final rhyming words given to us (so everyone has the same end rhymes), due at 8:30 a.m. this morning. Here's what I came up with:

What 'In Jam' Meant

“I’ve had just about enough of you, love-
er,” she announced, departing, all my err-
ant affections entombed; I’d need a shove-
el to unearth them. My distress, unbear-

able for months, amply seasoned with hate-
tred and hysteric temp’ramental see-
sawing mood swings, compelled me thus to late-
er seek mortal release, to set me free

of love’s astringent ends. But my child’s smile-
ing face, covered in jam, restor’d my poor
heart’s life, reminding me that though each trial,
each open challenge, may end as a door

slamming, as long as you continue cheer-
ful progress, life will never box your ear.


Friday, July 9, 2010

TSI 2010 - The Unkindest Cũt

One might expect the sort of things gleaned from working in a place like the Folger Shakespeare Library reading room to be rather erudite, if not downright stodgy. But more than once I’ve come across information that reaffirms what rascals some of the early modern writers can be.

Not all of them, of course. For example, I’ve been studying books on witchcraft printed in the sixteenth century. One of my first concerns has been whether it is more appropriate, when I’m quoting from a text, to reproduce the wacky words, characters, and punctuation? Or should I modernize the archaic spelling and other obsolete typographical elements, and save some time? Take the following passage from the English translation of Lambert Daneau’s A Dialogue of Witches (1575):

Getting used to reading through the long “s,” the extra “e” on words (“meanes,” “arte”), the other extra letters (“magicall”), the different vowel representations (“lyke”) hasn’t been too hard. And the old thorn with a superscript “e” (for “the”) is kind of fun. New to me, though, was the practice of omitting the “m” or “n” (known as “minims”) and indicating the absence with a wavy or straight line over the preceding letter. This happens twice above: with whõ (whom) and cõquest (conquest).

Now, not too long ago, I posted a short comment about the bawdy word-play in Twelfth Night’s Box Tree scene. (You know where this is going.) In it, Malvolio thinks he recognizes Olivia’s handwriting, commenting:

"By my life, this is my lady's hand! These be here very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus makes she her great P's."

Would that be c-ũ-t?

It’s a stretch, because the audience is hearing the letters, not seeing them, and the effectiveness of the joke would rely on the audience’s familiarity with typography. Alfred Harbage argues in Shakespeare’s Audience, that “it seems probable that the rank and file were more literate in the sixteenth century than in the eighteenth. In view of the profusion of schools, of the tendency of the trade guilds to make literacy a qualification even for entrance into apprenticeship, and of the manifest interest in self-instruction, we must revise any impressions we may ever have had that London workmen were ‘nine-tenths illiterate’” (146-147).

Further, Harbage footnotes L. C. Knights’ comment about the most of the Globe’s spectators being “likely to have received an education of the Grammar school type.” At this point I’d like to check the type in one of those 10,000 copies of The A B C and Little Catechism primer Harbage says were distributed in 1585. But that’s not my topic, and my library time is too limited for the quixotic substantiation of dirty jokes.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m sure Shakespeare is indulging his inner rascal, perhaps appropriately in a play that pokes so much fun at puritanical natures. As a teaching artist from the Acting Company told my class a couple years ago, in Shakespeare, “if it sounds dirty, it probably is.”

This surprises students. Really, I think time tends to misapply a patina of decorum to popular texts. We are sure if something is old or complex or revered, it must be above populist humor or prurience. Even when a text is serious, these moments aren’t hard to find. I just finished John Marston’s The Wonder of Women, or the Tragedy of Sophonisba (ca. 1605). In it Syphax, an evil king, conjures up a witch named Erictho from whom he wants a spell that will enchant the chaste heroine, Sophonisba, into his bed. Erictho describes her home, once a temple to Jove, but now in ruins, its hymns replaced by the ominous noises of jackdaws, crows, ravens, and magpies, and “Where statues and Jove’s acts were vively limned,/ Boys with black coals draw the veiled parts of nature/ And lecherous actions of imagined lust” (4.1.153-155).

Yeah, I don’t have to travel to ancient Libya to see that. The same images decorate the boys’ toilet stalls at my school. I just didn’t expect to find phallic graffiti in the middle of a speech in my Marston, any more than I expected to find yonic imagery in Shakespeare.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

TSI 2010 - Freudian Slip

Caleen Jennings’ classes at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute are all about freeing oneself from the usual strictures of education, whether we’re finding physical ways to communicate the written word or lying on the floor in the dark scrawling barely connected words on a sheet of paper as both a vital part of the writing process and a way to access Othello.

We did the latter activity today. Jennings wrote a word – “cause” – on a large, white sheet of paper, and our job was to yell out word associations. She’d pick the first she heard, add it to the paper linked to the previous word, and we’d suggest associations for the new word. “Cause” led to “effect” led to “affect” (English teachers!) and so on until we got, in a dilatory way, to “air conditioning.”

Then it was back to “cause” again, with a new association. “Cause” led to “way” led to “curds” which led to “Saddam Hussein.” Eventually we got a word balloon on the paper that said “Harry Potter.” In the cacophony that followed, the loudest next association was “Twilight.” Even free association suffers from rivalry. But Jennings heard something else; she wrote down “toilet.”

Looking at the final word webs on the paper, to one who didn’t witness the process, it may have made a perverse sense how we got from “Potter” to “toilet,” but it must have been mystifying how the next word ended up being “sunrise.”

“Moonrise” would have made more sense.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Othello - Performance Log (July 2010)

Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Synetic Theater
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
July 3, 2010

Here’s a conversation starter: the best production of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen cut every single line of the text.

That’s right. No words. Synetic Theater, which just completed a run of Othello at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, employs the “art of silence,” removing all speech and redirecting not just the story, but the rich textures and imagery of Shakespeare’s language into dance, dumb show, music, video projection, and visual motif, or what Synetic refers to as “non-realistic theater.” The result is a stunning visual and aural experience, powerfully evocative and emotive, but also paradoxical.

