Power, ambition, backstabbing

Hollow CrownPower grabs. Backstabbing. Lust. Ambition. Conniving. Hypocrisy. A weak but well-meaning ruler. A grasping second in command who viciously usurps power. A bureaucrat jealous of the nobles, jockeying for power and trading favours to get his way. Sleazy nobles selling their loyalty for petty trinkets. A cast of despicable, grasping characters all out for themselves, oblivious of the cost of their machinations on the common people, and willing to tread on anyone who gets in their way. Machiavellian plots and secret meetings. The destruction of state institutions and facilities. Heads rolling.

Collingwood Council? No: Shakespeare’s three-part extravaganza, Henry VI. Although you have to admit I had you there, since the resemblance seems so uncanny. A Readers’ Guide to Shakespeare (ed. Joseph Rosenblum) notes of part III:

Hatred ambition and greed are keynotes, while duty, trust, tradition and self-restraint are increasingly rare.

Boy, doesn’t that sound just like Collingwood Council? In Part I, Richard Plantagenet says of the recently deceased Mortimer that he was, “Choked with ambition of the meaner sort.” Sure sounds to me like someone – or ones – we know at the council table. And this description of Henry Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester (from part I), also has undeniable echoes in a local personality (or maybe personalities…):

Winchester is portrayed as a corrupt, power-hungry bishop who buys his elevation to cardinal and who seeks to overthrow the rightful, secular authority of the Protector.

But of course, it’s not about them. The Protector is the Duke of Gloucester, by the way (okay, you already knew that…).

Henry VI forms two of the three movies in the latest Hollow Crown series, presented by the BBC. Two, you say? I thought there were three parts… well, yes there are, but the directors pruned away some of the slower bits and condensed the whole thing into two parts. Probably a wise move; the latter two parts are considered great plays, but the first (actually written later than the first two) is considered on of the Bard’s weaker efforts. But recent revivals of the trilogy, no matter how long, have drawn praise.
Continue reading “Power, ambition, backstabbing”

On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death

King Lear“Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Bad’ Shakespeare Play?” asks a recent article on the Smithsonian website. It adds,

“Shakespeare, despite the efforts of notable dissenting critics and writers to forcibly eject him, has occupied the position of world’s greatest playwright since his star was re-affixed to the firmament in the late 18th century. No other playwright is as universally revered. No other playwright has had countless theses and courses and books and articles speculative novels and so many buckets and buckets of ink devoted to him. And while to works of other playwrights of the era are still performed today – Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson spring to mind – Shakespeare is far and away the most recognized.”

Yes, of course there can be. Bad isn’t an objective analysis: it’s a subjective association. What seems good to me might appear bad to you, and vice versa.

April 23, 1616. The day both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died. Two literary giants.*

Shakespeare was a working writer who matured into his art over the years. Some of his plots are thin, some of his dialogue clumsy and some of his poems cloying. He wasn’t perfect. When we talk of Shakespeare as the greatest author, we are commenting on his entire output, and its effect on literature, art and culture over four centuries, not specific lines or even plays.

Good or bad is simply a small judgment we pass on fragments, not the whole. As Hamlet says to Rosencrantz, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” If by bad it means unpopular – what has popularity ever had to do with quality? Consider, for example, Justin Bieber…

The example of a ‘bad’ play that opens this article is King Lear – today seen as a great, dramatic tragedy. Equally, it’s a play of despair, bad endings, greed unpunished, madness, delusion, arrogance, cruelty and suffering. Great stuff, you will agree.

It wasn’t always viewed as such. It was written between 1603 and 06, when it was first performed. It is one of the few plays we have in multiple original publications: two quartos and the First Folio. As Wikipedia points out, having multiple sources is problematic because the differences between them are “significant.” Any version you read or watch is an edited collation of these three.

Coincidentally, I started rereading Lear last week, the first time I have opened that play in more than 25 years. It’s deliciously dark and troubling. Suitable for our times, I suppose.

Continue reading “On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death”

The Bard’s Best? Nope…

Shakespeare bracket
To help celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (April 23) and 452nd of his birth (also April 23), the website Mashable has put together a “battle” for the “Best Shakespeare Play Ever.” It’s done up as a sort of sports playoff grid (a tournament bracket), broken into four categories.

Four? That’s right. Even though the First Folio was only divided into three categories, Mashable added their own:

The plays are organized into four quadrants based on the four genres of plays Shakespeare commonly wrote: comedies, histories, tragedies and weird magic stuff. (Okay, we may have made up that last category in order to get to four, but you know the type: the plays with ghosts, witches, gods, etc.)

So right off, you know this is more game than academia. And, you protest, there are 36 plays in the First Folio, plus a couple of others added since. This game only has 32. What about the rest?

Where are the The Two Gentlemen of Verona? It’s consider the Bard’s very first play.  Or The Merry Wives of Windsor – arguably one of the Bard’s most popular plays, possibly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth herself. It has Falstaff in it! How can any play with Falstaff be left out?

And the chart mentions Henry IV, but doesn’t specify which part (1 or 2 – part 2 is more Falstaff than part 1). Both are self-contained. Same with Henry VI: it has three parts, each a separate play, but which one is not specified. Part 1 is not well considered, and may be Shakespeare’s weakest effort.

The chart mentions Pericles – which was not included in the First Folio (FF). But it ignores The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was also not in the FF, but has since been accepted as a Shakespeare work (with Fletcher).

Then there’s the pairing of plays: odd at best, it strikes me as cobbled together by someone who hasn’t actually read the plays he or she has coupled, someone who doesn’t appreciate the differences and distinctions between the styles, categories and stories.

