Tuesday, January 30, 2007

As You Like It: BBC Version

Helen Mirrin played Rosalind in this 1978 BBC production. I think she was a good choice for this role, and the other actors were also quite well-cast, I thought.

The DVD we rented from Netflix seemed faded: the colors were all very pale. The trees in the Forest of Arden all seemed to be a single shade of non-descript green. The faces of the actors all looked a pinkish grey. I suspect perhaps it was colorized. The sun never seemed to shine through the leaves nor to illuminate the castle walls and fields. The sound track was better, with much music that seemed fresh and clear.

Hearing the lines and the many songs made me realize that this play is both totally familiar and totally bizarre. Orlando, face to face with his lady love, can't recognize her because she's wearing a doublet and a man's cap instead of the outlandish headdress she wore in the first act. He comes close enough almost to kiss her in the scene where her disguised persona convinces him to "practice" his wooing. There seem to be almost too many set pieces in speeches like "All the world's a stage" and others, which it's hard for actors to bring to life.

Despite some dramatization, this production lacks the deep excitement and passion that can be a part of a video Shakespeare play. It's probably in part the nature of this play, in part the quality of this particular production.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Claudius the Evil King

What really impressed me as I re-read Hamlet was what a devlish schemer King Claudius is! Quite early in the play, we realize -- through Hamlet's eyes and the ghost's witness -- how effectively he has turned Queen Gertrude to his will. It also becomes clear that he sees Hamlet as an enemy, and is willing to turn others against Hamlet. Polonius too does his bidding, though it's not clear if Polonius ever had any backbone. Still, he inspires Polonius to betray Ophelia, his own daughter, in order to manipulate Hamlet and either make him go mad or look mad.

The players' performance is obviously a turning point, where Hamlet tries to warn everyone of the true Claudius. But Claudius seems determined to hold onto his position. In his prayer Claudius says,"O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon't, A brother's murder." So he recognizes his evil. However -- "May one be pardoned and retain th'offense?" he asks, because he won't give up his viciously obtained spoils: "My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen." (III, iii)

But then he continues and compounds his evil. He tries to send Hamlet to England to be killed, but Hamlet returns. His victims are silly Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern -- also inspired by his scheming to betray their friend, before the tables turned.

As the play concludes, Claudius continues to defend his evil spoils. He prods Laertes to seek revenge with a poisoned duelling weapon, and at the same time prepares a poisoned drink, determined to be rid of Hamlet. As everyone knows, all Claudius's plans fail, bringing all but Horatio to their deaths, and returning the kingdom to those whom his nobler brother had once conquered.

We don't have a clue what made Claudius so evil. There's nothing about jealousy of his brother, dislike of his nephew, love of his sister-in-law, or any hint about what he was doing throughout the many years of his brother's long and successful reign. I don't think we are meant to ask these questions. Claudius is a given of Hamlet's environment from the first moment of the play. Maybe that's why I never focused on him before.

I find Prince Hamlet's complex character as fascinating as ever. I find doubly betrayed Ophelia as tragic and romatic or pathetic as ever. But I hadn't thought so much about Claudius before.


Reading Hamlet, I have thought of the vast number of works inspired by this play. In Smithsonian this month, an article discussed how much the Pre-Raphaelites loved to illustrate themes from Shakespeare. Here is the painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais:

From the Tate Gallery website: "Ophelia was part of the original Henry Tate Gift in 1894 and remains one of the most popular Pre-Raphaelite works in the Tate's collection. Shakespeare was a frequent source of inspiration for Victorian painters. Millais's image of the tragic death of Ophelia, as she falls into the stream and drowns, is one of the best-known illustrations from Shakespeare's play Hamlet." -- Tate Work In Focus: Millais's Ophelia

Here is another Pre-Raphaelite work: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Hamlet and Ophelia" --

I've alredy mentioned Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: a post-modern take on the play. Every era reinterprets the themes and decides which characters suit the spirit of the times.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Romeo and Juliet

I just watched Zeffirelli's dazzling film of Romeo and Juliet. My impressions for the moment are from that version of the play, and no other. I have no idea of how the script compares to the original play.

Indeed I am dazzled by the sets, the costumes, and the richness of the chosen music. I love the color and bustle of the market place where the film's first scenes take place, the stark stone buildings of the medieval locations, the clang of swords in play, the howls of the mob-like Montague and Capulet followers, the youth and beauty of the actors, and the elaborate balcony with trees and night-time lighting. I felt that they mesh wonderfully with the Shakespearean poetry that elevates the emotions of gang-like teenage rage and hopeless, tragic love. The first half of the film is full of such visual dramatization.

