Tag Archives: Shakespeare

The Special Shakespearian Effect

19 Jul

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“FORBIDDEN PLANET” AND “THE TEMPEST”

  James Burbage towards the end of the sixteenth century, having built the successful “Globe” using the wooden frame from his original playhouse “The Theatre,” acquired a stone-built hall at Black Friars. The building stood on the grounds of the old Dominican Monastery which had been used variously over the years. Rather than an open air theatre, where the actors were subjected to the elements and limited to a wooden scaffold in the center of the viewing public, Black Friars was the precursor of what we today would consider a modern stage location. The Black Friar’s allowed for performances sheltered from the elements and where for the first time the use of stage magic or, in Hollywood parlance, special-effects could be utilized with full impact. The Hall – according to contemporary accounts – was shadowed and lit by candles; the stage decorated with elaborate screen sets and the plays themselves accompanied by musicians. The ambience of the location along with the atmosphere created by the players would have been beyond anything an Elizabethan audience had thus far witnessed; the development of the play via the utilization of stagecraft undoubtedly stunning.

            There is evidence within “The Tempest” of significant stage-direction which would have allowed a writer a broader scope with regard to character development and so, it’s little wonder that this Shakespearian play, perhaps more than any other, contains evidence of technological manipulation. This giant leap forward one could argue is akin to the C.G.I manipulation of modern film makers. Now the sixteenth century playwright had the facility to bring his characters to life and rather than simply have a Chorus implore a crowd “to make imaginary puissance” or to “piece out the imperfections [of a play] with [their] thoughts.” At last the playwright could do more than just stimulate the workings of the – now comfortably seated – groundling’s “imaginary forces.” Although “Henry V” would have benefitted from close exposition within the confines of Black Friars “The Tempest” would’ve been literally embellished by that which was now possible. Clearly Shakespeare wrote the play with this in mind; hence the numerable sequences which elicit the use of some form of stage manipulation. It’s because of these proto special effects that the play is so easy to conceive within the framework of “Forbidden Planet.” A film which, although loosely based on the play, translates Shakespeare’s magical realism into the technological advancement required of the science fiction genre. Therefore, those special effects which were vital to the success of “The Tempest” have lent themselves to the longevity of “Forbidden Planet” without which it would’ve been impossible.  The technology used to exhibit these effects in both productions is of course planets apart but the results are none the less stunning and are particularly apparent in the characterization of both Robbie the Robot and Ariel.

            The play opens with the supposed drowning of a ship however, with manipulation of torches, swinging ropes and discrete lightning to represent flames it would’ve been an easily achievable scene inside of Black Friars. The fantastical portrayal of the plays characters on the other hand would have been a challenge. Ariel is an ethereal being, a willow-the-wisp character that can fly around the world in seconds, appear at will wherever it chooses and carry out the most arduous task with the greatest of ease. With a system of ropes and cranes Ariel could have been seen to fly to the delight of the audience as with little effort from Elizabethan riggers, the character could magically have be whisked from one part of the stage to another. In an era when magic was considered to be a very real phenomenon and the explanation for the world at large, the audience would have been astounded to see proof of the unseen realm for just the mere price of admission. Ariel is the enslaved embodiment of Prospero’s desire who without him – not dissimilar to the advanced knowledge left to Morbius – would not have been able to achieve the magic he did. Although he has the book, the staff and the wardrobe to paint himself a magician, Prospero is a base alchemist who utilizes the abilities of another to achieve his own ends.

            In the 1950’s rendition of the same play, Ariel appears in the form of Robbie the Robot and although light years apart in appearances, performs exactly the same role. Robbie is a sophisticated piece of electronics; a mobile, mechanical being that serves at the behest of his designer and master Morbius. He’s a swirling sophistication of flashing lights and rotating sensors who is able to perform all manner of tasks thanks to the usurped knowledge left by the planets predecessors. Robbie is both a protector and servant; a mechanical being of great strength that can produce any quantity of any material at will. Able to carry tons of sheet lead and yet unable to harm any living being thanks to his programming he is the embodiment of Ariel. An unwitting captive of Morbius’ design who without complaint fulfills every request and performs any task demanded of him. Just as Ariel is unable to free himself from the bonds of Prospero so Robbie is destined to exist only to serve. Robbie is the poster-child of 1950’s prophesized, future, technological development just as Ariel is the manifestation of the ethereal. Both Shakespeare and Wilcox are able to create magic thanks to the application of the special effect. In both instances the illusion for the audience is a persistent one as, rather than merely imaginary, Ariel and Robbie are living, breathing or electricity consuming, stage-crafted phenomenon.

            Using trick photography and film cuts Wilcox was able to create optical illusions that to a 1950’s audience must have seemed very real indeed. His superimpositions of models to show what appear to be highly advanced technology are extremely successful and from an artistic stand point very authentic. In particular, the attack of the Monster of Id upon Morbius’ residence where in order to protect themselves, steel shutters slam – as if by an unseen hand – into place. Likewise his renderings of the underground structure – which in reality are probably plastic models – when properly lit and filmed with superimpositions of tiny human figures, appear to be extremely lifelike. Wilcox presents a film that the audience is able to readily accept thanks to the success of his many special effects. “Forbidden Planet” isn’t particularly well written or acted and yet thanks to its cutting edge sophistication is unforgettable.

            Similarly Shakespeare doesn’t rely on the ability of his actors nor his words to achieve success. In the stage direction we can clearly see the intent of the play was to amaze and surpass that which had already become quotidian. Tales of star struck lovers, revengeful kings and ubiquitous twins surviving shipwrecks were in want of fresh paint and it was the machinations developed at Black Friars that allowed “Theatre” to take the necessary leap. In two places in particular we are shown the ingenuity of the players. In the first instance, the banquet scene, where the survivors of the ship wreck are offered a bounteous table and yet thanks to the harpies are unable to partake. Ariel is seen to suddenly appear in various parts of the stage; finally ending up on the table itself. “Thunder and lightning. Enter Ariel who like a harpy clasps his wings; and with a quaint device the banquet vanishes.” The notes suggest “an ingenious device of stage mechanism.” Shakespeare has included a flying harpy, sound and lighting and to conclude, an apparatus of some mechanical genius that renders the banquet gone. Secondly at the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero is in want of a “corollary” of spirits. This event is preceded by “soft music’ which choruses the arrival of Ceres, Juno and Iris. The stage direction once again bears witness to the ingenuity of the author. “Juno descends;” suggesting some type of winding mechanism. The footnotes even suggest that the direction is given too early and that this may be to take into account the limitations of the “machine.”

