Tuesday, March 29, 2011

William Shakespeare (Usborne Young Reading Series 3) by Rosie Dickens.

The challenge of producing biographies of complex figures to younger audiences is demonstrated when writer Rosie Dickens has to tackle subject of William’s marriage to Anne. Dickens mentions that he seemed rather young to be married and that many thought she wasn’t the right match, but that they were in love, so much so that she might have inspired one of the sonnets. We’re then told that six months after the marriage, she gave birth, which is factually correct but of course, unavoidably might suggest to the reader that young Suzanna was born prematurely.

An inquisitive child, a Fred Savage in The Princess Bride type, would have all sorts of questions. But perhaps that’s fitting considering how much of Shakespeare’s life is a mystery, how a man whose grammar school education was curtailed managed to write himself and collaborate on over forty plays. The book is also relatively ambiguous on that point too with a suggestion William joined some travelling players who were passing through (having seen a similar group with his father as a child) but a note in the back to explain that no one really knows.

Having offered readers the chance to discover the stories behind the plays in series two, Usborne's series three presents “readers who are ready for longer stories” with a fictionalised account of Shakespeare’s life from schoolboy to oblivion, covering all the main points, the theatres, the career, playing for the queen, the plagues and quite surprisingly Essex’s protest production of Richard II and the destruction of the Globe. Throughout the book is sumptuously illustrated with photographs and paintings by Christa Unzner who brings a characatured Roald Dahl element to the story.

Mostly Dickens's work reads like a Target novelisation of John Mortimer’s Will Shakespeare with the homoerotic tension removed. Like that tv series, once William reaches London, there’s a real sense of the camaraderie amongst the plays, mainly Burbage and Kemp as they sit about like Enid Blyton characters trying to decide what they should do when life's knocks come their way, including the ingenious plan to dismantle the theatre and ship it across the Thames to become the Globe. Dickens also doesn’t shy away the darker elements of the period, the traitors heads piked on the entrance to the capital.

The book closes with a summary of William’s life, the aforementioned note about the omissions, a list of his works, or at least what the author considers the highlights (not Love’s Labour’s Lost apparently) and an index which is a useful addition even if important figures are included using their christian name rather than surname (Anne Hathaway appearing first). But all of that is to churlishly criticise a remarkable achievement in, like the Templar book, bringing a version of the life of Shakespeare to a young audience, who should be eager to learn more.

Young Reading Series 3: William Shakespeare (illustated by Christa Unzner) is published by Usborne. £4.99. ISBN: 9780746090022. Review copy supplied.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and Macbeth (Usborne Young Reading: Series Two)

All attempts to reproduce the plays in prose for a younger audience owe a debt to Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Somewhat archaic now, they still led the way in demonstrating that it was possible to present these stories without losing any of their thematic resonance and still retain some of the poetry. Their version of Hamlet begins from Gertude’s perspective underscoring the possible truth of her hasty marriage to Claudius before introducing her son and his suspicions in a style which is closer to the mythic tradition.

In writing for a much younger audience still, the writers of this Usborne Young Reading series have decided to pack their versions with dialogue and incident and work much closer to a more traditional picture book approach allowing the illustrations to tell part of the story with dynamic action scenes and abstract imagery. The results are enchanting and more than commemorate their sources. Reading these is to think back nostalgically to the Ladybird Books of my youth, which is where I first visited the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson.

The opening page of Louie Stowell’s Hamlet perfectly captures the cold spookiness of the battlements just before the Ghost appears, Christina Unzner’s illustration showing the two guards and Horatio “huddled together” just as the text suggests, the tension palpable. When Macbeth greets the three witches for the first time, they’re the same despicable hags you’d find in the Brothers Grimm giving the reader a familiar image they can immediately relate to, Conrad Mason’s words allowing the picture to tell the story. These characters are hemmed in by bare walls and battlements.

Serena Rigiletti’s brighter images for A Midsummer Night’s Dream underscore the complexity of the farce adapter Lesley Sims is wrestling with and though her designs pick up the similarities between the royal characters, they’re distinctive enough for the reader to keep track of who’s who as the confusion between the lovers takes hold. That’s aided by the extra pages at the front which introduce all of the characters and helpfully gives phonetic pronunciations for their challenging multi-syllabic names (I’ve been mispronouncing Egeus (E-geeus for years).

Part of me is disappointed that more of Shakespeare verse hasn’t sneaked through, Hamlet’s soliloquies barely rendered, no To Be Or Not To Be. But this is somewhat made up for by the clever way some of the motivational uncertainty is kept. When Hamlet tells Horatio that he’s going to pretend to be mad so that his uncle won’t know what he’s thinking, we’re told “Horatio saw a strange look in his friend’s eye. He wasn’t sure if Hamlet would have to pretend” which puts children firmly in the midst of that lengthy debate, leaving the reader to decide as the story continues.

The books have been written in consultation with Alison Kelly, a senior lecturer in the English Eduction (Primary) department at Roehampton University who has helped to develop the whole of the Usborne Young Reading series, someone attuned to the sensibilities of the young judging by her CV. Perhaps I’m just too old now to really understand how well a child would deal with Macbeth’s moral ambiguity though they’re sure to find funny Flute’s realisation on being cast as Thisbe that he’ll “have to kiss Bottom” because some humour works no matter the age of the reader.

A Midsummer Night's Dream adapted by Lesley Sims (illustrated by Serena Rigiletti), Hamlet adapted by Louie Stowell, Macbeth retold by Donald Mason (both illustated by Christa Unzner) are published by Usborne. £4.99 each. ISBNs and other publications in the series available at Usborne's website. Review copy supplied.

The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (Notebook Series) by Ari Berk and Kristen McDermott.

The conceit behind this handsome volume is that in 1613, Shakespeare having written his final play, The Tempest, has decided to return to the country and compile a lavish scrapbook as a present for his daughter Judith, so that they look back on his life and work together. He describes for her his early childhood in Stratford, his move to London, his successes, the themes he’s interested in, and his friends, sanitising slightly the saltier aspects in that way a father might to even a twentysomething progeny who barely knows him, a tone which is about right for a book designed for older children.

Kristen McDermott and Ari Berk create a Shakespeare who wouldn’t seem out of place in one of his own plays. As the publisher’s note explains, they’ve deliberately laced the fiction with phrases from the canon and for the most part he speaks in the language of an in-costume tour guide at a tourist attraction, expositional without quite seeming like a real person. Once we accept this artifice the approach works very well and the authors do have some fun allowing adult readers to glance between the lines and what isn't mentioned because it’s not for young ears.

The design is perfect for children with an explorer instinct, a prefusion, even confusion of colourful illustrations and various flaps filled with even more information once opened, usually small books containing a synopsis of a play or contemporary knowledge and letters. The approach is similar to the RSC’s immortal Shakespeare: The Life, the Works, the Treasures which collects reproductions of the original documentation of the playwright hatches, matches and dispatches, but quite rightly for this audience the copperplate handwriting has been replaced with for the most part modern spelling and a clearer font.

It’s this surrounding material which really sells the book. We’re given recipes for stomach curdling dishes containing more dairy and sugar than seems fit for human consumption, gossipy biographies of courtiers to James I and there’s even a guide for young playgoers on the best etiquette for visiting the Globe, most of which is just as valid now. The biggest surprise is the willingness to use illustrative text from Shakespeare’s contemporaries rather than simply focusing on the cliches. Thomas Heyward’s The Four Prentices of London is quoted on the topic of avoiding work.

