Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Benedict Cumberbatch HamletFor nearly four acts, Benedict Cumberbatch, starring in the National Theatre Live broadcast around the world yesterday, is the best adjusted – and best – Hamlet I’ve seen. That the production falls flat in Act V is a disappointment, but does not take away from the many accomplishments of this fine staging.

Any performance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” succeeds or fails primarily on the strengths of its lead actor and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is very good indeed. He fully and convincingly engages with all of the character’s emotions: Hamlet’s grief, his sorrow, his anger, and especially Hamlet’s humor which is the lightest and most sparkling of all the readings of the Danish prince I’ve seen.

This is the result of the intriguing choice of making Cumberbatch’s Hamlet extremely well adjusted, considering his circumstances. Hamlet is typically played as having been unhinged by grief over his father’s death, his mother’s quick remarriage, Ophelia’s rejection of his love, and the disturbing appearance of his father’s ghost. (It can be argued that the text demands this reading.)

This leads Hamlet to contemplate suicide and to embrace a half-madness which serves both to disguise the threat a sane Hamlet poses to his uncle’s stolen crown and to disguise the insane parts of Hamlet from easy recognition.

In Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, his madness is all tactic to confuse Claudius. This makes Cumberbatch’s “antic disposition” particularly playful and makes his Hamlet particularly likeable because the whinging, self-importance, and condescension frequently seen in the Danish prince are muted. It does mean, however, that Hamlet’s contemplations of suicide come off as passing thoughts, rather quickly forgotten.

Cumberbatch isn’t the only good performer in this National Theatre Live production. Ciaran Hinds is very good as a false, awkward, and cowardly Claudius unequal to the tasks of playing either the public or the private role of king. Sian Brooke’s is moving as an Ophelia whose vulnerability is evidence from the beginning of the play, and whose descent into madness is credible and heart-breaking. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude manages to yell at top voice and convince us of her passion in her confrontation with Hamlet.

This is more than I can say for the actors playing Laertes and Horatio both of whom rely on volume when emotional connection with their roles seems to desert them. (Are bellowing Horatios the new style? It’s not a good style.) Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are played for laughs and deliver. The Player King is meant to be a bad actor and succeeds competently.

Like most staging of most Shakespeare, the National Theatre Live production tries new things, some of which work and some of which don’t. The generally accepted version of Shakespeare’s “original” text has been edited more than usual, with many scenes moved around and lines traditionally spoken by one character often spoken by another. This emphasizes the elements of Hamlet the director seems to want to emphasize and works just fine until Act V (more on that in a minute). For many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, Cumberbatch steps out of the action of a scene and is isolated in a spotlight (very effective). There is at least one instance where the characters are running frantically around on stage while music pounds and strobe lights flash (this should be banned from the stage by statute). The duel scene is so rushed and hugger-mugger that it felt like Gertrude and Claudius were alive one moment and dead the next. When Hamlet is exiled to England, the stage is inexplicably filled with black dirt, a gimmick making pretense toward grand visual metaphor though exactly what the metaphor might be, who can tell?

Finally, there is the problem of the Cumberbatch Hamlet in Act V of the National Theatre production. Or rather the lack of problem. The foundation to Hamlet’s universal appeal is his struggle against a life whose pain and demands are more than he can bear, but whose alternative – death – is unappealing. Hamlet’s personal drama comes from his eventual philosophical acceptance of or passive resignation to this condition (take your pick), culminating in Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio that ends with the words, “Let be.”

Since Cumberbatch’s Hamlet bears up reasonably well under his pain and the task of avenging his father’s murder, he never gets to acceptance or resignation. He simply dies from the machinations of Claudius and Laertes, about as happy and unhappy as he ever was.

This does not detract from my forming conviction that Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is the best and most appealing I’ve seen on screen. Not to mention the sexiest. I hope the National Theatre makes this production of “Hamlet” available for streaming eventually. I’d like to see it again.

Check out my other reviews of Hamlet movies starring Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, and many more.

 

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shakespeareThe simple answer to that question is “yes” if by “modern audiences” we mean anyone without a BA in English Literature or a natural taste for Shakespeare’s plays. The real question is what needs to be done about it.

The occasion of this question is Professor James Shapiro’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s decision to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English and the commitment of other companies to produce these versions.

As you might expect from a professor of English at an Ivy League school, Shapiro thinks this is a horrible idea. And I agree with the reasons why he thinks it is horrible. We will lose “hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis.” We will certainly lose the “music and rhythm” of the poetry. We will lose the “resonance and ambiguity.”

Professor Shapiro does concede that some of Shakespeare’s language is “difficult” which he qualifies with the word “deliberately.” Then he goes on to make a very particular argument, which is that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our Shakespeare – and not in our audiences – but in our actors and directors who “too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean.”