Can, after all, a production without a single line from Shakespeare’s text be considered a Shakespeare play? The adaptors here, Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger don’t claim that it is. The program clearly indicates that their work is “based on” Shakespeare’s play. But unlike something like Otello, Verdi’s opera that takes Shakespeare as its starting point and becomes Shakespearean but not Shakespeare in its new medium, Synetic’s Othello seeks to transform the purely Shakespearean experience – language – into a new form: text becomes subtext, dialogue becomes dance, and characters’ inner landscape of emotion, motivation, and psychological turmoil become motion and visual representation. [To get some sense of the production's approach to motion and dance, watch the YouTube "trailer."]

Take Iago (Philip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishivili, and Alex Mills). In some ways, Synetic’s approach makes this Iago’s play. In Shakespeare, it’s never clear why Iago decides to play the villain (he gives conflicting reasons, and to a Jacobean audience it wouldn’t have mattered because they would have seen him as a representation of the Vice character, malicious for its own sake). But here, his jealousy at being passed over as Othello receives promotion is palpable. Tsikurishvili sets his anguish in front of a triptych of mirror-like mylar panels, behind which are two more Iagos. A struggle follows as the Iagos begin to grapple with each other and throw themselves through the panes, each attempting to be the central figure, and finally all three are present. It’s as if the conflicting emotions within him drive him insane, until his murderous personality is multiplied and physically present.

This sense of menace is magnified throughout by the production design, from the black, white and red color scheme to the almost industrial music and sound (composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze) to the set, which takes a page from German Expressionism. If you’ve seen the disorienting angles and warped perspective lines of Robert Weine’s 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (above), then you have some idea of the broken planes and tilted triangles Anastasia Rurikov Simes puts together for this Othello.

Tskurishvili also makes wonderful use of the handkerchief. In Shakespeare, it is the central proof in Iago’s false accusation of Desdemona, a single piece in an elaborate seduction. But Synetic makes it much more. We see Othello (Roger Payano) receive it from his mother as she dies after being beaten to death by a slave driver. We see him give it to Desdemona (Salma Shaw), knowing it is the most precious thing he has. And we see it wind its way through the plot against him, until it takes on a final fatal role, replacing the pillow that ends Desdemona’s life (a striking scene that is graphic not in its explicit violence but in its visual depiction of Othello’s act).

There are so many beautiful visual touches that allude to Shakespeare’s verse: the paper flower that represents Rodrigo’s desire for Desdemona, the amorous satyrs that comically suggest Iago’s version of Othello’s courtship, the grainy black and white videos of groping lovers that project Othello’s deepest fears, the color red as a component only of the Iagos costumes, the small candles in Desdemona’s room, extinguished one by one by Othello.

Without the language, Synetic Theater’s Othello is not, in the end, Shakespeare. But this production achieves what adaptations rarely do – it informs Shakespeare as much as it is informed by Shakespeare. And it is more a work of art on its own than a derivative effort. Its beauty of movement, and sound, and visual expression matched, for me, that transcendence which I find in the best of Shakespeare’s verse.

This Othello’s language may not be English, but it speaks.

Logged by Randall

photo credit: Irina Tsikurishvili, Philip Fletcher, and Alex Mills as Iago; photo by Graeme Shaw.

Friday, July 2, 2010

TSI 2010 - Folger Faux Pas

It has finally sunk in. I am a reader at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

When I got here, I really had no clue what that meant, which is a bit embarrassing given that others work so hard to get here and recognize the honor immediately when they do. When I applied I was focused mostly on the workshops we would be doing about using performance techniques to improve students’ experience reading Shakespeare by engaging them more physically with close reading and intensifying their exposure to the text. I thought more about the curriculum of the Institute than where it would be held.

Then on Tuesday we received an introduction to the collection and a tour of the reading room and holdings. Georgianna Ziegler, Head of Reference, brought out a cart of 16th-and 17th-century books, including a first Folio and a hand-written manuscript (in the late 1500s that would be redundant) on demonologie by James VI of Scotland (later James I of England). At which point my perspective shifted from “I’m doing a set of intense workshops” to “I’m studying in a museum.”

And yes, we were allowed to touch the books. If you ever want to see people in their twenties and thirties act like excited elementary students, tell a Shakespeare teacher he or she can touch a first Folio. Instantly, the Folger went from mere museum to rare literature petting zoo.

Last year, when I attended Phillips Exeter Academy’s Shakespeare Conference, we were allowed to look at both a second Folio and a Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the revised second edition I think. (Note to SPA librarian Nick Bancks – can our library have a Holinshed?) We were asked to wear white gloves in order to keep dirt and oils from our hands from getting on the books. At the Folger, I noticed, no one wears gloves. Ziegler explained that they believe wearing gloves may lead you to do greater damage to the books because you lack the fine touch and sensitivity if your hands are covered. It’s easier, for example, to tear a page if gloves cause you to handle it more roughly than you would otherwise. As for grimy fingers, she added, we expect you to wash your hands before coming to the reading room.

That’s just one of the rules. There are a lot of rules that come with the reading room: exit cards, clear plastic bags for your belongings, no umbrellas, appropriate writing utensils. I spent much of the afternoon deciding what rare books I wanted for my research paper on contemporary attitudes about witchcraft and the supernatural in Macbeth. I decided on Lambert Daneau’s Dialogue of Witches (1575), Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), George Gifford’s A Discourse of the Subtill Practices of Devilles (1587), and William Perkins’ Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1610). To get these books, you fill out special request cards and extremely kind librarians descend to the vault and retrieve your books. It’s a little like getting money out of Gringotts, only without the goblins.

