Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Shakespeare Project

Shakespeare's bust in the ceiling
 of the Louisville Palace Theater.
One of the shows I attended this fall was a very inventive production of Love's Labor's Lost at Actor's Theatre in Louisville. Many years ago, this was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw performed at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, VA, near my hometown. Full of nostalgia, I reacquainted myself with it before going to Actor's, which reminded me why this new version chose to jettison entire scenes, conflate characters, and insert a mashup of famous Shakespeare lines from other plays. Much of the original is completely impenetrable to a modern audience! There are whole scenes of wordplay and jokes based on what was probably very topical at the time, but the references are so obscure now that the scholars can only guess at what precipitated the jokes in the first place.

The experience got me to thinking about plays I wanted to read again, and the handful of plays that I've still never read. So, I thought, why not work my way through all the plays, reading one a week from now through next spring? I might even finish by Shakespeare's birthday!

Branagh as Macbeth 
I actually started in September with LLL. Macbeth was next because I've been mourning the fact that I didn't see Kenneth Branagh's production at the Armory this summer. Then, Richard III, who has been on my mind, since his poor bones are still being jostled about and fought over by Leicester (where they were dug up) and York (where many think he should be buried). There has been an ongoing effort to revive his reputation, but Shakespeare is a pretty formidable spin doctor.

R3 is a treasure trove of over-the top insults, most of them flung about by the female characters in the play. "Never hung poison on a fouler toad. Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes." So says Lady Anne on being wooed by toady Richard who has just killed her husband. "He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband, Did it to help thee to a better husband." He's so wicked and witty. I love this scene, and I can't wait to see Benedict Cumberbatch's take on it in the excellent Hollow Crown series.

I finished up September with one I had never read, The Two Noble Kinsmen. It's actually co-written by Shakespeare and his contemporary John Fletcher. It's a weird little play, adapted from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales. It's weird mainly because the action seems so improbable and then most of the really interesting stuff happens off-stage. The two kinsmen are friends and cousins, Arcite and Palamon, captured prisoners from Thebes being held in the court of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Though one is banished and one manages to escape, they are both in love with the Athenian Princess Emilia, which sets them at odds. There is no actual interplay between Emilia and either of her lovers, and then the contest that decides the winner is not dramatized. There aren't any particularly beautiful quotable quotes, which makes this play rather dull.

In October I read, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, and King John (I'm running behind -- I should already have read The Comedy of Errors, which is next on my list). Maybe the most surprising of the three was the one with which I'm most familiar. I've read it, wrote about it, and seen it performed a couple of times. Reading Lear again, I found it more moving than ever. I think there are aspects of this play that you only appreciate as you get older -- when the potential reality of helplessness, dependency, and weakness is enough to scare the bejesus out of you. It's a play that is truly timeless in the way it depicts the humiliations of old age, the revelation of family loyalties, and the wolfishness of those eager to fill the gaps left by the superannuated.

I encountered Troilus and Cressida in graduate school, but it hadn't really stuck with me. It is most interesting for it's absolute bleakness and it's lack of any hero. It is set during the Trojan War, and provides a scathing perspective on wars based on empty and pointless causes. Hector is the most level-headed and he is often the most blunt  in his criticism of the stupidity of the war, but even he is blinded by the idea of "glory and honor" won in battle. His brutal end is one of the most searing commentaries on those twin ideals in literature -- at least until the Great War poets, Sassoon and Owen come along. I would like to see a production of this one day. It is considered to be distinctly modern in the way that it deconstructs any kind of sentimental or romantic ideas about war, love, attachment, or heroism. It was written around the same time as Hamlet (1602). Shakespeare must have been in a pretty grim frame of mind for awhile.

The last that I've finished is King John, which I'd never read and had no familiarity with even the basic plot. I was kind of expecting it to be a dud (as Shakespeare goes). Oh, but no! I loved it. It has some of the most entertaining dialogue in Shakespeare, and a great character in Falconbridge (aka Philip the Bastard, aka Richard Plantagenet), the illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion. In Shakespeare's world, bastard sons aren't usually the good guys (i.e., the horrible Edmund of Lear), but in King John, he's one of the few truly noble characters in his actions, an irreverent silver-tongued devil in his speech. When his brother has him declared illegitimate and leaves him without land or fortune, Falconbridge declares his loyalty to King John (also his uncle). He gracefully excuses his mother's faithlessness, thus:
Some sins do bear their privilege on earth,
And so doth yours; your fault was not your folly:
Needs must you lay your heart at his dispose,
Subjected tribute to commanding love,
Against whose fury and unmatched force
The aweless lion could not wage the fight,
Nor keep his princely heart from Richard's hand.
He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman's.
Another thing I like about King John are the female characters. There is the intimidating Queen Elinor, John's mother, and the rather crazy Constance, mother of Arthur, a claimant to John's throne. Here is her speech, when she finds out Arthur is dead:
No, I defy all counsel, all redress,
But that which ends all counsel, true redress,
Death, death; O amiable lovely death!
Thou odouriferous stench! sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows
And ring these fingers with thy household worms
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust
And be a carrion monster like thyself:
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smilest
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery's love,
O, come to me!
I would thank that any actress would relish the chance to speak these wildly over-the-top speeches!

I'll try to catch up in November, but the fall arts season has been a busy one. Now that the time has changed and I'm facing what I expect to be a long and dreary winter, I expect I'll have more time to cuddle up next to Will. Here's hoping he makes the journey to springtime a little more bearable.

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