As proof of this thesis, Shapiro presents the example of a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” at Rikers Island during which the inmates were “deeply engrossed” and “visibly moved”.

Well. I would expect that a Columbia professor would not make arguments in the Times featuring holes big enough to sail a New Panamax ship through but as is frequently the case in life, my expectations were disappointed.

On actors and directors lacking a “firm enough grasp” of Shakespeare’s words, the question is How does Shapiro know this? Has he administered a test to a representative group of actors and directors which reflects the critical consensus of the various professions concerned and which was constructed by psychometricians to ensure its validity?

As you can probably guess from the sarcastic tone of my question, the answer is “no” or Shapiro would have told us about his data. Which makes this statement an opinion though I suppose, based on the professor’s profile, an eminent one.

Opinions are fine of course, and many can be convincingly proven, but one anecdote doth not an argument make, as I would hope any professor teaching any subject at any college would realize, and one anecdote about one performance of one play is all Shapiro offers.

Further, we don’t know if the audience was truly “engrossed” and “moved” as Shapiro claims unless he conducted a survey of the inmates afterwards and like my hypothetical test above, didn’t bother to tell us about it. Otherwise, we are going on his perception, which may very well be correct. I certainly find it plausible that people in prison would respond to a play with great jokes and the suffering of a monstrously misaccused and slandered young woman.

Now Shapiro is surely right that a good performance of a play can make the text transcendent just as a bad performance of the same play can make the text opaque, ridiculous, and tedious. But it is both grossly unfair and grossly simplistic to lay the blame for all the difficulties with Shakespeare’s difficulty at the feet of actors and directors, who have the courage to go out night after night and risk spectacular failure before a live audience, all in pursuit of the elusive alchemy of the sublime.

The fact is that some of Shakespeare’s poetry is difficult to follow on first and second and sometimes third hearing to most people. That is often the nature of poetry. If Hamlet had nothing more to say than “Dude, life sucks” he wouldn’t be worth paying attention to once much less repeatedly. Shakespeare is full of archaic words and ideas and concepts and allusions and references which are simply unfamiliar to audiences 400 years later and not every line is like Hamlet’s “when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin” which is at least amenable to the actor producing a knife and holding it to his throat. (Whether this gesture works or is laughably literal is another matter.)

Finally, many of Shakespeare’s plays feature complicated plots with large numbers of characters that might take a person seeing the play for the first time a couple acts to sort out; and while Shakespeare could count on at least some people in his audience knowing enough about the War of the Roses to make sense of the stories of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V easily enough, for example, you are only going to stumble across the occasional modern audience member who knows enough about English history to recognize the characters by name when they first walk on stage.

To put it succinctly in the contemporary vernacular, Shakespeare has a “Who the f**k is that guy and what the f**k is he saying?” problem.

When these issues are ignored or dismissed or denied or excused, as Shapiro largely does in his piece, the net effect is to limit the audience for Shakespeare to intelligent, well educated men and women with a fair amount of specialized knowledge. That is a model that may work to keep your lecture hall full at Columbia but I suspect it is not working for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. If it were, would they bother rewriting the plays?

Shapiro’s model also has the fault (or is it virtue?) of restricting the audience for Shakespeare to an elite minority. Now many of the members of the elite minority seem to like this situation just fine, and I know people who continue to reflexively dismiss anything popular long after they should have outgrown such pathetic adolescent posturing.

But if the job of teachers and performers includes introducing great works of art to new people – rather than just preserving them as exclusive objects of status for the privileged few – then the efforts of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival look rather noble, even if the results horrify folks like me and Shapiro.

After all, if lots of people see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s modern language Shakespeare, or a contemporary adaptation of As You Like It, and some of these people decide to try the real Shakespeare, and some of these come to love the real Shakespeare when they would not have come to love him otherwise – is that such a bad thing?

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Henry V may be the most cinematic of all Shakespeare’s plays. It stars a young underdog hero who wins the battle and gets the girl. It is a spectacular piece of theater, with nearly a dozen stand-out scenes, some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, and battles just begging to be filmed. Henry V has drama, action, comedy, romance, heartbreak, and a rich vein of ambiguity – all of which give actors and directors wide scope to shape their own versions of the play. Here’s how three of them did it, in order of personal preference.

Kenneth Branagh: Henry V (1989)

henry v branaghBranagh’s Henry V is not only the best film version of the play by far – it is one of the finest film versions of any of Shakespeare play – because it flawlessly executes Branagh’s vision of the hard consequences of war.

