Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?

This April is the 457th Anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth and I have to admit that everything I thought I knew about William Shakespeare’s life may well be wrong. My faith was recently shaken by both the film Last Will and Testament and the book North by Shakespeare. Both works posit that heresy of heresies that William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon was not the fellow who wrote the 37 plays usually attributed to him.

For the skinny, click on the triangle or mp3 link above and listen to the story as broadcast today on the Arts Express program on WBAI FM radio and Pacifica stations across the country.

“Our Revels Now Are Ended…”

David Threlfall’s stunning rendition of Prospero’s last speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

I had never heard of Threlfall before, but with this shorter than 90 second clip, I have become an instant fan.

Click on the image to play.

Thanks to YouTuber Guardian Culture

“Many A Vanish’d Sight”

“The Shaloms Slept Here” Yvette Silver 2004

Two items in the email today. First, word from my brother that the house we grew up in was torn down this week. It was accompanied by photos of the gaping nothing. As my brother wrote, “It was almost impossible to drive by without turning our heads to see the good old house that held so many memories. While it was no longer in our possession, the fact that the house still stood standing in the same place with its same exterior always felt reassuring and never felt like it was gone.”

The second thing that showed up in the inbox was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30. Somehow this second message made it easier to deal with the first.

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.

“From Sullen Earth Sings Hymns At Heavens Gate”

You’ll never hear a Shakespearean sonnet again in the same way. Folk singer Steve Earle makes a good case for Shakespeare being the Bob Dylan of his era—or vice versa.

Thanks to YouTuber PublicTheaterNY

High Anxiety: King John, the Audio Version

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Here’s the audio version of my commentary on Shakespeare’s King John, which I recorded for Arts Express on WBAI NY radio and Pacifica affiliates across the country..

It’s one of the least known of Shakespeare’s plays, but no less a writer than George Orwell said about it, “When I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and double crossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date.”

To listen,  click on the triangle or mp3 link above.

“You Better Start Swimming Or You’ll Sink Like A Stone”: Shakespeare’s King John

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(Robert Mantell as King John, 1915)

Recently, NPR broadcast their audio production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I‘d like to discuss a less often performed play of Shakespeare’s about another failed English king, Shakespeare’s King John. It resonates as an absolutely modern play in the sense that Machiavelli is modern: with penetrating insights into the hypocrisies and double-dealings of the ruling elites.

The Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro likes to say that in Shakespeare’s plays, the kings are brought down because they don’t understand that the pressures of the time are going to be far more intense than anything they had previously imagined. They don’t grow into their roles to meet the time; instead they are crushed by their inadequacies. They don’t recognize that the old order has lost all legitimacy and the new world is struggling to be born. It’s always a time of great anxiety for both the elites and the underlings. Feel free to draw comparisons to our own time—as you should.

As King John opens, John, the English King, is readying for war with France, with the French declaring their legitimate right over several disputed territories. But King John will have none of it and vociferously defends England’s claim: “Here have we war for war and blood for blood/ Controlment for controlment: so answer France.”

And John is not just defending the legitimacy of England’s ownership of territory—John is also defending the legitimacy of his personal claim to the throne. It’s not a given that John is the legitimate heir. John’s dead older brother, Geoffrey, still has a living heir, a young boy named Arthur, and though John has declared himself King of England (he of the Magna Carta) with the backing of the newly risen landowner class of nobles, there are those pushing the line of the young Arthur, and they ally themselves with the French to stake their own claim to legitimacy.

And Shakespeare really likes to play with this notion of legitimacy and illegitimacy. One character, a military adventurer named Philip, is literally illegitimate, having been secretly fathered by Richard The Lion-Hearted during an adulterous rendezvous. Phillip would rather be known as an illegitimate son, and give up his ancestral rights to his family property, than to disavow his real father. Rather than run from illegitimacy, he embraces it with the title “The Bastard.”

So it’s off to war. The poor citizens of a disputed walled town have to decide which of the bellowing forces, the French or the English, they would rather surrender to. One citizen of the town agreeably says that they would gladly be ruled by the King of England—if they only knew who that legitimately was. So when you decide, let us know. And in an attempt to forestall what they know will be a coming war, the town’s citizens propose a compromise—why not have the son of the French King and the daughter of the English King marry and form a happy alliance between the two forces and establish legitimacy that way?

But not so fast…

Constance, the mother of young Arthur, the Mother of All Tiger Moms, who has aligned with the French forces, bitterly refuses such a compromise—she wants to see her son Arthur on the throne: “War! War! No peace. Peace to me is a war!” So Constance along with the French get their war.

And how ineptly the English King John handles it! John bumbles from one misstep to another. The English, under the military direction of The Bastard, do manage to capture the young Arthur, and take him prisoner. But King John fumbles the ball. Because even King John’s advisors recognize that young Arthur must be treated well in captivity or the public will turn against the King. In a duplicitous world where no one can be trusted, Arthur’s purity and naivete stand out. He is the one totally sympathetic character in the play. But the narcissistic King John, against the advice of his counselors, secretly orders his henchman, Hubert, to murder the beloved boy. And in an excruciatingly horrific and tender scene, the boy pleads with Hubert to spare his life:

Arthur: Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
Hubert: Young boy, I must.
Arthur: And will you?
Hubert: And I will.
Arthur: Have you the heart? When your head but did ache,
I knit my handkercher about your brows—-
The best I had, a princess wrought it me—
And I never did ask it you again
And with my hand at midnight held your head,[….]
Saying, “What lack you?” and “Where lies your grief?”
Or “What good love may I perform for you?” […]
If heaven please that you must use me ill,
Why then you must.

