Category Archives: Shakespeare

Cressida as an Empty Space

I read some reposts on the Shakespeare Standard—a website that I ordinarily enjoy—that I have to admit I found a bit disappointing. In “Misogyny, the case of Cressida (part the last–putting her to bed)“, the author takes the perspective that Troilus and Cressida is a misogynistic play. I’m fine with that, on one level: everyone is allowed their opinion.

What I’m not fine with is the dismissive tone taken by author, as if all he has to do is drop the word “misogyny” and quote some bawdy lines from the play, and we can just all “put this one to bed”: no one needs to bother to read this play again. It’s this kind of dismissive, reductionist approach that gives some feminist criticism a bad reputation. There is and will continue to be brilliant critical responses to literature produced by feminist critics; this is not one of those.

Although the author does a fairly decent job applying recent critical approaches to the body and its representation, his primary mistake is assuming that the words voiced by the characters are Shakespeare’s voice or the purpose of the play. To quote the lines of Diogenes and then argue that the play is misogynistic because the character of Diogenes is misogynistic is the sort of basic, entry-level kind of character criticism that went out with Freud trying to psychoanalyze Hamlet, as if he were a real person. Diogenes is a character; criticism of that character is not a criticism of the play. For example, if Othello is a bad play because Iago is a racist, then we can throw out Othello also, and we would never have any meaningful plays about racism, because a play would never be able to include racist characters. Just characters sitting around a table talking about how bad racism is. That would certainly make for good, engaging drama.

What I would recommend is that the author read Bridget Escolme’s Talking with the Audience, which has a chapter specifically about how Cressida’s character functions in the structure of the play, something which the author never discusses. Rather than attacking characters’ lines and assuming they express the viewpoint of the author or of play, the structure of the play is such that Cressida functions as a mirror into which you as the audience can discover for yourself what it’s like to be a woman traded by men as a prize.

Hmm, wouldn’t that be a more thought-provoking response to the play? She invites your response; she never offers her own (why she betrays Troilus). The choice is yours; you can take a reductionist approach to the play, focusing on the lowest common denominator among the characters as proof that misogyny exists (there’s shocking news!), or you can use the play as an experience of how woman are mistreated and determine your own response. The choice is yours; either option is there. I would suggest however, that the writer of Hamlet—or even more to the point, the creator of the characters of Viola,  Rosalind, Beatrice, and Cleopatra—presents the voiceless character of Cressida with the hope that you will fill in a better response than the one she was historically forced to receive.

Ps: for more complex reactions, including feminist interpretations, a simple Google search reveals: Feminist Approaches When Viewing Cressida’s Character

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I’ve got a couple of things coming up; new posts on my reviews of the Shakespeare Globe’s Titus Andronicus DVD, Globe Tv productions of the Henry VI plays, and I’m going to see Gemma Arterton in The Duchess of Malfi this Sunday at the Sedona Film Festival.

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Dangerous Shakespeare

I just finished watching Antony Sher’s Primo; it’s a one-man performance Sher adapted from Primo Levi‘s description of his experience surviving Auschwitz (If This Is A Man).

sher primo

I found it after reading Sher’s biography Beside Myself about his life growing up gay in South Africa and moving to London to become an actor. I had to read it for one of my classes at the Shakespeare Institute, because he’s famous amongst bardolaters for playing Richard III, Macbeth, and Leontes (as well as recently playing Falstaff in last year’s RSC 1 and 2 Henry IV).

What has any of this got to do with Shakespeare? Well, I’m really interested in exploring the idea of “dangerous Shakespeare”; that is, how and in what ways is performing Shakespeare dangerous?

For example, Nazi Germany’s favorite Shakespeare play was Merchant of Venice. Is Merchant an anti-Semitic play? Can we still perform it today? Should we?

Most bardolaters go round and round about Shakespeare being the “universal humanist.” He was 400 years ahead of his time with his characters and his sympathy for them. He wrote great parts for women, sympathized with black and Jewish characters, and wrote about the horrors of colonialism before anyone even knew there were any.