            Clearly the utilization of special effects to enhance characterization is nothing new and if one considers the theatre of Ancient Greece then we gain insight into the notion of Deus Ex Machina; where the god would have been lowered to the stage to turn wrongs to rights. Similarly Shakespeare was able to adapt to his new surroundings and given the embarrassment of riches the new location offered was able to adjust his plays accordingly. Likewise Wilcox using the malleability of film was able – without a single advanced mechanism – to make an audience believe that they had landed on a distant planet by means of space ship, only to discover that a far superior intellect awaited them.

             Both creators utilized everything at their disposal to create an illusion that enabled a willing suspense of disbelief. Just as Robbie the Robot is no more than a man dressed in a suit and Ariel a man on a wire, both characters are gilded by the use of special effect. It is the advent of Elizabethan stage craft that has taken Shakespeare’s “flat unraised spirits” from the “unworthy scaffold” and translated them into Wilcox’s “beautiful Cinema Scope” with “Amazing Color.”

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GEWITTER – The Tempest

9 Jul

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A Rendering of “The Tempest”.

It’s 1918; the First World War is coming to an end. After five years of bloody attrition Europe has been obliterated and trenches stretch from the North Sea to the Alps. Despite the millions who’ve already died, small pockets of fighting still persist in a land ravaged by shot and shell.

In a forward listening post – separated from the German trenches by barely a hundred yards – two British officers stand watch. Their orders are to raise the alarm in the unlikely event the Germans try to make a desperate, last-ditch effort. The soldiers stand ankle deep in mud and filth and peer with their binoculars over the sand bagged trench. As they stare into the early morning mist a biplane – although in radio contact with the officer in charge – buzzes unseen above the clouds. The radio crackles – a static voice breaks the silence – and suddenly the ground in front of them comes alive. An artillery barrage erupts upon the enemy lines, sending huge columns of mud and debris into the sky. The elder of the two men reaches for his cigarettes, smiles and waits for the guns to abate.

The film is set during the First World War. The character uniforms are those of the protagonists of the period, the location the trenches of Flanders. The scenario touches on the events of the “Tempest.” The premise is that a small group of German soldiers evacuating from the front lines are caught in the final barrage of the war. Despite casualties the men manage to escape but because of the mist and the utter desolation of the environment they become increasingly disoriented. This leads to their desperate quest to escape the dangers around them and their eventual encounter with the British.

Rather than just another well-worn, mud-drenched soldier epic, this particular film will be filmed with lashings of psychological fantasy where each soldier is drawn, despite his personal demons, to relive episodes of his pre-war existence. These episodes will be similar to the scene in “The Shinning” when Jack Nicholson walks into the ball room at the Overlook Hotel, which although supposedly empty, is filled with the ghosts of a bygone era. The men will all experience surreal episodes that will make them question their sanity, as well as the nature of perceived reality; an allusion to the absurdity of the carnage experienced during the war.

After all, what could be more absurd than total annihilation?

Character List

Major P.

 Michael Caine – who else?

The Major is a sympathetic realist in his fifties who although, battle hardened, clings to the notion of a universal morality; that there’s more to life than blood and bullets and that by living one day at a time and soldiering to the best of his ability he will eventually earn the right to return to his beloved England.

Leftenant Graves.

Jude Law

Graves is a public school boy – that’s English public school – who thanks to conscription has been forced into the ranks during the final months of the war. A good looking boy from a well-to-do background who, although maintaining the pretense of a stiff upper lip and filled with faux “Boys-Own” bravado, is on the point of mental break down. Hand tremors and occasional outbursts are softened by the affection he holds for the Major who – through their shared experience and his protection – he’s come to appreciate as a virtual father to him.

 There’s a nagging question of barely-perceptible homosexuality, but this is never satisfactorily resolved.

Ariel

Is a disembodied voice that alternates from person to person. The spirit is the pilot in the unseen aircraft, the voice on the end of the telephone and the static in the radio. There is constant contact between the Major and the entity with regard to the observation, discovery and eventual capture of the enemy. The voice is everywhere and nowhere; the ghost in the machine and yet Major P’s only contact with the outside world.

German Soldiers

Schmidt, Gruber and Schuhmaker

 Liam Neeson. Tom Hardy. Peter Falk.

The soldiers are foils to the British characters; Neeson to Caine and Hardy to Law.

Falk is the chorus and embodiment of Trinculo and Stephano and offers comic relief.

Hardy like Law is a young man drawn into conflict and the pseudo love interest in the never declared homo-eroticism.

Neeson is just as grizzled as Caine; a man who’s been forever changed by what he once perceived as a just crusade.

Various walking shadows

Every good war movie needs a few death scenes!

Psychological episodes

•        Falk lost in the mist turns a corner and suddenly find himself on the “Reeperbahn” in Hamburg. Girls and good times are everywhere and we experience the surrealism of pre-war Europe.

•        A monster made from the corpses of all the dead of all the wars rises from the mud. Barbed wire hangs from its body. It chases the soldiers and although never catching them is constantly an entity at the corner of their eye and a perpetual threat.

•        Law meets and chats with an airman who – to everybody apart from himself – is obviously a ghost.

•        Caine finds himself – fishing rod in hand – at the edge of a mud filled crater reliving civilian life.

•        Neeson reencounters his wife who was killed in a bombing raid by the British at the beginning of the war; the reason he joined the army in the first place.

•        Random vehicles are seen to drive through the trenches, ice cream vendors appear alongside other tradesmen. The occasional prostitute is seen leaning against the side of the trench.

The idea is to create sheer terror with absolute ridiculousness. The trenches aren’t just filled with the dead but also their memories. The Trenches as it were are;

“  ….full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Denouement

The men finally unite after their horrors whilst lost in the trenches.

 Law and Hardy have their brief, yet obvious moment of affection.