This is all too much for Hubert to bear. He relents and lets Arthur escape. Meanwhile, King John realizes he’s made a terrible public relations mistake. He fears the public will turn against him for killing the boy. Hubert comes back to John, ready to lie about Arthur’s execution, but before Hubert can get a word out, the King turns on Hubert, outrageously blaming him for Arthur’s death. When Hubert protests that John had ordered him to kill Arthur, John with audacious bluster, disavows all personal blame and accuses Hubert instead. John says to him:

I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death
And thou, to be endeared to a king
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince.

Hubert can’t stand the accusations anymore, so he admits to John that Arthur is actually still alive. John is elated, and with scarcely an apology to Hubert, he’s ready to make war once more. With the beloved Arthur alive but safely imprisoned, John feels he can win the public relations battle and the war.

But in an amazing piece of plotting by Shakespeare, as Arthur escapes from the prison, the boy falls from a high wall and actually dies for real this time. It’s an extraordinary moment. After having been spared—Shakespeare kills him off!

It brings to mind the infamous scene in Hitchcock’s movie, Sabotage. There, a young schoolboy unknowingly boards a bus with a parcel that contains a time bomb. Of course, the audience knows the bomb won’t go off with the boy holding it, because legitimate suspense movies don’t have bombs go off in the arms of little schoolboys. But it does go off, and it’s absolutely shocking. Hitchcock later said that he regretted that scene—it wasn’t a legitimate use of the suspense genre. Well, Shakespeare’s scene is every bit as shocking, but he gets away with it because the whole play is about the fraying of old expectations. Shakespeare is saying that the world is that messed up.

Was Shakespeare grieving about his own little boy Hamnet, who had died sometime around the estimated time of composition of the play? Were the laments of the play’s Constance, Arthur’s mother, the bitter words that Will faced when he came back from London to his wife Anne in Stratford on hearing the earth-shattering news?

The news of Arthur’s death is so awful, even to the English, that two of John’s noble advisors defect to the French side. John is clearly overwhelmed by events: The French seem to be winning battle after battle.

By rights, here we are in Act V, there should be no hope for the English. But we know the history doesn’t end that way; and in one more piece of somersault plotting, the two English advisors who had previously defected to the French side find out the true French policy towards defectors: make nice with them now, but kill them later. So the defectors make a run for it and head back home to join King John. But John meanwhile has been poisoned, which is perhaps a blessing for the English. For now, the new order can take over. The young Prince Henry, son of John, is installed as King, a kind of mirror image of the young dead Arthur; The English under the Bastard’s military direction start winning more battles, and by some miracle, a peace treaty between the French and English has been arranged by the Church. Prince Henry forgives the defector Lords and he prepares to attend his father’s funeral as the play ends.

It’s a decidedly precarious ending. Onstage there is an unspoken pall of anxiety about the future. The new king’s legitimacy is as questionable as his father’s was. The Bastard bravely tries to reassure them that the new time calls for a unity of all English factions including the forgiven wealthy Lords–that’s the only way they can proceed forward safely. But as the play ends, the audience understands that it is not clear whether this new arrangement is really going to work.

Shakespeare himself lived on the cusp of the old and the new, in the transition from a dying feudal order to the rise of the bourgeois capitalist class. The power of kings was being chipped away as rich merchants and landowners bought themselves royal titles with the profits they made from world trade and financial speculation. King John stands at the beginning of that period, and while The Bastard recognizes the inevitability of the capitalist transition, he despises it as well. It’s a system where every person is a commodity, and thus capable of having their honor being bought and corrupted. But even The Bastard doesn’t know whether he can resist the new world’s monetary temptations with its commodities. In an earlier part of the play The Bastard says:

And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.

Your old road is rapidly aging. You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone. Shakespeare’s King John captures the time when the old legitimate has become illegitimate and no one knows what happens next.

Shakespeare In A Divided America

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It may seem as if Americans have never been more polarized than they are today. But America has always been full of splits, and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro has written a new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, which explores those conflicts in a unique way. He examines how Americans responded to Shakespearean productions at key times in American history, and his investigations are full of insights and surprises.

Click on the triangle above to hear my interview with James Shapiro as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, WBAI.org, and on Pacifica affiliates across the country.

Coriolanus: The Nihilism of War

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Corn. After a long war against the Volscians, the hungry Roman peasants demand the release of the captured stores of corn. The victorious general Caius Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, finds the revolting peasants revolting; he mocks their demands even as they agree to crown him Emperor. All they ask of him in return is that he say a word or two in support of the common people. But the narcissistic Coriolanus refuses to repeat niceties as any usual politician would; finally, all the various political factions find him so intractable and so obstinate that he is exiled. In bitter resentment, Coriolanus offers to lead the opposing Volscian army to victory against Rome, only to fall in crushing defeat.

It’s with some trepidation that I attend a Shakespeare play that I’m not already familiar with, but in Dan Sullivan’s recent excellent Public Theater production of Coriolanus at the Delacorte, the story line was always crystal clear, and each scene unfolded understandably even to these virgin ears.

