theater

The Bard, Our Take

It’s pretty tough to justify a name like “Classically Educated” after writing only tangentially about Shakespeare over the course of the past couple of years.  Being completely impervious to criticism (what’s the use of living in an ivory tower if you can’t occasionally drop some boiling oil on critics?) we’ve ignored the hue and cry, pointing at our excellent track record of reviewing old films and discussing everyone from Homer to Umberto Eco every once in a while.

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The Tempest – William Shakespeare

The main problem with Shakespeare isn’t the Elizabethan English or the sonnets (although the sonnets, admittedly can get pretty ugly when you realize that he was writing a bunch of them for patron’s children, and not for love of anything other than money – this comes through loud and clear when you read them in succession.  “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  was written for a male youth, probably the son of a patron.).

But that isn’t the problem.   The problem is that, to get some insight on Shakespeare, you really have to got through and read all the plays in succession… yes, even the Winter’s Tale.  So, that is exactly what we did.  Armed with an inexpensive leather-bound edition of the Oxford text, the most universally accepted version which is roughly divided into four sections: Comedies, Tragedies, Histories and everything else, I set out to see whether we could make some sense of this Shakespeare thing.

Now, first things first: a lot of Shakespeare scholars attempt to make a name for themselves doing textual analysis on the plays and attempting to attributing the plays to random other figures.  Everyone from Shakespeare’s wife to his cook and other playwrights of the time gets a look in.  We won’t be playing at that, just looking at the plays on their own merits.

But first, we must eliminate the rest…  There’s a reason Shakespeare was revered in the theatre more than as a poet, and that is because most of his poetry isn’t at the same level as his plays.  The longer ones, sadly, are just long, while the shorter ones have some good lines in them (that summer’s day one comes to mind), but don’t have quite the impact of the theatrical work.

So, onto the plays…

To modern audiences, the comedies are a bit predictable.  You know it’s going to come out well in the end, and you can usually tell how it’s going to be fixed as soon as the tableau is set, except for Merchant of Venice, which it is no longer politically correct to discuss.  Fortunately, Falstaff makes some appearances (he is probably Shakespeare’s most interesting character), and gets clobbered by the Merry Wives.  I’ll agree with Hollywood on this one: Much Ado About Nothing is likely the best.   The weird ones (Tempest, Midsummer’s Night) would probably be a nice primer for anyone attempting to track the evolution of the Fantasy genre in the English language.

Had Shakespeare only written comedies, time would likely have preserved some, and they would be part of the canon, but the bard himself would be of much lesser stature.  The tragedies are where he made his name, and rightfully so.  These are better than the comedies in general, and the Scottish Play in particular is nearly perfect.

The rereading of Hamlet was interesting, as I’d forgotten how convoluted it actually is, while Lear, as always, is brilliantly insane.  But none comes close to Macbeth for utter depth of the despair it produces in the reader.  This one, much more than Timon of Athens, brings the sensibility of the Greek epics to a renaissance audience.

Romeo and Juliet, of course, is nearly unreadable.  I had to force myself through the thing while attempting to avoid tossing the rather large volume out of high windows.

Engraving of the Conclusion of the Treaty of Troye, from Shakespeare's Henry V

William Shakespeare – Henry V

Last, I’ll discuss the histories.  To my shame, other than having watched the aforementioned film version of Henry V, I’d really not paid much attention to these.  So when, one after another, they turned out to be much more interesting than both the comedies and the tragedies, I sat up and took notice.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed them less had I remembered the history of British monarchs, which I’d long since forgotten.  But possibly not, since Julius Caesar was good despite knowing exactly what would occur.

So, strangely, I have found that the most neglected part of old William’s oeuvre is probably the best for modern readers.  One never really knows what’s going to happen unless one remembers his British history (it’s safe to say that most people emphatically don’t).  It was a pleasant surprise, and made the huge reading/rereading project worthwhile.

So, if you’re yearning for some Shakespeare, might I suggest forgoing the obvious and grabbing the Histories?  You’ll probably find them much, much more rewarding!

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The Bard Makes an Appearance

William Shakespeare Title Page

After Tuesday’s post, you would be forgiven for thinking that we’ve given up all pretense of polymathy, discarded our manifesto and have decided to go on a film binge (something that we’re considering, at least for a couple more posts), but though today’s entry is part of the 1001 movies list, it ties many of Classically Educated‘s themes together so perfectly that we’re counting it as a separate entity.

