Thursday, June 11, 2015

Measure for Measure

Can a mere playwright -- God though he seems upon the stage -- write a play in which everything about plays can be freshly tested, intertwined, and 'measured'? Might there be a comedy without a marriage, a history without history, a tragedy without a death? Measure for Measure is Shakespeare's answer to all these questions, and his most taut and hazardous experiment, one in which the license of the stage itself -- for the Globe was in the suburbs, the 'liberties' of London -- is called into question.

Here, even more so than in As You Like It, we have a plethora of motifs -- the disguised Duke, the untested ruler, the faithful retainer, the bawds and tapsters (and judges and magistrates) of every other play he ever wrote, all bundled into one. The issue at the center of it all is justice, and its application -- and it's not just Angelo who will be sorely tested. And, with Isabella, Shakespeare gives us his the most compelling and eloquent of all his female characters, one who, though initially reluctantly, will so challenge Angelo's justice that she wins all hearts, including -- unwittingly -- his.

'Judge not, that ye be not judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you againe" -- in this abjuration seems to lie the title and the whole matter of the play. And indeed, the language is that of the King James Bible, s first published in 1611, just six years or so after the play (though the phrasing of the line is nearly the same as Tyndale's translation of 1526, and Shakespeare would doubtless have been familiar with it from his youth).

Saturday, June 6, 2015

As You Like It

In many ways, "As You Like It" is the most pure, most essential of all Shakespeare's comedies. The "You" of the title, is presumably the audience; the sense is that Shakespeare is winking at them just a bit, and saying "Warring brothers? Misdirected lovers? Kindly shepherds? Wooded utopias? I will give you all of these, and as many as can be crammed into five acts." It's a tour-de-force, one that's difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off.

And what a cast of characters! Jacques is the melancholic clown, with Amiens his comic songster counterpart; Jacques gets the best lines of the play (the 'seven ages of man') and Amiens gets the best songs ("It Was a Lover and His Lass" was one of the top-40 hits of the Elizabethan era). The exiled Duke makes a fine master of ceremonies for both, while his usurping brother Frederick frets and fumes back home. The gallant Orlando and his cruel brother Oliver form shadow-doubles of the dueling Dukes, while Rosalind and Celia both represent and resist their fathers' wills, along with their own class and/or gender identities. A shepherd, a shepherd's boy, a couple of country lasses, and Touchstone, a second clown and second-fiddling courtier, make up the cast, and here's an easy prophecy: by the end, every one who lacks a partner shall gain one, willy-nilly.

For our in-class viewing, I'll be showing scenes from Sir Kenneth Branagh's Japanese-themed version, made in 2006 for HBO (if your cable system has an on-demand menu that includes HBO Movies, you should be able to see it for free). Branagh does not appear in it himself, but chooses a contrapuntal cast of actors, including black actors for Orlando and Oliver, Kevin Kline as a muted Jacques, and Alfred Molina as a Touchstone with Eraserhead hair. The Japanese setting seems odd at first -- Charles is a Sumo wrestler ?!? -- but once we're all in the Forest of Arden, it falls away as any artifice, and the play's once more the thing.

It's certainly true, though, that Shakepeare's notion of "comedy" is not very much like our own. You'd have to mix some modern genres -- romcom, action/adventure, and buddy film -- to get something that would have all its elements. Being "funny" is part of it, but it's not the main point.

So is this play, for you, "as you like it"? Your comments below.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Richard III

Renowned as the most scheming, malevolent, murderous, sly, power-hungry English monarch of all time, history -- and history plays such as Shakespeare's -- have not been kind to Richard III. It may or may not have been a reputation well-deserved, but Richard has had one change at rehabilitation that any maligned monarch would envy -- the discovery of his mortal remains under a car park in Leicester in 2012, and their subsequent re-interment in Leicester Cathedral, in a ceremony solemnized both by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chief Catholic Cardinal in England -- not to mention an escort of re-enactment veterans in plate mail, inflatable crowns for children, and a poetic reading by Benedict Cumberbatch (a distant relation). Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps wisely, stayed away.

Shakespeare, though he apparently accepted the conventional wisdom of his day, was drawn to Richard III and the intrinsic drama of a king who clawed his way to the top, and was -- for a time -- lord of all he surveyed, despite the congenital curvature of his spine (which, forensic studies of his modern remains have shown, was not so pronounced as had been supposed). And, in performance as in history, there are many Richards -- the inheritor of a sea of troubles spawned by the troubled monarchies of Henry VI and the Wars of the Roses, a man who sought to resolve issues of power even though he did not crave it himself, or a king, ahead of his time in this one way, intuitively sensed the relationship between power and display.

In Richard Loncraine's 1995 film version, Ian McKellen (above) gives us a villain among villains. Set in a vaguely 1930's era London, with authoritarian trappings that evoke Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, it transposes the play quite radically; we see an eight-minute montage of events alongside the opening credits before Richard speaks the first words of the play into a microphone, finishing them later at a urinal in the men's room. The cast is outrageous, with Jim Broadbent channeling Himmler as the Duke of Buckingham, erstwhile mad monarch Nigel Hawthorne as the gullible Clarence, a hammy Robert Downey Jr. as Lord Rivers, and a roomful of other RADA graduates who chew up the scenery with evident glee.