So I took my request cards to the librarian who looked at me in horror and said, in a voice almost not a whisper, “you can’t have a pen in here!” He made me fill the cards out again. In pencil.

Ah well, we learn from our mistakes right?


photo credit: Old Reading Room, photo by Julie Ainsworth

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

TSI 2010 - Some Thoughts on the BBC Shakespeare

As part of the TSI 2010 first week, tonight we watched the BBC production of 1 Henry IV (1979) with Jon Finch (who also played Macbeth in Roman Polanski’s 1971 film) as Henry IV, David Gwillim as Hal, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, and Tim Piggott-Smith as Hotspur. The BBC films tend to provoke a fairly tepid response from both critics and students. It’s great to have an available version of each of Shakespeare’s plays, especially those that rarely see time on film, but that benefit is not always followed up by an entertaining or, in some cases, even a completely watchable production.

I remember watching these as a junior high and high school student when they originally aired and being struck by an unfortunate sameness to them. Look at the costumes in Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by Elijah Moshinsky) and Othello (directed by Jonathan Miller), for example; it’s as if the actors from Act 1, scene 1 of the former walked right into the senate scene of the latter.

After watching a number of these, you should get a pretty clear sense of the BBC’s goal. They wanted to get an archival production committed to video without any directorial flourishes that might have “dated” the production for viewers far into the future. The costumes are distinctly renaissance-y, the character interpretations straightforward, and the direction focused primarily on presenting the language rather than creating a context for the language; it’s museum theater on videotape.

David Giles’ 1 Henry IV, which coasts along on some very strong acting by its principals, particularly Quayle, is among the better productions. But I still felt it had a certain static quality that would give me a little concern if I were showing the entire 155 minutes to a high school class. I don’t mean that it lacks action and fails to satisfy the Braveheart and Gladiator standards for battle violence (that’s apples to oranges), but that Giles, like many of the other BBC Shakespeare directors, hasn’t given the play’s narrative much shape. Competent scenes follows competent scene without much sense of where it’s all going.

Take Quayle’s Falstaff. His scenes with Gwillim through the first part of the play are wonderful and his Falstaff is a man who has settled into his braggadocio and deceits, both of self and others, like comfortable old clothes. There is also a vulnerability about him, which Quayle ties to his age more than his overindulgences, that evokes a fair amount of sympathy no matter what outrageousness he’s perpetrating.

Then, in Act 4, when the play turns to battle scenes, his Falstaff begins rather abruptly to speak directly to the camera. Yes, these are his first scenes alone (4.2, 5.2, 5.3, and 5.4) and his speeches are necessarily monologues, though they tend to be directed to dead bodies. Looking into the camera, though, makes the viewer a participant in the action. It’s as if we’ve replaced Hal as his audience, and Falstaff needs an audience. But breaking the fourth wall here also shifts an arrangement Giles has previously made with the audience, that we are watching these characters in some far off world populated primarily by Shakespeare’s language. Quayle’s looking at the camera is jarring, in part because it shifts our relationship to Falstaff’s character, deviating from both the tone of the production and the direction this Falstaff has established.

One could argue that such a shift is appropriate because, as Gail Kern Paster suggested earlier this week, Falstaff’s actions during the battle have consequences in the way that his shenanigans in Eastcheap do not. But how does breaking the fourth wall amplify this? How does the winking “you’re in on this” involvement of audience bring the character to some logical conclusion in this production? The Falstaff who looks at us knows himself more completely, knows his villainy and shortcomings more casually, lacks our sympathy, betrays more of a calculating nature. The choice may serve to best present the speeches he’s making in the play’s latter part, but it disconnects Falstaff a bit from the character established prior.

I was also struck by another aspect to the BBC’s museum theater approach that amplifies the static feeling of their productions. The films are what Shakespeare-on-film critic Samuel Crowl would refer to as “theatrical,” that is they are films of stage productions. The BBC has removed the literal theatrical stage, but the physical sense of it is still there – the shots are confined to cramped locations, there are no landscapes or depictions of the world without characters (no establishing shots for example), the camera is limited to a theatrical audience’s viewpoint, and nearly all the camera movement (pans, tilts, tracking shots) and perspective (high and low angle, long shots) we associate with movies is absent.

But in a theater there is sound. Not necessarily music or even the constant voices of acting, but the sound of an audience experiencing live theater – laughing, shifting in their seats, gasping, coughing, breathing. The air in a theater is alive, vital. Film cannot capture this organic symbiosis of actor and audience. It replaces it, in fact, with relentless soundtrack noise – orchestrated music that swells and ebbs with the story’s emotional fluctuations, life sounds associated with the setting, popular music inserted into the narrative. When you watch the BBC productions, what you get is an absence of both. Essentially you get the actors speaking their lines into dead air. It’s disconcerting and, for me, it has the effect of sucking a lot of life out of some of the most beautiful poetry ever put to action.

The medium does make a difference. And that’s something I think the BBC Shakespeare never understood.


photo credit: Anthony Quayle as Falstaff in the BBC Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1.

Monday, June 28, 2010

TSI 2010 - From ThighMaster to Ballbuster

As most of you know, I’m doing the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) this summer, four weeks of scholarship, pedagogy, and performance studies focusing on 1 Henry IV, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Measure for Measure. I will devote a bit of this space for the next month to exploring some topics and ideas that relate to what we’ve been doing here at the William Shakespeare Experience. Comments, as always, are welcome.

TSI 2010 began with a lecture by Gail Kern Paster, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Director, on 1 Henry IV. After begging off her original topic – “Why Shakespeare?” – Paster took us through a detailed comparison of Hotspur and Hal, looking at questions of governance (what makes an effective leader?), character (Hotspur’s intemperance vs. Hal’s calculation), and poetic motif (hot vs. cold).