Every element of the film reinforces this theme. Branagh’s screenplay presents many of the play’s darker elements: the English traitors, the hanging of Bardolph, the deaths in battle. The mood and production design are somber throughout: Branagh splashes mud all over Olivier’s bright Technicolor Henry V. Branagh assembles a remarkable cast of A list actors for all the major roles, who all bring their characters to specific human life. Branagh fully exploits the dramatic possibilities of each scene. And he delivers the knock-out punch with a four-minute tracking shot of King Harry carrying the body of a young boy killed by the French across the battlefield and through a tableau of almost every character in the play, living, wounded, or dead, while the non nobius is sung.

If you require nitpicking, there are traces of Branagh the insufferable ham within his very fine performance of Henry V. And Branagh doesn’t quite convince us Harry and his princes go only reluctantly to war. They prosecute their campaign against the French with too much vigor to make us believe that. IMDB page for Branagh’s Henry V.

Laurence Olivier: Henry V (1944)

henry v olivierLaurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V was a remarkable achievement, and greeted with great acclaim, when it first appeared during World War II. (The film was intended to raise the morale of wartime Britain.) The problems are that so much of Olivier’s version is out of step with modern taste, and so many of the scenes fail to make effective use of film as a medium, that contemporary viewers will see it as a half-success at best.

This Henry V still makes an impact, however. Olivier is excellent as an unambiguously heroic Henry V playing his role as public leader of the English army to perfection, most especially during the St. Crispin’s Day speech. He is very good showing us the private King Henry the night before Agincourt and the appealing young conqueror who wins the heart of his young French queen. Olivier’s charging knights and mounted sword fights still impress in an era of massive digital special effects. And the diction, presence, and physicality that made Olivier a star on the English stage are all on rich display.

Unfortunately, the phrase “stage star” sums up the difficulties with this Henry V. Much of the acting, including Olivier in many scenes, is the “presentational” style well suited to clearly communicating every word and gesture to the last row of a large theater but which on film comes across as loud, stiff, flat, and dull. Olivier’s clowns are worse. They play their lines for the broadest and most obvious comedy and the clowns include not just Falstaff’s retainers, but also most of the French nobility as well as the English clergy seeking to divert King Henry’s attention from their wealth by provoking a war with France. (The “Salic law” scene is hysterical, though.) All the comedy and the many actors playing “types” rather than individual men and women make this Henry V only rarely moving.

Finally, Olivier’s production design is a fascinating mess. He uses three distinct styles. Most of the scenes in England are played in a reproduction of the Globe Theater, with the actors and audience interacting with each other, and the acting suited to that situation. The sets of the interior scenes in France resemble famous illustrations from Les Tres Riches Heures and the acting is again stage style. Exterior scenes in France, all around the battle, are filmed outside or on realistic sets, and the acting humanizes the characters by taking advantage of the power of the movies to make the smallest gesture big. All this further reduces the emotional impact of the play. But it does prove the old axiom that an interesting failure is superior to a dull success. IMDB page for Olivier’s Henry V.

Tom Hiddleston: Henry V (2012)

shakespeare henry v hiddlestonTom Hiddleston is reasonably good as King Henry in the 2012 BBC production of Henry V (which is part of the “Hollow Crown” series), and many of the actors and scenes are persuasive. Overall, however, director Thea Sharrock has made a cock of her version of the play.

Sharrock doesn’t seem to have quite decided what she wants her Henry V to say or who she wants her King Henry to be. The film starts on promising notes. Sharrock opens with Henry V’s funeral (which The Chorus describes in the closing lines of the play) suggesting we are going to get an “all is vanity” approach. She reinforces this idea by giving us a King Henry who goes to war out of a sense of obligation to his own and his country’s honor.

But then she doesn’t follow through. Instead, much of this Henry V has the look and feel of Branagh’s. Sharrock underplays many of the scenes, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech, losing the drama without gaining new insight. And Sharrock muffs the Harfleur scene, where she has Hiddleston threatened the French citizens with genocide from within the walls of their own town if they don’t surrender . Didn’t anyone notice that the English army had already captured Harfleur?

This isn’t the only time Hiddleston’s King Henry shows irrational anger and a taste for violence. He also shows it when he orders the execution of the French prisoners at Agincourt. Then at other times, Hiddleston’s King seems deeply and sincerely pious. Then at other other times, we see flashes of the old charming rake Prince Harry from the Henry IV plays. The total effect of this is not a character who is complex and mercurial. The effect is that Hiddleston’s Henry V comes across as incoherent: a person who can be radically different from scene to scene, sometimes from moment to moment.

Big fans of Shakespeare, and of Tom Hiddleston, will not be unhappy with this version of Henry V. But for those who want to watch just one movie, Branagh’s is the version to choose. IMDB page for Hiddleston’s Henry V.