The men despite their different uniforms and political ideology come to a tacit understanding of universal brotherhood.

As the radio sputters to the sound of victory the air is filled with the roar of twelve-cylinder-Fokker- aero-engines. Machine gun fire rips through the trench killing them all.   

The radio breaks into a music hall ditty.

The camera pans the bodies and lingers briefly on the outstretched hands of Law and Hardy.

The trench slowly transforms into the Reeperbahn which Falk witnesses – cigar in mouth – in his last living, breathing moments.

The paradox of reality and dreams is left unanswered.

The Intent

Although the film parodies the book there is no intention of staying absolutely true to it or of using Shakespeare’s language. Although there will be allusions to the play – possibly in conversations between Law and Caine – there will be no direct link to it. The intent is to subvert the original play and at the same time doggedly adhere to it. By relating to it in the loosest of terms and without obvious reference the allusion will be maximized.

Do I have to mention that my idea is protected by copyright and that I’m also available for shooting next week?

In Search of Shylock – Shakespeare

11 Aug

              

Jews in Shakespearean England

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Much has been argued regarding the extent of anti-Semitism and the general disdain for Jewry supposedly apparent in the plays of William Shakespeare and in particular, his play “The Merchant of Venice.” Time and again his work is held up as representative of that which we – with our 21st century sensibilities – have been educated to abhor and disavow. The hatred of man because of race, color or creed has, within the collective conscience, been largely rejected thanks to the fostering of a self-regulating society that has engrained contemporary sensibilities through the policy of political correctness: a body politic of public consciousness that wasn’t apparent in 16th century England or anywhere else in the western world for that matter. All were liable to open ridicule via the medium of theatre, be they king or pauper, man or woman, Moore or Jew as evidenced by the writing of the period. Everybody and everything – much to the delight of the paying public and the disdain of the censor – was fair game. The subject – Jew, Moore etc. – is irrelevant, as the subjects themselves are simply the masks upon which the foil of disdain is played. Whether xenophobic, racist, misogynist or anti-Semitic – or any other form of depredation – Shakespeare’s writing, rather than guilty of one, is representative of all. Shakespeare uses the Jew as a representation rather than as an example and therefore, can be forgiven for what we today would class as anti-Semitism. The dearth of Jewry at this particular period of history in England supports this and acquits Shakespeare of that which we consider most heinous.

               Shakespeare’s plays mirrored Elizabethan society, reflecting that which would’ve been familiar to a theatre audience. This suggests that his characters were symbolic of those traits, particular to 16th century awareness. This can be understood by the pervasive notion during the period, that being English was a matter of divine anointment, culminating in a very real sense of national superiority that was apparent in the writings of the time. One book in particular that was explicit is this view was, “The Misery of Flanders, the Calamity of France, Misfortune of Portugal, Unquietness of Ireland, the Troubles of Scotland and the Blessed state of England. (Chute.p.61) The sense of superiority – as its text suggests – was such that an Englishman, “didn’t have to be rude to a foreigner or denigrate him as there was simply no need,” (Chute.p.61) being English as they were. As one Englishman put it, “the English contrary to all, to the custom of all nations, give the higher place to women…gives honor and support to weakness … and strangers” (Chute.p.62) Visitors to the country during the period complained bitterly that the highest compliment that could be paid to a foreigner by the “smug… islanders,” (Chute.p.62) who truly believed their country to be the center of the known world was that, “it was pity they weren’t English. (Chute.p.62) Given this level of nationalistic hubris – something which modern society is equally familiar with – it’s hardly surprising that although flagrant, when viewed through a modern lens, was nothing less than justifiable by the Elizabethans.

               This chauvinism – based both on their Roman affiliation and memorable defeats at the hands of the English at Agincourt and Crecy – is exemplified in particular, in the unbounded hatred for the Catholic French. Despite this glaring xenophobia we don’t despise the Elizabethans, nor question their morality, for disliking their Gallic neighbors: a persistent stereotype that modern America still chooses to ignore regarding their questionable moral fortitude, cuisine and supposed awkward social graces! In stark contrast to this and predominantly due to the reported atrocities and body count of the Second World War, it’s become an understandable trend to protect one specific people and one specific religion. Despite the fact that modern audiences are over faced with the dogmatism of anti-Islamic rhetoric, Judaism goes unadulterated and free of any stain. Protected as they are by august political bodies, the Jew in modern society is immune from criticism and beyond reproach. This juxtaposes the Elizabethan approach to Jewry and the universal condemnation of the Jew, so overwhelmingly apparent in the theatre of the period. Therefore, one might assume, given the precedence in 16th Century England for the theatrical Jew, that anti-Semitism was rife. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth!

               It’s unlikely that Shakespeare ever came into contact with a practicing Jew during his lifetime and yet his portrayal of them seems to be – as with most things he described – gleaned from some vestige of personal experience. The Christ killing, knife wielding, zealots of biblical refute simply didn’t exist in England during this period and so the imagery from which he created them wasn’t from quotidian contact but from contemporary imagination. Just as there were few Blacks in England during the 1500’s – a fact that remained true until the late 1940’s – so there were even less people of the chosen tribe. It’s recorded that Catherine of Aragon had a trumpet ensemble in 1501 consisting of six Black musicians (womenshistory.gov) – such was their peculiarity – and that a few lascars were seen occasionally around the docks, but the Black man really didn’t arrive in England until the seventeenth century with the onset of the salve trade. Other races were also uncommon in the extreme and it wasn’t until Sir Walter Raleigh returned with a few disconsolate Indians from the Americas (Encyclopedia Britannica) that the public began to realize that there was more between heaven and earth than just the white Christian faces that surrounded them on a daily basis. This interest seized the imagination to the point that people would pay a penny to see Raleigh’s American natives alive or dead, paraded as they were either in rude health or propped up in coffins. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Likewise the children of Abraham didn’t run through the streets of London nor did they ply Shylock’s trade in the allotted quarters – the ghettos – of the city. Shakespeare was writing from an imaginary perception rather than personal conscience. Although the Jew was a desperate figure in the plays of the period – especially in their stereotypical representation – they as a people didn’t exist in England at the time of the Shakespeare’s authorship. The only Jews present in England at this time would’ve been those few who’d converted to Christianity: forbidden as it was to practice Judaism under national law.