I thought the most interesting moment came during the question-and-answer. Asked to extend her comments to Hal’s relationship with Falstaff, Paster explained that she finds Falstaff a very disturbing character and, because of his actions on the battlefield in Act 5, unredeemable. Falstaff rises after his feigned death and finds Hotspur dead near him. He remarks, “How if he should counterfeit too, and rise? By my faith, I am afraid he would prove the better counterfeit. Therefore I’ll make him sure, yea, and I’ll swear I killed him. Why may he not rise as well as I? … Therefore, sirrah, with a new wound in your thigh, come you along with me” (5.4.125-131).

The editors of the Folger edition have added the stage direction, “stabbing him,” between “sirrah” and “with a new wound.” The Arden edition adds “stabs the body” in the same place. (The 1613 Quarto available in the Folger Library has no stage direction.) Paster compares this action to the horrors committed by Welsh women after Mortimer’s battle with Glendower before the play begins. Westmoreland reports to King Henry:

A post from Wales loaden with heavy news,
Whose worst was that the noble Mortimer,
Leading the men of Herefordshire to fight
Against the irregular and wild Glendower,
Was by the rude hands of that Welshman taken,
A thousand of his people butchered,
Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse,
Such beastly shameless transformation
By those Welshwomen done, as may not be
Without much shame retold or spoken of. (1.1.37-46)

What is this misuse, this shameless transformation? Paster argues that the Welshwomen have castrated the dead soldiers. What’s more she suggests that Falstaff has done the same to Hotspur. Then he lies. And on the battlefield, where his actions matter in a way they do not in Eastcheap, it becomes impossible to disconnect him from these reprehensible actions.

I would add that Falstaff’s actions at Shrewsbury are startlingly disturbing even before the incident with Hotspur. He’s been given money by the King to conscript an army, but he has taken bribes to excuse his men, and instead gathered a weak force of “ragamuffins,” all but three of whom are summarily killed. Robbing passers-by is one thing, but robbing the king and putting a battle strategy in jeopardy seems a bit traitorous to me. Second, Prince Henry demands a sword of Falstaff in the middle of the battle. But Falstaff refuses to give one to him, offering him instead a bottle of sack, a jest that seems beyond inappropriate considering what, and who, is at stake.

So there’s a lot on which to build an argument about Falstaff’s dishonor and atrocious behavior. But Chris Lavold, a teacher from Wisconsin, asks Paster the key question: how does one get from Falstaff’s explicit “a new wound in your thigh” to castration? To most readers, that requires a bit of a leap. Paster argues that the specificity of Falstaff’s words implies something. Why does he single out the “thigh”? And from there the discussion moves to where the wound would have to be, what armor Hotspur might be wearing (cuisses), and the relation of this moment to Westmoreland’s earlier horror at Welsh battlefield atrocities.

For me, the conversation revealed the tension that exists between literary criticism as a means of explicating a text or addressing ambiguities and the world of lay readers that tends to include high school students like the ones I teach.

Quick exercise: right now, point to your thigh.

Where’s your finger? Are you pointing at your groin area? In the mind of a student, we have a new question: when does “thigh” not mean “thigh”? Leading students toward successful, complex critical thinking involves a certain amount of decoding, which is not a huge stretch since reading itself is a form of decoding. But it also involves trust, established by clear lines of connection between disparate ideas. The more tenuous those lines, the more we need to clothe conclusions in the language of possibility or probability (Holden Caulfield might be struggling with repressed homosexual feelings). But where critical theory can be frustrating is in its necessary tone of certainty (Holden is gay). And this is doubly frustrating in the teacher’s milieu where we necessarily entertain any line of thought that can be supported by thoughtful argument and avoid definitive or exclusive conclusions.

In the end, I very much enjoyed Paster’s concept of Falstaff’s craven behavior, although I didn’t agree with the castration interpretation. Where I’d like to see her vision realized, and where skeptical opinions would become moot, would be on stage. There the academic argument would be easily sidestepped by the reality of the performance.

Perhaps the director could set the play in the milieu of American politics circa 2000 (we’re back to George W. Bush as Hal). The audience would be left to confront a particular view of Falstaff and debate whether his action is supported by the text. Would W.’s fat father figure, Dick Cheney, really emasculate his fallen Democratic counter-part (well, maybe). Or would he simply gore him?

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Edward III - Women

Gendered beings,

I'm struck in this play by the two women, who I think stand out a bit because there are always so few active women in these history plays. I remember Cindy writing about Constance during our discussion of King John, celebrating the verve both Constance and Queen Eleanor brought to the play.

In her book Shakespeare and Women, Phyllis Rackin writes, "It is interesting ... to compare Shakespeare's treatment of warlike women in his early history plays with their far more sympathetic treatment in the anonymous contemporary play Edward III. This play is sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, and it even appears in recent editions of his collected works, but it has yet to achieve a secure place in the Shakespearian canon, and its female characters are depicted in strikingly different terms from those in the canonical Shakespearian history plays. In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Joan is both the chief enemy to the English kingdom and a witch as well. In Parts 2 and 3, Margaret is a bloodthirsty adulteress. the more sympathetically depicted female characters in Shakespeare's history plays, such as the victimized women in Richard III and the Duchess of Gloucester and the Queen in Richard II, never go to war, they play no part in the affairs of state, and they seem to spend most of their limited time on stage in tears. Helplessness seems to be an essential component of female virtue in most of Shakespeare's English histories.

"Edward III, by contrast, depicts courageous women warriors who are also models of feminine virtue. The Countess of Salisbury resists the Scots king's siege of her castle and the English king's assault on her virtue with equal courage and resolution. The English queen, equally virtuous, leads her army to victory over the Scots at Newcastle, 'big with child' but still 'every day in arms' (4.2.40-6). In Edward III, warlike English women defend their country against foreign threats. In Shakespeare's English history plays, warlike women embody those threats" (48-49).