Or did he? What if Shakespeare thought Petruchio should tame his shrew, Othello deserved to die, and/or it was right to force a speechless Shylock to become a Christian? How would our view of Shakespeare, and particularly Shakespeare in performance on the modern stage, have to change?

I wonder if someone would let Sher perform Primo in rep with Merchant. It might make for some interesting conversations.

What do you think?


Orson Welles’ Othello

I checked the Sedona Film Festival website today and discovered that they were showing Orson Welles’ film Othello. I ran over and got tickets, and saw the 3:10 showing.

It started off with a speech about the film by Beatrice Welles, one Orson Welles’ daughters. These are just mostly notes for myself, but for anyone interested, she claimed that:

  • She sees herself as managing the Orson Welles’ estate; Othello is the only film that she owns. She said that Othello and Chimes at Midnight were the only films that were not “messed with” by other editors; that is, the only films that were untouched and edited only by Welles himself.
  • Orson Welles originally wanted to be a painter, and traveled to Ireland to paint. She credits his directorial eye to this background.
  • She feels Chimes at Midnight (showing Wednesday) was his best acting performance.
  • Welles got his first acting job (originally only in order to raise money) at the Gates Theatre in Dublin by claiming that he was a big Broadway star (actually, she says they knew he wasn’t, but liked his “hutzpah”).
  • The actor in Othello who plays Iago was from this theatre.
  • The film got little attention when it was released due to Welles needing five years to finish it, in which time black and white films fell out of favor. It won a major award in Europe, however.
  • Welles was “the most wonderful father in the world; very funny” (she also however admitted her half-sisters might not have had the same experience with him).
  • She said whenever Welles did not know what project to work on next, he always “went back to the Bard.”

She also brought with her and displayed a pen and ink drawing that Welles made of the last day of shooting in Venice.

Although apparently suffering from sciatica, she was also there for a Q&A at the end. I asked three questions, which she was kind enough to respond to:

  1. Did Welles prepare the script? Yes, she says he wrote the whole script himself. [There were drastic and major cuts, more below.]
  2. What was Welles take on Iago’s motivation? She said Welles told her that the source of Iago’s problems was that he was insecure, and his various jealousies all arose from this.
  3. Welles has a very deep, resonant voice. Did he do any voice training? No, nor did he believe in it.

I enjoyed the film; however Welles hacked the bejesus out of it to get it down to 90 minutes and also added some voice-overs in the beginning to move the plot along. I think a perhaps unfortunate side effect of some of the early cuts is that Desdemona moves to the background; this is Othello and Iago’s story. Desdemona’s early lines are cut and instead she is represented visually as innocent. For example, there’s a gorgeous shot of her lying down on the marital bed with her blond hair fanned out.

There are also some fairly famous lines cut, the most noticeable to me being the “circumcised dog” line (“I took by the throat the circumcised dog, And smote him, thus.”). In this staging, Othello stabs himself first, then says his final lines. He avoids the problem of where did the weapon come from by having Othello behind bars; there’s no chance for anyone to intervene. (There are lots of scenes shot with very prominent iron bars, a visual motif for Othello trapping himself or being trapped.)

The overall effect of the film is dark and haunting and, I think, works, although I felt he cut the actual murder scene a bit too short to have its full effect.

For fun, if you’re interested, I found a 1955 New York Times review of the film.

Shakespeare in the Park – Much Ado 2014 (Review)

I’m in NYC, so the only thing I wanted to do was make it to Shakespeare in the Park. I’d really like to see the John Lithgow King Lear (I’ve seen a couple of King Lears recently, and would like to compare), but right now they’re doing Much Ado About Nothing.

