Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

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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Hamlet David TennantBased on its reputation, I was expecting to like the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant, much better than I did.

Every Hamlet rises or falls on the performance of the title-role actor, and Tennant had both strengths and problems. He has the perfect look for the part, and he nailed the Danish prince’s anxiety and snark. But when it came to exploring Hamlet’s anguish and rage, he fell back on acting BIGGER and LOUDER. As I result, I don’t think Tennant connected with full emotion to the part, so I didn’t feel much emotion watching him.

Another problematic performance was Patrick Stewart’s Claudius.  I liked his wise and even-tempered reading; however, Stewart’s usurper was so amiable that he failed to convince me he could kick a dog much less kill his brother, seduce his brother’s wife, and plot the treacherous murder of their son.

On the plus side, the women of the play were pretty good. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia was strong and self-possessed, even in madness where she was more angry than wounded. (Jean Simmons’ guppy out of water reading of Ophelia in Olivier’s movie version was a low point of Hamlet on film.) Penny Downie’s Gertrude was quite good, too, except for the Act IV bedroom scene with Tennant, when she seem to fight his big and loud with her own big and loud.

Also on the plus side, Doran’s Hamlet is funny. He seizes every opportunity the play allows to read lines as comic. This means Polonius really takes it on the chin, although I also enjoyed the utter bafflement Tom Davey’s Guildenstern projected whenever the dialogue didn’t require him to reveal a faint glimmer of understanding. (He gave Osric a run for his money. ) Good fun too were the expressions of impatience, disbelief, credulity, and exasperation the actors wore whenever anyone, not just Polonius, made a long speech. All the joking diminished the tragic punch of the staging, however.

Now, my quibbles. I have no idea in what time period this Hamlet was meant to be set. Tennant was the complete modern hipster. Horatio dressed like a middle-aged academic circa 1982. Claudius and Gertrude had the air of a rich mid-20th century power couple. Polonius resembled an Elizabethan courtier on dress-down day. Different soldiers carried weapons from vastly different centuries. If there was a point to all this variety, I missed it.

Finally, Doran cut roughly seven lines from “To be, or not to be”.  God knows there are vast tracks of Shakespeare – particularly in the history plays – which can be given the boot to everyone’s benefit, but editing Hamlet’s most famous speech accomplishes nothing beyond gratuitous shock value.

On my Hamlet list, I’d put the Tennant version right above Ethan Hawke’s. See my list of best Hamlet movies.

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Henry V by William ShakespeareIn Henry V, Shakespeare finds his “muse of fire” and she blinds us with her dazzling light.

Henry V is a play of almost ridiculous dramatic richness in which the scrappy, underdog Harry wins the battle of Agincourt, seizes his rightful French throne, and gets the King’s daughter. Hooray!

Except the war is justified by dubious arguments and provoked by the English clergy, who are eager to distract Henry from confiscating their wealth. Henry captures the French town of Harfleur after threatening genocide. He orders the slaughter of prisoners and leaves 10,000 French knights and soldiers dead on the field. Every friend of his youth, except one, is gone. They die in the battle, by execution after Henry’s judgment, or in the case of Falstaff, cold in bed with a wandering mind and a heart broken by the king.

In the end, it all comes to naught. The last lines of the play tell us Henry dies young, leaving England to be misruled by his infant son and a group of nobles who lose all that Henry won and spill more blood. But it was still worth it and Henry is still a hero. Right?

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As You Like It - The New Cambridge Shakespeare book coverIn As You Like It, Shakespeare banishes all unhappiness, unless it springs from love.

The play follows a multitude of characters driven from a nobleman’s court to exile in the Forest of Arden, where they find refuge from the ambition, intrigue, envy, and striving of the world.

There a usurped Duke philosophizes on his new freedom; a lord tends his melancholy like a garden; and the clown Touchstone pursues his fooling to the edge of the sublime – but the show belongs to the misery and ecstasy of love and to the superlative Rosalind, mistress of all situations and persons except her own wild heart.

There are familiar Shakespearian tropes in As You Like It. The instantaneous and absolute way love conquers. The woman dressed as a man who hides from her love and is loved by the wrong person in turn. And the character who arranges events to create maximum drama, even as the audience is left wondering what motivates her manipulations.

No matter. The dialogue is superb. Rosalind bewitches men and women, on and off stage, in equal measure. And all ends happy in this most delicate of Shakespeare’s comedies.

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Which is the best Hamlet movie?  Here are my assessments of the film adaptations of Hamlet I’ve seen in order of personal preference. “Have at you now!”

1. Richard Burton: Hamlet 1964.

Richard Burton wins the title “best Hamlet” with the range, insight, and power of his acting in this filmed stage production. Burton plays all of Hamlet’s emotions with extraordinary conviction: grief, fear, doubt, anger, indifference, easy acceptance. His transitions from line to line and emotion to emotion feel like the natural consequence of the previous idea and feeling. When he his funny, Burton is funny without the viciousness or condescension you often see in other performances. No Hamlet has ever sounded better. The sheer physical stamina of Burton’s work is impressive. And all this outweighs the serious limitations director John Gielgud faced filming a live performance in a Broadway theater as well as some less than stellar acting in the other roles. IMDb page