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shakespeare

Portraits of “Shakespeare” from Wikipedia

The greatest and most amusing — and most tedious – literary conspiracy theory bouncing around is the assertion that “Shakespeare” the genius dramatist was not actually the historical William Shakespeare but some other far more deserving (and often far more aristocratic) person.

The various theories against Shakespeare’s authorship are amusing because conspiracy fans insistent on them so stubbornly while arguing for versions of the “truth” that often require a greater suspension of disbelief than the generally accepted “Shakespeare” story. These theories are tedious because they entirely miss what is important about Will.

But to the entertainment first. There are a couple reasons why Shakespeare conspiracy theories are so persistent. The one good reason is that there are relatively few documented facts about the historical William Shakespeare’s life, and within these few strong facts that link him to the authorship of the plays. This lack of conclusive documentation offers a fertile opportunity for the paranoid at loose ends for an object on which to fix their obsessions; or academics in need of their next publishing topic; or the occasional aesthete who is offended by the idea that the brightest star in English literature was also a grubby businessman.

This fertile opportunity is supplemented by two dubious assumptions that the conspiracy fans like to promote as self-evident facts. The first is that it is impossible for a person to become an artist of any quality unless he or she has received a highly privileged education. The second is that it is impossible for an artist to write persuasively about persons or topics unless he or she has had direct experience with those persons and topics; which in Shakespeare’s particular case means kings, queens, and nobles for the persons and the dynamics and psychology of power within a monarchy for the topics.

The first assumption of the conspiracy fans is dubious because it is contradicted by life. We can find many examples of people with intelligence, talent, energy, and determination who thrived without an elite education or special privileges. Robert Zimmerman, a college dropout from Hibbing Minnesota whose family possessed no special distinction moves to New York City and within a few years explodes into the culture as Bob Dylan. By the logic of the conspiracy fans, such an artistic life should not be possible and Dylan’s works should actually be the secret production of Pete Seeger, son of a Harvard-trained musicologist and a concert violinist who enjoyed all sorts of advantages and opportunities. (I’m not trying to bust on Pete here, just saying.)

The direct experience assumption is even more problematic. First, it assumes that the characters of the nobility and the dynamics are monarchical power are fundamentally different from those of – for example – ordinary people competing for position in a theater company. And yet we often find Shakespeare’s nobles sympathetic and their problems familiar. If these nobles are a different breed than us, why would we understand or care about them? If they aren’t a different breed – and that is my assertion – then Shakespeare would not need to have been at court to write about them and we would not need to be nobles to care.

Even worse, the direct experience assumption denies that artists possess any real creativity. If artists can only depict what they know or have experienced personally, that makes them, at best, recording clerks in whom the power of imagination is largely irrelevant.

Also, if we apply this logic consistently, then we’d have to delegitimize enormous numbers of artistic works. What are we going to do with all those paintings of the crucifixion? Clearly, no painters were present at the death of Jesus. Did the real author of Macbeth – Shakespeare or otherwise – personally know a murderous king? Because if he or she didn’t, by the conspiracy fan’s logic, the play couldn’t have been written and shouldn’t exist. Unless Melville survived a whale attack, he couldn’t have composed Moby Dick. And so on. There are convenient ways to get around this problem, of course. The most convenient is to assert that direct experience is necessary for acts of artistic creation. Except when it’s not.

These two assumptions cause additional mischief. Since they are used to “prove” Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays attributed to him, they also push the conspiracy fans to identify university-educated playwrights such as Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, or various aristocrats such as the Earl of Oxford, as the real Shakespeare. This produces some of the most fun to be had with the conspiracies, because the explanations are considerably more fantastic and more unlikely than Shakespeare’s own dullish biography.

In the case of Christopher Marlowe, as an example, the problem is that Marlowe was killed in 1593 while Shakespeare continued to write plays for a good twenty years afterwards. How does that work? Did Marlowe leave a trunk-full of unfinished plays? That’s quite an incredible explosion of unexploited creativity. Why didn’t Marlowe publish the plays himself or make arrangements to do so? How did Shakespeare get a hold of them? Were they written in secret? If so, why? How come nobody else except Shakespeare knew about them? Or if other people did know, why did they not care Shakespeare was presenting the plays as his own?

Or take this possibility. Marlowe faked his own death (perhaps to avoid a heresy investigation), succeeded at faking his death, was never found out, continued to write plays, used Shakespeare as a front to present these play, was never discovered or exposed as the real author, and presumably died in anonymous peace sometime around the time Shakespeare retired without Marlowe reappearing at the last moment to claim credit before he joined the bleeding choir invisible.

Really? As a potential movie starring Tom Hiddleston, stuff like this sounds superb. As history, considering we are talking about private citizens and matters that do not touch the vital interests of a state, it’s pretty ridiculous. The problems with the conspiracies generally fall under the categories of motive and means: why would another writer pretend to be Shakespeare and how did he pull it off? By contrast, all we need to believe about Will was that he was a slightly unlikely, extraordinarily talented autodidact.