               The Jews were initially invited to England by William the Conqueror after his successful invasion in 1066. Due to their financial success in France the Jews were appreciated as being adept in commercial enterprise and prized for their innate intelligence. Although this made them attractive as courtly advisors, it was their aptitude to usury – as is showcased in “The Merchant of Venice” – that was of greatest benefit to the newly installed monarchy. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Usury, or the making of money from money, was forbidden by the Christian church, although in Shakespeare’s time it was undoubtedly practiced among Christians. Without this financial maneuvering, business could simply not have taken place and both Shakespeare and his father – as proven by contemporary documentation – lent money for profit and therefore, not dissimilar to the Jewish stereotype portrayed on the Elizabethan stage, were usurers themselves. There wouldn’t have been a person in the Elizabethan audience that wasn’t either aware of, or who didn’t participate in the practice of usury and so, the allusion, pertaining to the breeding of base metal in “The Merchant of Venice” being a uniquely Jewish sin, would’ve been regarded as ridiculous.

               Although the Jews had lived among the English Christians for centuries the relationship wasn’t always cordial. The religion of the Jew was anathema to Christian doctrine and consequently heinous crimes where perpetrated against them. Pogroms were not unusual in Europe or England, especially during the periods of the crusades and in 1190 five hundred Jews were murdered in the city of York for allegedly causing an outbreak of the plague. (Fordham) Pre-Shakespearian hatred wasn’t just based on the religious conflicts of the period but also on the apparent crimes – of which there are many accounts – perpetrated by Jews on Gentiles and in particular the ritualistic murder of Christian children. The most infamous of these was that of “Hugh of Lincoln.” In 1255, he was kidnapped by Jews and crucified and tortured in apparent hatred of Jesus Christ. The boy’s mother found his body in a well – similar to Chaucer’s “Story of the Prioress” – on the premises of a Jew. The Jew was later executed for the crime along with eighteen of his supposed confederates. King Henry III personally ordered the investigation of the case and ultimately refused to allow mercy to be shown to the Jew, who was executed for his crime.”(Fordham) This and other so-called Jewish atrocities persisted, creating an endemic loathing for the Jews and their faith.

               Upon Edward 1st return from the crusades, England was found to be in a state of corruption and neglect thanks to the ineptitude of the royal representatives who’d remained behind. The blame for the economic and social disaster eventually fell on the head of the Jewish administrators who in the edict of 1290 were banished in their totality from English shores and their religion outlawed upon pain of death. Only allowed to carry what they could on their backs, the Jews were repulsed back to the continent and out of England until their eventual return in the 1620’s. (Fordham) Jewish contempt persisted as evidenced in the 14th century in “The Prioress Tale” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” where a song of Christian martyrdom is related. The story is of a young boy who walked through the Jewish quarter praising the Mother Mary and who was eventually murdered by the Jews for his blasphemy. Tales like this were not uncommon and featured regularly in the Christian psyche of the period. One only has to study the character of Barabbas in Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” – from which “The Merchant of Venice” is heavily lifted – to understand the abhorrence for the Jew.

               Given the prevalence of stories and rhymes associated with the hatred for Jewry, it’s small wonder that the Jew became a stock figure on the Elizabethan stage as a molester of children, a malevolent pagan and a foul handler of money. The unavoidable paradox of this practice was that the Jew simply didn’t exist in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Greenblatt is his book “Will in the World” uses the analogy of the wolf as similarly representative of the Jewish question. For centuries English children have been ushered to bed with tales of wolves. Bed time tales such as “Peter and the Wolf”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” are hoary staples that generations of parents have scared their children witless with in order to press them into conformity. Darkened forests where a salivating beast is hidden behind every shadow, where little girls on their way to visit itinerant grandmas start at every sound. Wolves haven’t existed on the British mainland since prehistoric times, when the land mass of Europe was connected via what is now the English Channel, when wild animals were free to roam at leisure. Not only have they not existed, but they have not been hunted, eaten or otherwise seen and so the vision of the wolf is very much a figment of the imagination. Therefore, just as the wolf hasn’t existed on the British mainland neither had the Shakespearian Jew. The analogy speaks to the fact that the Jew is a representation rather than a figure of hatred. The Jew is the wolf and the wolf is the Jew. The stories are circulated In order to prevent children from disappearing with strangers or roaming too far from home. Therefore, the Jew of Shakespearian experience is pure imagery, just as the Moore is, just as the drab is, just as the ubiquitous brainless Welshman is. Shakespeare was concerned with portrayal, not with facts, and this is why his characters are so contentious.

               The scandal of the Jew turned Christian – one Rodrigo Lopez, a former physician to Elizabeth 1st – who was tried and hanged for treason, would’ve busied the pamphleteers and excited the readers of Elizabethan London. (Harvard) The popularity of Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta” would similarly have reignited the latent anti-Semitism towards the non-existent Jew in the same way McCarthy scared the world with his allusion to, “a red under every bed.” Shakespeare as a business man would’ve reacted eagerly to a trending, money-making venture and bent his pen accordingly to the disparagement of the Jew. At the very least, Shakespeare held Jewry up to his audience to compare and contrast what little differences really exist between cultural archetypes. Shakespeare used the Jew as a representation rather than as an example and therefore, can be forgiven for what we today would class as anti-Semitism. The dearth of Jewry in England at this particular point in history supports this and acquits Shakespeare of that which we consider most heinous.

HAMLET – WHAT’S A BOY TO DO?