This life and times of William Shakespeare is perfect for the inquisitive child who wants to know more about the bard, perhaps having watched Shakespeare in Love or Doctor Who’s The Shakespeare Code, but too young for a proper full blown biography. It’s the romantic vision, a Wittington-like story of the son of a glove-maker heading to London to seek his fortune. Perhaps if I’d been given this book before venturing into the plays in secondary school, I might not have been quite so overawed. The fourteen year old version of me never quite appreciated Julius Caesar.

Ari Berk's website has an illustrative video.

The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (Notebook Series) by Ari Berk and Kristen McDermott is published by Templar. £14.99. ISBN: ISBN 978 1 84011 158. Review copy supplied.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What is canon?

Having bored a friend senseless tonight (probably) (sorry Ian) on the subject of canonicity in science fiction franchises, or rather what does and doesn’t count as part of the wider mythology. I think it’s only fair to let it seep online somewhat. To recap: In Star Trek, as far as Roddenberry and Paramount are concerned, in the main everything filmed is canon plus elements of the animated series. In Star Wars there are four levels of canonicity within a database called a Holocron and I’m bored already.

For Doctor Who, the BBC have been clever enough not to make any real pronouncement on the subject, preferring to leave it up to fans to make their own judgement on the subject which means there are varying degrees of opinion from my friend who’s in the anything filmed and broadcast on BBC television camp to me who assumes everything officially licensed is canon, even online webcasts, charity skits and 8-bit computer games. Good old time travel.

The reason it was on my mind was, oddly, because I’ve been wondering lately exactly who the Paramount, Lucasfilm or BBC equivalent within the Shakespeare study community is.  Some might suggest the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust with their library, or the RSC, or even an academic institution.  The lack of such a body becomes particularly important when reading a book like Shakespeare, Computer, and the Mystery of Authorship by Hugh Craig and Arthur F Kinney which seeks to blow the subject of canonicity and what can be constitutes a Shakespeare play wide open.

For quite some time, the academic orthodoxy was that the thirty-six plays that appear in the First Folio, gathered together by Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues a couple of years after his death were the canon, plus the 154 sonnets and various narrative poems and that’s the figure which still often appears in general readership books on the subject. In time, it was widely agreed that he also collaborated on Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen which brought the figure up to thirty-eight.

Scholarship has moved on again and this were the discussions within academia begin to mirror those in some online forums, the kinds of places which have agreed that because we didn’t see a regeneration, the new series of Doctor Who is a remake rather than a continuation. Essentially, new thinking on how plays were written at the time and the level of collaboration involved is starting to suggest that the concept of a “Shakespeare canon” is shaky at best.

Some certainty is surrounding Edward III as being, like the other collaborations mostly Shakespeare. It’s being published in the Arden series next year to accompany Sir Thomas More and Double Falsehood both of which it’s suggested Shakespeare had a hand in them too. If that’s the case, if the so called canon can be raised to forty-one how high can we go and what’s the point in trying seek a definitive number anyway?  Well I think it is important at the very least from an educational point of view but also because it feeds into my collectors "gotta catch 'em all" mentality.

Part of the problem is that much of this work is based on academic consensous and value judgements based on whether a passage “feels” like Shakespeare. Craig and Kinney and other computer analysts are attempting to remove such value judgements from the equation and take a more scientific approach based purely on statistic analysis and the logical make up of the text, the textual equivalent of comparing brush technique in anonymous paintings.

Their methodology, as best as I understand it, is this: having established definitive authorship for a corpus of plays by a number of Elizabethen/Jacobian playwrights, Shakespeare, Kyd, Marlowe, Fletcher, Middleton, Jonson, Lyle, Webster and the rest, they’ve created a database that contains elements of vocabulary that are distinctive to their works so that when one of the plays of confirmed single authorship is compared to the database only that single author could possibly be the source.

In the introduction they note that though the word ‘gentle’ was available to all of the authors of the time, Shakespeare used it twice as much as anyone else, as much of a prop word probably as ‘actually’, ‘essentially’ and ‘probably’ are for me. There are other words too and for the other authors and meaning that if a play is compared to the database, Craig and Kinney can, within a tiny margin of error, identify who collaborated on the play.

They've used the method to confirm that, as is already widely agreed, Fletcher was the collaborator on Henry VIII and Middleton wrote the other half of Two Noble Kinsmen. They go even further too in confirming the contention of Brian Vickers that Titus Andonicus was of joint authorship with Peele and that Timon of Athens has a secondary author and that it’s Thomas Middleton. My mind had exploded and I’d only reached the end of the first chapter.

This is were it becomes really thrilling, assuming this is the sort of thing you’re thrilled about. They suggest the evidence is strong enough to identify Christopher Marlowe was the source of many of the Joan la Pucelle and Jack Cade scenes in Henry VI. They confirm Shakespeare’s co-authorship on Edward III and Sir Thomas More and that the variant Folio version of King Lear shows Shakespeare’s own hand in revising the Quarto. If only they'd done the same for Hamlet.

But it’s their work on the apocrypha or the anonymous plays attributed to Shakespeare at some point their life, it’s assumed by nefarious publishers trying to cash-in on his name, which is the most exciting (assuming – see above). When at the end of my review of the Arden Sir Thomas More I cheekily suggested they might publish an edition of Arden of Faversham soon, this turned out to be less wrong headed than I thought.

“We can be confident in our conclusions: Arden of Faversham is a collaboration; Shakespeare was one of the authors; and his part is concentrated on the middle section of the play” they say, constituting five whole scenes, confirming the recent proposal by fellow academic MacDonald P. Jackson. Given how their approach and evidence stacks up in other areas, I’m convinced.  But there's more.

After debunking Edmund Ironside (negating dozens of books on the subject) they move on to Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, the revenge play which its believed was one of the great influences on Hamlet. The play was revised for a 1602 publication with five new passages but the printer neglected to mention exactly who the author was for these sections but due to some payroll records it's often believed they’re by Jonson.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed they were by Shakespeare. Craig and Kinney compared the sections to the five big plays of the period (including Hamlet) and the work of ten others and agree that there’s a high degree of probability that they may well be. To me, that’s huge news and properly throws a grenade in the Shakespeare canonicity debate because we’re now discussing whether The Spanish Tragedy or at least the 1602 rendition should be included.

Which brings us back to the original thorny problem. As far as I know, there is no single body sitting in judgement on what can and can’t be considered Shakespearean canon, no literary version of the Star Wars Holocron or Pluto devaluing International Astronomical Union in which there are different levels of canonicity depending on how many lines Shakespeare actually wrote with Hamlet at the top and Sir Thomas More at the bottom or I voting on whether to submit Arden of Faversham.

So I’ve decided to take the Doctor Who approach, as I probably tend to in all things, and assume that everything is canon. If Arden are willing to publish an edition, it’s in. If Craig and Kinney provide a good enough argument in this book, and they do, it’s in too. Which means far from being thirty-eight plays, with Double Falsehood, Sir Thomas More, Edward III, Arden of Faversham and the 1602 edit of The Spanish Tragedy my personal canon counts up to forty-three.