When it comes to Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare conspiracies, I fall back on that old stand-by: Occam’s Razor. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation for an occurrence should be preferred. In this case, the simplest explanation is that “Shakespeare” really was Shakespeare and he really did write Hamlet and As You Like It and all the other plays. And until such time as new reliable evidence appears, which demonstrates that what sounds pretty ridiculous is gosh-darn-it the truth, that is where I will settle.

These who enjoy canvassing the question may continue to do so with all liberty, of course. But after a little time I find the whole debate boring. And depressing. Because what really matters about “Shakespeare” is our experience of his work, which is so wonderful, so deep, so multi-various, so entertaining and consoling. Who Shakespeare was doesn’t really matter. It’s what Shakespeare created that matters. Listening to the people who don’t understand that is amusing, for a minute or two. Then it becomes tedious.

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ralph fiennes coriolanusIn his 2011 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, director and star Ralph Fiennes delivers a first-rate movie from one of the Bard’s second-rate plays.

Coriolanus is Fiennes’ debut as a director and his adaptation of Shakespeare’s play is impressive. The story concerns a 5th century Roman general, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, who earns renown for his victories over Roman’s enemies, the Volsci.

Coriolanus is encouraged to run for consul, but his extraordinary pride and inflexibility alienates the common people, whose nominal support Coriolanus needs to win office. Coriolanus is branded a traitor and expelled from Roman instead, at which point he offers his services to the Volscian general he previously defeated and leads the Volscian army’s attack on Rome.

Fiennes places his Coriolanus in a modern, unidentified European country that feels like the former Yugoslavia in which much of the film was shot, and creates a compelling portrait of a militaristic nation with weak democratic institutions threatened by both internal and external strife.

Viewers are likely to recognize the influence of such filmmakers as Paul Greenglass and Kathryn Bigelow on Fiennes’ direction, but his mastery of their techniques is so complete and so visceral that I can give him nothing but credit for his success.

Fiennes gets strong performances from all his cast, including Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, and especially Vanessa Redgrave, who delivers a knock-out performance as Coriolanus’ she-wolf of a mother. For good measure, Fiennes gives a harrowing, malignant performance himself as Coriolanus.

My only quibbles with Coriolanus derive from the source play, not Fiennes’ work, and even these quibbles arise from Shakespeare falling short of his best work rather than some intrinsic flaw.

Shakespeare’s poetry in Coriolanus is quite strong and his plot construction better than usual. What’s lacking is the signature “inwardness” of his best characters (to use Harold Bloom’s apt word) and these characters’ ability to change.

Coriolanus never “overhears himself talking to himself” (Bloom again) and certainly does not change. That Coriolanus is utterly inflexible and lacks self-awareness are the drivers of his tragedy, and so perhaps necessary to the play. But this means the work does not quite achieve Shakespearean greatness.

Still, that leaves us with a play very good indeed, and one to which Fiennes in this film does full justice.

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hollow crown henry iv part 1The 2012 BBC “Hollow Crown” production of Henry IV, Part 1 is the perfect public television adaptation of Shakespeare. It is superbly acted and directed, cleanly written, and briskly paced, without offering large innovations in staging or interpretation.

These kinds of productions of Shakespeare largely succeed or fail on the quality of the acting, and Eyre’s four core players deliver the goods in aplenty. Joe Armstrong’s Hotspur lives up to his name without the one-note shouting the role makes all too easy. Simon Russell Beale is superb as a panting Falstaff stripped by age of his vitality. Tom Hiddleston mines gold from a core of sadness in his appealing Prince Hal.  And the incomparable Jeremy Iron combines his delectable trademark world weariness with a relish for power as King Henry IV, convincing us we are watching a man who would seize, and keep, his crown at any price.

Richard Eyre’s understanding of the relationships between the characters is as good as his actors. Henry IV, Part 1 is a play of fathers and sons, or more accurately mismatched fathers and sons, with Eyre’s screenplay and direction emphasizing how much Henry IV believes Hotspur would make a better Prince of Wales than his own son – even saying as much to Prince Hal’s face. And yet, there is a foundation of love and respect between the two men which eases their reconciliation.

Eyre’s Falstaff is even more interesting. Falstaff’s behavior has always been objectively ugly: he is a drunkard, a liar, and a thief who will do anything to promote his own self interest regardless of the consequences to other people.