I’ve never done Shakespeare in the Park before, so I was really excited. I woke up early (on a Saturday!) and took the 50 minute commute in from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. I arrived at the Delacorte Theatre at about 10am, and the line for tickets, according to my smart phone, was about a quarter of a mile long.

much ado line

So I waited the two hours for the ticket hand out to start, then about forty-five minutes to get my tickets. I would guestimate that there was 600-700 people in front of me, maybe fifty still received tickets after I did.

 much ado tix

Row X, for those of you wondering, is exactly the last row.

I arrived to the performance a bit early (it started at 8pm); here’s a photo of the expectant crowd:

park ado 2014

Note the closed gate, pond, and garden which I’ll discuss later.

Before they started, some of the actors moved through the crowd or talked to each other on stage. The actor playing Balthasar (Steel Burkhardt) for example, started from the back of the theatre playing guitar and worked his way up to the stage. Then, as the show began (with some extempore playing in Italian), the great omniscient voice of the theatre manager told us we couldn’t use cellphones, and other important details, to which the actors all looked up as if experiencing the omniscient voice of God.

Which was quite funny; all-in-all it was an entertaining, funny performance. I was disconcerted, especially at first, at hearing the voices of the actors projected over a sound system. At the beginning of the play there are a lot of actors on stage; in hearing their voice through a sound system it’s difficult to know which actor is speaking (at least from row X). I noticed it less as the performance went on, because you figured out which voices went to which actors.

If I was going to write an essay on this performance, I noticed a few things. First, it’s interesting to me that they felt it was okay to add dialogue not written by Shakespeare as long as it was in Italian. Questions of Shakespearean authority; you’re not allowed to add scenes to Shakespeare’s play ordinarily (acting out scenes described off-stage, as done here, being one exception), since this harkens back to the hatchet jobs done on Shakespeare’s plays done post-Restoration (see for example, John Lacy’s Sauny the Scot) previous to Shakespeare’s canonization as England’s national poet. Ordinarily, it’s also a sin to change Shakespeare’s text; here they also felt it was okay to do that. I think they made several changes to the text; the one that I caught was Leonato tells Doggberry that he is too “confusing” to be understood (“This learned constable is too cunning to be understood” 5.1). Maybe they felt it was okay to change the text because it’s a production in the park? I wonder how many Broadway or Lincoln Center productions have taken similar liberties.

They also did a strange extempore bit on this giant gate that they had; if Balthasar played guitar to it, it would open. Not sure what that had to do with anything.

But it made for a great scene in which Benedict (Hamish Linklater) is gulled; as Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro try to fool Benedict into believing Beatrice is sick for love of him (2.3), he climbs up a tree, through a fence, over a wall, and leaps from the top of the gate into the tiring house, returning below to claim the dead rabbits he dropped in situ (unfortunately for him, the cook has already claimed them, thanking God–again in extempore Italian).

There were some other creative stagings of the play; the mise en scène included a garden in front and a small pool, which several characters used to seem to refresh themselves by splashing water; at the line “Shall I never see a bachelor of three-score again?” (1.1) Benedict flings water on Claudio. They also used the garden a few times: Beatrice tries to hide in it, Don Jon steps maliciously on a plant to show he is a villain, and Benedict pulls carrots out of it to use as cuckold’s horns.

Beatrice (Lily Rabe) also has a band for her dancing metaphor and colored lights were occasionally used to create mood (heavy blue for Don Jon’s plot, warm orange for singing).

The acting was good in general, with of course some better than others. An interesting choice, to me, was to make Leonato the slow one in the gulling scene (usually it is Claudio that struggles to be convincing, as in the recent Joss Whedon version). Benedict is very funny, often alternately yelling lines at inappropriate times (“the world must be peopled!”) to humorous effect or whispering emotional ones to pull on our heartstrings.