Wishful thinking perhaps and not being an expert or academic I don’t have much more than a regurgitation of other people’s work to back up the claim. If was being less conservative too, I’d count up to forty-five by including the various variations to Hamlet and King Lear. But with the ongoing discussions on the extent to which playwrights worked together, it’s very seductive to consider there is more Shakespeare out there waiting to be discovered.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Shakespeare Matters by Geoff Spiteri.

Geoff Spiteri begins this Shakespeare miscellany with the first of many questions. Does Shakespeare matter? He’s asking if the bard’s work is still relevant today and then offers three reasons why it must be. Firstly, because in reading Shakespeare, you’re joining the many millions who enjoy the plays which makes him inclusive. Secondly that he has a lot to teach us about how to deal with the emotional push and tug of our lives and thirdly because the language is so damn entertaining.

All of which are true. But why I think Shakespeare matters, what draws me to the plays, is that they’re unfathomable. No matter how many times you see them, read them, read about them, there are still mysteries that can never be uncovered, fundamentals for which we have no answers forcing us to usher our brains into action, employ our imaginations, fill in the gaps, develop the fantasy. These four hundred year old plays, written by a genius, require us to become co-authors in the great western literary achievement in order to make sense of it.

Spiteri’s work here helps considerably in what is a useful companion volume to Liz Evers’s similar gift book To Be Or Not To Be... But whereas Evers was more interested in the bald facts of the plays, predominantly the words, Spiteri playfully, delving into the pop culture afterlife of the canon, authorship and not to put too finer point on it has a pleasingly unhealthy interest in the seedier aspects of the plays, the sex and death. This is effectively the Channel 5 to Evers’s BBC Four.

Passages about binge drinking and obscene gestures, racism and gore, poisonings and failed suicides weave in-between acres of coverage about the euphemisms Shakespeare employs. Having explained that “nothing” means vagina (or unmentionables as the author has it here) completely changing the implications of Much Ado About Nothing, Spiteri quotes the pre-Mousetrap scene from Hamlet changing the meaning of:
Hamlet: Do you think I mean country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Which makes Ophelia somewhat complicit in the flirting no matter how uncomfortably its usually played. No wonder the BBCFC gave the RSC’s Tennant’s starring production a 12 for that passage.

Speaking of whom there’s also a welcome and high detailed four page section just detailing the references in Doctor Who including a plot synopsis for The Shakespeare Code. I’m not sure the Hamlet reference is enough to make me want to sit through The Two Doctors again unless I have to. Star Trek gets three similar pages and Babylon 5 a paragraph, which proportionally is probably about right though he fails to note just how tied in The Conscience of the King really is.

Overall though it’s the dark underbelly of the plays which gains the most illumination as we’re reminded that for all the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the reason Shakespeare survives is because he wasn’t afraid to evoke the horrible realism that humanity usually has to offer, hold a mirror up to our faces and in most excellent poetry point at our flaws. If nothing else it’s the first book I’ve seen which baldy asks “Is Cleopatra the best shag in Shakespeare?” and concludes she might well be.

Shakespeare Matters by Geoff Spiteri is published by Portico. £6.99. ISBN: 9-781-9060-3245-6. Review copy supplied.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Batsford's Heritage Guides: Shakespeare's London by Malcolm Day.

When I visited London a couple of years ago, one of my escapades was to visit the two churches that were important to Shakespeare, Southwark Cathedral and St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe (which is a slightly remodelled Wren church now but is sited on the same footprint as the building that was decimated during the Great Fire of London).

Sadly, my forward planning had only led me to print some maps from Google and I’d somehow managed to do this in such a way as to make them incomprehensible – something to do with the scale – and armed with a rubbish sense of direction it took me far longer to find at least the latter than it probably needed to. I flagged a taxi, in the end, which is probably what I should have done in the first place.

All of which is a lead in to suggesting that perhaps I should have invested in a guide book and although this Batsford’s Heritage Guides publication isn’t eclectic enough to include St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe (presumably because the map would be a bit unwieldy if it recorded everywhere Shakespeare may have stood), I’m confident it would have been just the thing to at least point me in the right direction.

In this densely written but accessible survey of the Elizabethan and Jacobean versions of the capital, author Malcolm Day threads elements of Shakespeare’s biography through explanations of the places he would have worked and entertained himself, taking in the local culture and historical business, linking the plays throughout. A discussion of commerce is accompanied by Sherlock’s “I am a Jew …” for example.

My favourite passage is about St Paul’s Cathedral, which both manages to present the requisite awe about its construction and tragedy about the lost spire and also evoke the seething humanity of London at that time by describing how nefarious activities continued in its massive innards and markets selling books including printings of Shakespeare’s plays were held in the yard. As Days says “Nowhere was sacred.”

I also never tire of hearing about the the original London Bridge, a city in and of itself, with its town houses backing directly onto the river supported by nineteen piers, an architectural and engineering marvel too far ahead of its time to survive. The accompanying drawing looks like a concept design for a Terry Gilliam film, tall buildings huddled together on portions of bridge that don't look like they should be supporting the weight they're holding.

A romanticised atmosphere is generated, but Day's research is also bang up to date in communicating currently critical understanding, describing Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well as ‘dark’ comedies rather than problem plays and that in 1599 he completed “the first draft of Hamlet”. It’s rare that such guides even bother with the textual confusion. It’s very impressive and quite rare in this kind of tourist book.

Also impressive are the illustrations, which comprise copious shots of the Globe reconstruction. As someone who loves the place but lives on the other end of the country such things are gold dust and its quite exciting to see shots from their recent production of Henry VIII not to mention The Merchant of Venice with such clarity. There are also detailed picture credits albeit in microdot on the final page.

The 'sites to see' section takes up three pages at the back, one of which the map. I’ve no argument with the choices and indeed I wish I’d known about the Elizabethan street reconstructions at the Museum of London. Understandably there’s a heavy reliance on inns and churches, though its nice to see Middle Temple Hall mentioned, the site of the first production for Twelfth Night in front of the Queen.

But where are the tube stations? If I’d bought this in London and didn’t have access to Google (it’s possible, we don’t all have iPhones), I think I’d be quite disappointed about that. Only Liverpool St. mainline appears on the map as a landmark/triangulation point. Although I suppose asking for directions does open up a welcome avenue of communication, which can be quite welcome if you’re travelling alone.  Otherwise, Day's book is an absolute bargain.

Batsford's Heritage Guides: Shakespeare's London by Malcolm Day is published by Anova Books.  £3.99.  ISBN: 9-781-9063-8893-5.  Review copy supplied.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eyewitness: Hamlet injured in duel.

You've probably already heard of this palpable hit, but just in case ...
Conor Madden -- who plays Hamlet in the Second Age Theatre production -- was duelling with Aonghus Og McAnally, who plays Laertes, when he was accidentally struck in the face with a round-tip sword.

The blade sliced open the flesh underneath his eye socket and the actor collapsed on the stage.

Initially, some in the audience thought the facial injury to Hamlet and the actor's moans were part of the production.
Given the ferocity with which some of the final duels can be played, it's surprising that there aren't more injuries. Thankfully Madden wasn't injured too severely and left hospital with a couple of stitches.

Hamlet (Writers and their Work) by Ann Thompson & Neil Taylor.

“There is no stable entity called Hamlet”, the authors proclaim at the top of chapter six of their discussion and once again I found myself nodding along. Well of course there isn’t. Apart from the three extant texts (Q1, Q2 & F1), there’s the various conflations from multiple editors, the Garrick adaptation, the Devenant playbook, not to mention the thousands of versions of the play which are created by each director whenever they’re foolhardy enough to agree to the job rather than do something fun like a comedy (“The cuts! I can’t believe the cuts!”).

