Shakespeare

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!

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.

Et in Arcadia Ego

John Reinhard Weguelin: A Pastoral (1905)

Whenever anyone asks me if I’d live in a certain place, I generally pause for a second and try to understand the type of city on offer before responding.  Over the years, I have found that my honest answers tend to gravitate towards two extremes: places like New York and places like Ysbyty Ifan*.

Essentially, this seems to mean that I enjoy living in huge megacities or in tiny villages or rural towns with not much in between.  The megacities, require little explanation.  You’ll have decent museums, opera, retail and basically everything else civilized life requires (even bidets in many cases) at a world-class level.  Normally, these cities are the repository of national treasures or at least the best stuff in each country.  The art museums in New York or Paris are much better than the ones in Chicago or Lyon (and yes, I am aware of the Art Institute).  Likewise the rest of the cultural, gastronomic and retail experience – not to mention the fact that most companies you’d want to work for have offices in the bigger cities.  And the megacities are immensely cosmopolitan, while medium-sized towns only think they’re sophisticated.

So, medium-sized cities are out, then, but why this preference for the smaller places?  How come I’d happily spend my days staring at a stream in some village whose location in the English countryside only makes sense as a medieval watering hole for horses, or alongside lake Como, or in a French agricultural town?

The people who criticize me most, of course, are those that live in San Francisco, as they think everyone should like it as much as they do.  The fact that I don’t, and that I think it’s a bit too American and not global enough leads to anger, which turns to disbelieving rage when I then turn around and admit that I’d happily live in a village whose inhabitants might not even have heard of the concept of passports and other countries.

But life without amenities only works if you truly strip everything to the bare bones.  Medium sized cities have all of the frustrations of the large ones without the benefits.  I always thought that that was the reason behind the extreme nature of my preferences.

But upon further analysis, it becomes evident that humans have always been looking for that lost pastoral paradise, and it is a recurring theme in everything from religion to secular art.

The most obvious example, of course, is the Garden of Eden.  As a species, it’s pretty clear that humans have felt overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern life and the loss of innocence ever since Mesopotamian times (the Eden myth has it roots in an earlier mesopotamian legend).  Though little recorded evidence has been left behind, it’s easy to imagine ancient Babylonians complaining about them newfangled sails: “If Marduk had intended Man to navigate without rowing, he wouldn’t have invented slaves, I tell you!”

Claude Lorraine: Pastoral Landscape

It never stopped.  In classical antiquity, the name of the pastoral Greek region of Arcadia was borrowed to represent a back-to-nature utopia, and it informed quite a bit of renaissance art.  William Shakespeare, of course, famously used a pastoral setting in his comedy As You Like It, which idealizes the throwing off of the chains of court life for a country setting – in fact, many of The Bard’s romantic scenes take place out in the boondocks somewhere.

After Shakespeare, the Pastoral movement in art and literature had its ups and downs in Western culture, but survived to the end of the 19th century – even unto that ultimate loss of European innocence, the Great War.

Cotswold Village

World War I effectively ended the tradition, but added even more of a sense of loss to modern elegies – it marked the end of nobility as a social structure, with all that that implied.  We’ve gone into this before when dealing with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but the search for simpler times in the twentieth century went far deeper than just a few Oxford laments or Finzi-Continis.  Hippies were essentially pastoralists trying to shoehorn their anxiety about modern complexity into 1960s cities (which explains their failure to gain much traction among “regular” people in the US who were involved in a clash of civilizations with a still-strong Soviet Union).

Postmodern pastoralism is, of course, dismissed by modern philosophers as a delusion for the privileged (or perhaps a privilege of the deluded).  It’s intimately tied to the image of German bankers taking their helicopter to their French chateau retreat – or English lords driving their Range Rovers away from Parliament and into the mile-long drive of their stately manor.

Unlike the philosophers, I find both of these options admirable**, but I would actually go one step further and remove the bank or Parliament altogether.  If you’re going to aim for a relaxed existence, why bother with the distractions (yes, I know it may be necessary to rob an armored car in order to gain the capital to allow this, but today, let’s forget both minutiae and morality).

Even more than the economics and decadence, I believe that postmodernism frowns upon this because having an appreciation for the Pastoral implies both the sophistication to understand what that ideal means and the willingness to throw off socialist ideals of urban life and egalitarianism.  Anyone who can both choose and afford to remove themselves from the urban tapestry of enlightened society is clearly a dangerous non-systemic element…

Most readers of this blog DO fall into that category anyway.  And while your budget may not stretch to that chateau, there’s nothing wrong with a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a nice stone house in Champagne when you tire of the hustle and bustle of Shanghai or Sao Paulo.

And if anyone looks at you askance, just tell them that a whole bunch of renaissance painters, plus Shakespeare agree with you.

*It’s in Wales, if you were wondering.

**If this offends you, you should really have read the Classically Educated Manifesto before reading the article…