I wasn’t as impressed with Beatrice, but maybe that’s by design? The intention seemed to be that Benedict is in love with Beatrice from the beginning, but really can’t emotionally bare her taunts. This make Beatrice a less sympathetic figure, with a proportionate increase in sympathy towards the struggling Benedict. After having seen the Kenneth Branagh version of the play (Roach’s surrogation in effect here again) I also always wait for Beatrice’s line “Kill Claudio” (4.1.285). I have never seen a Beatrice deliver that line with anything like the emotional power that Emma Thompson does in the 1993 film; nor can Lily Rabe match it here.

The crowd really enjoyed the play, however. Doggberry (John Pankow) got applause twice add he exited, as did Linklater and Rabe after 4.1.

All-in-all an entertaining and enjoyable production. I took a friend (who has been living in Brooklyn for years) who told me she had never seen Shakespeare in the Park before. Don’t let that be you! It’s entertaining, education, and free. If you can go, you should go; you won’t regret it.

Review: Almeida King Lear

I downloaded and watched Digital Theatre‘s production of the Michael Attenborough/Jonathan Pryce King Lear at the Almeida Theatre. It’s definitely worth watching if you have the time.

Digital Theatre has a number of Shakespeare plays on hand, including several from the new Globe Theatre. These, however, you can also get on Amazon. They have a number of other Shakespeare plays however, including this King Lear, a David Tennant Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It. I’ve also seen the Comedy of Errors–hopefully sometime I’ll have the time to write a review of it–which I recommend.

But this production of Lear is quite good. It’s mostly done in the naturalistic style of acting, which suits Jonathan Pryce very well. He agony at the death of Cordelia is believable and moving; he goes deep down the emotional well. He appears to almost have a psychotic break after the “let me be not mad” speech; the fool holds him in an attempt to calm him down. It’s great naturalistic acting (Anthony Sher would be proud), but during this the daughters on stage seem totally unmoved, which doesn’t seem to me to be a very realistic response. But perhaps this is no fault of the actors; Shakespeare was writing for Elizabethan actors on an Elizabethan stage and wasn’t writing a script designed for realistic acting.

As with all these productions; naturalistic acting has its limitations. For me, another example is that during Lear’s death scene he feels the need to convulse and shake–I suppose intimating that he is having a heart attack or stroke. (He sets this up earlier in the production; when Cordelia gives him nothing he clutches at his heart as if to suggest he has a heart condition). Erin Sullivan has written a convincing argument on this subject, but Elizabethans would not have required “realistic” convulsions to make this scene believable; they would have believed that someone could die from emotional causes, and, I have to admit, in theatrical terms watching Pryce convulse on stage while no one does anything came off, to me, just a bit weird. (Kent does say “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass,” but would you say that if someone were convulsing?)

Pryce’s howl, howl, howl (5.3.270) was also slightly disappointing; I’ve seen this done to great effect. A supernumerary carries in Cordelia for him (rather than dragging her on, which is how many of the productions I have seen have handled it), and he says “howl” at some of the other actors on stage, as if challenging them to howl. Which makes sense, given his next line is “Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/That heaven’s vault should crack.” But then, shouldn’t he have done this himself? In other words, how can he criticize the other characters for not howling when he did not? I’ve seen actors do “howl” as a cry of anguish with great feeling, which really seems to work on stage; saying “howl” comes off, again, a bit weird.

But then in the same article I’ll criticize him for ranting and raving in the first act. He gets so angry at Cordelia at times that he seems like a lunatic. Naturalistically speaking, this is consistent–but the problem then is there’s no pathos when things start to turn against him. No tragedy. If he’s just a crazy, inconsiderate, self-centered, angry old man–which you can play him as, it’s in the text–then who cares when his daughters turn against him? They should! He’s just a crazy, angry old man. When he rants and raves in the storm, my mind is honestly thinking, “Well, you should have been nicer to them,” where I think we’re supposed to be feeling emotional sympathy towards him.

I’m also going to take issue with the interpretive choice of suggesting that there has been some sexual impropriety between Lear and Goneril, or especially Regan. When Lear comes to greet Regan after leaving Goneril, he kisses and caresses her as if coming home to a lover. This has become a more popular interpretation recently, but it’s not textual and doesn’t seem to work in production. Again, it just adds nasty and cruel to the list of Lear’s faults, making sympathy for him during the storm difficult.