With that in mind, the whole process of literary criticism is in itself a fools errand as is reading most of it since every proclamation must be read and absorbed on the understanding that the writer has themselves had to choose which version of the text to comment on. As Thompson and Taylor note, theatre producers are desperate to give audiences as little Hamlet as they can, publishers the exact opposite. With that in mind, this short discussion spends its pagination surveying the multiplicity of available criticism unpicking traditions left and right.

The result de-constructs Hamlet's academia with much the same zeal as Charlie Brooker when eviscerating of modern news production. The recent inflated tendency to characterise King Lear as the great Shakespearean tragedy is punctured by noting how many of Hamlet’s lines have entered the national consciousness and how many iconic images, notably the prince holding Yorrick’s skull immediately define the play in ways that aren’t possible with Lear. But the inclination of critics to sacrifice simply clarifying the surface meaning of the words and pictures in favour of a kind of thematic archaeology is equally skewered.

Every chapter provides an excellent survey of the present critical state of the art (for better or worse) and still manages to find something new. A prime example is the chapter on Hamlet and Gender which shows how tradition has rather clouded the positions of Gertrude and Ophelia within the fabric of the play, how the histrionics so often attributed to the latter in performance aren't actually in the text.  Some of the more memorable Ophelias have underplayed her desperation making the tragedy of her psychological breakdown all the more upsetting (Claire Jones at the Unity, Lisa Gay Hamilton in the Hallmark film).

It’s impossible to agree with everything. Comparing Daniel Day Lewis at the National unfavourably with Mel Gibson on film seems unfair since the former didn’t have the benefit of Zeffrelli selecting his best takes. But that minor detail isn’t enough to stop me from recommending this text to everyone with an interest. At the back of the book there are a series of images from ancient productions which includes the court scenes as rendered by William Poel in 1881 at Liverpool's St. George’s Hall in what looks like the Concert Room. I wondered if they considered that the same space would be used for a similar purpose over a hundred years later.

Hamlet (Writers and their Work) by Ann Thompson & Neil Taylor is published by Northcote House Publisher's Ltd.. £10.99. ISBN: 978-0746311417. Review copy supplied.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Measure for Measure (Writers and their Work) by Kate Chedgzoy.

While most of Shakespeare’s plays confront issues related to sex to some degree, few forefront them with quite as much zeal as Measure for Measure with its contrasting representations of female sexuality in Mistress Overdone, Marianna and Isabella and masculinity in Lucio, Angelo and the Duke. Throughout the playwright as ever seeks to undermine our expectations demonstrating that the surface image each of them projects is often at odds with their attitude. A Kate Chedgzoy argues in this short survey it’s this subtlety just as much as the curious structure which has led to the play being branded as a ‘problem’.

Characters which elsewhere might be considered the dregs of society are most sympathetically drawn. Mistress Overdone’s “care for Lucio and Kate Keepdown’s bastard casts her as a socially responsible citizen to whom the Duke should be grateful rather than punitive” and it demonstrates quite how aloof Vincentio is that he’s not able to assimilate that information and act accordingly rather than just having her carried off to an ambiguous fate because of what rather than who she is. These kinds of observational nuggets sparkly in what’s obviously a very well researched if densely written text whose word length can't always contain its ideas..

For Chedgzoy too, though the action is said to set in Vienna, Shakespeare is actually commenting on and portraying the contemporary London he knows all too well, a place where sexuality steams through every wall from the prison to the brothel to the convent, where even “nunnery” takes on a double meaning expressing places containing cloisters or copulation. That’s a Hamlet usage of course, but almost every speech in Measure for Measure contains these kinds of euphemistic couplings. In this reading how are we to take the Duke when he says he’s giving Angelo “all the organs / Of our own power”?

The effect this had on a contemporary audience isn’t clear. The single record of a performance was at court, apparently in front of James I during Christmas celebrations. There would have been a multiplicity of opinions then just as there have been since, not least amongst psycho-analysts coming to terms with Isabella’s Catholic attitude perhaps in an attempt to decide whether she will accept the Dukes offers at the end. Chedgzoy suggests it’s up to the individual production to make that choice, though perhaps the ideal conclusion is to freeze the action, bring down the house lights and leave the decision up to us.

Measure for Measure (Writers and their Work) by Kate Chedgzoy is published by Northcote House Publisher's Ltd.. £10.99. ISBN: 978-0-7463-0849-3. Review copy supplied.

The AV Club interviews new female Hamlet Mary Tuomanen.

Quite a lot of the codification for her interpretation of the character is in her hair:
"There’s a lot to be done with my hair, because it’s very easy for me to look like a little boy, and Hamlet needs to be a little more than boyish. The transformation of my hair over the course of the play has been fun; we tried slicking it back, and I had a part, and I looked like I was from Hogwarts… (Laughs.) But it turns out the crazier I get, the more I pull at my hair and make it explode and look bizarre, the more I look like Hamlet. As we go through the production, it’s becoming less important that I look like a man and more that I look like Hamlet."
One of the elements I really appreciated in Natalie Quatermass's interpretation was that she kept her hair long and made the character relatively feminine which brought a different energy to her scenes with Ophelia.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Othello (Writers and their Work) by Emma Smith.

Commenting on last week's controversy surrounding television producer Brian True-May’s policy of casting whites only in pastoral television detective series Midsomer Murders, Guardian columnist Mark Lawson noted that such guidelines are an anathema in British theatres where a tradition of “colour-blind casting” means that as is currently the case in the National's Frankenstain, “a white son has a non-white father, with no narrative point (such as adoption) being made”.

As Emma Smith explains in this short commentary on Othello which ram-raids three of the main controversies surrounding the play (sexuality, race and domesticity), that tradition hits a wall in relation to the play’s title character, which since the defining casting of Paul Robeson in the 1930s has almost exclusively been played by African-American actors with only a few prominent examples (Welles, Olivier, Hopkins) upholding the tradition of blacking up set by Garrick.

She argues, quite persuasively (aided by a useful quote from actor Hugh Quarshie) that far from countering racism, casting a black actor in the role increases the danger of playing up to the stereotypes inherent within the play and that by casting a white actor in the part, as Jude Kelly did in her 1997 “photo-negative” attempt with Patrick Stewart acting against a predominantly African American cast, you can defuse the racial elements, dislocating them from being a lazy explanation for Othello’s jealousy.

Like many of the critics who’ve wrestled with these more contentious aspects of Shakespeare’s plays, Smith doesn’t have an answer. But she does offer a deliberately inclusive approach to her discussion, cross cutting opinions from a range of sources introducing not just the standard texts (Bradley, Levis, Dover Wilson) but theatre critics, the actors who’ve had to provide a logical psychological presence within their performance and even the implications characteristic of the love-triangle based marketing of the play on film.

She cleanly demonstrates that as is so often the case with Shakespeare, everything has a double meaning. The playwright challenged assumptions by putting all the “Machiavellian malignity” previously integral in black characters into Othello’s white deputy allowing his title character to retain the skin colour and sexuality. While the play has all of the hallmarks of a traditional “domestic tragedy” it deliberately fails to give us much indication of the central couple’s relationship dynamic. That Iago is essentially a clown with a mean streak.  Intriguing.