27 Jul

           

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A TALE OF TWO CHAMBERS

In the first speech we see Hamlet as an emotional young man, racked by grief, torn by bereavement, but without the inclination to revenge. The later sea-change of emotional torment he undergoes can be explained by the pre and post visitation of the ghost: the revelations of his dead father which cause him to alter his point of view. There’s a dramatic difference in the boy prior to this experience and of the emotionally disturbed Hamlet later in the play. Although mourning his father’s death, he’s also looking for someone to blame – a fault we can probably forgive – which can only be perceived as a very human trait. Why him, why his father and most of all why did his mother marry his uncle? In a whirlwind of emotion, Hamlet is tossed and torn between sadness and anger. Unable to contain his emotion, Hamlet is chastised by his uncle and mother for his “impious stubbornness” (1.2.95) and “unmanly grief,” (1.2.96) and so his thoughts turn to suicide. How can he possibly go on with the agony he bears when all around him seem to doubt and requite him for his melancholy? Hamlet is alone and bereft, or at least so he thinks. What’s a boy to do? On the one hand he isn’t loved and yet on the other he’s the most constant thing in his “parents” eyes. His mother implores him not to return to Wittenberg whilst his uncle tells him he’s the heir to Denmark. Hamlet, frustrated, recognizes his own character flaw when he says “I must not hold my tongue.”(1.2.160) He knows that he must speak out, but in doing so what can he possibly hope to achieve? Surely – as he knows himself – he should have confronted his mother before her marriage. Once again Hamlet proves tardy in his reactions and so one has to question his moral fortitude.

            Hamlet shows a religious reverence and although wishing his “too sullied flesh to melt” (1.2.129) is forbidden to do so by God’s Cannon. Suicide isn’t an option and so he must persevere. His anger turns instead towards his “parents” in an attempt to justify his own feelings. God’s lore raises its head again in the comment regarding “incestuous sheets” (1.2.157) and the unseemly urgency to which his mother has remarried after his father’s sudden death. This would seem to indicate that there may have been some kind of attachment between his mother and uncle before the death of his father. The idea of “incestuous sheets”(1.2.157) would’ve have been familiar to the Globe’s audience as it was within living memory that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon – his brother’s wife – who he later threw over for Anne Boleyn, preempting the dissolution of the monasteries and the faith related hate that ensued throughout the rest of the century. It would seem that bed hopping between kith and kin only leads to problems and therefore, why wouldn’t God forbid it? One only had to have an experience of the alternating persecution between Catholics and Protestants to understand the nature of Hamlet’s frustration. Shakespeare was making a historical reference that his audience would’ve understood and which would’ve undoubtedly engendered sympathy for Hamlet’s later actions.       

            In the closet we meet a new Hamlet, a man who’s suddenly decided on a plan of action. No longer the potential suicide we met earlier in the play, he’s a man bent on revenge and prepared to speak his mind in order to avenge his father. No longer cowed by hierarchical position he speaks to his mother directly, “You are the queen your husband’s brothers wife.” (3.4.16) Hamlet is determined to express his deepest thoughts and in doing so, to hold a mirror to Gertrude and reveal her failings and expose her new husband. Motivated by his conversation with the ghost, Hamlet is precisely aware of what’s occurred between his uncle and father. His father, although revealing murder, has importuned him not to harm his mother and so, impotent to serve justice upon her, can only reveal his inner most thoughts. Not a particularly brave act on the part of Hamlet, as surely a better man would’ve taken the quarrel to the father – but there again its Hamlet we’re dealing with and not some warrior prince – when he confronts both a woman and his mother. Rather than inaction, Hamlet is turned into the revenge figure, his easy murder and acquittal of the death of Polonius revealing his new discovered fortitude. He’s out for blood and in the blazon of attributes and deficiencies of both his mother’s husbands, lets her have it both barrels: his anger not sparing his tongue. Harping once again on the “inseemed sheets” of her marriage bed, Hamlet expresses a jealousy for his mother’s love. One has to pose the question whether or not it is the death of his father he’s angry about, or the fact that her mother has given her sexual love to another man. After all, as his father’s son, shouldn’t he inherit all? His tone is tempered by the ghost, who once again implores him to love his mother. There’s an affinity between the two which is almost tangible but which his mother can’t requite because of her love for Claudius, the apparent madness of her son and the murder she’s just witnessed.

            The second conversation, although an act of revenge, is also a cry for help. Ensconced in his mother’s chamber with the corpse of Polonius and the ghost of his father, Hamlet is as close to his former life as he’ll ever be. Although far from perfect, the experience of the family reunion might’ve been the turning point for Hamlet if it wasn’t for his uncle’s necessary retribution. Hamlet, although trying to achieve justice for his father, must now face the justice of his own actions. Clearly the development of the dual characterization of Hamlet as a man of action and a man paralyzed by emotion is the twist Shakespeare was looking for and the reason that we’re so enthralled with his character.

            The two separate scenes are typical of Shakespearian characterization, where the mirror of opposites is held up to the character and from which the audience must draw its own conclusion. Nothing is as simple as it as first seems and in between the cracking of walnuts there had to have been an element of concentration on the part of the groundlings. Hamlet is not an easy play and the twists and turns it contains would’ve undoubtedly warranted a second viewing.

 

 

AS YOU LIKE IT

15 Jul

  

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Rosalind and the Counterfeit of Intelligence.

             One must bear in mind that Rosalind although a female character, has been created by a man and therefore her sensibilities are not always those of her own sex. In many instances we discover that the emotions and stereotypical characteristics represented by her persona have been imposed upon her. Although embodying the image of woman, we often see her, as it were, in the third person with apportioned wisdom and worldly familiarity. This is both amusing and humorous, but tends to muddle our reaction to her, as although she’s a woman dressed as a man, she’s very often a woman with a sixteenth century male attitude. As to her propensity to intelligence in the nature of love, this is confused and interchangeable as we are offered a Rosalind who is filled with wise aphorisms but who is complicated by her own feminine wiles. Rosalind is the victim of her own game and therefore a willing participant who gives herself over to her own urges despite understanding the perils of romantic love. Given the acumen of her opponent Orlando, it’s easy to judge her intelligent, but then in the land of the blind, a man with one eye is king. Hence her character juxtaposes both the joys and the pitfalls of romance. Rosalind embodies intelligence, vivacity, and energetic youth but in the matter of her own infatuation is as giddy as the next lover.

