Thursday, September 27, 2007

Shak Attack

I have of late, but wherefore I know not retreated to Shakespeare. I think it's no doubt the post-academic slump, the shift from one state back to 'nother, the determination to hear beautiful language still ahead of such discourses as party speeches, by kings and princes, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. To be honest, I think it be infecting my mode of speech. Same thing happened between original school and college, but I was less worldy wise then and none to familiar with the ways of the world, less sharper than the serpents tooth, without money in my purse.

The upshot of this is that when I look at something like John Sutherland's bit of fun in yesterday's Guardian about the so-called poor passages in Shakespeare's plays I begin to grumble, especially because he's very very wrong (in my humble opinion). He explains initially thusly (sorry, I'll stop it now):
"The proposition that not all Shakespeare is Shakespeare-great was put forward by Frank Kermode in his recent book on the bard's language. Kermode came out and said what most audiences secretly think - a lot of Shakespeare is impossible to understand."

"Following Dromgoole and Hall's allegations, "Crap Shakespeare" will probably be a fashionable parlour game over the next few weeks. What, it will be mischievously asked, are your candidates for the worst ever lines in our nation's best ever plays?"
Which seems perfectly reasonable -- Shakespeare is known to have loved a tipple and it's supposed that it ended up killing him. But did it effect his writing? Sutherland presents a cornucopia of examples but none of them quite ring true for me. So if you'll indulge me, it's time for us to have a conversation (with some help from a few friends).

When, for example, pondering whether to be or not to be, Hamlet fantasises about "taking arms against a sea of troubles", what does Shakespeare expect us to see in our mind's eye? Some mad idiot firing a blunderbuss into the waves from the end of Brighton pier?

Harold Jenkin's Arden Edition of the play suggests that although this line has been objected to, it explains that 'the incongruity of taking arms against a sea is expressive of the idea - the futility of fighting against an uncontainable and overwhelming force'. Sutherland leaves off the point of the line too -- it ends with 'and by opposing end them' -- which in Jenkins words means -- 'not by overcoming them but (paradoxically) by being overcome by them'. Like Milton, Shakespeare's verse is filled with double meaning and irony. It's about the ending of 'troubles' by 'opposing' -- and Hamlet understanding that inevitably the only outcome to his course of action is the destruction of everything he knows and perhaps himself (I'm not convinced he's sure of that at this point in the play especially since this line is from the 'To Be Or Not To Be' speech).

The richest hunting ground for crap lines is the "Scottish play" - a dramatic work which is so terrifying to actors that they will go to almost any lengths to avoid playing in it (think of Peter O'Toole - has his reputation as a classic Shakespearian actor ever recovered from that disastrous 1980 production at the Old Vic?).

Actually that sentence should really read 'has his reputation as an actor ever recovered from appearing in High Spirits with Steve Guttenberg, but I digress. I can't think of any actors who have avoided Macbeth when asked or cast -- it's K2 to Hamlet's Everest. You've done one, you have to do the other.

It's not just the witches - although all that double, double, toil and trouble stuff is pretty blotworthy.

Is it really. So setting up the texture of the play and creating a bit of mystery isn't? Oh Ok.

Apart from Macbeth's soliloquies, the porter's half-pissed prose and Lady Macbeth's mad musings, the play is, to borrow a mixed metaphor, a veritable sea of crap.

Hey, Jimmy, j'ya wannu taek this oussi'?

What actor, for example, can utter, without an inward shudder, King Duncan's opening line: "What bloody man is that?" One can imagine Prince Charles saying it, on glimpsing Nicholas Witchell on the slopes at Klosters. But Duncan, in the play, has just come across a soldier horribly wounded in the civil war that is tearing his country apart. A certain urgency would seem to be in order.