Emma Smith has recently prepared a podcast about the play, which is available from the University of Oxford website.

Othello (Writes and their Work) by Emma Smith is published by Northcote House Publisher's Ltd.. £10.99. ISBN: 978-0746309995. Review copy supplied.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Macbeth (Writers and their Work) by Kathleen E. McLuskie.

For the past few years I have been fermenting a theory about the porter’s scene in Macbeth. It’s the one moment of levity in what’s otherwise a fairly depressing, bloody play but it’s hampered within our context because it's riddled with contemporary references which render most of it unintelligible to our ears, let alone funny. One of the best productions I’ve seen did away with the Shakespeare's dialogue altogether replacing it with an old George Carlin routine and I think something similar was happening when the play was originally produced and revived during Shakespeare’s lifetime. I think that each time the porter appeared he would comment on a new set of contemporary events, like a Jacobian version of The Now Show and the version that was published in the Folio was the one that the compiler’s considered to be the classic..

All of which is of course, utter rubbish with little evidential prrof and in her appraisal of Macbeth, Kathleen E. McLuskie, director of the Shakespeare Institute in Sratford-Upon-Avon, highlights precisely this kind of abuse, of the play and its writer. She demonstrates that across time from the plays potential first production through to the twentieth century, the essence of Macbeth's text has been stretched and bent to fit the preoccupations of each period, from Davenport’s blanding out and subtly extraction through to the feminist interpretations of the 70s and 80s that apply readings to the text that say more about the theorists themselves than the work as a piece of theatrical drama. It’s not Shakespeare himself doesn’t cast a long shadow; it’s that the nature of his being is also manipulated to fit each new analysis as well.

Arguably the most interesting sections of the book are when McLuskie indulges in her own brand of literary criticism and strips away the play’s theatrical history to return to Macbeth in its purest form, as the text which appears in the 1623 First Folio and tracks a reader’s experience when faced with just words on a page. She demonstrates that with just the verse and stage directions to work with, the reader’s translation, born of a need to concentrate more closely on the evidence and meaning of the text is at some variance with a theatrical experience in which the material is focused through the prism of the director and actor’s interpretation. When a stage direction says that the witches disappear, in our mind’s eye that’s exactly what happens, we don’t require the suspension of disbelief required in the theatre as the three figures sneak off stage.

If nothing else, McLuskie’s book is worth reading for her evisceration of the whole process of attempting to date the play based on the aforementioned porter’s scene and the connection some have made with the gunpowder plot. As she explains, interpreting the porter’s dialogue and translating the references only offers clues for the date when that scene was written. A contemporary account by someone who watched a performance didn’t think the scene important enough to warrant a mention so for all we know it could have been a late addition or a special interpolation that has since become a staple because it was later put down on paper. Similarly the parliamentary destruction connection is probably wishful thinking by those hoping Shakespeare was using a historical situation to comment on contemporary events, Macbeth for James I. But as McLuskie demonstrates the only solid production date we have for Macbeth is the year when it was published.

Macbeth (Writers and their Work) by Kathleen E. McLuskie is published by Northcote House Publisher's Ltd.. £12.99. ISBN: 978-0746308431. Review copy supplied.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hamlet in "Hamlet" (Mr. H. B. Irving)

From a 1906 Complete Works which includes "an essay on Shakespeare and Bacon by Sir Henry Irving, and a biographical introduction".  He played Hamlet for well over two hundred performances.  A selection of his correspondence on the subject can be found here.  Doesn't he look like a young Wilfred Hyde-White?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To Be Or Not To Be... And Everything Else You Should Know From Shakespeare by Liz Evers.

Sometimes, just sometimes, just hearing snatches of Shakespeare’s verse or language makes me emotional. Could be because I’m subliminally remembering a good performance or just simply the implication of the words, but two lines, if I’ve the courage to type them are “The readiness is all” and “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. There are plenty of other and most of them are included in the index of famous lines at the back of To Be Or Not To Be... Oh, um, there’s another one. Hold on while I get a hankie.

As Liz Evers explains in her introduction, Shakespeare’s influence on our language is incalculable but also often subliminal and her book is an attempt to bring these old phrases to new light. With chapters listing every day words whose existence we owe to Shakespeare and correcting common misquotes, Evers succeeds in demonstrating that much of modern English balances on a scaffold constructed by one man, an endeavour she carries out, refreshingly in a field which tends to be depressingly sober, with plenty of wit and bags of wisdom.

Having for years understood it be simple reference, it transpires the Porter’s scene in The Scottish Play was the actual source of the Knock, Knock joke. Who says Shakespeare isn’t funny? But Evers herself turns this revelation into a very amusing joke (I won’t spoil) which itself really is a demonstration of the clever tone the writer sets throughout these pages, mixing reverence and naughtiness. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone list the words which haven’t gained currency. Hello, bubukles.

Which isn’t to say Evers’s book doesn’t contain much of what you’d expect from a miscellany or companion. There’s a gossipy biographical note that is as interested in the details of Shakespare marriage and love life as whether he even wrote the plays. An entertaining section details the sonnets and demonstrates Evers’s thorough research as she acknowledges Jonathan Bate’s theory about the dedication. A glossary of the major characters manages to usefully reduce the story arc of a figure like Macbeth into four lines.

A large proportion of the book offers lively synopses of the plays which while keeping well within orthodoxy does at least acknowledge the apocrypha. Some of these are longer than others and are never plodding and probably give as much information as is required (the whole of Timon of Athens is reasonably expounded in just three paragraphs). These are augmented with interesting introductions and box-outs pointing to useful background information, mostly trivia, but well chosen.

To Be Or Not Be... is another great example of the gift books published by Michael O'Mara Books which I've given on numerous occasions having bumped into them at Blackwells and Past Times. Their title An Apple a Day, which collates proverbs was a big hit at Christmas, and I'd have no hesitation in passing on Evers's book should the occasion arise. Page after page I was introduced to some new piece of trivia. I didn’t previously know that the remedy for saying Macbeth outloud was to quote Hamlet: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us.” I only hope that works as well in type.

To Be Or Not To Be... And Everything Else You Should Know From Shakespeare by Liz Evers is published by Michael O'Mara Books Ltd. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1-84317-462-2. Review copy supplied.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hamlet (Collector's Library).

Who’s There?

The Collector’s Library reprints a canon of the world’s classic books and plays in hard back editions, the Austens, Brontes, Dickenses, Stevensons and Swifts amongst many others, the kind of item you might offer as a gift. Shakespeare is represented by Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet and the Sonnets. These are not academic editions but volumes created for a general readership.

The Cover.

The text is illustrated by the line drawings of Sir John Gilbert (1817–1897) originally prepared for the Longfellow edition of poetical works of the late 1850s. For the cover, Collector’s Library have selected the gravedigger scene. Long term readers will remember exactly the same image was employed on the Dover Thrift Study Edition, albeit not as beautifully painted in pastel shades as it is here by Barbara Frith.


Introductions to general editions of Shakespeare’s play must be an interesting challenge so I entered this with an open mind and indeed Robert Mighall (an expert on gothic horror novels) manages to cover much ground in its eight pages. From usefully explaining the period in Shakespeare’s life that Hamlet was written, to underscoring its reputation (“it is the Mona Lisa of literature” he says), to offering a synopsis that includes an argument that Hamlet’s inaction is his downfall and two long paragraphs on its critical and then cinema screen history.