"A plague on both your houses," ends the scene where both Tybalt and Mercutio lie dead. And both houses are clearly represented by the color-coded costumes, which I assume were also in the play in Shakespeare's time, delineating the two irrational factions.

When Romeo and Juliet -- now married -- wake up after their brief night together, she tries to pretend that she hears a nightingale; Romeo knows that they hear the morning sound of a lark. Thus she hopes that the night is still lasting, morning has not yet broken. The poetry of this interchange told everything for the audience of a stage play. But I find the introduction of actual bird songs to add to the beauty. (Some purist might dispute my impression.)

The film's Friar Lawrence, in a scene in his "cell," explains the elixir that will put Juliet into a death-like sleep. Meanwhile he stands behind a high laboratory set up of beakers, retorts, and other achemists' equipment. Before he starts, he lights a thick candle; when he is done, he blows it out. As he speaks his lines, he pours drops from a series of vessels into a tiny vial to give to wide-eyed Juliet. This visual drama underscores the impact of what he's saying.

Similarly, during Juliet's entombment, we see Baltazaar, Romeo's faithful servant, observing what has happened. Then we see Baltazaar mount a swift horse and gallop past Friar Lawrence's envoy. We know the envoy, riding a slow donkey, is bearing the Friar's letter that should have warned Romeo that she is not really dead. So the words of Shakespeare's play are made visible. Finally we reach the painful scene within the tomb where the two lovers die: the torch-lit scene is surely melodramatic, but it works. Should I like it? I don't know. Do I like it? Yes.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

As You Like It

So many fools, so much wisdom! This play has such a variety of detached observations about human nature, love, and self-deception too. Yet it's all so good natured -- irresistible Touchstone and his Audrey; the melancholy Jaques. And so many changes of direction from evil to good!

As the play comes to an end, the clever Rosalind promises everyone what they want. Of course she's disguised as Ganymede the boy, so she can make what sound like conflicting promises, and we the audience join her in knowing that all her conditions are clever plays on this deception.

I can hardly say anything new about this play. I simply enjoyed reading and remembering it after a long time away from it.

Oh, no! Not more weather?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Now it's an ice AND snow storm

Ice Storm

Rozenkrantz & Guildenstern are dead

I decided to read Stoppard's play. I'm totally baffled. I don't feel that I obtained any insight into Shakespeare's play (or even know if I was supposed to get any such insight). I don't know what the two characters are about. Of course I "get it" -- they are weaving in and out of Shakespeare's Hamlet. It's about illusion and reality in a play. But I don't see why that's a good way to make that point.

Yesterday I watched the Beatles' movie "Hard Day's Night" which dates from the same era as this play and maybe asks some of the same questions. I like the Beatles' questions better. Who are you if you are onstage? Well, you aren't you and you are you. You can start giving silly answers to silly questions from your adoring public at cocktail parties. OK. I'm done.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Shakespeare in History

To continue my Shakespeare project, this week I read A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro. I am delighted by the approach of this book. The author explains how little actual information is available on the person Shakespeare. We have no diaries, personal papers, or memoirs of Shakespeare -- and no such intimate documents for any of his contemporaries. Recording of personal thoughts seems not yet to have happened in that time. Many previous scholars have sought a retrofitted portrait of Shakespeare in his works. The speculative nature and dangers of this approach were already obvious to my Shakespeare teachers years ago.

Shapiro tries something different: to look at the social and political scene, as recorded in the materials of chroniclers, social history, and annalists. He holds up the details of the year 1599 (fascinating in and of themselves) to the plays that Shakespeare wrote. The work of the censors and licensers, and the records of publications and so on make it possible to date 4 of Shakespeare's plays to 1599: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. He connects each one to the fascinating events of that year.

Also in 1599 an unscrupulous publisher obtained several sonnets by Shakespeare. Some were poems that Shakespeare had circulated in confidence and wished to remain unpublished, others lifted from plays. The publisher produced a pirate edition of these and others not by Shakespeare as The Passionate Pilgrim.

Here in brief are some of those events. First, a perceived threat to England by a second Spanish Armada, which caused a somewhat panicky organization of a defense of the country. Next, military action in Ireland led by Essex whose relationship with Queen Elizabeth was in very bad shape. Essex was engaged in a power trip that also led to his attempt to create a number of new Knights whose titles would bind the holders to him. These events led to the fall of Essex, but from the Shakespeare angle -- they generated interest in the questions of how monarchs hold power, which are explored in the plays. In contrast to this last gasp of feudal relations, 1599 was also the date of the founding of the East India Company, with plans to equip ships for long commercial voyages and so to change the orientation of English greatness. Shakespeare also pursued the award of a coat of arms to his family, and a lawsuit to restore property from his mother's family to which his father had formerly lost the title.