For example, Romeo and Juliet play off against Timon of Athens. Both were grouped in the FF as tragedies, but aside from that, any similarity ends. R&J was written around 1595, ToA was written a decade later, a collaboration with Middleton. R&J is a story about a young couple and the feud between their Italian families. ToA is about a rich,Greek misanthrope who discovers the infidelity of his friends, with no love interest in the play. They are completely mismatched.

Henry V is paired with King John. H5 is one of the Bard’s great plays, rich with stirring speeches, action, tension and drama. KJ is written entirely in verse (the only other such play is Richard II) and is mostly about court intrigues. H5 has been performed many times and Kenneth Branagh made a stirring movie of it in 1989 and it was included in the 2012 Hollow Crown series (great news! Hollow Crown 2 is coming soon…).
Continue reading “The Bard’s Best? Nope…”

Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraWhile Julius Caesar is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think Anthony and Cleopatra is my second favourite. I know it’s hard to choose any favourites from his plays, they’re all so good, but this one seems to resonate with me more than most others, enough to encourage me to reread it this week.

Perhaps it’s because both lead characters are past their prime (as I am), but – like all of us who have put a few years behind us – reluctant to acknowledge it and still see themselves as their younger selves. In that, Cleopatra shines, while Anthony looks like a guy in a mid-life crisis. In a more modern setting he’d buy a Harley or a sports car. Or, like Anthony in the play, take a mistress.

Perhaps it’s because while they are, despite the irreducible effects of age, still full of passion and life and love. They are also full of doubt and uncertainty: that makes them very human; full of the foibles that love, lust and politics bring. And that’s what Shakespeare does best: brings our foibles to the fore. No character in his works is free of flaws. Nor are any of us – it’s a lesson to remember.

It’s a play set on the cusp of great change: the Roman empire and Egypt are just on the edge of significant and critical upheavals. While Rome will rise in imperial power, strength and glory under Augustus – only called Octavius Caesar in the play – and his successors, Egypt’s greatness is behind her and she will fade after Cleopatra; reduced to a mere province in the Roman empire.

Reading the play is a bit like reading the story of the Titanic: everyone can see the iceberg approaching except the characters in their own story. Yet we cannot avert our eyes from the tragedy in store. Anthony’s comment that, “The time of universal peace is near,” foreshadows both the Roman victory and his own demise.

Continue reading “Anthony and Cleopatra”

Prenzie Scamels

CalibanFour hundred years after he wrote them, we still use in everyday speech the many words and phrases Shakespeare coined. He gave us so many, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to list them all here.

But two words he wrote have stopped us dead: prenzie and scamels. What do they mean?

Were they more of his 1,700-plus famous neologisms like accommodation, castigate, frugal, inauspicious, premeditated and sanctimonious?* If so, no one today knows for sure what prenzie and scamels refer to.

Or were they transcription errors? The typesetter or copyist reading from a crabbed, handwritten manuscript and spelling out for the folio something he couldn’t quite understand?

Scamels are something – possibly a sea creature or shore bird – collected for food. It’s a hapax legomenon – a word that only appears once in the entire canon of Shakespeare’s works. In The Tempest, Act II, Sc. II, Caliban says to Trinculo:

I prithee let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts,
Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset. I’ll bring thee
To clust’ring filberts, and sometimes I’ll get thee
Young scamels from the rock.

Could someone have written but smudged ‘seagull’ and the typesetter not been able to make out the letters correctly? Or written scams – an archaic nickname for limpets? Neither sound very appealling for a meal.

Continue reading “Prenzie Scamels”

Shakespeare Changed Everything

Nat Post reviewI have been reading an entertaining little book called How Shakespeare Changed Everything, which, as the title suggests, is about the pervasive influence the Bard has had on pretty much everything in our lives ever since he started putting quill to paper.

Stephen Marche’s book was described in the NatPost as a, “sprightly, erudite sampling of Shakespeare’s influence on absolutely everything.” Reviewer Robert Cushman isn’t always that laudatory about all of Marche’s claims, however. He concludes the book is full of,

…rash generalizations balanced by elegant insights. Rightly, he links Shakespeare’s frankness about sex to our own; wrongly, he asserts that all love poetry before Shakespearean had been Petrarchan idealism. In fact, Shakespeare’s cheerful obscenity is also typical of his fellow playwrights, of his near-contemporary John Donne, and even of a gentle sonneteering predecessor like Sir Thomas Wyatt. And besides, the Shakespeare sonnet he actually quotes (“the expense of spirit in a waste of shame”), though certainly frank, is anything but celebratory. On the other hand, he can cut to the heart of what makes Shakespeare supreme: his “preternatural ability to match the sound of a word to its sense”; that “no one produces characters with more individuality of language than Shakespeare”; that he “violates the idea that life can be fully understood.”

Well, don’t let either the criticism or the possibility of hyperbolic claims deter you. It’s a fun book that anyone – not just Shakespeare scholars – can read and enjoy. And like most books about the Bard, it adds to the growing corpus of ideas and opinions about Shakespeare’s influence and impact.

Whether you agree with Marche’s or Cushman’s assessment, no one can argue that Shakespeare didn’t influence – and continues to influence – the world.

His longevity is remarkable. None of his contemporaries get more than mild interest today, and few if any are the subject of books, university courses or lectures. I don’t know of anyone who reads Fletcher or Middleton or even Jonson for pleasure these days, but many – myself included – still read Shakespeare for the simple enjoyment of it.

Continue reading “Shakespeare Changed Everything”