Pryce also delivers the always questioned “my fool hanged” line as if looking around for his fool, which doesn’t make sense to me. Why, as he cradling Cordelia in his arms in grief, would he suddenly think of his fool? It seems much more likely that he referring to Cordelia as a fool. (Trevor Fox’s very good fool quietly creeps off stage after they lead Lear off to Dover as if he’s thrown in the towel.) But, I quibble, these are choices every actor has to make; all in all Pryce’s Lear is one of the best I have seen. His character choices are believable, he acting very moving, and his madness seems very real.

I just always wonder how much better this production would have been with the lights on. As I’ll write more about later, there is no right or wrong way to produce Shakespeare, but to me it seems to work better on stage when actors can see the audience. Shakespeare wrote for an Elizabethan theater, which performed plays during the day in natural light. So it makes sense that he took that into consideration when he wrote his plays. They can be done other ways, of course, and to good effect. But who is Edmund talking to?

All in all, however, this is a good production with some fine acting and a few interesting interpretations, well worth watching. If you’ve seen it, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Production Notes

Other small notes; after have seen live music in performances, I dislike piped in music or noticeable sound effects. Lots of theaters and directors use them; I wish they wouldn’t. Rain/thunder effects are okay, but they, as here, tend to be overdone. I tend to dislike as well how these plays are lit; again, my preference is for the lights to be turned on. Here, other than the already mentioned problem with being unable to address the audience, creating mood lighting makes it difficult for the cameras. The scenes in the storm are lit so badly for the cameras that at points you almost can’t make out what is going on. Cameras are hungry for light.

The sword fighting however, was quite good (fighter director Terry King). A little bit long perhaps, but athletic and believable; Edgar (Richard Goulding) and Edmund (Kieran Bew) appeared to be quite practiced at it.

On the text, they used at least some text from the quarto version (Goneril’s trial). I would like to check how much of it they used; Edgar’s poor Tom speeches in particular I think are from the quarto version. Note to self; I’ll check. Edgar delivers the last lines of the play.

As with most British productions, the verse speaking is good. I like how Pryce emphasized “a rat” in the line “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?” (5.3.321-22). There were some noticeable accents in this production, Edmund and the Fool especially, but I didn’t find it distracting and actually rather enjoyed them.

No problems with the set design (credited to Capitol Scenery); a fairly bare stage, sometimes with a wooden throne/chair, the background is made to look like stone. Nothing of note, but not distracting.

The actor playing Kent (Ian Gelden) is older than I usually seem him; no judgement, just a comment. He does have to trip Oswald and do some physical bits; I thought he was fine. The Fool does some magic tricks when he first comes on stage, which was interesting. The entire production was very physical; Lear slaps Oswald at one point, Albany chokes Goneril and Cornwall steps forward to threaten Lear until Reagan intercedes. I’m not sure the text warrants this, but again, choices have to be made.

Race and Othello

So this is a subject that has been beaten to death, but I listened to Emma Smith’s (Oxford) Approaching Shakespeare podcast on Othello. I feel like it’s unfortunate that she chose this subject to be her first podcast; I’ve listened to several now and some are excellent. This one, however, I felt, not so much.

She starts off strong; similar to a Great Courses series of lectures I’ve listened to (Marc Conner argues that you can understand Shakespeare by using a set of tools he can teach you), Smith says that she will give you a set of interpretive tools that you can use to approach any Shakespeare play. This particular lecture strives to show you how to can approach Shakespeare by using the techniques of close reading, looking at Shakespeare’s sources, and genre (she also uses performance).

For better or worse, the question she wants to ask is, “What is the significance of Othello’s race?” She starts off by asking whether Shakespeare intended Othello to be a Sub-Saharan black African or a North African Arab (I guess, avoiding the fact that many North Africans are not Arab), and briefly whether Othello is Muslim or not.