There’s nothing essentially wrong with Mighall’s approach to the play – in choosing to voice an opinion he gives the reader something more interesting than a basic synopsis and offering a reader that is perhaps new to the play a window into the critical corpus in relation to Hamlet’s dithering and while I might not necessarily agree with it (see this previous review), the writer backs his argument with enough justification for it not to seem as though he’s being pointlessly provocative.

No, he leaves that until the final page where, in the midst of the production history he offers a bizarre ten line critique of Branagh’s film which is both mean spirited and just plain wrong. After punching up the 1948 Olivier (listing its many Oscars) and saying some nice things about Mel Gibson’s performance in the 1990 Zeffirelli, he descends into a diatribe about Branagh’s “hubristic homage to Olivier” (no it isn’t) which ends with the statement “out-Heroding Herod in some of his deliveries, Kenny’s Dane put the ham squarely into Hamlet”. Oh for goodness sake.

The Text.

This edition fails to mention the source for the text, but it's identical to the Dover Edition which indicates it was originally published in Volume VII of the second edition of The Works of William Shakespeare, Macmillan and Co. London from 1892, a conflation of Q1 and F1. So the reader is being confronted with a text which was edited over a century ago which might have given me reservations within an academic context, but seems to fit the Collector’s Library’s intention of producing an edition that’s both contemporary and antiquated.


An alphabetical listing of tricky words and phrases which also includes references to other plays when more than one meaning is involved. Tthese aren’t the excellent notes which appear in the Dover edition however and includes many omissions and words which aren’t even in Hamlet. An online concordance indicates “basilisco-like" only appears once in Shakespeare, in King John. So this must be a general glossary and not one created specifically for the play.


A short, tasteful selected list that includes AC Bradley, G Wilson Night, J Dover Wilson and Jonathan Bate (The Soul of the Age oddly, not The Genius of Shakespeare, preferring Bill Bryson’s biography instead). The inclusion of the Howard Felperin’s academically challenging Shakespearean Representation: Memesis and Modernity in Elizabethen Tragedy is the only real oddity considering this is supposed to be for a general audience though it’s possible this bibliography is also supposed to represent Mighall’s research for the introduction.

How is it, my lord?

Aesthetically, the Collector’s Library edition of Hamlet is a beautiful thing, a sturdy edition of the play which fits into the palm of the hand and in that sense would work well as a gift. But I do have serious reservations about the overall tone of the introduction which doesn’t seem to have been written with much love for the play and a glossary that doesn’t match the text with which it has been included. So although I’m with Joanna Trollope when she says that it’s “delicious to see guilt edges again” I just wish I’d enjoyed the content more.

Hamlet (Collector's Library) is published by CRW Publishing Limited. £7.99. ISBN: 978 1 905716 80 7. Review copy supplied.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sir Thomas More (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by John Jowett.

The Arden Shakespeare’s rattling of the canonical cage continues with this enthralling publication of Sir Thomas More, the collaborative play for which only a few passages have critically been attributed to the bard and because of which, thanks to its extant manuscript at the British Library, we’re apparently able to see Shakespeare’s handwriting. Editor John Jowett offers sound reasoning for the imprint’s inclusion of what was for quite some time considered to be Apocrypha. That thanks to modern textual analysis, consensus seems to be moving towards the idea that sole authorship of most texts was anathema to Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights and that of Pericles nestles comfortably in most complete works why should this play be excluded just because Shakespeare’s contribution was considerably smaller?

As with similar Arden editions of collaborative texts, much of the introduction and appendices dedicate themselves to the business of attributing passages to particular authors and explaining the impact that has on the presentation of the included text. This play is unusual because unlike any of Shakespeare’s other works the only contemporaneous text available is the manuscript, which means that the analysis has as much basis in following the handwriting as the content of the words. Said manuscript is also a bit of a mongrel, comprising of an “original text”, a first version of the play written out for submission to Edmund Tilney the master of revels for approval, the Elizabethan BBFC, and then a series of later revisions and additions by a series of other hands including, the critical corpus generally agrees, Shakespeare.

As well as Shakespeare, the primary authors as best can be determined were chiefly anti-Catholic spy-hunter Anthony Munday plus Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood with addition emendations attributable to Edmund Tilney and the mysterious Hand C, an anonymous playwright who prepared the text for performance, if such a performance took place (no evidence exists but circumstantial evidence within the stage directions indicate they must represent a particular staging environment). Jowett offers biographies of varying complexities for them all and its in these passages that we most understand the world within which such a manuscript could be created with various acting groups competing against one another, manuscripts passed about and edited or amended to suite the needs of production.

The process is analogous the rewrite process most major films are subject to and it’s impossible not to think of Shakespeare in these circumstances as a kind of William Goldman or Emma Thompson figure, brought into punch up an important speech within the play. As the title suggests, Sir Thomas More dramatises the rise and fall of the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII and author of Utopia, the philosophical mediation on society. Shakespeare’s contribution is to a scene in which More persuades a group of apprentices unhappy because foreign workers are taking over their trades from taking violent action, a critical moment in the action of the play and development of More’s character in demonstrating his ability to combine intellectual rigour with an ability to communicate with the masses without patronising them.

In preparing the text, Jowett (who is series editor on Arden's new Early Modern Drama series) has followed the lead of previous editors of the Third Edition in employing extensive punctuation marks, diagrammatic components and multiple fonts to indicate the author of the particular section of text we’re reading with footnotes explaining editorial decisions. It is not complete. Words and lines are missing because they’re illegible in the original manuscript thanks to mistreatment and age and some areas have enough gaps that the action almost becomes incomprehensible. But it’s to Jowett’s credit that though in some cases he’s attempted some educated guesses of a few words (and indicated as such) he has left them blank to demonstrate that this is an organic document that more than any of Shakespeare’s plays needs the eye of a director and the capabilities of actors to make it comprehensible to audiences.

The production and editorial histories of the play are closely intertwined, with the former only really becoming viable when editorial copies of the plays first became available at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1956 BBC Radio presented the play as part of a series called ‘Shakespeare Apocrypha’ with Michael Horden in the title role and in general, despite prominent productions with Sir Ian McKellan, firstly in a 1964 Nottingham Playhouse production and twenty years later for BBC Radio, that’s generally how its been viewed both on stage and in print. There have been serious attempts recently to rehabilitate the play both at the RSC and the Globe however and this brilliant Arden edition will definitely help. It’ll be interesting to see if plays with even fringier claims to canonicity, like Arden of Faversham, will be championed in the future.

Sir Thomas More (The Arden Shakespeare) edited by John Jowett is published by Methuen Drama. £65.00 hardback, £16.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-1904271482. Review copy supplied.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Shakespeare Quiz and Puzzle Book by Maggie Lane.

In her introduction to The Shakespeare Quiz and Puzzle Book, author Maggie Lane (who's created similar volumes about Jane Austen and The Bronte Sisters) says that she’s “concentrated on the passages we are all familiar with in the belief that it is always a pleasure to come upon what is known and loved” but that at the same time she’s made sure that our knowledge is still being challenged. That this quiz and puzzle book has an introduction anyway shows how much thought Lane is putting into the exercise and she’s certainly succeeded in her aims.