I'm suspecting a double meaning here but really this is about stage craft. This is only the second scene of the play, so after the witches, Shakespeare is setting up the world the characters will inhabit. This was written for the Elizabethan age of theatre, remember, The Globe, a place without sets and precious much in the way of costuming and special make-up effects. When Duncan says the line, he's indicating that the solidier is wounded so that the image is fixed in the imagination of the groundlings -- that's why these plays tend to also work so well on audio -- it's the same technique used in radio to create setting.

It is also the first appearance of a usage or allusion to the word 'blood' which according to Kenneth Muir in the Arden edition of the play is used over a hundred times throughout. If one wanted to pick, its that the solidier then has a whole speech to work through explaining the plot and who this Macbeth character is -- but we're not told how badly he is wounded (could be just a flesh wound) and in any case the fact that he's prepared to risk his life to let his King know the matter gives Duncan a certain authority that increases the enormity of Macbeth's dirty deed later.

If you were a young actor given his big chance with Macduff, and you wanted to catch Michael Billington's notice in the front row, would you really want to leap on stage, claymore in hand, with the line "Turn, hell-hound, turn!"? I have heard audiences yowl with uncontrollable mirth at that ejaculation. Another career-killer.

Sure this is rum stuff but looking at the rest of the scene (Act V, Scene 8) and the context it's part of the swash and buckle that occurs in many of these plays and Errol Flyn movies when the really meaty talk is over and the fighting begins. To pick this line out of the rest of poetry does seem like grasping at straws. It's often forgotten that Shakespeare was just as interested in the bottom line as possible literature and this is part of one of the crowd pleasers.

There is also, at this point in the tragedy, a feebleness in the plotting, which does incline one to the suspicion that the playwright was drinking too deeply of mine host's four-star in the Tabard the night before. You will remember the great plot twist. No man "of woman born" can kill Macbeth. How does he know? The witches (is this for real?) have told him so. Lay on, Macduff.

Well no, it isn't for real. It's fantasy -- was Macbeth mad when he saw the figure of Banqou or was it a ghost -- some productions have it both ways, but given the presences of WITCHES I'm inclind to go with the latter.

And how is the villain confounded? "Know that Macduff," our good guy says, "was from his mother's womb untimely ripped." Collapse of hell-hound. Heads on poles. Happy times for Scotland. But what, the audience will wonder as they file out of the theatre, does "untimely ripped" actually mean? A Caesarian? Premature delivery? Was the Macduff foetus removed at the point of conception and, by the advanced technology of 15th-century alchemy, brought to term in a test tube? Even in medieval Scotland, surely, you are still "born of woman" even if you did pop out, or were pulled out, a month or two early?

Well, actually in Elizabethan times, I'd say that yes the baby could have been taken from the womb and not be called a birth because it wasn't through the natural and at the time largely sacred process. So Macduff was not of woman born according to those values -- and if you really want to stretch the issue it could have been a male who aided the removal of the child and not some medieval midwife -- arguably the man would have been the one holding and being able to use the big knife (see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, no really, do).

There is a quality of "who gives a toss?" in the play which, sadly, bears out Dromgoole's heresy. Homer sometimes nods. And Shakespeare occasionally suffers from dramatist's droop.

Or you're applying modern stage craft and expectations on four hundred year old plays which had very specific staging requirements and when audiences had very different expectations.

See what happens when I start reading and listening to Shakespeare? Aspirations of grandeur.

I'm going back to bed now, my joints are beginning to ache in that 'oh shit I've got a cold' kind of way.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Kenneth Branagh to direct Jude Law in Hamlet at the Donmar Warehouse "running from May 29, with the official opening on June 3." Which is at roughly the same time Mr. Tennant is to be at the RSC. I wonder if I can do them both in a weekend.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What? Whaaat? 2

Continued from here. One of the reasons for the break is because David Tennant is due to give us his Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company next year which is a really interesting and exciting piece of casting especially in relation to this blog. The lead actor of my favourite television series appearing in what's probably my favourite Shakespeare play. I'll have to start saving now...