Henry V is a film from 1944 (there is also a version from 1989), that seems to tie together so many of our themes.  In the first place, one must mention Shakespeare.  How can a blog calling itself Classically Educated go a full year  without having a single post dedicated to the bard?  After all, no less than four of his plays are included in The Harvard Classics famous Five-Foot Shelf!  We’ve even done a piece on one of his contemporaries!

The answer, of course, is mumble mumble mumble.

And you choose to do a piece about a film as your first contact?

Mumble, mumble, vague promises to write a highly opinionated analysis of his oeuvre at an unspecified future date, trashing Romeo and Juliet with particular savagery.

Though this criticism is valid, Henry V is still a perfect subject for a post.  Yes, it’s Shakespeare, and as such needs no real excuse to be transferred to celluloid, but one needs to remember where, exactly, we are within our chronological review of the 1001 movies list.  1944… there was a bit of bother going on in Europe and elsewhere at the time.

Henry V, with some strategic alterations to the original text is a brilliant propaganda film (a genre we’ve discussed here before).  Not only are Shakespeare’s Histories very probably his best work, but this one in particular reminds everyone that the British throne had a historically reasonable claim to the French crown, and shows a doughty British ruler walking into France and chastising a man he saw as an illegitimate ruler.  Hmm, I wonder who they were trying to rile up?

But the brilliance of the film lies in that instead of creating a blunt instrument of a propaganda film the British government elected to help fund a Laurence Olivier production the thing, and the results speak for themselves.  This film mixes several ways of showing the action – from aerial views of 1600s London moving to the stark non-sets of the Globe Theater, to book of days type sets to full open scenery in the battle scenes, all in (possibly overly) vibrant technicolor.

It’s not surprising that this film is considered to be the first artistically successful adaptation of Shakespeare to have done well at the box office (there’s a reason Hollywood tends to shy away from The Bard, and that reason is the failure of money to ensue when filming his plays in an artistically relevant fashion).

Sadly, the first thing one needs to do when reviewing the film for a modern audience is remind them that textually, the film is an Elizabethan Play, which means that, unless one is already familiar with the text or deeply immersed in Elizabethan idiom, it does take some concentration to follow the dialogue.  I personally believe that most modern viewers will be turned off by this alone.

However, this particular play / film is worth the effort.  You get more action an political intrigue in this than in most modern blockbusters – and you’re allowed to act snobbish about it afterwards (which I doubt anyone allowed you to do after watching the latest Transformers installment).  There’s even a love story!  And an attempt at comedy*.

The love story, admittedly, was a bit hard to swallow, but then Henry V was a man with a big…  kingdom, so perhaps he did have access to the best aphrodisiac.

Anyway, I feel that, with the limitations on pacing imposed by the text, this is the definitive film version – and quite possibly still among the best Shakespeare adaptations to film despite a wealth of very good modern ones.  I think Kenneth Branagh could have given the ’89 remake a miss – it wasn’t needed.

Laurence Olivier as Henry V

The one disappointment has to be the famous “Once more into the breach” speech, whose delivery left me feeling that it should have been much less upbeat than it was.  Perhaps it should have been more robust, perhaps grittier, but Olivier decided that “drunken toastmaster” was the vibe he preferred for that section.  Also, casting the french nobility as inbred retards (except for Katherine) was probably meant as a message to Adolf, but didn’t do the film’s tension any favors.

Even with these shortcomings and the language caveat, I’d strongly recommend this to anyone with a love for literature on screen.

Renée Asherson as Katherine

Final shout outs must go to two of the cast: Esmond Knight, who was wounded in WW2 and acted in the film despite being nearly blind and Renée Asherson, who played the aforementioned Princess Katherine, and who died last October – she gets a mention because she would have turned 100 years old in less than a week, so the post can be considered a birthday celebration on her hundredth.

Anyway, find this one and watch it!

*When discussing comedy and Shakespeare, it is best to be delicate, so here goes: in my opinion, Shakespeare was about as funny as a long session with a dentist’s drill.  He might have recognized a good joke when he saw one, but I doubt it because everything approaching humor in his writing is either painful of based on sexual double-entendres aimed at the lowest intellects within an average street-theater crowd.  There, I hope that was delicate enough.