It’s a play that has an obvious double in Julius Caesar: the Roman setting, the questioning of the godliness of the Emperor, the fickleness of the public, the perfidy and two-faced nature of professional politicians, the arrogance of the powerful, and the persuasive power of words. In terms of language, there are passages in Coriolanus that are the equal to anything in the Shakespeare canon, and characters that are as rich and complex as any that Shakespeare has written. And yet the play is not frequently performed in modern times. The Public Theater’s last production of Coriolanus was forty years ago. What is it about Coriolanus that makes it so … unpopular?

Perhaps because, as Dan Sullivan’s production suggests, the play is a remarkably uneasy and bleakly nihilistic tale. It’s an indictment of society’s glorification and morbid fascination with all things military, including the worship of military heroes, and the fetishization of them as a separate breed. There’s no easy patriotism, no stirring celebration of valor as in Henry V. Here, war is horrible, brutal, thoughtless, and accomplishes nothing; worse, each class in society is more self-serving and deluded than the other. It’s a play with not one hero. No one remains unscathed, the audience can applaud no one.

Which is not to say that the acting ability of some in this production is not heroic. The excellent actor Jonathan Cake’s approach to the role is to treat Coriolanus as an elite, highly trained specialist in the art of war who believes that the rest of society is incapable of understanding him. “You can’t handle the truth!” is always burning inside him, a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Cake reproduces the speech patterns we’ve come to associate with an Oliver North or a Navy SEAL.  He could have come from a television ad that extols, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” It’s  the persona of the man who thinks that in his ability to kill—and therefore to lead—he knows something that the rest of society is afraid to admit to itself: that nothing, nothing at all matters, not corn, not the trappings of power, not royalty, not politics. One thing and one thing only matters: the power of might, the power of the sword, the power of murder and death. It is only from that ability to kill that all other power flows.  And it is that knowledge, that absolute certainty,  that leads to the contempt of Coriolanus for everyone else.

Coriolanus was written around 1608, in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had always been suspicious of the fickle rabble, and as Shakespeare settled more and more into his bourgeois life, it made sense that he would become even more intolerant of them.  It’s not surprising that an Elizabethan playwright would have a love-hate relationship with the common folk—he’s got to put bottoms into seats, or stiffs into the standing pit; if he fails to do that, then he’ll have as Hamlet says, a play that was “never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million…” And the peasants aroused to rebellion in Coriolanus were not just some far-off problem for the Romans; rather, A.L. Rowse reports that contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s later years there had been a peasant uprising in the English Midlands fueled by —wait for it—the price of corn.

And so Coriolanus is exiled. In about five years after Coriolanus‘s opening, Shakespeare, too, will himself become an exile, although in his case, self-imposed, leaving London for the big house, New Place, back in Stratford–Upon–Avon, some 100 miles from his theatre. He was a man of the theater who had gotten his hands dirty in London as playwright, actor, director, producer, financier—a man who had had his hand in all phases of the theater. The old legends had it that he had begun as a stable boy for the theaters; literally someone knee-deep in theater shit since his teen years. But now he must have been beginning to think of retirement. He’s come off a string of hits. He’s tired? Maybe. But I get the feeling of something else. What if this: what if for some reason he is in effect exiled from his own theater company? Maybe he thinks he’s entitled to more money or more shares in the theatre corporation that he and the others founded. Maybe he goes off in a huff because the rest of his company can’t get along with his dictatorial ways anymore. Maybe there are “artistic differences.” Maybe he feels disrespected the way Coriolanus feels disrespected. After all I’ve done for you. In this view, Shakespeare becomes what Coriolanus becomes—a talented bitter man who has done great service and who, betrayed by a fickle public, goes into exile.

This is all speculation of course. But that aspect of Coriolanus’s personality more than anything else stands front and center in this play: the disrespected man of action. What Coriolanus can’t see is that war is a monster that eventually swallows up everyone and everything. The business of making oneself a servant of war, a wager of war, is no guarantee that it won’t destroy everything for all time. Like theater, war is all encompassing.

In the end, in Sullivan’s production, the victorious soldiers of Volscia are as unpredictable as the Roman rabble: with Coriolanus’s dead body in front of them, they unexpectedly disobey their own general, Aufidius. They refuse to take up the body of Coriolanus as a respected fallen enemy general, as Aufidius commands them. Instead, the ragged soldiers seem to realize that Aufidius  has more in common with his enemy, Coriolanus, than with themselves. They are sick to death of other people taking their power and using it in the name of war and aggrandizement.  No, they will not listen to their general, and if Aufidius looks uneasy at the end of Dan Sullivan’s production, it’s because he knows that he may soon be the next to go.

In many of Shakespeare’s plays you see the old order restored, and the rightful heirs coming back to the throne, or the forces of good becoming the new line of royalty. But in Coriolanus there are no forces of good, and we see no glimmer of redemption. And maybe that’s why Shakespeare had to sell his story as a Roman one, safely distanced from his Jacobean reality: the leaders are no good, the public is no good, your patriotism is no good, your hero generals are no good, it’s all a pile of wreckage and ashes. Better to go back to Stratford, make out your will, and figure out who’s going to get that second-best bed.

Rendering Shakespeare: Sonnet 126

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At this year’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam, where all 154 sonnets are performed, because of no-shows, producer Melinda Hall unexpectedly pressed some of us into double duty bound; in addition to performing our pre-arranged sonnets (mine was Sonnet 27) we performed other sonnets as well, with fifteen minutes notice.