I think Constance, and the attributes Cindy discussed, would satisfy Rackin's point about the embodiment of threat. I'm looking harder for a Shakespearean character who is similar to the Countess. Certainly none exists in the history plays. But what about Isabella in Measure for Measure? (I'm a couple weeks away from reading this play for my Folger experience, so if no one has any thoughts, I can revisit the question then.)

And finally, does Rackin's differentiation between the English women in Edward III and the English women in Shakespeare's history plays, ring true?


Friday, June 25, 2010

RE3: Edward III and Historical Myth

Randall writes:

Ernst and all,

That's an interesting question about the genesis of theme. As a high school teacher, I spend a lot of time encouraging students to look at a text's implicit values. Do I suggest they are all intentional? No. A writer may completely avoid establishing thematic coherence as part of the creative process and think nothing of it. Themes, we suggest, emerge. But is the expectation that writers concern themselves with narrative coherence merely a product of a certain way of looking at literature? Or can we assume that all playwrights work toward a satisfactory narrative. If a writer establishes the most basic structure -- a beginning, middle, and end -- doesn't that imply a beginning, middle, and end of something?

Taking Edward III specifically, are we looking at the beginning, middle, and end of Edward III's battle for France? Or the beginning, middle, and end of a personal and public crisis in his life? Or the beginning, middle, and end of the rise of Edward the Black Prince? Can the playwright(s) in this case be expected to have asked themselves, "what story are we telling?"

Beyond the simple, we talk about comedy and tragedy, among the generic conventions of which we find a narrative component, a relationship between order and chaos and a transition from one to the other. Certainly, history plays can challenge narrative coherence, pre-determining a character's biography, choices and actions, the existence of social order and chaos, and even the public's attitude toward the story's figures and events. Perhaps history plays expose an author's creative process more completely precisely because history has provided a template by which we can observe narrative choices, deviations, amendments, agreements. And when we can put our finger on an author's choices we can determine attitude.

For me, that provides a connection between narrative coherence and theme. For example, in 1348, a third of the English people died from the plague, eight years before the battle of Poitiers. The Edward III playwright chooses to leave out Edward's successfully getting his people through this portion of English history. Did the ravages of the disease not fit the warrior story? Is reference to the plague box office suicide? Does the play let us explore the possibility that the real challenges of leadership come from within or from other people, rather than forces of Nature? The Edward III playwright does include Edward's interaction with the Countess of Salisbury, which he gets from William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1566). Again, he has a choice: either depict the temptation as Painter did (Edward is single, the Countess a widow) or retain the historical fact that both are married. The latter path addresses Edward's stature as a hero in the story. Can we move from that to the idea that the story has something to say about heroism?

Ernst has given us on a number of occasions the suggestion that Shakespeare may approach his stories from the standpoint of a question: why would a character act this way? That question has been quite fruitful for me in reading the plays. With Edward III, though, I don't find adequate exploration of the Countess sequence. I don't find a clear foundation for Edward's harsh refusal to rescue the younger Edward in Act 3, scene 4 (Audley says, "O cruel father"), and by the end of the play I'm uncertain about the kind of person I'm expected to associate with Edward. I certianly don't feel that way about Henry V or even Henry VI or, to extend beyond Shakespeare, Thomas of Woodstock.

One last thought: given that this play may have undergone some revision, which may account for the possible Shakespearean passages, we might even have a greater right to expect a narrative coherence and the resultant emergence of some thematic coherence, as playwrights work to smooth the story into a pleasurable, and marketable, piece. On the other hand, too many cooks may spoil the soup, but with this play it's hard to tell which situation we have.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

RE2: Edward III and Historical Myth

Ernst writes (from Rome):

It could be said to boil down to the matter of how consciously coherent that play we have in front of us is. It is clearly episodic, and, at the same time, a sense of coherence can be derived from it. I have limited belief in some of the themes here, not that they don't make sense looking at later plays. How, indeed, do themes develop in a playwright's mind? Are they consciously planned out in advance, or do they arrive slightly after such a play has been written and thought about?

I lean out a window in a stone building not far from the Campo di Fiore here in Rome--in order to catch an open website to deal with.

Ciao Amici,

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

RE: Edward III and Historical Myth

Randall writes:


Gil asks, in his "Edward III and Historical Myth" posting, if Edward III's seeming disconnect between Edward's seduction sequence and the "heroic victories on the killing fields of France" isn't analogous to the transition from the Eastcheap and Falstaff sequences to "the emergence of the militarily unprepared Prince Harry as he arms to fight Hotspur at Shrewsbury." I don't think the analogy holds, though, for two reasons.

We are led to make some comparison by the opening scene of Edward III, where Edward, seeking a legal foundation for his battle with France, discusses his right of rule with Robert Artois. Edward's claim will rest on the fact that his mother is the sole heir of France's previous king, Philip LeBeau, his three sons having died without issue. France, of course, denies her claim due to Salic law, which excludes women from inheriting the throne. This is the same Salic law that Henry V learns has exploitable loopholes allowing him to make his claim on France with "right and conscience." Hence, both plays begin by justifying England's right to do battle in and for France, a predictable bit of national propaganda in two plays that present great historical English victories.

Once we have similar starting points it is easy to extend the comparison to the two kings. In Edward III and Henry V, though, we get two very different rulers. Edward's lapse into temptation and attempted seduction represents a deviation from his role as king, putting his success in France at risk. In fact, at the moment that he becomes smitten with her, he says:

What strange enchantment lurked in those her eyes,
When they excelled this excellence they have,
That now her dim decline hath power to draw
My subject eyes from piercing majesty
To gaze on her with doting admiration? (1.2.102-106)

Giorgio Melchiori, in his footnote to this passage in my New Cambridge edition, points out the contrast between "subject" and "majesty." In short, Edward is unkinged by his lust ... um, admiration ... for the Countess. (And it's no surprise that in unwittingly wielding this power over him, the Countess has been cast as a witch by the playwright's use of the word "enchantment." As we learn from Joan of Arc in Henry VI or Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, women who exert power over men can only be in league with the devil.) And this is where the comparison between Edward and Hal begins to fall apart for me.