Eventually she gets around to mentioning that she wrote a book arguing that Othello is unavoidably a racist play. Then she mentions you’re “welcome to argue with that.” I get the feeling she is playing devil’s advocate here a bit, which is fine. From a certain perspective of course there is a racist element about the play; I’ll talk about this more when I write about both Emma Smith’s and Alan Cohen’s podcasts on The Merchant of Venice. On the question of whether Merchant is anti-semitic or not, Professor Cohen argues that it has to be, because historically, as a man growing up in the South, even as a liberal, he was racist.

On one had you can say, there were no gender or race studies departments at the Universities during Shakespeare’s time. There was no education about race or gender inequality. So post such studies, of course we are more sensitive and better educated about such subjects than any Elizabethan, including Shakespeare, could be. He probably thought he wasn’t racist, but at the same time wouldn’t let his daughters marry a blackamoor. Or so the argument goes.

The problem with this view, as enlightened as it may be, is that there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Let’s look at the evidence Smith gives to prove that Othello must be a racist play.

First, she argues that we’re encouraged to be sympathetic towards Iago and disinclined to be sympathetic towards Othello. She argues that this must be the case, because Iago is allowed to talk to the audience (via soliloquies or asides), and Othello is not. So we’re supposed to sympathize with Iago, like, for example, Hamlet, because he talks to us. In Tibetan logic, the way to answer this is to say “not necessarily.” Can you think of a character in Shakespeare who talks to the audience who we are not supposed to sympathize with? I can; have you seen Richard III? He constantly talks to the audience about how is going to steal, kill, and manipulate his way to the crown. Are we supposed to sympathize with him?

Next Smith argues that perhaps Iago’s “motiveless malignancy” is due to his dislike of Othello’s race. In Shakespeare’s original source material , Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Iago (“Ensign” in the original story) hates Othello because he’s in love with Desdemona himself. So the question is, why did Shakespeare remove this obvious motivation? (What Stephen Greenblatt calls “strategic opacity” in his book Will in the World.) Maybe, Smith suggests, it was to hide a racial motivation.

This is borderline detestable. Sure, racism may be one of the possible motivations for Iago’s hatred. He certainly tries to play on racist feeling in 1.1.91-92 (“an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.”) But does Iago hate Othello because he is black? Or because he cuckolded him? Or is it because he passed him over for promotion? Iago gives all these reasons, then says, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know” (5.2). Is Shakespeare hiding a racist motivation?

It seems unlikely. If he wasn’t afraid to write Iago’s speech to Brabantio, I don’t see why he would be afraid to let Iago confess a racist motivation. In Merchant, are the characters afraid to call Shylock “Jew”? Is Shylock afraid to say that he hates Christians? So if that’s what Shakespeare wanted us to think, why not say it? He’s not afraid to let us know that he’s an anti-semite, but he is afraid to let us know that he’s racist?

Iago is not the only character Shakespeare creates with “strategic opacity.” Is he hiding a racist motivation when King Lear asks how much his daughters love him? Because he removed Lear’s motivation from the original source. My personal theory on “strategic opacity” (I haven’t read Greenblatt’s book yet) is that Shakespeare removes obvious motivations because he doesn’t want us to think about that; he wants us to focus on the results. What is the result of hatred? Or perhaps Shakespeare is asking, is the hatred of any other human being justifiable? Can you have a reason to legitimately hate someone, or is any one reason as good as any other? “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Anyway, the last piece of evidence Smith gives here is a possible etymology for Iago’s name. Scholars have conjectured that “Iago” is a contraction of Santiago, a Saint made famous for slaughtering “Moors.” Whether this is true or not is only speculation; there is no real evidence that this is the case. But even if it is (it’s possible), then this only again implies a racial motivation among the other (possible false) motivations Iago lists, but refuses to name at the end.