And that is how I became acquainted with Sonnet 126. Here’s what I saw when the paper was handed to me:

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy pow’r
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour,
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st—
If Nature, (sovereign mistress over wrack,)
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose: that her skill
May Time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure;
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure.
Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
  (     )
  (     )

 

If this looks strange to you, you’re on the right track. It looks very different from all the other Shakespeare sonnets. As you probably know if you’re reading this, the Shakespearean sonnets are three quatrains of alternating rhyme, and then a final couplet to make fourteen lines. Now take a look at Sonnet 126—first of all it’s only twelve lines long—the last two lines seem to have been truncated—and what’s more the remaining lines are all couplets. It barely deserves to be called a sonnet. And, to my way of thinking, the content of it is more pessimistic than most of Shakespeare’s other sonnets.

Ever-reliable Wikipedia tells us that Sonnet 126 is the capstone to the group of sonnets known as the Fair Youth sonnets. As a group they speak of a young man of sexual power who, despite the ravages of time, will live on—either through his immortalization in the poet’s words, or through the siring of offspring. Sonnet 126 is the last of this group, but it appears to tell a somewhat different story: our Fair Youth might think, even as he gets older, that  he is cheating Nature and Time in his pursuit of worldly pleasures,  but it is all for naught. In the end, Time demands his due, despite Nature’s endowing the Youth with potency even in his later years—no, Nature must eventually render thee; that is, surrender him, as money paid in debt. Indeed, the end comes so suddenly, it can even come two lines too early. We have run out of Time.

It’s a bleaker outlook than many of the other sonnets. While Shakespeare never denies the inevitability of death in his writings, it is rare that he wags it so forcefully in the face of his sonnet subjects without some promise of remembrance. There’s a palpable jealousy there of the youth’s enduring power. There doesn’t seem to be a chance of redemption.

And yet, hidden within the last words is a double meaning that seems kinder. For the word render not only means “to surrender,” but also “to depict,” as in the rendering of a portrait. Nature may not only surrender him to Time, but will portray him. So once again, the Fair Youth has the opportunity of becoming immortal through his children or through Shakespeare’s rendering of him in his poems.

And so he has.

 

 

You Don’t Look A Day Over 450

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In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday this past week, Mary Murphy and I put together a short segment about the Shakespearean sonnets, aired last night on the Arts Express program (on radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC). I talk a bit about the history and structure of the poems, and then we read five of our favorite lesser-known sonnets. Click on the triangle above to wish Will a Happy 455th.

By the way, the portrait above may just well be the only extant likeness of Shakespeare done in his lifetime. It is purported to be Shakespeare at age 39. I like the idea of seeing him with a full head of hair and a sly smile.

Shakespeare Master Class: Fry and Laurie

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Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in a great, funny send-up of a Shakespeare acting class.

The two of them were poking fun at a popular British television series of the 1970s where director John Barton and the young actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, like Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley and Judi Dench, were put through their paces.

You can reference a clip from that series here.

Thanks to YouTuber CineLad

“Weary With Toil, I Haste Me To My Bed”

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It’s always a pleasure to welcome the Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet slam. This is the 9th slam produced by director and Shakespeare scholar Melinda Hall,  (you can listen to an interview I did with her a few years ago where she talks about, among other things, who Shakespeare was), and this year introduces a change of venue. Usually the slam is in the center of Central Park, outdoors at the Naumburg Bandshell. But if you’ve dropped by in the last few years, you may have noticed that the bandshell is in a precarious state with pieces of roof falling and stones from the stairs getting dislodged. Just as Shakespeare moved his company in the winter from the naked elements of the Globe Theatre to the more protected clime of the indoors Blackfriars Theatre, this year we now go to the cozy environs of Riverside Church’s 9th floor lounge. You can see in the picture above that it looks a lot like a Shakespearean stage. While it’s true that we will not get the traffic of curious passersby, it looks like we may actually have chairs in this space for the audience to sit in, which would be a treat.

I just got my randomly assigned sonnet number this week and the luck of the draw has given me sonnet #27. It’s probably the most straightforward sonnet I’ve been assigned to over the years:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

I’ve talked several times before about how I go about analyzing a sonnet. Last year’s sonnet had a very similar conceit concerning day and night, light and dark, but there is much less involved wordplay in this one. Often when I’m faced with an unfamiliar sonnet, I feel like I have to wrestle it to the ground to get it to reveal its secrets to me.  That fight results in a kind of tension in the performance that reflects the prior struggle with the meaning, syntax, and meter. But this time, especially since this sonnet is so accessible to a modern audience, my goal will simply be to relax and let the sonnet and the words do the work. In a way, I want to see how little I can do and yet still be effective, if that makes any sense.

The 9th Annual Sonnet Slam will take place Friday April 26th from 1-4pm at Riverside Church, 9th Floor. Use the 91 Claremont Avenue entrance. It’s free and it should be a lot of fun. Or better yet, sign up to read a randomly assigned sonnet. You can find the information here.

 

Just Like Romeo And Juliet

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Monday morning, my first exposure to the classics  at age eleven via the one-hit wonder group, The Reflections. It would not be until a few years later that I found out that someone else had written a similar story about lovers with the very same names. Imagine that.

Thanks to YouTuber MusicMike’s “Flashback Favorites”

Slings And Arrows

 

Richard Burton playing Hamlet, “To Be or not to be,” and “Get thee to a nunnery.”

There are aspects here of Burton’s performance that could be criticized but there’s no doubt he had the voice, emotional sensibility, intelligence and nobility of character to be a great Hamlet.