But is this the only Richard we might have? Could one, without violence to the script of the play, give us a sympathetic Richard, or even one we could actually like? It's been tried -- but somehow, when it comes to bunch-backed, scheming kings, a good deal of the fun lies in hating them. Like Lex Luthor or the Joker, we're not really looking for a multi-dimensional character.

So what's your impression, particularly from the early Acts? As always, reference act and scene numbers when applicable.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Henry V

Shakespeare's Henry V gives us the best of kings, the best of battle, and even a touch of comedic romance, all bundled into what may well be the most unapologetically patriotic of his plays. This is, in part, because of the dark troubles that preceded it in Henry IV parts I and II; Prince Hal is the lone Shakespearean monarch whom we get to see in the very process of coming of age, transformed from a young, impulsive party boy who takes advantage of his birth to dodge the bonds of law to a regal figure, an intuitive battle-leader and politician, who stealthily takes advantage of all who underestimate him.

At the opening, we see him still on the cusp of the Prince Hal/King Henry transformation. A gift of tennis balls from the French king in "lieu" of a promised  tribute -- galls his kibe. The scene was proverbial, the subject of a ballad that (as fate would have it) endured longer here in North America than in Britain. What will this new and untested monarch do? The audience immediately craves to know, and Henry's decision to go to war with France signals his readiness to embrace danger in order to defend his realm and reputation.

And danger arrives much earlier than anticipated, in the form of a plot to kill the young king by the Earl of Cambridge (his cousin), which Henry quickly quashes, foreshadowing his decisive manner with challenges yet to come. Further victories embolden him, and yet none is easily attained; as he readies his forces for what will become the Battle of Agincourt, he (and we) learn more of his inner mettle. Disguised, he walks among the ranks, both encouraged and dismayed by what he hears.

And herein lies a crux for all of Shakespeare's history plays: it's nearly always with the king that the audience's identification lies, and yet none of that audience -- or Shakespeare himself for that matter -- has any idea of what the experience of being a king is like. It's our idea of a king -- our notion of what sovereignty entails -- that fascinates Shakespeare. And so, just as he described Prince Hal's father Henry IV, we find that 'uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.'

And so, then, we share in this uneasiness. Looking at the play, up to the moment of its central battle, what stands out? What puzzles? What resonates, perhaps makes us think of the way power yet works today? Post your thoughts below, making sure to reference specific moments in the play as needed.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Willie the Shake

We've come to praise William Shakespeare -- and to bury him. Reading his works is thought to be "good" for you, but difficult to enjoy, like some sort of bitter vegetable (kale, anyone?) or pill; sometimes I refer to him as "Vitamin S." The songwriter Joni Mitchell liked to call him "Willie the Shake," as though he were some weird hipster poet or jazz musician. And he was all that: a poet, a raconteur, a capitalist who wrote plays for money, a dreamer, an improviser, a traditionalist, an innovator, and a clown. And far from doing all these things in any respectable place or manner, he wrote for the stage -- which in his day was delightfully disreputable, exiled to the south bank of the Thames along with whorehouses, gambler's dens, bear-baiting, cockfighting, and bad manners.

If Shakespeare were around today, he'd probably have written for television. It's a medium much like the stage, filled with an ample array of mini-serieses, sitcoms, docu-dramas, and costumed histories. And the idea that, four hundred years later, people would be studying the scripts of his plays would surely have astonished him, as much as it would us to imagine people in 2415 poring over scripts for The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Seinfeld.

In this course, we'll read just a few of Shakespeare's plays. We'll start with the rollicking Henry V, Shakespeare's most passionately patriotic play (Once more, to the breach, dear friends! Once more!), then the far more dark and twisted Richard III, a play made newly relevant by the discovery of its eponymous anti-hero's bones under a car park in modern Leicester, and his reburial just a few weeks ago. We'll then look at his classic comedy As You Like It, as well as the more complex, less funny, but more poignant Measure for Measure. With each play, we'll read on our own, but take time in class to go over the plot and main features, and discuss some of the more important scenes and passages. I'll also be asking you to view, on your own, several filmed adaptations of these plays.

Because this is a hybrid course, we'll only be meeting half as often as other summer classes -- one or two times per week, instead of four -- and some of our discussion will take place online, most of it here on our blog. For each play, there will be one or two fresh blog posts, with the expectation that, as you read those parts of the play, each of you will post your thoughts and comments. Once we meet, we'll set up a final schedule; if any of you have travel plans or other obligations, we will do our best to schedule around them!

I look forward to meeting you all at our first class -- please do note that the first day of class will be Wednesday May 20th (not Monday the 18th). You can also view and download the syllabus via the link at the upper right.