But Falstaff is usually played as a person who successfully hides his ugliness behind his enormous wit and affability as well as his genuine affection for Prince Hal. With Beale’s Falstaff, the ugliness shines through and we are left in doubt of his real affection for Prince Hal in every scene except one, when Falstaff asks Harry to “banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

Harry does and will, of course. Harry often treats Falstaff with contempt and that Beale’s Falstaff is contemptible makes Harry’s rejection of him, and of the tavern life, easier to understand and accept. But not completely.

My major problem with Henry IV, Part 1 has always been Prince Hal’s sudden – I would say extremely sudden – transformation from antic to earnest. Shakespeare has Hal explain it this way:

So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

But I’ve always found this explanation perverse, and particular, and not very convincing, and more, disappointing because  Shakespeare is a master of ambiguous characterization and this piece of exposition ain’t.

I like the idea much better that a young man, born to rule and expected to rule, might wish to hide from the role he ultimately can’t refuse, and that this would explain his behavior, and make him more sympathetic.

Hiddleston’s sad Prince Hal reaches toward this explanation.  His Harry is not antic and then earnest, but instead there is an earnestness beneath the antics that makes his performance particularly moving.

The “Hollow Crown” production of Henry IV, Part 1 zips along at a clean two hours and gives you a sense of the whole play while allowing each scene to breathe. Eyre does not make an effort to approach the play on terms other than its own. There are no striking modern parallels or contemporary topical relevance slapped on the drama. Instead, Eyre trusts – and trusts right – that a genius author, good actors, and the enduring universality of human nature are all the justification the performance needs.

Henry IV, Part 1’s production design, sets, and costumes will strike the modern non-specialist historian eye as consistent with how England in 1403 might well have looked, except for the smart, beautifully tailored leather jacket Hiddleston wears. (Tom gets to keep his movie star locks rather than submitting to the punishment of a bowl cut too.)

Those who have Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V fixed in their memory will find the Boars-Head Tavern a familiar place and Eyre’s Battle of Shrewsbury a close copy of Branagh’s Agincourt, except for the snow. But these are quibbles. This film is a fine achievement and well worth watching.

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the tempest christopher plummerDes McAnuff’s 2010 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest starring Christopher Plummer is less like a violent storm at sea than a warm spring shower that freshens the flowers.

Plummer delivers a pleasing, avuncular Prospero who is mostly good company and who finds the most comedy in the banished Duke of Milan’s lines. This allows Miranda (Trish Lindstrom) to be funnier, too; and the lightness extends through the whole production, especially into the exquisite and hilarious clowning of Trinculo (Bruce Dow) and Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies).

These choices cause several problems, however. A post-anger Prospero, who has already chosen forgiveness over vengeance, drains the play of much of its drama. It also makes the character of Prospero make less sense. Prospero is a benevolent bully, and Shakespeare gives you plenty of examples of both benevolence and bullying throughout the play. When McAnuff underplays the bullying, it leaves the viewer feeling something is a little off.

This feeling is intensified by the casting of a white-skinned and red-haired Miranda, an African Caliban (Dion Johnstone), and an Indonesian Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo). I’m not a huge fan of “critique of colonialism” productions of The Tempest, but I can see their point, and McAnuff seems to have gone out of his way to emphasize the critique and then dismiss it.

On the plus side, Plummer is a delight throughout the production and gets to stretch his wings at the end of The Tempest, when he is renouncing his powers. The emotion of these scenes is intensified by the fact Plummer was 80 at the time, so that the actor and the role merged.

Finally, this is a filmed stage play, but it is a play filmed with great care. You never lose the sense you are watching a play, performed before a live audience, but at the same time you don’t feel that the camera work has been inhibited by the constraints of the theater’s physical space.

Overall, I liked this production of The Tempest and encourage you to seek it out. It is currently available on Netflix in the States.

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cropped-pgm-photo-02.jpgOn Thursday, the journal Science published a study (Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind) that found people scored better on tests measuring empathy, social perceptiveness, and emotional intelligence after they had read literary fiction than after they had read popular fiction or rigorous non-fiction.

This result cheered members of the literary community and confirmed an idea that I’ve long argued using anecdotal evidence, which is one of the most important functions of literature is to strengthen emotional intelligence.

This function also explains why literature is the only art included in core educational curriculums. The ability to accurately read the feelings of other people is perhaps the most essential skill for living in social groups, and living in well functioning social groups is one of our key adaptations as a species.

So all this is good news — which I greeted with considerable apprehension and unease.

Part of my unease comes from having observed that people who read literature don’t go about the business of becoming better people as often as they go about the business of bragging how they are better people because they read literature.

The Science study is likely to encourage the bragging folks to keep bragging about their exceptionalism; and exceptionalism is fundamentally at odds with the work of empathy, because exceptionalism encourages you to see yourself as different from others while empathy encourages you to see yourself as the same.