“For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally.”

Linda Marsh as Ophelia

Thanks to YouTuber tvclassics

“False, Fleeting, Perjured Clarence!”

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Impressionist Jim Meskimen impresses in this excerpt from Shakespeare’s Richard III with a plethora of spot-on celebrity impersonations. I think his Richard Burton, Woody Allen, and Garrison Keillor are particularly good, but I don’t think there’s a miss in the lot. Let me know which ones you most enjoy.

More at Jim Meskimen

Shakespeare’s Banana Republics

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I’m not a big fan of clothes shopping, so when I needed some lightweight chinos last week, I ducked into the first store I saw, rifled through the pants on the first table as one walks in the door, and found two pairs in my waist and inseam size. As I carried the two identical slacks to the cashier, the clerk chased after me, asking if I was going to try them on.

I was in a hurry for another appointment, and I know my fit pretty well, so I told him no thanks. He shrugged his shoulders, and I continued walking over to the cashier. The cashier rings them up, and for the two of them it comes to $200 plus tax. I was non-plussed. I have never paid that much for chinos in my life. I would have expected that for such a price they would have diamonds and rubies embedded in the slacks. But I swallowed hard, paid for them, and headed back home with them.

A week later, I still haven’t tried them on or cut out the labels, but I figure, let me see why these chinos are worth $100 apiece. As soon as I start to try to get into them, the awful truth becomes apparent: they are way too small. I can barely squeeze into them. My memory of my correct waist size was, shall we say…faulty.

My wife’s reaction makes it clear that, “No, Jack, that’s not the style, and onlookers should not be intimately aware of whether you dress left or right.” So it’s clear I look even more foolish than usual in those pants. So with a sigh. I’m resigned to exchanging the pants for a better size that would not force me to use a crowbar to get into them.

I’m more than annoyed, since the shop was an hour subway ride away, and this is going to kill a whole weekend afternoon, but I took a book along with me to pass the time on the trip. Turns out it was a pretty interesting book, Tyrant: Shakespeare & Politics by Stephen Greenblatt.

I go into the store, and fortunately I’m able to find some sizes of the same chinos I had bought that look like they might be candidates for fitting me properly. I take them into the fitting room and actually try them on—what a concept!—and one of them fits perfectly this time. So I grab another pair of the same size, and go up to the cashier for the exchange.

As the young woman at the cash register starts to swap my pants for the exchange, she glances at the Shakespeare book in my hand and asks me if it was an interesting book.

“Yes, sure. It’s a very interesting book. It’s got a lot in common with your store. It’s about Banana Republics.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s about the kings and emperors in Shakespeare. The author asks, “What did Shakespeare have to say about tyrants?”

“In what sense?”

“What’s the psychological make-up of a tyrant? Where does that personality come from? How are tyrants allowed to come to power? How do they rule, how are they resisted, and most importantly, how are they finally stopped?”

“Donald Trump.”

“Well, Trump’s name is never mentioned, but it’s clear that that’s who the author is directly pointing to. Julius Caesar,  Richard III, Coriolanus. The lust for power, the appeal to a false populism even as he despises the common people, and the demand for narcissistic approval from all around him.”

“Like King Lear, who had to have the approval of all three of his daughters, or else he would retaliate with vindictive power.”

“Exactly. Are you an actor?”

“No, I read a lot of Shakespeare. I was an English major in college. That’s why now I’m a cashier. Speaking of which, instead of doing an exchange of your pants, I got a better idea. I just noticed that these pants just went on sale yesterday. They’re actually on a two for one sale. So rather than exchange them, I’ll put this transaction in the system as a return of the ones you bought last week, which will give you a credit on your card for $200. Then I’ll ring up these two new pants as a separate transaction so you’ll be eligible for the two for one sale for $100.”

I was beyond happy.

And so, thanks to Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt, and a very kind young woman, I got the right size pants, $100 off my original bill, and met another Shakespeare lover.

A good day after all.

 

Dumb Waiter: Shakespeare In the Park Guide

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As the ancients said:

“Art, and the Shakespeare-in-the-Park line, is long, but Life is short.”

One of  New York City’s delights in the summer is the free theater offered by the Public Theater in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre. Usually it consists of two different Shakespeare plays, one that opens in June and the other in July.

To get the free tickets, you have to show up at the Delacorte in the morning and wait on line until noon, when the tickets for that evening, a maximum of two per person, are given out.

The problem is figuring out what time to get on the line; although there are many tickets given out, for a popular production it is possible to be on the line and have enough people in front of you so that the tickets run out before they get to you. There’s nothing worse than getting to the park and seeing a long long line in front of you, and wait for hours, only to be told that there are no more tickets for that evening.

If you call up the Public and ask them what would be a recommended time to get there, they are cagily unhelpful. They will refuse to suggest a time, rightly feeling, I suppose, that if they gave out a time, it would just mean that people would all show up a bit earlier than that and cause a bottleneck even earlier.

If you are 65 or over, or disabled—and they will ask for proof—you may wait instead on a “Senior” line. Each person may still get two tickets, one of which must be for Senior or a disabled person, but the other ticketholder does not have to be a Senior or disabled. But if you call up the box office about the Senior line, they still will be quite Sphinx-like concerning what time to arrive to guarantee a ticket.

So, since I waited on line today, I decided I would keep track of how many people showed up hour by hour. This way you can judge for yourself what time you might want to come.