               Love is a game to be pursued when there is nothing else of great import. In our very first interaction with Rosalind she suggests to her cousin, “What think you of falling in love?”(1.2.165) Although agreeable, her cousin reminds her to be mindful of her “honesty” which suggests that Rosalind is incautious in her romantic decisions. This is repeated throughout the play when Celia continually cautions her to the precarious nature of her actions, promoting herself, rather than her cousin, to the position of sage. It’s Rosalind’s reaction to Orlando at the wrestling match, whom she finds to be worthy of her instantaneous love simply because her own father loved his, that is disturbing, although later in the play we’re witness to her disdain for the shepherdess Phoebe who muses on the joys of love at first site. Rosalind is confused and rather than using rational thought, exhibits poor judgment and possesses a self-destructive bent. After being chased from the court she’s soon distracted by the love-notes Orlando has posted throughout the forest and perhaps in a moment of desperation and weakness, as a drowning man seizes a piece of flotsam, pins her hopes on a youth she doesn’t know. On first hearing of the young man in the forest she lists a blazon of attributes that would suit her fancy, “What manner of man? Is his head worth a hat or his chin worth a beard?”(3.2.1309) Thankful that her suitor is Orlando she begins her diatribe with “Good my complexion! dost thou think, though I am caparison’d like a man,”(3.2.1300) suggesting that she recognizes she has neither the acumen or wit to resolve her predicament herself and therefore is grateful for the sudden appearance of a male figure. Any male figure! Here Rosalind represents stereotypical woman and therefore it’s hard to judge her intelligent. The idea of the game is continued when she meets Orlando and suggests to him that instead of pining for his sweetheart, he should woo her in her place. This is manipulation on her part, in order to test the love he professes. Rather than intelligent, this is a selfish move and in preference to tending to her flocks, avoiding the dangers of the forest or hiding from the wrath of the Duke desperate to recover his kin, decides to fall deeper in love, even to the extent of feigned marriage.

               Her actions are those of a giddy girl in love and yet we are continually offered bright spots of deep thought which seem pertinent to her own desires. She knows that men woo in April but wed in December and understands that to marry in haste, “timetrots hard with a young maid between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemniz’d,” is foolish. This is the third person aspect where Rosalind although speaking as a woman develops the sensibilities of a man. She is aware of the devious nature of woman when describing the horns of the snail and the lack of wit in men who will soon see their wives in the beds of their neighbors and even expresses the irrationality of love which is merely “a madness [that] deserves [a] dark house and a whip as madmen do.”(3.2.1476) This is the problematic of the play, where suddenly Rosalind becomes somebody else. It’s as though by donning male apparel she has assumed the mind of a man and therefore the supposed intellect that follows. Rosalind isn’t just cross dressing but is cross gendering, assuming not only their doublet and hose but also their sensibilities. She’s able to recognize the faults of both love and marriage, is able to test and prove her lover, offer great advice to those who would fall in love and yet is victim to her own desires.

               It is the effect of men’s clothing that seems to induce intelligence in Rosalind rather than an innate sense of propriety and wisdom. Despite her outward looks and her witticisms she is unable to hide her woman’s heart, that which she accuses the shepherd of, “Warr’st thou with a woman’s heart?” (4.3.2046) when she supposedly counterfeits fainting at the news of Orlando’s injury. She recognizes herself in the shepherdess that falls in love with her whilst she is dressed as a man and yet, although seeing herself reflected in Phoebe’s womanish nature, does nothing to amend her own actions. Just as Rosalind is Ganymede she’s also the simple country woman who refuses the love of a true man. Shakespeare, as he so often does, confronts his characters with their mirror image. If Rosalind can’t see past the infatuation of the lesser woman then clearly she doesn’t have the wit to save herself from what she’s already described as a difficult path. The stairway to marriage, even if self-constructed, may not be the wisest decision.

               Polonius in “Hamlet” advises Laertes that “the apparel oft proclaims the man,” (1.3.76) and in “As you Like it” that would seem to hold true. Therefore the intelligence that Rosalind embodies is a counterfeit of that which she pretends. As she herself intones, she is but a woman hiding in men’s clothes and does not possess that which divides the sexes. Rosalind therefore is not an intelligent woman, even though she is granted with the gift of wit by her author, and must retain her place in the great chain of being for fear of upsetting the spheres. Rosalind is a fraud who is exposed by her own desires and womanly ways. This alludes to the young men on the Shakespearian stage that acted the parts of woman and compounds the moral of the play and the adage from the “Merchant of Venice” that, “All that glisters is not gold.”(2.7.69) Rosalind, in the sixteenth century experience, is a woman – nothing more and nothing less.

WALPOLE’S HAMLET

11 Jun

             

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GOOD WRITERS STEAL… THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO

 

  Although renowned as the first Gothic novel “The castle of Otranto” may also account for the first situational comedy or perhaps even soap drama.  Concussed with a myriad of extreme scenarios, absent family members, long lost fathers, would be rapists, giants, ghosts and counts masquerading as priests the reader is led on a rolling coaster of ups and downs. A Gothic family feud that blends horror with inadvertent humor, in a home the Adam’s Family would be proud to own. To call Walpole’s work naïve would be unfair, as it’s only from the promontory of experience that one can espouse to review his work as such. Having no contemporary comparison in this particular genre, we have to review the novel as an original work and Walpole himself as the God Father of Goth. That being said the spirit that haunts this particular feast is that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

               Walpole without doubt has taken Shakespeare’s work and adapted it to his own use. In the classic sense of good writers steal and poor writers borrow – not unlike the playwright himself – he molds what is ostensibly a play into the modern medium of the novel. The author overwrites the play with his own ideas and succeeds in creating an original work based on a more familiar foundation. Through closer examination of Walpole’s novel one can draw direct relationships between his story structure and that of “Hamlet,” and see that rather than plagiarize, Walpole has cleverly adapted. Given the popularity of his novel and the reviews it received at its publishing it’s unlikely that his audience saw fault in what he did. In the traditions of both Chaucer and Shakespeare, Walpole draws from established pedigree, and through the use of allusion and trope, embellishes accordingly to create a successful story.

