Archive for March 6th, 2010

The Bardathon: 8 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Romeo and Juliet was followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream – another masterpiece on the same themes, but in a very different key. It’s uncertain which was written first, but it’s generally agreed that whatever the order of writing, these two plays followed each other in quick succession. And plot elements such as young love, tyrannical parents, etc. all reappear. But, although Romeo and Juliet was paced like a comedy, its tone is ultimately tragic: the unpredictable and sudden nature of its violent outbursts could hardly have led to anything else. In contrast, although there is much unpredictability in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – at least, for those coming to the work for the first time – there is no sense of violence: the tone is, throughout, comic. Even the threat of a tragic outcome that compels Hermia and Lysander to elope together is not presented as particularly threatening.

We get once again Juliet’s image of love being like a lightning flash:

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as the lightning in the collied night.

But it’s the dreamlike element of love Shakespeare focuses on here, rather than its tragic brevity. That potentially tragic element now becomes the subject of parody – the hilarious Pyramus and Thisbe scenes of the “rude mechanicals”. (And I like to imagine, incidentally, that the Wall in the Pyramus and Thisbe play is a knowing reference to a prop that didn’t perhaps work too well in the earlier production of Romeo and Juliet – the wall that Romeo leapt over to enter the Capulets’ garden.)

Shakespere’s control of a very intricate and multi-stranded plotline is masterly. The amorous confusions of the four lovers; the rude mechanicals putting on the play; the quarrel between the king and queen of fairy-land, leading to these wonderful scenes between Titania and Bottom with an ass’s head – and all of these framed by the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta … It’s astonishing how much plot Shakespeare gets through is so short a time. And it’s even more astonishing that despite the speed of so complex a plot, there seems to be all the time in the world for some of the most lyrical poetry that even Shakespeare ever wrote.

And neither does Shakespeare forget the humour. The scenes with the “rude mechanicals” are a gift for any troupe of good comic actors. And yet, although we laugh at their simplicity, we never look down on them: Shakespeare loved all his creations, and he communicates the affection he has for them. I particularly love Bottom’s courtesy to his fairy attendants, and the way he takes for granted the most magical and wondrous of events. And it would be a poor comic actor who couldn’t get a laugh out of something such as this:

TITANIA
What, wilt thou hear some music,
my sweet love?
BOTTOM
I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let’s have
the tongs and the bones.

Just one thing that puzzles me – not so much about the play, but about what is often said about it: it is often said that the fairy world has a dark side, and that it represents some of the murkier aspects of the human psyche, and that the more traditional productions ignore this. I suppose all the productions I have seen have been traditional, but I just don’t get this: I can find nothing at all dark about this fairyland. It is true that the quarrel between Oberon and Titania has caused the crops to fail, but this was not out of malice to mankind: and in any case, Shakespeare merely mentions this in passing – it’s hardly a major feature of the play. And it is true that Puck plays tricks of mortals, but there’s nothing particularly nasty or cruel about them: they’re just childish pranks. When Oberon sees Helena being spurned by Demetrius, his reaction is pity for her, and he strives to make things well. And at the end, the fairies bless the marriages. Where in all this are the darker aspects of the human psyche? Even with the scenes between Titania and Bottom with his ass’s head – surely amongst the most famous images in all literature – Shakespeare avoids the indelicate. One of the sources for this was surely The Golden Ass by Apuleius, in which the principal character is transformed into a donkey. In one chapter of that book, a certain lascivious lady, impressed by the size of the protagonist’s member (this is when he is in the form of a donkey), has sex with him. There is not even a hint of anything so gross in Shakespeare’s play.

I am afraid that I cannot see this play as anything other than a most delightful idyll – a peal of good-natured laughter at human folly, and a celebration of the transforming power of the human imagination. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare had worried that his excessive delight in language could move him away from reality: in Romeo and Juliet, he had contrasted imaginative linguistic exuberance that did not actually mean anything (e.g. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, which seems to be looking forward to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with a language that depicted profound human emotion; and, having achieved that, he celebrates here the human imagination which, he now sees, can transform the very nature of our lives. It’s no more the sterile games with words that Berowne and his friends had so delighted in: instead, language is here transformed into something quite startlingly different.

The Bardathon: 7 – Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, despite its renown, is not a play I had known intimately before this reading. Yet, on re-reading it after God knows how long, I seemed to remember more or less every scene. Time after time lines would appear that I found, to my surprise, I knew well. I suppose its most famous line is:

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

But if one were to choose the lines that best summarise the mood of the play, one would have to go for:

It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’

Or, perhaps, this:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds

For the play does gallop along in a headlong rush. There is a sense of ecstasy about it, a sense of a lightning flash that illumines for the briefest of moments before dying.