So, a couple of caveats; the best day, hands down, to guarantee admission, is to come on a weekday while the show is in previews , before its official opening. Once the play gets its initial media reviews, even if they are not positive, potential audience members become more aware of the show and the lines get longer, earlier. With that in mind here’s what happened today, waiting to get tickets for tonight’s performance of Othello:

7:00 AM: I arrived at the park, and there were 35 people ahead of me on the regular line. There was no one on the senior line.

8:00 AM: There were now 80 people on the regular line and 10 people on the Senior line.

9:00 AM: The regular line now had 115 people waiting, and 15 were on the Senior line.

10:00 AM: The regular line grew to 140 people, and the Senior line to 30.

At this point, I stopped keeping track. But when tickets were distributed at 12 noon sharp, everyone got tickets.

I have to say this is the first time of many occasions waiting where the line seemed so short. But as I said before that is probably because it was a weekday, and the show was still in previews. Be aware that these guidelines would be very different on a weekend and once a show has been reviewed.

Hope you get to see some of the shows this summer, the productions are always fun, and a worthwhile theater experience.

 

 

When Most I Wink, Then Do Mine Eyes Best See

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It’s the last half of April which means it’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam time once again. I’ve been participating in the slam for the last four years, and  I’ve written about how to analyze a sonnet for performance several times before  (see here and here as well). Each year participants are assigned a sonnet, and within the space of about three hours all 154 sonnets are performed at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, New York City.

This year I was randomly assigned Sonnet #43. As I’ve written before, I enjoy being told which sonnet to do, because it exposes me to sonnets which I would not necessarily have been drawn to by myself. Here’s the Sonnet:

Sonnet 43

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Unlike some of the previous sonnets I have been assigned, at first glance this one seems fairly straightforward, if somewhat repetitious. As usual, the first step is to divide the sonnet into three quatrains and an ending couplet:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;

Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?

How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

The first quatrain sets the conceit that runs through the poem: I see more clearly  at night, when you are present in my dreams, than the dull day when you are absent.

The second quatrain seems to say nearly the same, but it’s always useful to see what is new in each quatrain. After a few read-throughs I realized that here there is a request underlying this sonnet, and here the poet is expressing his desire to see his beloved, physically, in the daytime.

The third quatrain seems to be marshaling the same argument for your presence. How to distinguish it from the previous quatrain and make it more interesting? Oh, there it is. In the second quatrain, I say your presence would make me happy—but in the third quatrain I say your presence would make me feel blessed. That’s something to hang my hat onto. Two distinctly different appeals.

The final couplet is usually either a summation of the first three quatrains or a distinctly contrary upending of the previous lines. Here, it seems to be the former, but the last phrase of the last line seems peculiar to me. It reads “when dreams do show thee me.” But that seems backwards to the sense of the rest of the poem. Throughout the poem, I have been doing the dreaming, so I was expecting “when dreams do show me thee.” It scans exactly the same so that can’t be the reason the pronouns were switched. I don’t know the reason for that yet, but I do know I can’t ignore it. I’ve found through past experience that the one difficult word or line is often the key to unlocking everything else.

Here’s an early Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday to all.

Hamlet: Spying, Identity, And Eluding the Panopticon

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The first line of Hamlet, like many first lines of Shakespeare, announces the theme: “Who’s there?”  For Denmark, like the countries we inhabit, is a place where no one is sure who is watching whom, who the enemy is, or on a more metaphysical plane, who makes up the person one calls oneself.  Identities are questioned from the outside and the inside. Who and what is real? Can we know others? Can others know us? Can we know ourselves?

Denmark is a prison says Hamlet. It’s a country that seems to be perpetually at War.  In such a world, where the enemy can sneak upon you at any moment, nothing is private. The State dominates through surveillance of actions and thoughts. The dangerous one is the one who keeps to him or herself. The notion of privacy has disappeared.

In No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s book concerning the revelation of ongoing, illegal, mass warrantless  surveillance by the American government, he makes a point that is often overlooked: it is not possible for human beings to grow and develop normally in a society where there is no privacy. Privacy is a necessary condition for being able to try out different versions of ourselves, to both invent and to find out just who we are. To keep sane.

But Denmark is a prison.

In a government where the will of the people is feared, the alarm must sound for Hamlet—Claudius warily declares that “madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” Hamlet feigns madness as protection, to save his true self from scrutiny. Madness acts as a protective shell,  the soul’s attempt to keep from being “too much in the sun.”  There is no place for Hamlet to feel his feelings without the glare of the court on him. Even his most intimate conversations with Ophelia are watched. Like the sacred ceremony being recorded by an anthropologist, sacredness evaporates. There is no room for the sacred under such conditions, even though humans must have such a place or go mad. The early Shakespeare commentators asked whether Hamlet was really mad or only feigning it. He is both: he feigns madness and is driven mad by his panopticon society.

Hamlet eludes. He puts on an antic disposition. He play acts. What is a human being that s/he can act? For centuries, actors were reviled and cursed, classified with beggars, thieves and prostitutes. They were shapeshifters, untrustworthy, not what they seemed. Worse, an actor seems to have no center. Indeed, Borges once wrote that that was Shakespeare’s glory and curse—Shakespeare was everything and nothing. Everything because he was nothing.

Denmark is a prison. It’s a prison because there is nowhere to hide. A place becomes a prison when there is nowhere to be alone, no way to find out who you are. You are constantly being defined by others, being told who you are, who you must be, what you must do.