Unlike the Pocket Posh, which I reviewed previously, Lane’s book is aimed squarely at Shakespeare fans and scholars. The clues for crosswords and most of the quizzes consist of quotations with missing words the reader must fill in and the name games ask for biographical details about a list of characters – occupations or family relationships. Only in the word searches does Lane assume no prior knowledge, though it might be a help given the unfamiliarity spellings.

In other words, my mettle has been thoroughly tested and I was simultaneously proud and exasperated. In theory having seen the play over thirty times in different forms, the Hamlet crossword shouldn’t be a problem but I discovered there were still gaps in my knowledge – though of course not all of the productions have been from complete texts and so I have heard some passages more often than others. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself as I skipped to the next clue hoping to fill in some useful letters.

Elsewhere – well let’s just say I don’t know some of these plays as well as I thought I did. Lane’s posers are well chosen since often the clue to the missing word is elsewhere in the quotation taking full advantage of Shakespeare’s poetry, for example, when the character is making a point by mixing thematic antonyms. But what I’ve mainly discovered is that in watching the plays I may have spent moare time following the story and enjoying the performances than absorbing the poetry. Nothing much has changed since I failed my A-Level in English Literature.

The book is illustrated with drawings by H.C. Selous taken from a famous complete works commissioned by Charles Cowden Clarke in the late 1860s and reprinted dozens of times since. They’re entertaining examples of pantomime Victoriana, all grand emotional gestures, bowed heads and pointing and give the book, despite its original publication date in 1984, a sense of timelessness. Now I’m off to sharpen my pencil. “If sack and … be a fault, God help the wicked.” Um.

The Shakespeare Quiz and Puzzle Book by Maggie Lane is published by Abson Books. £4.95. ISBN: 9780902920569. Review copy supplied.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Shakespeare Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works. Chief Consultant A.D. Cousins.

At first glance, The Shakespeare Encyclopedia is an impressive volume. Open up to any double page spread at random and the eye is greeted by a feast of colour from classical paintings illustrating the plays or well chosen photographs from a range of productions, broadly from the past decade underscoring that these aren’t dead plays, but stories and characters that continue to breath to this day. Visually it has everything you’d want from a coffee table book and even without reading the text you’re left with an overwhelming sense of the variety of the man’s work and how it has influenced culture across the decades and centuries.

Which isn’t to say the text itself is a disappointment, it just depends what you’re picking up this kind of book for. Eschewing the expected alphabetical list of entries from perhaps Aaron to York, the content is more akin to tomes with handbook or guide in the title, opening with biographical and contextual information, followed by individual entries for the plays and poetry in genre groupings. Which puts it in direct competition with the likes of the Rough Guide To Shakespeare, offering an overview of a vast subject for people who don’t want to have to wade into an Arden and just find a synopsis of the story and a brief outline of the themes.

What sets it apart, is the decision to employ multiple authors, twenty-odd academics from across the world and not straight-jacket them too much in how they structure their entries. There is a synopsis, a dramatis personae and relationships table but beyond that it is left to the author to emphasise what they believe are of most interest or importance be they sources, themes or production history rather than including all three by rote. This makes the book a more alert and vital read without the slight element of repetition that can creep in when a single author is attempting to bring the same level of interest to Timon of Athens as The Tempest.

That leaves the reader’s expectations continually flouted. The introduction seems like a fairly standard run through but two whole pages are dedicated to the apocrypha and whilst the content itself isn’t that detailed, it’s still surprising to Fair Em even mentioned. The first pop culture reference in the book is to Doctor Who on a page that also photographically highlights The Maori Merchant of Venice. The chief consultant A.D. Cousins isn’t quite as unorthodox as to gift Edward III a full entry (unlike Dorling Kindersley’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook) but the section on the sonnets and narrative poems is the longest and best illustrated I’ve seen.

In her Hamlet entry, Jane Kingsley-Smith, Senior Lecturer at Roehampton University offers a persuasive argument that far from its reputation as a model revenge tragedy, the play is most interested in rewriting the conventions set out by earlier works by injecting elements of Catholic guilt and a heavy burden of a title character conflicted by twin duties to his late father and the state. Adorned with photos of arguably the primary screen Hamlets, Olivier, Branagh, Smoktunovsky and Tennant (thanks to the blu-ray) Kingsley-Smith’s entry itself surprises by concentrating on the adaptation history of the play giving lip-service to both The Lion King and Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius.

Readers seeking a more structured analytical approach to the plays may feel alienated and also dissatisfied that pagination must to have been selected based on the popularity of the plays, with Lear gifted ten sides and The Two Noble Kinsmen just two, barely enough time to scratch the surface of what is a deceptively complex play. Picture captions are also a bit of a mixed bag. With such a glorious selection of production shots, I would have liked to have seen more clearer labelling of dates, venue and director, or in the case of paintings and sculpture their ownership and display, especially since this may be the only occasion when many of them are reproduced.

Which is what really makes this a very special volume. Similar guides contain these kinds of shots, but rarely this number, and most often in smudgy monochrome. But page after page is filled with scenes brought to life with a broad enough eye and heart to include both Patrick Stewart in the Chichester Festival Theatre and the straight to dvd production with Helena Baxendale as Lady Macbeth. Previously, my main impression of Timon of Athens is the cheap set and static staging of the BBC Shakespeare (which is notable by its absence here) but the action shot fro the Globe of Simon Pasiley Day hurling gold in the air with the Banditti scrabbling for it is enough to make me consider looking at the play in a new light.

The Shakespeare Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works. Chief Consultant A.D. Cousins. Published by Apple Press. £20.00. ISBN: 9781845433390. Review copy supplied.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company Production at the Derby Theatre.
15 March until 19 March 2011.

The pitch:
"Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company is proud to return to Derby Theatre with a ghostly tale of revenge and passion. This exciting new production will make full use of the Derby Theatre stage to bring this dark supernatural story to life.

Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company are delighted to bring possibly Shakespeare’s finest, and certainly one of his most challenging plays to Derby audiences."
Tickets, timings and telephone numbers.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Pocket Posh® William Shakespeare: 100 Puzzles and Quizzes by The Puzzle Society.

Even for the seasoned Shakespearean the idea of a quiz or puzzle book dedicated to the canon is a fairly intimidating prospect (fairly?).  Most of us probably know some of the plays very well, the tragedies and comedies most often produced and everything else as a vague recollection. How do you produce something which is accessible enough to be enjoyable for a general audience and distracting enough for scholars?

Apart from some straight quizzes, the Pocket Posh® William Shakespeare’s main approach is to present a series of puzzles that can mostly be completed without an extensive knowledge of the plays. The crosswords have a series of shaded boxes that will spell out a play or character once the grid is completed. Word searches, kriss krosses and code crackers list Shakespeare related words to be fitted in or found.

I went straight to the quizzes, which were indeed quite tricky, some questions asking for events in specific years which I think scholars are still arguing about. But I managed an (in my head) respectable 16/25 which included a guess for one of the posers on page one hundred and twenty-four the basis for which looks factually incorrect to me or at least is open to greater discussion than presented in the totality of the answer.

Which is the other danger with Shakespearean trivia – even the very language of the plays is hotly contested especially if there’s more than text being worked from. So it probably is just as well that behind the attractive wrap around cover, the bulk of the other clues in the book – for the crosswords – are far less ambiguous mostly consisting of straight general knowledge questions that we all have a shot at answering.