If we were to ignore Titus Andronicus (and I would do so), this is Shakespeare’s first tragedy. And yet, it’s very different from his later works in the genre. Its pacing, is that of comedy: the fiery-footed pace of the play does not really allow for too much introspection; we never peer deeply into the souls of Romeo and Juliet as we do of Othello, Macbeth & Lady Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra. Of course, embedded in this fast pace are those love scenes, and some of the most exquisite love poetry ever composed: this play is still regarded by many as the archetypal love story. And there is a sense of languor about these love scenes, a sense of time standing still for moments, brief oases of stillness within the surrounding storm. The variety in the pacing is extraordinary.

The prologue is in the form of a sonnet (as, indeed, is the first exchange between Romeo and Juliet). The sonnet itself is very intricately and cleverly composed: Nuttall, in his book Shakespeare the Thinker, suggests it might have been written by Berowne from Love’s Labour’s Lost. It is all clever wordplay and intricacy of form. But the nagging question in Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to be present here as well: to what extent can language, far from depicting reality, take us away from it?

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the characters had, eventually, to face reality – a reality in which games with language are no longer appropriate. Here, the reality is faced earlier, and the language has to accommodate itself to expressing this reality, rather than merely play games. But before this happens, we see Romeo as a sort of lovelorn Berowne: he speaks of his love for Rosaline (the same Rosaline as in Love’s Labour’s Lost, possibly?) but it’s all just words, words, words, as Hamlet might say –all very clever, and very poetic, but with no real substance. It is Romeo’s encounter with Juliet changes all that: now, it’s no longer just a game – the words have to mean something. And Shakespeare rises to that challenge magnificently. Time after time, there are lines of dramatic verse that are not merely extraordinarily beautiful, but also extraordinarily expressive. Just to take a single example:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Yes, one can – and should – analyse this closely: something such as this is worth analysing. But even after one has analysed it all one can, it leaves one breathless.

But before any of this, Shakespeare pulls a fast one on us. We all know now, of course, that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, but one wouldn’t guess it from the first scene: that is pure comedy. Only when Tybalt (one of the most menacing of all Shakespeare’s characters) enters the fight expressing his motiveless hatred does the tone abruptly change; and the very abruptness of the change puts the nastiness of Tybalt’s speech into greater relief. Then, we get another abrupt change: after the bawdy humour, and the mock-heroics of the servants’ declarations, and after the sudden explosion of violence, Romeo enters as if from another play – from the world of Love’s Labour’s Lost. These sudden changes of gear prepare us for a play that gallops along like fiery-footed steeds; and they also, somehow, help integrate the most diverse elements into a single miraculous whole.

Juliet is, as is well-known, not yet quite fourteen. Shakespeare had actually made her even younger than she was in the source material. Modern sensibilities inevitably find this problematic, but Shakespeare is insistent that he is depicting a young girl’s first awakening, her very first awareness of her sexuality. We see her emerging from childhood: it wasn’t that long ago that she was being breast-fed. (The Nurse, incidentally, is usually played by an elderly actress, but this is surely wrong: she was employed as a wet-nurse for Juliet who is now nearly fourteen, and had had a child herself – Susan – who, had she lived, would have been roughly Juliet’s age. I think the Nurse ought to be roughly the same age as Juliet’s mother – i.e. in her 30s.) And it isn’t merely to sexuality that she is awakening: she also becomes aware of the presence of death – nowhere more so in that marvellous little soliloquy she has before drinking the Friar’s potion.

The plot itself has enough holes to drive juggernauts through, but when one is caught in the sheer exhilarating pace of it all, it hardly matters. It is true that we do not get the profound examinations of human character that we get in the later tragedies, but Juliet’s maturing from childhood into womanhood is deeply poignant, all the more so as her potential is never realised: the lightning-flash, though magnificent, is all too brief.

And Romeo matures as well. At first, he was with a group of young men who had too much wealth to indulge their pleasures and too little matter to occupy their minds. Indeed, of all the young men we see in the play – Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, Paris, Benvolio – only the last of these, the good-natured Benvolio, stays alive to the end. These are people playing with lives, just as Mercutio, or Romeo in the early scenes, play with language. There is nothing more to their lives than play of some sort of other: even being in love (like Romeo’s “love” for Rosaline) is a sort of game. But what Romeo undergoes transforms him. The lightning-flash may be brief, but it gives his life a meaning that it otherwise would not have had.

No wonder the Romantics loved this play! Shakespeare never returned to this type of play again. Perhaps he realised that this trick could not be repeated: one cannot relive a lightning-flash.

The Bardathon: 6 – Love’s Labour’s Lost

I have a special affection for Love’s Labour’s Lost: it was the first production I ever saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford back in 1978. The director was John Barton, and the marvellous cast featured Jame Lapotaire and Michael Pennington as Rosaline and Berowne, and Michael Hordern as the perfect Don Armado. It was an entrancing night out at the theatre.

 I still remember the impact made by that final scene: it’s surely amongst Will’s best. Suddenly, all those games with words, all those multiple puns and clever rhymes and devious conceits (much of it, admittedly, full of good old-fashioned smut) – they all seem swept away as the characters encounter real emotion: all of a sudden, life appears as something that cannot merely be joked away.