And all of this ignores what Smith herself admits; you can’t say what an author’s beliefs are based on what their characters do. Shakespeare wrote characters of almost every persuasion; does that mean he condoned or agreed with all of their behavior? Was he expressing his views with which characters? In which plays?

The truth, as Smith discusses to better effect in later lectures, is that Shakespeare appears to be interested more in asking questions than giving answers. He removes the obvious motivations for his characters; he changes his source material to make his plays more ambiguous. Smith’s second lecture is on Henry V; is he a mirror (role-model) for Christian kings or a violent sociopath? The only answer you can give to that question is “yes,” because Shakespeare represents him as both in the play. So, is Othello’s race significant? Yes, it could be. No, it’s not really in the Orson Wells version. Is the play racist? Yes, it could be read or performed that way. But if you found it that way, it might say more about you and less about Shakespeare. Because what Shakespeare seems to want us to do is to ask the question.

Marlowe Society

So I’m doomed; I’m already desperately behind on these posts… I want to write about some podcasts on The Merchant of Venice I listened to, but first I wanted to talk about the current issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, but now I’m going to write some metablogging: I found the Malone Society’s blog and spent the time I should have spent working on my ebook reading about student productions of The Tragedy of Thomas Merry and Samuel Daniel’s neo-Senecan closet drama The Tragedie of Cleopatra.

Evidently the Marlowe Society gives bursary awards to students so that they can produce long-forgotten Renaissance drama; the ASC’s Actors Renaissance season is doing similar work with similar methods. Meaning, you put actors on the stage without giving them a director, lots of time to prepare, or full scripts in imitation of how plays would have been rehearsed during Elizabethan/Jacobean/Caroline times.

The Tragedy of Thomas Merry (1601) has everything you want in a Renaissance play: an author controversy, murder, a historical element, and a live lute player. Interesting for me are the comments on working from cue scripts (also from a follow up youtube video) and using a prompter; the ASC Actors Renaissance season does the same. I saw a production of The Maid’s Tragedy recently at the Blackfriars where they used a prompter; it was brilliantly done; when an actor forgot a line, they would say “prithee” and the prompter would read them the next line. They did this so quickly that sometimes you might not have even have heard the prompter and thought “prithee” was a part of the performance.

It made me think, if what we think we know about Elizabethan performance is true (short rehearsals), then there must have been a prompter on stage at these performances. I’m not sure what research has been done on this, but it’s on my list to find out.

The production of Cleopatra (1594) doesn’t mention the use of a prompter, but claims that the play is:

in dialogue with Shakespeare. It was almost certainly a source for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but Daniel was in turn influenced by Shakespeare in his much-revised 1607 edition

The other area of interest for me is Arshad’s discussion of closet drama; works that were written for private reading or possibly performance. Arshad claims from producing the play that it could be produced, so theoretically this means the play, although not written for the professional stage, was meant to be produced and as such might have included female actors (who would not appear on professional stages for another sixty years). Professor Dobson has also done some work on amateur performance and its effects; it’s an area of study that needs more research.

In any event, if you want to see a rarely produced Elizabethan play, they’ve posted the full recorded video of The Tragedy of Thomas Merry to youtube.

Shakespearean Appropriation

I was looking at my notes from a lecture I listened to at the Shakespeare Institute on eastern perspectives on Shakespeare, and it struck me how complicated the idea of Shakespearean appropriation is. One of the questions I was given to consider for the class was, “Is Ninagawa a Westernized director who uses Japanese actors or a Japanese director who uses Westernized scripts?” The teacher, Erin Sullivan, asked “What are we supposed to think about British-born black actors playing a version of Julius Caesar set in Africa?”

Or even more interesting to me, what do we think about a failed interpretation of Troilus and Cressida by the RSC and the Wooster group being retitled (now Cry, Trojans!) and kept in production? Why is it that somehow, by changing the title, it’s okay to keep performing a play that was previously derided as “strangely infertile” and “awkward stylistic collision”?