               The most obvious “Hamlet” allusion is the visitation of the spirit. Manfred, whilst berating Isabella and trying to convince her to marry him after his son’s death – to guarantee lineage – a ghost suddenly appears. A specter mysteriously drops down from a painting, “quit its panel, and descend[ed] on the floor with a grave and melancholy air,” (p.24) walks across the floor, turns and then beckons for Manfred to follow him. Manfred does so saying, “Lead on I will follow thee to the gulf of perdition,” (p.25) only for the ghost to disappear into a locked room. The scene is without doubt taken from the battlements of Elsinore where Hamletmeets his dead father. After being warned of the ghost’s presence Hamletdecides to hold the watch and see for himself that which his guards have experienced. The ghost of his father is a mighty, forbidding figure, dressed in armor – allusions perhaps to the massive helmet in the courtyard and the Giant seen by the servants within the house. Walpole’s ghost clumsily initiates foreshadowing for his own novel, just as the watchmen on Elsinore’s battlements regard the specter as a warning of impending doom for Denmark.

               The confused, comic scene in the crypt when Manfred confronts his servants who’ve seen something, “a site, your highness would not believe your eyes,” (p.31) but can’t bring themselves to talk of it, are direct allusions to Shakespeare’s watchman. Having witnessed what they believe to be Hamlet’s father resurrected they remain unsure of what to do, and so invite Horatio to the battlements to attest to their sighting. This is an enduring and almost nonsensical episode in Walpole’s novel when, after trying to recapture uncooperative Isabella, the footsteps of his servants are heard running down the hall way with an urgent message. They’ve seen something terrible, “A giant…clad in armor [and]… his foot [and] leg… are as large as the helmet in the courtyard,” (p.33) in the great hall and can hardly bring themselves to speak of it. Again, one is reminded of Hamlet’s ghost supposed appearance, and the need to verify. Manfred isn’t convinced, thinks his servants fools, and decides to check for himself. In what is almost comic relief we are led to an empty hall where there’s no sign – even after checking behind the paintings – of the giant: the only marks of his passing are the unreliable witness statements and of course the unforgettable, gigantic helmet in the courtyard.

               The Incest question is also reminiscent of “Hamlet”. His father having been murdered, his mother quickly remarries his brother. Hamlet sees this as an incestuous relationship, an allusion that Shakespeare himself probably took this from the dramatic divorce of Henry VIII from his dead brother’s wife, Catherine of Aragon. Manfred uses the fact that Hippolita is a distant cousin to try to persuade the Father/Count that he is incestuously married and therefore the legitimacy of his divorce is righteous.

               The list goes on and on, and Walpole’s novel is a compendium of Hamlet’s own action packed adventures that include sword fights, death of Ophelia/ Matilda, reappearance of the ghost to Frederic/ Hamlet, poison, bumbling servants, questions of legitimacy, ownership, lineage, family feud, death and even Fortinbras’s arrival at the castle gates in the shape of Frederic, Isabella’s father. Despite that Walpole has taken so much from Shakespeare it doesn’t alter the fact that the novel reads well, is entertaining, and if nothing else memorable, and so one can almost forgive him for wholesale theft. His descriptive quality and ability to create imagery is outstanding, and the tale of Hamlet, a familiarity that simply adds a recognition factor. As the reader is led into the unfamiliar there is a sense of having heard the story somewhere before, a vague memory of having visited Otranto in the distant past. There’s no doubt that Walpole although the initiate of the Gothic genre – just as we all do – needed a little help from his friends. There is however, a lingering taint and one could almost suggest that something is rotten in “The Castle of Otranto.”

TWELFTH NIGHT – COMPARISSON BETWEEN SCREEN AND PAGE

21 Nov

THE PLAYS THE THING

(Or in Nunn’s case, the eye’s the thing)

 

A Comparison between William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night and Trevor Nunn’s film production of the same name. In particular Act 1, Scene 3 and the exchange between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek.

 

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               The Hollywood revisionists, in my opinion, would have us, the paying-public, believe that Shakespeare originally wrote for what they ignorantly insist were uneducated audiences; the plays performed for the working people of London, the loiterers, bed-pressers and bear-baiters of Southwark and their no-betters, the hereditary in-bred gentry. Time and again we’re served images of ill-dressed drunkards whoring and snoring their way through what we today would consider classic performances. Such is the nostalgia for Shakespeare’s plays that the Globe Theatre has been rebuilt in London close to its original site and where, during the season, they’re performed for paying tourists. We know that the streets of London weren’t as Richard Whittington imagined paved with gold and that to see London was to smell it, but it would appear that the revised history that we’re offered is exactly that, the majority of factual information and contemporary language cut to the screen editors floor or quietly moldering on what used to pass for library shelves. Shakespeare’s language has been slashed and burned, unnecessarily embellished, rewritten and offered in brilliant Technicolor to appease the contemporary market. Although Renaissance audiences would be wowed by the spectacle that is film, they’d be less impressed with that which we hold to be possibly the most beautiful prose ever written in the English language as sadly they’re missing. According to Sean Coughlan, a journalist writing for the B.B.C., in his article on current educational standards of British youth under a common core curriculum, England is now 22nd in the world out of the leading 24 nations in literacy. A sad claim indeed and only bettered by their American cousins who were 24th. Education during the time of Elizabeth was highly valued and under the grammar school system, children were offered Latin, Greek and French. Although there was more emphasis on reading than on writing due to the cost of materials the average student was no slouch and therefore the language of Shakespeare would not have been such a stretch of cerebral elasticity as it sometimes appears to be to us today. By comparing the written play of Twelfth Night with a film bearing the same name it’s possible to discern where language has given way to style and art, and where entertainment is enjoyed more by the eyes than the ears. The film by Trevor Nunn does the original play little justice but is a cornucopia of sound and color and is a pleasant way to while away 134 minutes “for want of other idleness.”(1.5.63)