The Science study is also likely to reinforce certain class divisions that run right through the middle of literary reading, in which appreciation for literature is used to signal your membership in a high economic status group (ie, rich people read Shakespeare) or in a high social status group (ie, Bohemians read difficult or experimental fiction).

The use of literature as a signal of status is particularly pernicious because it actively works against the whole purpose of reading books, which is … reading books.

Instead, the status-signal readers are interested in reading “classes” of books. They read “literary” fiction not “genre” fiction or “popular” fiction, and so they look for books that conform in obvious and expected ways to these classes, in order to embrace them or reject them — even before they read them (if they ever read them).

In this world, “literary” is a synonym for “quality” and “genre” a synonym for “trash”. The problem with this is that a great deal of tedious, uninspired, self-important, plodding work is praised and a great deal of inspired, insightful, subversive work is ignored.

Now telling the difference between the two can be fiendishly difficult, especially because a truly original book is often indistinguishable from a hot mess on first encounter.

But it is the encounter that is essential: the active, engaged conversation between book and reader.

If the results of the Science study encourage more of this, all to the good. If the study just encourages more sniffing at cocktails parties, then the world will roll on much the same as before.

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much ado about nothing whedon movieIn his new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, director Joss Whedon has made a movie which is both funny and affecting – but funnily enough, more affecting than funny.

A great deal of Whedon’s success comes from solid performances by most of the cast and his choice to have his actors read their lines “naturalistically” –  i.e. as normal conversation rather than as the impossibly articulate prose or the poetry it actually is.

The result is that the dramatic elements in Much Ado About Nothing, which I usually find thin and forced, work pretty well in this movie.

Hero and Claudio, the young lovers who can easily come across as pretty blanks, are brought to moderately complex life and real pain by Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz, enough that I was wiping away a tear or two during Act V and hoping my wife in the next seat didn’t notice.

Clark Gregg as Leonato and especially Reed Diamond as Don Pedro both express the easy humor and hard anger of men used to power. Sean Maher finds a convincing seam of quiet malevolence in the two-dimensional villain Don John. And let me give an enthusiastic shout out to the comic constable Dogberry, who is underplayed by Nathan Fillion to a perfection of sublime silliness.

The major problem in this Much Ado About Nothing comes exactly where the play is – and where I expected Whedon to be – strongest: the brilliant and beloved sparring between Beatrice and Benedick in the first two acts.

This is a result, in part, of the naturalistic line readings that I thought served the weaker elements of the text well. The difficulty is that these passages are performances by Beatrice and Benedict, for the people around them, for each other, and for themselves. Turn them into conversation and you leave the audience crying, “Where’s the sparkle? Where’s the snap?”

Some of the fault lies with the actors, however. Neither Amy Acker as Beatrice or Alexis Denisof as Benedick seem to have clicked with their roles in the early parts of Much Ado About Nothing. The good news is that Acker plays Beatrice transformed by love very well, and is strong during the rest of the film.

On the other hand, Denisof never does much better than muddle through. The idea behind his Benedick appears to be that the character has been made awkward and embarrassed by love. But I could never suppress the impression that it was Denisof playing Benedick awkwardly rather than playing Benedick as awkward.

Don’t let this dissuade you from seeing the movie, however. Overall, I think you’ll be pleased. Whedon filmed this Much Ado About Nothing in a luminous black and white that pleases the eyes. His smooth jazz soundtrack is somewhere between innocuous and fine. And the de rigueur celebration scene and kiss right before the credits will leave you smiling as you exit the theater.

Related Shakespeare Blog Posts:

“Henry V” by William Shakespeare | 100 Word Reviews

“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare | 100 Word Review

The 11 Best Movie Versions of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

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Shakespeare's Hamlet

Go ahead. Cut my lines. I dare you.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays are baggy loose monsters — but Hamlet may be the baggiest and loosest of them all.

It’s hard to stage the full text in less than four hours unless you take it at a dead run; and considering there are scenes and even characters which could seemingly be cut and make the play better, why wouldn’t you?

But here’s the thing. Hamlet can look a mess on stage. But it has a near perfect harmony among its thematic elements. And once you seem them, it is difficult to consider (well, at least for me) anything but judicious line edits.

Here are my arguments against making the most common cuts:

Fortinbras

When directors are looking to save time, Fortinbras is usually the first to go. The problem is that Fortinbras is the play’s essential frame.

It is clear that Shakespeare intended Fortinbras to play this role. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the son of a king who shares his father’s name and who is seeking to avenge his father’s death and recover his kingdom from a usurper.

Fortinbras is also uniquely tied to Hamlet. As we learn from the gravedigger in Act V, Hamlet was born on the day his father slew Fortinbras’ father. Fortinbras achieves his revenge barely five minutes after Hamlet’s death. The correspondences between the two characters are so exact they must be deliberate.