2. Kenneth Branagh: Hamlet 1996.

Branagh’s performance swings wildly between Hamlet’s famous indecision and the Danish prince’s other signature (but often overlooked) characteristic: his recklessness. This choice creates a satisfying Hamlet and turns Branagh’s conspicuous habit of overacting into a virtue. Branagh films the whole text, and so includes the essential framing character of Fortinbras and allows us to fully see how Laertes and Ophelia together serve as a double for Hamlet. Some of Branagh’s directing is very fine (the two-way mirror in “To be, or not to be”) and some of it is not. The ghost scene in 1.5 is unwatchable, and Branagh stages the climactic duel in action-movie land. IMDb page

3. Laurence Olivier: Hamlet 1948.

Olivier is the better actor, and gives a better performance, but his concentration on Hamlet’s indecision makes less sense than Branagh’s choices. (Could an always-hesitating Hamlet improvise the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or jump into the middle of a battle with pirates?) Olivier edits the text so heavily that the story is unintelligible unless you know it. The way his camera stalks the corridors of dark, Freudian Elsinore castle hasn’t aged particularly well. And Olivier’s ditzy, hysterical Ophelia – played by Jean Simmons – not only offends contemporary tastes, but also begs the question, “What does Hamlet see in her?” IMDb page

4. Derek Jacobi: Hamlet 1980.

Derek Jacobi plays Hamlet as amazed by his weakness, rather than desperate for strength, and is one of the few Danish Princes who feels like he could actually be the son of a warrior king. Jacobi’s voice has an extraordinary range of emotional colors, and his acting is often supple and subtle. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is uneven and in some scenes, dull. This version is filmed like the stodgy stage play it is with the occasional rough close-up, for which none of the actors except Jacobi seem prepared. IMDb page

5. Benedict Cumberbatch: Hamlet 2015.

Cumberbatch’s superb Hamlet is marred by the choice of making his Danish prince entirely sane and pretty well adjusted. This makes Cumberbatch the most appealing and engaging Hamlet on my list, but it also robs his Hamlet of the philosophical transformation that powers the last third of the play, leaving the end feeling rushed and flat. Some clunker performances among the supporting cast and staging a bit heavy on gimmicky spectacle also knock this version down the list. My longer review of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is here. IMDB page

6. Mel Gibson: Hamlet 1990.

A “Mad Max” Hamlet is a piece of stunt casting, but Gibson climbs into the middle of the list by exceeding expectations. He’s really not bad. Gibson’s Hamlet is angry, wounded, and fearful, and he brings off the role well. There are strong actors throughout the supporting cast who are interesting in their roles. Zeffirelli substitutes his habitual spectacle for any fresh ideas about the play, however. IMDb page

7. Nicol Williamson: Hamlet 1969 and 8. Kevin Kline: Hamlet 1990.

Both of these performances are solid, intelligent, and affecting. But they are also familiar. With so many Hamlets on film, Williamson’s and Kline’s successes are less fun than the interesting failures below. IMDb page Williamson and IMDb page Kline

9. David Tennant: Hamlet 2009.

This 2009 Royal Shakespeare Production productively mines the play for maximum humor but comes up short on emotional punch. David Tennant nails Hamlet’s jokes, and his fear, but falls back on acting louder when he plays the Danish Prince’s anger and grief. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is charismatic but doesn’t quite seem the fratricidal type. My longer review of Tennant’s Hamlet is here. IMDb page

10. Ethan Hawke: Hamlet 2000.

Much of the plot of Hamlet ceases to make sense when it is set in modern New York City, as this version is. But Ethan Hawke’s louche, slacker Hamlet is perfect for its time and his “To be, or not to be”” is superb. IMDb page

11. Campbell Scott: Hamlet 2000.

Most actors play Hamlet as unsteady but basically sane. Scott’s Hamlet is actually unhinged, which is what makes this performance from a good actor so intriguing. The problem is that a Hamlet who has actually suffered a mental breakdown would be unable to function in the play after Act 2. A supporting cast that is adequate at best doesn’t help matters. IMDb page

TBD. Innokenty Smoktunovsky: Hamlet 1964.

I need to track down a full version of this Russian language Hamlet before I can offer a capsule review. However, the clips available on the internet look promising as does the Shostakovich score. The production designer for Olivier’s film should demand royalty payments from the Russians, however. IMDb page

12. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hamlet 1993.

Arnold’s hilarious turn as the perfect anti-Hamlet in The Last Action Hero is not to be missed by fans of the Danish prince. Here’s the video from YouTube:

How Many Hamlet Movies Are There?

That depends on how you want to count them. Two recent film versions of HamletDavid Melville in 2010 and Bruce Ramsay in 2011, both cut the play to a running time of under 90 minutes. Iain Glen played Hamlet in scenes of the 1990 film version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. There are many film adaptations “inspired” by Hamlet, from The Lion King to the just released Haider set in Kashmir. A good Wikipedia article says there are more than 50 film adaptations of Hamlet. My counting criteria is more strict (a reasonably intact version of the original text) which is why Melville and Ramsay fall here. This criteria should exclude Schwarzenegger from the running too, of course, but Arnold was simply too funny to consign to a footnote.

Related Hamlet and Shakespeare Content

Here is my discussion of the Thematic-Structural Perfection of Hamlet, which is an odd claim to make since the plot of Hamlet sure seems like a hot mess. I believe I make my case, however. Also I quite fond of my 100 word review of As You Like It and my 100 word review of Henry V.

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