The short answer is, if you retitle it then the Shakespeare scholars and critics don’t have to pay attention to it anymore.

Why do we care? As Shakespeare shifted into a cultural icon (around the time of Garrick, whether due to his influence or in spite of him is a subject for debate), the battle began as to who, when, where, and how it was acceptable to perform Shakespeare.

My still forthcoming review of Reviewing Shakespeare will mention some of these issues, as Paul Prescott brings them up in terms of the act of reviewing. Critics are, or at least they were, “night-watch constables,” vocal defenders of what is considered “authentic” Shakespeare. What is not “authentic” is called such (an “awkward stylistic collision”). But to what extent do we have to accept the verdict of critics as true? The famous response (“you may be lost in the wrong century”) to Billington’s review of the 2011 production of the Globe’s Much Ado argues that critics are not the final defenders of what is culture, as much as they would like to think themselves such.

So who does get to decide? Directors? Actors? Shakespeare?

In the end, it has to be you.



“Now” documentary

I was checking the Shakespeare FB page (I’m not sure who’s actually running it; I suspect it can’t be him), and I found a link to the website promoting the Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendez production of Richard III. I watched two of the trailers and then purchased the documentary.

The production company was exciting for its time because it featured both American and British actors working together in repertory for 200 performances, around the world, of this production of Richard III. I have to admit, my interest was attracted because of the Spacey and Mendez names attached, and what I was hoping for from the documentary was insight into this production of one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces.

Not so much. Like most documentaries, its main goal is perhaps to be interesting. So in an effort to be interesting, it covers a lot of ground: how the old actors got along with the new, how the British actors got along with the Americans, how the traveling got to them, what they saw, what were the impressions of various foreign countries, interviews with Spacey and Mendez–along with various actors and promotors–and how their work on this production mirrored their collaboration on American Beauty, what they did in their spare time, and, finally, a lot interest in bobble heads.

It had a lot of positives though: some of the interviews provided real insight into both actors preparing for roles, how they view their performances, and a few tidbits about the production itself. Confessing that I just saw the Mark Rylance Broadway Richard III, I have something to compare it to.

Of interest to me was the discussion of the Lady Anne wooing scene (always a lynchpin for this play); Spacey felt that it was Richard’s success here that spurred him on to see what else he could do–how far he could push his successes. During the scene where Hastings head is presented, they staged this as Buckingham presenting Hastings head in a box (which Richard cries over, then stabs.) I thought this was a nice touch; in the Rylance edition of the play, when the head was brought out, the American audience laughed at the prosthetic head.

In this production the way they handled Buckingham agitating for the crown for Richard was as a media broadcast of Richard at prayer: Richard accepts the crown via a live stream. The idea here seems to be to portray how tyrants control the media for their own purposes. Spacey also claims to have designed one of his costumes based off of Qaddafi, who was being overthrown at the time.

Spacey also discussed how he tried to play Richard as Richard embracing himself as an actor; that is, the character of Richard understanding that he is playing a part for an audience. I’m studying metatheatricality and its effect on production; I’m wondering if the audience understood how Spacey is an actor playing Richard playing an actor. And if they caught that, could they connect how they are also actors playing parts?

Some other interesting production notes where how the actors deal with laughing on stage (“corpsing”), and Mendez’ advice on casting (“Don’t cast assholes”). Otherwise the only moments I found pertinent were Emma Stone’s discussion of other productions she’s proud of (Peter Brooks famous production of Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Mendez’ view on theatre (“Theatre is only one step away from absurdity”).

If you’re not just interested in Shakespeare or theatre, there are some touching moments in the film; actors relating to each other and one actor discussing his battle with cancer (“Thank God I did what I wanted to do in life”). But, for me, the overall effect was that the film’s dispersed energy leaves it feeling like it needs a center.


Just to record it (so I can find it later), Kevin Spacey also has another project involving Shakespeare; it looks like a documentary about how acting Shakespeare positively influenced high school children.