Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sir Salman's Shakespeare

Not that I normally turn to the characters of a novel for insights into the characters of Shakespeare's plays, but . . .

Seeing as Sir Salmon (whoops - Sir loin all over again - make that Salman) has just been 'Sired', I dug out of the local British library a copy of 'Fury' - one of the more recent novels of a novelist I enjoyed reading when I lived in countries you could get hold of his books.

There, in the very first chapter, you have a 'doctoral thesis' on the importance of the inexplicable in Shakespeare - and as one character strokes the others finely wrought breast . . .

“. . . at the heart of each of the great tragedies were unanswerable questions about love . . .”

“Why did Hamlet, loving his father . . . delay his revenge while, loved by Ophelia, he destroyed her instead?”

'”and why was Macbeth, a man's man (sic) who loved his king and country, so easily led by the erotic but loveless Lady M. . . .?”

And now the really interesting one!

Othello lacked 'emotional intelligence'. “Othello's incredible stupidity about love, the moronic scale of the jealousy which leads him to murder” was because “Othello doesn't love Desdemona” - the books italics.

‘What?’ a thousand love-lorn loons honk!

But be patient – one thing experience has taught me is that quality writers putting such odd statements into the mouths of their characters usually have something hidden up their sleeves. Rushdie is no exception – he goes on:

He says he loves her “. . . but it can’t be true. Because if he loved her, the murder makes no sense. For me, Desdemona is Othello’s trophy wife, his most valuable and status-giving possession, the physical proof of his rise in a white man’s world.”


So, Othello is just a ‘Material Man’! Makes some sort of sense to me – especially at this end of the capitalist revolution, dot booms and bubbles all over the place (not to mention gold wearing Russian oligarchs, and the less wealthy, but no less ostentatious Romanian BMW-ers).

The ‘Black-eyed Peas’ song and video – ‘My Lumps’ - pops up at this point too. Although I never trust that lot to not be doing a deconstruction on the world – far too intelligent for their own good.

Rushdie’s character hasn’t finished there though:

Othello, as a Moor, is of the Islamic moral universe – “whose polarities are honour and shame. Desdemona’s death is an ‘honour killing’. She didn’t have to be guilty. The accusation was enough. The attack on her virtue was incompatible with Othello’s honour.”

And a nagging suspicion that this is a ‘true reading’ for the contemporary world creeps in – gone are the Romantics at last – get real.

And houses of cards come crashing down.

Could Rushdie have opened up a new, rich vein worth pursuing – an Islamic Othello? Forget all the Christian focused culture clash papers – turn it on its head – Othello is a modern Muslim.

Honour killings are not just taking place in the streets of Lebanon – they are happening in today’s UK. They are not even Muslim-only territory – read Zorba the Greek and you’ll get a real sense of the rural Balkan world today – Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim. I won’t do more than touch on the hopefully resolved ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland.

I’ll leave you with some more thoughts on Shakespeare, our contemporary’s, character – thoughts I find deeply disturbing but so potent, reflective of much of the so-called love relationships of the modern world:

“She’s not even a person to him. He has reified her. She’s his Oscar-Barbie statuette. His doll.”

All quotes from Salman Rushdie, Fury, chap 1, Vintage 2002.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


Not everything you think, is true.

Does Makbeth meet fairies or witches?

In a previous post I explored Shakspear and the connection with King James and his little work on Witchcraft.

Now I have the picture of Makbeth's first meeting with the 'witches'. It is from the ‘source’ Shakey would have used for the main elements of the plot – Holinshed’s Chronicles (need to check that – that is what it said on the Internet site I borrowed the picture from).

Now, I don't know about you, but the rather refined looking ladies greeting the Elizabethan 'gents' in the picture above don't quite fit my 'vision' of Macbeth and Banquo's 'black and midnight hags'.

What worries me is that the woodcut might be much closer to Shakspear’s image, and possibly the original production’s costuming, than I would like.

Part of the problem is that I am not sure how to read the picture – there is an iconography here which I am not a party to.

The gent closest to us – Makbeth I’d guess by the way the witches are looking to him – has no armour on – or rather has one symbolic piece, the helmet (possibly a breastplate – but it looks more doublet to me). If he is the victorious body splitting general of Shakspear, he’s had a jolly good wash and got the grooms to work on his horse too. Is the helmet enough to tell the Elizabethan reader this is a military hero? If it is, would it be enough for the Globe’s groundlings?

I notice behind his head is a castle – with some active birds – must be Macbeth’s castle – although they don’t look like Martins to me, more like crows: Does suggest Shakspear looked closely at the picture though.

More crows flying around the ‘castle’ on the top of the head of one of the ‘witches’ too – although these could be clouds. Is that Elizabethan headgear? Maybe not – old fashioned hat? And this one is pretty ugly – broken nose by the looks of it.

Wouldn’t say the others were ugly though – and they don’t look particularly old either – quite smart, upright, well shaped.

I am reminded of Alice Nutter.

For those of you not familiar with the local history of the Pendle area of Lancashire, Alice was hanged for being a witch in the early 17th century: She was something of a lady – comparatively wealthy in fact, and not at all the ‘typical’ Halloween figure. She also just happened to be a catholic, which might have had something to do with the hanging. There were a number of other people (male and female) hanged at the same time – none of them quite of the same social standing.

The clothing on the witches is interesting – looks exotic – the woodcut cutter has taken pains over the patterns on the material – each different, each looking expensive, possibly silk or damask? This would make them stand out to the Elizabethans.

So, ‘from the farthest steep of India’? Spirits of some sort – hence the fairies.

Shakspear gives them beards – there is the slightest suggestion of such in the picture, from the attempt to create shadows. He has us meet them in weather very unlike that of the woodcut – which is quite pleasant. Certainly he takes us further – but how far would he have gone in production?

Nowhere near the broomstick riding cacklers of popular imagination I’d guess.