Both men face publicly acceptable and unacceptable paths to their future. Edward begins on an acceptable path (rightful king pursues legal claim to greater territory and national pride) but deviates to an unacceptable path (seduction of chaste, married woman, a personal rather than public goal inappropriate for someone who wields the royal "we" and the moral obligations that go with it). Gil reminds us that our comparison begins not with Henry V but with 1 Henry IV, where Hal is hanging out in a tavern, plotting robberies with scruffy ne'er-do-wells. Hal, then, has begun on the unacceptable path, as noted bitterly by his father ("riot and dishonor stain the brow/ Of my young Harry"). By the end of 1 Henry IV though Hal has moved to the accepted path, defeating Hotspur and distinguishing himself in battle. Even before the final showdown between the two Harrys, Sir Richard Vernon, who might be seen as a sort of public voice, acquaints Hotspur with Hal's kingly qualities:

...let me tell the world:
If he outlive the envy of this day,
England did never owe so sweet a hope
So much misconstrued in his wantonness. (1 Henry IV, 5.2.68-71)

Ah, "misconstrued." We're asked to finally recognize what Hal has been arguing all along -- that his "wantonness" is part of an essential path to kingship. Or, as Hal puts it,

Yet herein I will imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. (1 Henry IV, 1.2.204-210)

So, Gil asks, is the disconnect between the two worlds, the two paths of each character, so different? I think so because while Edward's represents a clear deviation from (and therefore a challenge to) his success as a king, Hal's is not. Instead of being unkinged by his association with Falstaff and his cohorts, it has made him a better king. As he tells the emissary from the Dauphin in response to the gift of tennis balls in Henry V, "we understand [the Dauphin] well,/ How he comes o'er us with our wilder days,/ Not measuring what use we made of them" (1.2.266-268). To turn this around, what use is Edward's temptation by and attempted seduction of the Countess? In the second half of the play, does his emergence from the temptation reveal him to be something stronger, greater, or more aware than he was? No.

In fact, and this would be my second reaction to the comparison, Edward's disappearance as a main character in the second half of Edward III shifts the emphasis on to Edward the Black Prince. While 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V keep a fairly strong focus on Hal's journey, mitigating a division between Hal's experiences in the tavern and his experiences on the battlefield, Edward III emphasizes the disconnect between its two parts with a significant character shift. This reminds me of the focus on events rather than on central character that we found in the Henry VI plays, and if we agree with Gil about Edward III's probable placement between those plays and the Henry IV and Henry V trilogy, that would make some structural sense. Ernst suggested we spend some time comparing this play to the Henry VI trilogy, "especially with regard to the nature and depth of Edward III's characters." I throw that out there for anyone willing, and I'll leave it at this: while Shakespeare's second set of Henry plays treats Hal like an epic hero, this play, Edward III, is more like the first set of Henry plays, a dramatic mirror for magistrates.


[Quotes: 1 Henry IV from Folger edition; Henry V from Signet edition; Edward III from New Cambridge edition.]

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Edward III and Historical Myth

Gilbert writes:

Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons,” genealogist York explains to the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury (2 Henry VI, II.ii.10), though I hope these are not the same Warwick and Salisbury who are the father and husband of the Countess in Edward III. “Edward’s seven sons … were as seven vials of his sacred blood,” laments the Duchess of Gloucester, widow of number six, Thomas of Woodstock (Richard II, I.ii.11-12).

The Plantagenets (Lancasters and Yorks) put historian Holinshed to work full time; when the eldest son, Prince Edward, the Black Prince (so called because of the armor he wore at Crecy), died, his son, Richard II, became king. The third son, Lionel of Clarence, was the grandfather or great grandfather of Edmund Mortimer, heir presumptive of Richard (remember Hotspur taught a starling to cry “Mortimer” to bedevil Henry IV). Son number four was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, whose son, Henry Bolingbrook, was acclaimed King Henry IV, father of King (Saint) Henry V, in turn father of Henry VI. The fifth was Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, patriarch of Edward IV, father of Edward V (the prince in the Tower), and brother of crook-backed Richard III, and of an Elizabeth who married Richmond who usurped the throne as Henry VII, father of Henry VIII, who fathered Edward VI, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I, and whose sister Margaret, married James VI of Scotland (James I of England), Shakespeare’s quasi patron, who may have suppressed Edward III as anti-Scot.

Got that? Therein are nine of Shakespeare’s plays (until we find manuscripts of plays of the histories of William of Hatfield and William of Windsor, sons number two and seven, The Two Bills?).

If Shakespeare did not write Edward III, he should have. It is the cornerstone of all the bloodlines I have just outlined, and thus a necessary part of what Randall called “English monarchical myth building.” More important is “stage-ability,” English attitudes toward “honor, chivalry, leadership, political expediency.” I find a draft of Henry V here, the military coming of age of Prince Edward, his Agincourt-like victory against odds at the battle of Poitiers, arrogant and insulting French (three Heralds offer a horse and a prayer book instead of a tun of tennis balls), a siege of Calais (with a glance at Harfleur) threatening annihilation, but elevating to mercy.