But the actor escapes definition. The actor is subversive of the whole notion of fixed identity; subversive of the notion of control. It’s, paradoxically, in the act of acting that Hamlet finds the truth and frees himself.

When we wonder whether art can be revolutionary, an act of resistance, it serves well to remember that every government in the world throughout history has sought to control its art. Surely that must be a salve to those who are not certain whether their efforts are useful. We don’t always know what kind of art will be effective or not, but the possibility that art can be a strong weapon always exists, even when it may be in ways we don’t always fully understand. The actor on the stage is always the promise that we contain multitudes and have the capacity to transform ourselves and society.

The play’s the thing.

 

Talking And Writing: Fifteen Questions

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I wonder how some people can talk so much. For me, it’s really difficult. I mean, if I must, I can, but it’s a big effort. Now it’s true that I am used to speaking in public, and I am used to being on a stage; but that’s script reading, not talking; it’s a world of difference. And the same with writing: some writers cannot stop writing. They keep their detailed diaries and journals, often from a young age, with an enviable fluency. On the other hand, writers like myself have to be chained to the chair and desk while writing. I kind of understand this difference in writers. With a writer, the voluble ones have the advantage of being able to get that first draft done quickly, and they don’t agonize over every word. But, still, those writers understand that a first draft is just a first draft. They know and accept that it’s not going to come out right that first time. But what I don’t understand is how some people can keep talking, since it’s not just a first draft, and there’s no chance to edit it once it’s out there. It’s already published–in a matter of speaking. Or is that it? Do they simply trust that they can keep talking and revise themselves in the moment?

I don’t know what I am writing until I write it. This essay itself has gone through many drafts (not enough!), and each time I’m discovering what it is I want to say. But I almost never allow myself that same luxury as a speaker. I almost never surprise myself as a speaker. Do others?

When I do radio I much prefer to edit interviews than do live radio, because I think the listener deserves more than my unedited wanderings. I am not a fan of poetry that reads like unedited diary musings. That seems inartistic to me. I don’t expect anyone to make any sense of my first drafts.  The only time that I allow myself to speak without thinking first is during an acting improv, because to me, the stage is a very safe place, and I never have to take responsibility for what a character says.

But real life? No, I will not allow that. Do the talkers do what I do in an improv and silence their inner critic (or does it not exist for them)?  Or does the inner critic work so quickly that they don’t worry about what comes out? Or are they confident that they can just keep talking, and in so doing revise as they talk? Maybe that’s what explains the compulsive quality of some of the non-stop talkers I’ve known. Are they revising, revising, and refusing to stop until the final product seems right? Or is it that they simply do not care that there may be some unwanted leakage? In the end, my attempts to manage myself are futile anyway, and maybe I just feel more wary and ashamed than I need to feel. The talkers have such a trust in themselves and their ideas, and there seems to be no border between their inside and outside. I don’t know how to be so transparent.

But I also see that talking is used as a defense, just as silence is used as a defense. Is it that the talker cannot imagine silence being used as a defense any more than the quiet one can understand the use of talking as a defense? Choose your weapon.

Still,  I don’t even understand the biology and physics of the non-stop talker. How, I wonder to myself, is it physically possible for a person to be like a record player, putting the needle on the phonograph record and having it play straight through non-stop? Is the person doing in public what I am doing privately in my head all the time? Maybe those words are not meant for the public but for the talker? Is it that the talker cannot hear his or her own self-talk unless it’s spoken out loud?

Shakespeare talks a lot about talking. And his characters can certainly talk–to themselves and to others. But he makes fun of Polonius for babbling too much, and the silky flowing words of the King, Claudius, are treacherous ones. Yet Hamlet, who speaks more lines than any other character in Shakespeare, speaks with restraint in public. When questioned about his malaise he offers up only, “I am too much in the sun,”  and “I lack advancement,” and, of course, his succinct book review: “Words, words, words.” The true bulk of his lines are thoughts which he shares only with himself–and the audience who paid to hear them.

I think that even if I wanted to change the way I was, I could not do it.

Is the truth in the stream of consciousness or the reflection upon it? Which is our deepest self?

 

“Jack Hath Not Gill”: Love’s Labour’s Lost

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What an odd and thought-provoking play.

The play as advertised on the title page of its First Quarto publication declares its putative genre: a Pleasant Conceited Comedy. And so it is for four and a half acts. Not only is it based on a simple comedy plot conceit—four royal gents, including the King of Navarre, try to forswear thoughts of women, but give up as soon as four women visitors, including the Princess of France, arrive—but the copious wordplay, wealth of literary allusions, and satirical sallies aimed at the pretensions of the educated classes, indicate the young “upstart crow” of a playwright calling attention to his easy gifts, leaving his calling card with not a little hubris. The play is drunk with puns and verbal sparring, and with parodies of those who would spend so much time twisting words into what they’re not.  Shakespeare juggles the words, plot, and characters with due ostentation, like a strolling player with four balls in the air at once. There is no hiding art with art here: his art is all out there on display.

The play at first seems to share a theme that most of Shakespeare’s comedies embody: love makes us all mad and makes us do silly, out of character things. And like many of the other comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost employs many of the same comic plot devices  with its verbal sparring between lovers, disguises, mistaken identities, and maskings and unmaskings.