These are bare-bones examples. The book makes all the connections fascinating.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Where in the world have I been?

I learned that there was a website where I was able to create the following map of countries where I have been. My trip to Hong Kong (with a day in Gangchow/Canton) means I get to count China, and my trip to a dive resort across the border of Israel in Egypt allows me to count that whole country too. The map also shows a Scandinavian country too many: I really only highlighted Denmark.

Here is the link if you want to make your own map:
create your own visited countries map

It's fun to make this map and also to look at the comments on the site from people discussing what should be meant by a "country." There is an option for a US map of states one has visited as well.

Stratford upon Avon

The photo above shows the church where Shakespeare is buried, reflected in the Avon river.

These photos date from several years ago, when we visited Stratford-upon-Avon, England and toured several of the houses and sites associated with Shakespeare.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Taming of the Shrew

While I found The Tempest and Twelfth Night much more delightful than I recalled, I found The Taming of the Shrew to be disappointing. From the first long scene that just leads up to the real play, it seemed scattered --a total contrast to the compact and efficent presentations of character, plot, and emotion of the other two plays.

"Such a mad marriage never was before" (III, ii, 184) says Gremio, one of the servants whose prose-expressed antics reflect Shakespeare's view of them. The Bard reserved prose for the lowly, bawdy, disorderly classes, I learned once. And the lowly, bawdy, disorderly servants seemed to me to dominate this play. What sticks in the mind is one scene where Petruchio pretends to protect shrewish Kate from bad food, poorly made clothing, and improper beds: thus depriving her of nourishment, proper dress, and sleep. And so he tames the shrew. But it's only one little scene in a long play.

At least I'm still keeping my resolution.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Tillie Olsen

The best obituary of Tillie Olsen that I have read: Tillie Olsen, 1913-2007 by John Leonard in The Nation online. Here is a sentence about John Leonard's introduction to Olsen and others in the 60s that I view as another rereading list:
There was a lot of this music around in the early '60s, especially at Pacifica radio, where so many of us went instead of graduate school to play with our politics and microphones, such a plenitude we took for granted, so many books so splendid, so savage and so nourishing, that they seemed to fall from some giant banyan--a Tin Drum and a Golden Notebook, a Catch-22 and The Fire Next Time, Flannery O'Connor and Chinua Achebe, Herzog and V--and we'd never again go hungry for meaning.

The New York Times was more informative (and conventional):
A daughter of immigrants and a working mother starved for time to write, Ms. Olsen drew from her personal experiences to create a small but influential body of work. Her first published book, “Tell Me a Riddle” (1961), contained a short story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” in which the narrator painfully recounts her difficult relationship with her daughter and the frustrations of motherhood and poverty.
See: Tillie Olsen, Feminist Writer, Dies at 94 Tillie Olsen, Feminist Writer, Dies at 94 By JULIE BOSMAN -- Published: January 3, 2007

And from the Washington Post, a summary of her fascinating biography:

Tillie Lerner was born Jan. 14, 1912, on a tenant farm near Wahoo, Neb., the second of six children of Russian-Jewish immigrants who had fled their homeland after being involved in the failed 1905 revolution. Ms. Olsen was strongly influenced by her parents' radical leanings and by Midwestern farm life. "I learned a lot being around cows," she recalled in 2002. "It seemed to me they were so damned patient."

She dropped out of high school in Omaha after the 11th grade and began her long succession of dead-end jobs. "Public libraries were my sustenance and my college," she wrote.

An activist and a member of the Young Communist League, she went to jail for organizing packinghouse workers in the Midwest. She began "Yonnondio" while recovering from pleurisy and tuberculosis contracted because of poor ventilation in the tie factory where she worked. -- "Working-Class Fiction Writer Tillie Olsen, 94." By Joe Holley, Washington Post, Thursday, January 4, 2007.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Twelfth Night

I had forgotten some of the plot twists, so I really enjoyed reading Twelfth Night, second in my Shakespeare reading project.

The theme of "I am not what I am" -- Viola's statement of her position (III, ii, 158) -- impressed me the most. While in every scene, the misunderstandings are comic, they always border on someone getting hurt. I felt as if at every turn of the plot, we were close to going over the line, but we were in good hands: Shakespeare's!