If Edward III dates to 1594, it would follow the Henry VI’s (and my ear finds its verse more mature), but precede Richard II and the Henriad. If this is accurate, then rather than merely being a draft of Henry V, it prefigures the whole Henry IV progression—the Hal-like Gadshill hijinks slightly in a class with temptation of seducing the Countess, then the apotheosis of patriotic heroic victories on the killing fields of France by the father & son Edwards. There is more chivalry in Edward III—Salisbury’s safe passage is the prime example. Edward III is a bifurcated play, but isn’t Eastcheap and Falstaff almost as disconnected as the emergence of the militarily unprepared Prince Harry as he arms to fight Hotspur at Shrewsbury? So, I’d like to explore coming-of-age, and also the touch of skepticism about honor and politics (if you remember, I think Henry V is the perfect politician, manipulating perception, rather than embodying the perfect warrior). I’ll try to look at Greenblatt’s “Invisible Bullets” before I proceed.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Edward III - Connections

Ernst writes:

Here's a copy of an introduction to Edward III from William Kozlenko’s Disputed plays of William Shakespeare, which contains more connections to other Shakespeare plays than could sink an oil well. I think Kozlenko considers the play as having been written a bit later than I do.

(Click on the images to see an enlarged version of the pages.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

RE3: Edward III - Authorship

Ernst writes:

I could envy Derek’s coming stay in Basel, a city famous both for its metabolism and for its love of smallish, light-brown Siberian dogs, which accounts for their saying “Chow” every time they turn around.

I also sympathize with Derek’s impatience with contemporary (but already dead) criticism. Bah! My father’s dissertation was on German translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets for Hyder Rollins at Harvard—a sadly narrow topic in certain respects—good for only a few notes in Rollins’ book on Shakespeare. My father who was also far better educated and more brilliant than his son, never got to teach Shakespeare. The Shakespeare course had already been taken over by a woman at Hobart and William Smith, where he had been invited to establish a Harvard-like Western Civ, program. And though he was English Department Chair for years, he honored the woman’s claim to the course.

And so it goes.


RE: Edward III - Opening Thoughts

Ernst writes:

My first response to Edward III was how wonderfully clear the iambic pentameter is—clean, efficient, tremendously easy to follow. Having read (at one time or other) all the surviving English plays written between the mid fifteen hundreds and 1615 or so, I should have something of an “ear,” but I wouldn’t trust it too far.

To me, however, the play feels as it was written around 1589-90. Shakespeare, who, people argue convincingly, surely had a (considerable) hand in it, would have been around 25-26 at the time, married for a number of years and with two children—old enough to have a relatively firm sense of himself as a writer. The chief playwrights of and before the time were John Lyly (fading from favor at the Court), Robert Greene (who wrote competent blank verse), Thomas Kyd (who wrote The Spanish Tragedy in 1587—our melodramatic sense of which may be affected by Ben Jonson’s later, over-the-top additions) and, most sensationally, Christopher Marlowe, whose Tamburlaine plays were an earth-shaking event for the English Theater.

I felt that the characters were pretty flat. What strikes me as Shakespeare’s abiding question in most of his history plays (“What sort of character would do these sorts of things?”) goes largely unanswered. But I found the language that these flattish characters speak to be—often—quite delightful. I could certainly feel Marlowe in the grand posings that sprinkle themselves through the play—especially its earlier parts. Confrontations like those between Kings John and Edward in III.iii remind me of similar confrontations in Tamburlaine—most especially those between Tamburlaine and Bajazeth, or Cosroe, or the coalition of emperors who try to stop his rise to power. Phrases like “Fairer are thou than Hero was;/Beardless Leander not so strong as I,” etc. (II.ii) remind me of Tamburlaine’s apostrophe to his beloved Zenocrate, or the mention of the stars, “When, to the great star-chamber o’er our heads,/The universal session calls to count/This packing evil…” sounds like Marlowe (and foreshadows King Lear).

The cute/clever wordplay reminds me a good bit of Lyly: the carefully balanced remarks such as:

As easy may my intellectual soul,
Be lent away, and yet my body live,
As lend my body, palace to my soul,
Away from her and yet retain my soul.
My body is her bower, her court, her abbey,
And she an angel, pure, divine, unspotted;
I I should lend her house, my lord, to thee,
I kill my poor soul, and my poor soul me. (II.i.236-243)

Like Lyly for adults, not for the children who generally performed his plays. And there is also stichomythia, the bouncing back of lines echoing and answering other lines, a typical Lylyesque trick:

Edward: Thinkst that thou canst unswear thy oath again?
Warwick: I cannot; nor I would not if I could.
Edward: But, if thou dost, what shall I say to thee?
Warwick: What may be said to any perjured villain… (II.i.327-330)

There is a good bit of this Lylyesque word-play in Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labors Lost. It would be good to think of those two plays when trying place Edward III in context, as it might be good to compare the plays to the Henry VI plays—especially with regard to the nature and depth of Edward’s characters. There are certainly echoes of situations and character types that Shakespeare uses in this play throughout his later work. I will try to get to that next broadcast. Also, the play mentions two (relatively early, less complex) types of Malcontentedness (my dissertation topic)—Edward being a lover’s-melancholy sort of “malcontent” in his dealing with the Countess, and King Charles referring to England as harboring “malcontents,/Blood-thirsty and sedition Catalines,/Spend-thrifts and such as gape for nothing else/But change and alteration of the state.” Robert Greene put himself forward as having been a “malcontent” in 1592. And the word had been used by both Lyly (jokingly) and Marlowe (darkly) only a year or two earlier than 1590. And Robert Greene was probably returning to England and “ruffling out [his] silks in habit of a malcontent” at about the same time.

Many people seem to think that Shakespeare wrote many of his sonnets during the mid-1590’s, but one wonders how many of them he got started with earlier. The play’s often-mentioned use of the phrase, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” (Sonnet 94) makes one wonder whether Shakespeare was writing sonnets more vigorously during these early years than many suppose. The order in which the sonnets were written is very much up in the air.

Finally, I enclose with this post a discussion of Edward III I pulled from the Internet.


Edward III - Character Matters

Randall writes:

I opened our discussion of Edward III with some questions about structure and contemporary attitude. I'd like to add a few inspired more by the play's characters.