               Nunn’s production is rich in costume, sound, and visual brilliance. The actors are world class and clearly no expense has been spared. In fact the only thing that seems to have been spared is the language. Act 1, scene 3 is our introduction to the characters of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek, two of Shakespeare’s’ most amusing characters. Sir Toby is, as his title suggests, a member of the gentry and cousin to one of the plays main protagonists, the Lady Olivia.  Toby is a wit, with charm and grace whose faults are many and whose drunkenness is profound. For whatever reason we discover him under the care of his cousin, snoring in her garden, drunk from the previous evenings libations. Nunn portrays him in the scene as an inebriate still holding a bottle and who, due to the late hour he’s kept, has been locked out of the house and forced to sleep outside. The original text is not adhered to and Nunn opts to skip to line 14 of the original dialogue and instead of Belch being the first to speak we’re introduced to Maria, a ladies maid. In the authentic text Belch utters the immortal words, “I am sure that cares and enemy to life,” (1.3.2) no doubt performed in an intoxicated manner to which Maria replies, “By my troth Sir Toby, you must come in of nights.”(1.3.3) Shakespeare shows in words what Nunn chooses to portray. The film audience has to visually digest the fact that Belch is a drunk by the proffered images, where as our Shakespearian seat-warmers are offered a man staggering onto the stage waving a bottle and ranting. Nunn’s portrayal is flaccid and does little to inject action or comedic effect whereas Belch, as a Falstaffian figure dominating the stage, would’ve been hilarious. Maria’s indictment is considered to be important enough to be included however, not until later in the scene, towards its end, and then spoken by Sir Toby to Sir Andrew. Nunn decides to negate the humorous exchange between Maria and Sir Toby and the rich language steeped in metaphor and double entendre is completely negated. One has to ask oneself, why? The deleted exchange, although recognizable as modern English, is rich because of its Elizabethan qualities. Clever and witty, “l will confine no fitter than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in.”(1.3.10) These utterances are complete, drunken, rubbish but they’re funny. Nunn instead of showing the dulled wits of a sharp man simply shows the figure of a drunk being hauled off on the shoulders of two servants.

               Enter Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek a man as thick as two-short-planks with the intellectual edge of a stick of butter; a comic portrayal of the upper class who, despite their airs and graces, are portrayed as idiots. Quite a brave move by Shakespeare considering the censorship of the Master-of- Revels but clearly one he got away with the. The administrator was probably in on the joke and equally aware of their betters not being so much better? Sir Andrew is a moneyed and titled idiot, the buffoon in the comic duo, a coupling of the straight and funny man that we’ve seen time and again in the likes of Laurel and Hardy and such. Although Sir Andrew is a fool, he has money and this is why Belch plays him like a viol-de-gamboys. In the original text Toby describes the attributes of Sir Andrew casting him “as tall a man as any’s in Illyria” (1.3.20) and is quickly rebutted by the maid Maria. The exchange is quick and witty and the characters are very swiftly defined. The original text is brisk, sharp and cutting but in Nunn’s production it’s completely ignored and the very best is parsed to the point of non-existence. Instead we are to rely on back ground music, the cheap giggles of bit part actresses and facial expression. In this aspect the film is more of a movie than a talkie and Nunn neglects to flesh out his characters. The façade of Shakespeare’s creation is as deep as table-spilt coffee and such a waste of comic genius. Again why? Why would the director dispense with over twenty lines of dialogue in favor of facial expression? Could it be true that a picture paints a thousand words or does Nunn decide not to tax his audience? The thing with Shakespeare is that it takes a little effort, as do most things worth having. Knowledge of Shakespeare requires historical research, a sense of the historical period, and also to have actually read the plays and discovered the language. Clearly Nunn’s ideal wasn’t to achieve celluloid prowess but to produce a product. There again, wasn’t that what Shakespeare was also trying to do? We know that in the enclosed spaces of the Black Friars Shakespeare added lighting and music to his performances but his plays were performed as were. Even in a more intimate setting where theatrics were possible the plays were still true to themselves. Unfortunately in Nunn’s production we’re given spectacle and not much else.

               Maria, the ladies maid and admirer of Sir Toby in the original copy has an exchange with Sir Andrew that is lyrically composed and worthy of a second listen. Her wit is acute and her jests acerbic, against which our errant Knight has little chance. Performed on the stage in front of an audience the exchange would’ve been extremely amusing. In Nunn’s production it’s all but nonexistent. The lines are completely negated and the scene is as barren as the jests at the end of Maria’s fingers. In the original it helps to prove what a fool Sir Andrew is but in the film we’re once again exposed to very little of the original. An Elizabethan audience would no doubt have delighted in the verbal duel and loved the depth of character portrayal. Any experience, in my opinion, at a theatre is so much more profound than a viewing. The sights and the sounds, the atmosphere, all help to make theatre a rich spectacle. Rather than the brain lapsing into Theta and Delta, whilst being stimulated by popcorn and cola, the mind through live performance flourishes in the Alpha. This is the obvious difference between Nunn’s confection and Shakespeare’s sustenance.

               Sir Toby’s final exchange with Sir Andrew where they discuss his dancing ability and the Knight’s confession that he is “a fellow of the strangest mind” (1.2.109) is lost in the production. Nunn chooses instead to display and idiotic dance sequence that is neither amusing nor bright; a parody of a mad dance performed by a fool rather than an exchange of minds in a conflict of adept brilliance. The dance would probably have been more fitting for the stage and the exchange better for the film, and yet that isn’t the case.

               The film although it adds something to the play, takes from it so much more than it gives. The colorful language, depth of meaning and inside jokes are forfeited for visual opulence. When one reads a book it engenders thought and creates and individual reality whereas film offers generic space where one is forced to endure the imagination of another. How often have we heard that the book was so much better than the film? In Nunn’s reappraisal of Shakespeare the director loses hands down. If one where to see the film without having read the play, or watched it merely without truly understanding it, then one would probably come away thinking that they’d just witnessed a period drama rather than enjoying a timeless piece from a dramatic historical period. The reason we remember the Renaissance is not because of film directors but instead thanks to writers such as Shakespeare and Johnson. Henry V was all but forgotten and yet thanks to Bill is now perceived as one of the most English of English kings despite his military incompetence and near defeat at Agincourt. On the other hand, we the British love an underdog as evidenced by our victory at Dunkirk and Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade!

               Nunn has taken a mainstream piece and sidelined it into something cheery and colorful. Thankfully the play will be remembered for itself and not for the inept, portrayal of face making actors who have so few lines they couldn’t help but con them well. When one compares Nunn’s cinematic production with that of Kenneth Branagh’s we see a world of difference in portrayal. Branagh’s play is austere and all the action unlike Nunn’s travelogue, takes place on one set. The costumes are basic, as is the stage, but it’s a worthy performance in that unlike Nunn’s is truer to the original text. In Branagh’s Twelfth Night, although in very little else he’s produced in my opinion, he offers something memorable, a play within a film. Nunn offers a distraction.