Before this happens, we have a show that a group of locals – including Holofernes, the eccentric but rather endearing Latin teacher – put on for the lords and the ladies (shades here of the later Pyramus and Thisbe). When they are performing their entertainment, the lords – but, significantly, not the ladies – take a delight in making various witticisms at their expense. We, the audience, may even find some of these witticisms quite funny. But Shakespeare had a knack of giving certain characters lines at appropriate moments that give us a completely new and unexpected perspective, and Holofernes, at this point, has just such a line:

This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.

And suddenly, this absurd pedant, who until now had been purely a figure of fun, emerges as a person of real humanity and dignity, and the ever-so-sophisticated lords appear merely boorish. It’s a wonderful line, and a wonderful moment.

Something similar happens with Don Armado. He, too, is an absurd figure, and when it is revealed that he has made the country wench Jaquenetta pregnant, he is subjected to quite a bit of ribbing. But his reaction to it all is admirable:

I have seen the day of wrong through the little hole of discretion, and I will right myself like a soldier.

How easy it would have been for Shakespeare just to have shared the jokes at his characters’ expense! But no – Shakespeare has to search out their humanity.

And there’s that ending, where the expected romances are interrupted by an announcement of death. And suddenly, all trivialities are swept away. In The Taming of the Shrew, it is the husband who educates the wife, but here, the roles are reversed: it’s the ladies who have a more profound understanding of life, and it is they who educate the men. They had gone along with the jokes and the high spirits, but there are certain things that need to be taken seriously: all of life cannot be dismissed as a joke, and the death of the Princess’ father has to be mourned. (There are fascinating glimpses here of Twelfth Night and of Hamlet, where, once again, the question is raised on how the dead are to be remembered if we are to value our own lives. This seems to be a theme that meant much to Shakespeare.)

When the ladies suggest that the men spend the next year nursing the sick, and to try out their jokes on the suffering, Berowne – the most intelligent of the men – sees immediately the true significance of this:

To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

What is it about these lines that I find so moving? Is it Berowne’s sudden realisation of the essential seriousness of life? At the start of the play, the men had taken an oath (quickly broken) to devote themselves to monastic study. But compared to what they are now being asked to do, that was merely trivial – merely playing games. Here, they are asked to confront reality, to confront life itself: no more hiding behind clever wordplay. And Berowne, before anyone else, sees the gravity of this. Love-games, word-games, even study-games – they are all very fine, but to give any of that any significance at all, one has to engage with life. And this realisation casts everything that has gone before in a completely different light.

And finally, just when we think Shakespeare has played all his cards, he gives us something unexpected: Holofernes & co re-enter, and they recite two poems, one about spring, and one about winter. Compared to all the sophisticated word-play that had gone before, these poems are plain and simple: there is no clever wordplay, and the imagery is taken from everyday life. And yet, these poems contain the finest poetry in the whole play.

(Incidentally, the final enigmatic line – “You that way: we this way” – appears only in the Folio, and not in the Quarto. It is believed that this line is simply the instruction of the stage-manager that has accidentally found its way into the text. But it’s such a lovely final line, that it would be a shame to cut it!)

The Bardathon: 5 – The Comedy of Errors

It’s hard to date these plays exactly, of course, and there’s much uncertainty as to the order in which Shakespeare’s first four or so comedies (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labours Lost) were written. According to some, this one is Shakespeare’s earliest work. Well, if it was, it was a remarkably assured first work. But if it was written – as the Oxford editors think – after the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy, then it was, I think, a case of Shakespeare taking it easy after the successful completion of a huge, ambitious project.

The plot is taken from Plautus, but Shakespeare has added in far greater complexities. The handling of all the plot complexities, and of the pacing in general, is masterly. The play is essentially farce, and it doesn’t seem at any point like the work of a beginner.

Of course, there is no depth here – and neither does Shakespeare aim for depth: it is a farce of mistaken identities, superbly executed. There is no great verse here, nor any particularly memorable character. But for all that, one can’t help noticing certain aspects that one wouldn’t normally expect from farce. The first scene, rather surprisingly, hints at possible tragedy; and amidst all the hustle and bustle of a fast-moving and complex plot, Shakespeare manages to insert a romance between Antipholus odf Syracuse and Luciana; and he has managed also to depict also the extremely possessive nature of Adriana.

The exact nature of the relationship between the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios remains uncertain: both the Dromios are referred to as “servants”, but given that they were bought at birth, it seems more likely that they are slaves. And both are beaten by their masters. Perhaps, in Tudor times, it was merely to be expected that servants would be beaten by masters: it may even have been funny. But for all that, Shakespeare is careful to give Dromio of Ephesus a rather eloquent speech bewailing the beatings he has received all his life.

It would be a mistake to read too much into what is, essentially, a very funny and fast-moving comedy. This may not be Shakespeare’s most artistically ambitious work, but for what it is, it could hardly have been done better.