Fortinbras offers two important contrasts to Hamlet. The first is that Hamlet is only interested in personal revenge. He acts with indifference to his responsibilities as a powerful prince and there is not much evidence that Hamlet actually cares he isn’t king.

Fortinbras also wants his revenge, in his case by attacking Denmark, but he won’t do it in defiance of his Uncle Norway.  Despite his personal motivations, Fortinbras acts like a politic prince.

The second contrast is that Fortinbras is patient, resolute, calculating, bold, and opportunistic.  Fortinbras manages events in his life while accepting they are often beyond his control and keeping his eyes on his goal.

By comparison, Hamlet cycles between paralysis and recklessness.  He tends to either over-manage or under-manage events, and his Act V fatalism leads him to walk into a contest that both he and Horatio sense is a trap.

The result? Hamlet is complicit in the destruction of the entire Danish royal family. Fortinbras seizes the crown of Denmark without striking a blow.

Ophelia & Laertes

This sister and brother are too central to the plot of Hamlet to disappear, but they often get trimmed.  And these cuts reduce Ophelia and Laertes’ role as a double for Hamlet.

Like Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes also have a murdered father, and between them they reflect Hamlet’s reactions to his murdered father – except Ophelia and Laertes follow their reactions through to conclusion.

Hamlet is believed to have gone mad either because of grief for his father’s death or despair over Ophelia’s rejection of his love. He also contemplates suicide.  Ophelia actually goes mad with grief from her father’s death and actually does commit suicide.

I also believe she feels despair over Hamlet’s rejected love, sharpened by his murder of her father. There is a great deal of evidence that Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship was serious (Hamlet’s behavior in the graveyard makes little sense if it wasn’t) and more than enough circumstantial evidence to convince me it was sexual.

Both Laertes and Polonius worry about Ophelia losing her virginity to Hamlet. Hamlet taunts Polonius and Ophelia in explicitly sexual terms after Ophelia obeys her father and rejects him. Ophelia’s madness is full of talk of sex and unfaithful lovers. None of this makes much sense if Hamlet and Ophelia shared a mere chaste flirtation.

Laertes is, of course, the wronged son who actually does “with wings as swift as mediation … sweep to [his] revenge”.  He acts with the kind of blinkered recklessness with which Hamlet believes he should also act.

Like Hamlet, Laertes is focused only on his personal revenge, not the political implications of conspiring with the king to murder the heir to the throne. And he dies the same death as Hamlet, from the same weapon and same poison.

One detail of Laertes story also reveals the politics that are largely invisible in the play. Even though he is not a member of the royal family, Laertes shows up in Denmark and instantly becomes the leader of a rabble ready to make him king.

Why couldn’t Hamlet have organized the same men to depose Claudius? He was, by Claudius’ report “loved of the distracted multitude”. Fortinbras would have seized the opportunity in one red hot minute. Hamlet, apparently, never saw his chance or gave it a thought.

The Player King & Queen

I get why a director would cut these speeches. The dumb show that proceeds the Player King and Queen does everything needed to advance the plot. Other scenes and speeches emphasize the point that practically every character in Hamlet is playing a role (you could go as far to say that Hamlet’s tragedy was he was forced to play roles to which he was not suited). The Player King’s speech is hard to follow. And the topic of the scene is not particularly relevant to the major themes of the play.

But I will say this. It is interesting that the most honest and authentic conversation in the whole play (excepting those between Hamlet and Horatio) occurs between two actors playing actors in a play within a play.

I also think it is interesting that Hamlet chose this text for the actors to play. The scene suggests how Hamlet might have viewed his parents’ relationship, regardless of the actual and unknown truth of the matter.

Polonius & Reynaldo

Honestly, you could whack this entire scene and not do Hamlet any harm at all. Other than hinting that Polonius might not have been a complete idiot for his entire life, and providing some additional comedy – if you want that – I don’t see the point. I’m always surprised when this scene appears in a production.

Let’s Whack “the morn, in russet mantle clad” Etc.

All of which is not to say (Reynaldo withstanding) that with a sharp pencil, and a little work, a director couldn’t easily save her audience 30 or 40 minutes of sitting. There’s not too much pure purple junk in the play, although those lines of Horatio’s at the end of Act I qualify.

I find almost every word Hamlet says entertaining, but I’m also aware other people might reasonably conclude that the man never shuts up; and if these people trim some of his words, particularly if they are making a Hamlet movie, I may not like it, but I don’t blame them.

Polonius also talks on and on, which is the point and also the joke, but generally the point is gotten and the joke exhausted well before Polonius finishes up. You can excise lesser lines of lesser characters and some of the duller clowning of the gravediggers. That would all be fine.

But please leave Fortinbras alone. We really need him!

 

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