Where does the Countess of Salisbury fall in our experience of Shakespearean women and/or Elizabethan or Tudor drama? Is she a type, a stock character? Or is she more fully developed? Given the usually peripheral roles women tend to play in historical dramas (Joan of Arc and Margaret in Henry VI, Lady Percy in Henry IV, Katherine in Henry V, Queen Isabel in Richard II, and Lady Anne in Richard III), how does the Countess shape our experience of Edward? If you were to pick an actress to play her in your production, who would it be?

Edward undergoes a grand temptation in Act 2, then retreats to occasionally worrying about or stoically ignoring his son. Is he the play's central character? (If not, who is?) As an audience presented with a piece of our vital history, what does this particular king teach us? Given our modern desire for stories with central heroes or at least clear protagonists, how do we react to an Edward III?

And Edward, the Black Prince. I guess if you've got a Hal, you can have a Ned. Despite the many parallels though, our Ned is not quite so deftly realized in the text. How is the prince not like Hal? What makes him fit to be king? What impresses the playwright most about him?

Does King John of France emerge at all as a notable character? Are there any real villains in the play? Or mostly opposing forces?

And is there one of those enjoyable outsider characters, the one who comments -- chorus-like -- on a particular proceeding, someone like the Bastard in King John?


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Twelfth Night - Sympathy for Malvolio

It's Shakespearean karma. I'm reading Twelfth Night again as I prepare for the Folger workshop. The play has now achieved "desert island" status in my life. I might as well have it tattooed on my person.

So I've been musing about Gil's question regarding the anagrammatic names (Viola, Olivia, Malvolio), but drawing a blank. If, for example, all the lovers' names are anagrams, why isn't Orsino included? One could joke that Orsino is an anagram of "orison," indicating that the duke can only pray for Olivia's love.

All this led me to consider another moment of word play -- Malvolio's comment about Maria's forgery:

"By my life, this is my lady's hand! These be here very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus makes she her great P's. It is in contempt of question her hand" (2.5.88-91).

The prevailing trend among my students is to assume that this passage is a dirty joke (especially if you gloss Malvolio's "and" as " 'n' "). And Andrew Aguecheek's repeating Malvolio's observation, because it's not clear what it means, enhances the idea that it's a dirty joke, as if he were saying "get it?" In addition, there is a homophonic echo a few words later: "contempt."

But here's the mystery. What is Malvolio reading? Ostensibly, it is the address on the exterior of the envelope or letter: "To the unknown beloved, this and my good wishes." Scanning this salutation, where do we find the letters "c" and "p"? Remember, the letter is sealed, and no names appear on it, or else Malvolio wouldn't be puzzling out who wrote it and to whom it is writ.

Chew on that for a bit. Next, let's assume that it is indeed a dirty joke, referring to a c-word or some Elizabethan variant. Malvolio does not make the joke; he's merely its conduit. His innocence rests on the apparent randomness of the key letters that identify Olivia's handwriting and on his established Puritanism. Such a joke wouldn't even occur to him. Thus the scene presents us with a brief comic duo in which Malvolio is the straight man or stooge and Shakespeare is the funny man, puncturing Malvolio's self-importance by getting him to mouth the lowest of low-brow humor. If it is dirty, we laugh both because its source is unexpected and at its unexpected source, the same way we laugh at Moe when Bart Simpson's prank phone call gets him to ask if "Jacques Strap" or "Mike Rotch" is in the bar.

So, when Cindy asks if it is possible for Malvolio's character to elicit sympathy, I think it is. Yes, we want him to fall. His self-importance, his pomposity, is irritating (although his attempt to move beyond his station, I think, no longer resonates with us), and we enjoy the comeuppance. But as with Shylock in Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare has endowed the Malvolio story with moments that dissuade the audience from merely dismissing him as a villain and also from taking pure pleasure in his humiliation. He is more than just the butt of jokes. First, his captivity when he is accused of insanity has never seemed to me to be fair, a punishment that did not fit the crime. While Feste's Sir Topaz continues the mockery, the scene's emphasis seems to be on Malvolio's suffering.

Second, Shakespeare gives Malvolio a moment -- "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" -- unusual in a comedy and for a character meant simply to suffer the slings and arrows of comedic characterization. Olivia nails home the point, commenting: "He has been most notoriously abused." The double adverb there is significant. I wonder if we hear both these moments differently than Shakespeare's contemporary audience would have. We are raised in a culture steeped in the traditions of Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie, one that suggests that nothing stands in our way as we climb whatever ladder we choose. We also believe in fair play (although we don't necessarily practice it). We are more than willing to watch pompous people get their just desserts, usually in the form of being laughed at, but we don't like abuse, in any form. In the mocking of Malvolio, Olivia's people go too far.

In his final words to them, Malvolio may merely confirm his name -- ill will. For the rest of us, he seems to have suffered the unkindest c-u-t in the Play.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

RE2: Edward III - Authorship

Derek writes:

You know, I just got back from Europe a couple of days ago, and am still fighting jet lag, and so am about to head to bed (at what continues to feel like 4:30 am), but just the briefest response: yes, there is something Shakespearean about Shakespeare, something in way the words sound together, the way the characters speak, that distances "his" works from those of his contemporaries. I remember reading Dr. Faustus for the first time a few years ago and being struck by how stilted much of the language sounded. I hadn't expected to be so struck. But the difference was unmistakable.

Claim 2: That said, I don't think we'll get anywhere, ever, by attempting to atomize the writing and explicate the origin of that difference. And I think that's what people in this situation are tempted to do -- to LOCATE and describe the source of the problem. But just in the way that an obviously brown desk will lose all its brownness as we peer into its atomic structure, so will that which makes Shakespeare's writing so particular to him vanish as we try to train our eyes upon it.

I mean, we can try. I just think that we won't succeed.

good night,