Pocket Posh® William Shakespeare: 100 Puzzles and Quizzes' by The Puzzle Society is published by Andrews McMeel. £5.99. ISBN: 9781449401252. Review copy supplied.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Horatio Project.

"The Horatio Project" was week long experimental residency at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in which a group of students explored Hamlet's dying wish to his friend, to tell his story. Chris Rohman of The Valley Advocate reports:
"I was able to sit in on some of the "Horatio" sessions as an observer and occasional participant. Berkman explained that he was interested in the idea of Horatio-as-biographer because it encompasses multiple themes, including the questions of viewpoint, identity, inclusion and omission, social/political pressures and biases that hover over every attempt at writing a person's—or a nation's—history. As Hamlet was instructed by his father's ghost to "revenge his foul and most unnatural murder," so Horatio is charged by Hamlet, soon to be a ghost himself, to "report me and my cause aright."
In other words, make sure the world doesn't judge me too harshly.

Northern Broadsides production. On Tour.
28th Feb until 28th May 2011.

Calling at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Scarborough, Halifax, Aberystwyth, Leeds, Belfast, Isle of Man and Kingston.  The pitch:
“What dreams may come …”

A restless spirit haunts the battlements of Elsinore. The veil between the natural and the supernatural is ripped apart, and a tormented young man teeters on the brink of madness. His choices are stark: revenge or mercy; hope or despair; life or death.

Northern Broadsides’ haunting production, directed by Conrad Nelson, employs theatrical sleight of hand to conjure ghosts of the dead and demons of the mind; bringing you an inventive and insightful take on the tortured Danish Prince.

Renowned for their startlingly fresh approach to Shakespeare and performed by a multi-talented cast of charismatic actors, come and see for yourselves why Northern Broadsides has won a loyal following both nationally and internationally.
Dates are posted at their website.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

31 Adrian Lester

Hamlet played by Adrian Lester.
Directed by Peter Brook.

Sometimes when I sit down to record my impressions of these productions, I feel as though its my duty to give them good record because often there isn’t another record at least not one as detailed as I attempt. On this occasions, I’m trumped by Michael Billington of The Guardian, whose 2000 review of the original production at the Bouffes du Nord covers all of the main points and offers few things that I could disagree with so if you’re particularly interested I must direct you there. This isn’t a cop out, I don’t think. Just seems silly to repeat the work of a master, especially when he also includes such good historical context.

This is a very sombre Hamlet. Lester delivers much of his dialogue with a bitter lilt right from the off, his apparent madness minutely modulated to the extent that his familiars notice but we can’t always. What few moments of levity Shakespeare has injected are coldly rendered, the fishmonger becoming a genuine attempt by Bruce Myers’s intellectual Polonius to see inside the prince’s skull. Even when the Gravedigger incongruously sings The Belle of Belfast City, the moment is flooded with irony because Myers is doubling the part, effectively digging his own daughter’s grave having just dug his own.

I agree with Billington that the reason we accept the lack of political context is because unlike other productions what we’re seeing is Brook’s adaptation of the text rather than omission for duration's sake. He’s experimenting, offering a kind of improvisational jazz version of Shakespeare, showing how by moving the speeches or scenes about a whole new set motives and reactions can develop. Certainly with its three available texts and various placements for its most famous speech anyway, the play is perhaps the most malleable and indeed Brook shunts it as late as possible making us wait for the release.

One of the dangers with this approach is to demonstrate how well thought through the original structure is. Like Welles, Brook cuts Laertes completely from the first half of the play and the first inkling we have that Ophelia has a sibling is when he comes thundering in later from who knows where like the tragedy equivalent of a deus ex machina, to bring about the hero’s destruction rather than the usual reverse. When he’s confronted with the tragedy of his sister’s condition, I’m not sure we’re empathising with him, no matter how good Rohan Siva’s performance is because we’ve not seen them together earlier.

Yet over and over Brook surprises.  During the first emergence of the players, Hamlet’s idol’s monologue is offered in full. In Japanese. Which means that for once we really are concentrating on the performance, swept up in the breadth of emotion that Hamlet later envies so that when Lester later cries himself at the thought it’s devastating, particularly given the calculating stoicism he expresses elsewhere.  The Mousetrap later becomes unplugged Noh Theatre and though the speech is recognisably Shakespearean, the shadow of Kurasowa is still evident, as Jeffery Kissoon's often quite broad performance as the King finds a natural home.

Billington’s review is also especially helpful in pointing to some of the difference between the original production and the television presentation I’ve just enjoyed. He mentions a two and half hour duration without interval – BBC Four offered up about two hours ten in 2001, which even accepting edits for scenes changes still leaves a bit of room for omission. Is this where Yorrick and much of the rest of the Gravedigger scene, the spirit of which now remain in Hamlet’s utilisation of two skulls to represent the fate of “his excellent good friends”?

He also notes that the version he saw ended on Horatio and the question “Who’s there?” which on tv was also entirely absent, closing instead on the poignant image of the prince dying with his eyes open after whispering his final epitaph, “The rest is silence”. The former does perhaps speaks more the theatrical experience, directed as it often seems to be to the audience as much as the relief guards. The television production makes full use of the close-up and teasing out in this case the strength of Adrian Lester’s central performance that we can see the lights in his eyes extinguish.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Rebellious Subjects Theatre in The Theater at the Tank, New York.
4th until 16th May 2011.

The Pitch:
"Rebellious Subjects Theatre brings its lively and eclectic classical work to The Tank in May 2011 with a reimagining of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Using both of The Tank's theaters and the areas in and around as their largest playing space yet, the company delves into a modern world of Elsinore where cameras, both hidden and exposed, surround the players, blurring the boundaries of performance and privacy, exploring the nuances of appearance, deception, exploitation, and action within the world of the play."
Time and ticket details.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

What's in a name?

Whilst it's true that the Hamlet we know, both the character and story have their origins in Scandinavia (from Saxo Grammaticus), Dr Lisa Collinson, a medieval Scandinavian expert based at Aberdeen University has found that perhaps the name at least traveled from elsewhere:
"Exploring even earlier, she discovered the name Admlithi (the "d" is silent) in an Irish story entitled The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel thought to have been compiled in the 8th or 9th century. The tale recounts the story of a king who breaks social taboos and consequently meets a grisly end.


"The name Amlothi is highly unlikely to be Norse in origin," Collinson said. "There really is no convincing way to explain its form with reference to any known Norse words – although this hasn't prevented fine scholars from trying in the past.

"By contrast, the name Admlithi could certainly have been used by sailors to describe grinding seas, and it's likely that sailors played a critical role in its transmission to Scandinavia. The Icelandic poet Snow Bear was probably a sailor himself."
The story itself is not a new discovery; there is a translation available online and a thorough wikipedia page. But I do like that Dr Collinson's brave attempt to imply an extra connection with the play, that it can't be a coincidence that a character whose name may have its origin in an old Irish word for whirlpool would himself refer to that in his key speech ...
"To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them."

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Faking the Classics on BBC iPlayer

Lend an ear if you have half an hour in the next six days to Faking the Classics, an iplayer hosted BBC7 documentary about "how fraudsters and tricksters have set out to fool us with counterfeits passed off as the Bard's" which has an excellent central experiment in which two RSC actors are asked to tell the difference between proper Shakespeare, a passage from Ireland's hoax Vortigan and presenter and academic Jonathan Bate's own hash-up.