And this is how the play goes for four and a half acts. The men woo the ladies, the ladies demur, the men disguise themselves and try to trick the ladies, but the women get their own back by swapping identities among themselves during a masked entertainment. Finally the duplicities are uncovered and the women triumph, embarrassing the men, getting the men to admit their faults and their love. It’s just at this juncture in the other comedies where there would be a laughing, a forgiving,  and the men and women would conclude by dancing a merry jig, with weddings in the air. That’s what the theatrical clock anyway says should happen here, given the stage time left to wrap up.

But here instead in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare does an extraordinary thing. A messenger delivers the news from France that the Princess’s father has died. The news casts a terrible pall on the proceedings and causes the women to withdraw completely. Even though the men earnestly declare their love for the women as honestly as they can, the women will have none of it; they are too perturbed by sorrow and get ready to go back home to France. It’s a remarkable moment; it’s as if someone had come out and said to the audience, sorry folks, there’s no comedy tonight, one of the actors has died. . .we tried to keep your sorrows at bay for the last few hours, but unhappy reality always creeps in, and so it has again. The women must go home to mourn; they say that they will be back in twelve months, but only if the men can prove they have become better people, and have done genuine social penance in that time.  And we are left hanging.

In construction, Love’s Labour’s Lost is unique in the Shakespeare canon. Although other Shakespeare plays shift gears in the final moments as Love’s Labour’s Lost does, those other so-called “problem plays” —Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, and All’s Well that Ends Well, for exampledo so in a decidedly different way. Those plays start off as apparent tragedies, and then suddenly by a happy turn of events, often due to an act of bold and generous forgiveness, lovers are reconciled, friendships are repaired, and the world is righted once again. But not so in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Its construction is the very opposite of the problem plays. It seems to have every intention of being a comedy, but in the last moments the play morphs into sadness, snatched from the jaws of happiness. As far as I know, Shakespeare doesn’t do that anywhere else.

In another play, the unhappy turn of events at the end might serve as a plot twist in the middle of the play, only to be merrily overcome by the end. But no such luck in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The time is out of joint. One of the men announces quite openly to the other players (and the audience):

BEROWNE:

Our wooing doth not end like an old play:

Jack hath not Gill. These ladies’ courtesy

Might well have made our sport a comedy.

 

KING.

Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an’ a day,

And then ’twill end.

 

BEROWNE:

That’s too long for a play.

 

The play ends with a song, not by the assembled would-be lovers, but by players representing Spring and Winter, introduced by Armado, a foolish visiting nobleman. The song about spring warns married couples that they are subject to being cuckolded, while the song about winter reminds the assembled of all the chores and drudgery that the cold weather brings, albeit bringing perhaps a kind of small domestic satisfaction. When the songs are over Armado says in a bittersweet curtain speech, “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” Mercury traditionally was the deliverer of messages, while Apollo was the God of art, music and poetry.  It was as if Shakespeare were saying, as an artist he could ease you with the comforts of art, but he couldn’t close his eyes to what life could bring at any moment. One unfortunate  message is enough to turn any happiness upside down. It is an odd, odd ending for a comedy. The curtain comes down as Armado says, “You that way, we this way.”

Who is Armado addressing that line to?  Who is the “you” and the “we”? The men and the women of the play?  The audience and the actors? Or Shakespeare and everybody else? For community and the very act of storytelling seem to be at root the very essence of comedy, yet Shakespeare insists on ending with a separation.

It was an audacious jump. Shakespeare wanted to go “that way,” differently from the “this way” of others. He could set a plot in motion as well as any other trifling theatrical, he could parry and thrust his wit as sharply as any of his peers. But in the end he wanted something different. By this time, he had already thrown Aristotle out the window—no precious Unities of time and place for him, the world was too encompassing for that—but he now also wanted to do away with false endings that spoke of finality, when the truth was that everything one knows can change in an instant, and happiness can turn into sadness in a heartbeat.

What could have prompted such a desire in the playwright at this time? The Quarto title page may provide a clue. It was printed in 1598, but the notice on the page declares that it had been performed for the Queen the previous Christmas in 1597. So it’s not unlikely that the play was composed around 1596-1597. But in 1596, the successful London playwright got a visit from Mercury himself with the news from Stratford-On-Avon: Shakespeare’s only son, eleven-year-old Hamnet, had died. Was it this awful blow that turned a sunny comedy into a darker meditation on the ephemeral nature of life? I think it must be so.

What must Will’s audiences have thought of the play? It was thought well enough of, that it was published in several Quarto and Folio editions. But perhaps that was for the more literary-minded, because actual productions of the play after its initial performances were few and far between until the 20th century. I think, ultimately, that the play was not a crowd-pleaser. In short order, the practical-minded impresario Shakespeare eventually came to his senses, and never wrote such a bitter comedy again. In truth, the very comedic form which Love’s Labour’s Lost subverts is exactly the kind of comedy that Shakespeare then goes ahead and writes for the next decade.  He never seeks to end a comedy in such a melancholy way again. So figuratively he writes with one hand behind his back, and the titles give his contempt away: As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night or What You Will— that’s what you want from Will, that’s what you will get.

He never did write a comedy like Love’s Labour’s Lost again, although certainly he expressed the darker side of his nature in the tragedies and the histories. He retired after 37 plays, a wealthy man, with a newly minted coat-of-arms, to his house in Stratford-on-Avon. But Love’s Labour’s Lost stands as a bold experiment in form by a young playwright near the peak of his powers who once allowed Mercury’s harsh words to interrupt Apollo’s song.