Some of the characters even call attention to the exaggeration of others: "Most excellent accomplished lady, the heavens rain odors on you!" says disguised Viola to Olivia, trying to impress her on behalf of Orsino. "That youth's a rare courtier: 'Rain odors,' well," comments Andrew. "My master hath no voice, lady, but to your own most pregnant and vouchsaved ear," she continues, and he: "'Odors,' 'pregnant,' and 'vouchsaved.' I'll get 'em all three ready." (III, i) The fool also does some of this snide commentary.

Olivia and Orsino, the nobles, are immersed in a self-imposed, perhaps indulgent, melancholy. He because she won't love him, she because she is in mourning for her brother. The more she rejects him, the more he tries to reach her. Though her sorrow is real, her self-imposed isolation and emotiveness seems exaggerated. Their language seems to reflect this.

Viola's disguise as a man is the simplest not-as-I-am, and the most understandable. Marooned in a strange city, she fears to be a young and helpless woman alone, and thus makes herself the servant of Orsino. But as she tries to explain the virtures of Orsino, Olivia falls in love with her. Thus occur the famous variety of misunderstandings and absurdities of dialog between them. Further, Viola's brother -- not lost at sea but roaming the same streets -- is mistaken for her in disguise. As a result, the sea captain who saved the brother's life is sent to jail, feeling betrayed, because the wrong twin (Viola in disguise) failed to acknowledge him. And, taken for disguised Viola, he marries Olivia. So several misunderstandings arise from her seemingly harmless deception.

The fool and his friends play all sorts of false roles and conscious tricks. At the same time, the beautiful songs that the fool sings heighten the deep emotions really being felt. There's a tension between the reality of the emotions and the sometimes exaggerated way the characters express themselves and overstate their case.

Toby, Maria, and their pals are all constantly deceiving one or another of their group. They especially mislead gullible Malvolio, and then lock him up for mad. Misled Malvolio puts on yellow stockings and "cross garters" (which cut off his circulation) because he wants to attract Olivia. This skirts on the cruel, but I think it goes over.

And tomorrow IS Twelfth Night. Good time to enjoy this play.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Lit Crit

At our local Barnes and Noble, I looked over the books about Shakespeare. Surprise: many of the titles for sale this afternoon already appear on my shelf from my last major encounter in graduate school 40 years ago. Still classic: Leslie Fiedler, J. Dover Wilson, A. C. Bradley and other familiar names are fresh in my mind from a trip to my own attic! New authorities have written new books as well, but the overlap is much more than I'd expect.

The Tempest

The first Shakespeare play of my New Year's Resolution is The Tempest.

Its few scenes are so efficient, each one showing the nature of one or a few more of the characters who live on the island or come in on the ship. First the shipwreck: both real and illusory, with violent storming waters empowered by Prospero's magic and his magic spirits. Before one can ask why he desired the storm, he tells the story to his innocent Miranda.

The immediate love between Ferdinand and Miranda has its own existence. It is a love that Prospero could hope for, could set the stage for, but then could only wait for. As well, we learn of the inexorable deception, engendered regret, and reconciliation of the various noble passengers. I remembered each part of the plot, but upon this rereading again I loved the condensation, the impact of each expressive scene.

I had also forgotten the interplay of the elements: water-earth-fire-air. Caliban, the earth-bound spirit, begs the rude and drunken servants from the ship to be his new masters, having already wished every evil on Prospero, who must constantly remind him of his obligations.

"I'll show thee every fertile inch o'th'island" (II, ii, 152) says Caliban of the earth. "I with my long nails will dig the pignuts." (II, ii, 172) Most of all, he wants these strangers to kill Prospero, obtain his book, and take over the powers that he hardly comprehends.

Ariel, all air and spirit, so strongly feels the emotion of the end of the play that Prospero says "Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling/Of their afflictions...?" (V, i, 21) Each delicate song that Ariel sings, his longing for freedom, even the sound of his name, all relate to his airiness. Each time Prospero asks a new magic act from Ariel, he must repeat the promise of freedom to follow almost immediately, as Ariel is ready to rejoin the airiness and timelessness of his nature.

The water all around the Island storms and rages at Prospero's command. Finally, it will drown his book: source and symbol of his island power. Like Ariel, at the end Prospero is free from a spell: "But release me from my bands...As you from crimes would pardon'd be,/Let your indulgence set me free."

Monday, January 01, 2007


My New Year's Resolution: to read Shakespeare plays.