Tuesday, May 29, 2007


The Play's the Thing!

(A nu-Author-ised Version)

The crowd’s quickly filing in through the doors and filling the courtyard of the Globe. A few dark clouds have loomed over since Hercules ran up the flagpole but the wiser, or at least more experienced, Groundlings know they're empty of threat.

A couple of young gents have tried muscling their way on to the stage - it's a new play and a great opportunity for the 'Gulls' to show off their feathers - but they must be new in town: The Globe doesn't allow that sort of thing. They're skulking off to one of the higher levels, faces reddening at the jeers of the apprentice boys.

The usual ladies are plying their trade - they'll need to be quick, the building is almost full and there’re signs of movement in the musicians’ box.

The noise inside is quite deafening, shouts of friends across the floor, apprentices greeting masters and their wives in the galleries running around, a few of the finer folk even higher. It's the new play by Shakspear, one of the actors - something about Hamlet. Several of the audience remember an old play, some even saw it across the river, but it didn't stick in their memories.

Most are expecting plenty of blood - the latest fashion, a good bit of revenge and a few jokes: All know they'll be plenty to talk about after - one of the delights of the new Globe is the arguments in the bars of the stews that take place regularly after one of Shakshaft's concoctions. Several of the crowd are just content to gaze around, mouths open, like dead codfish, stunned by the splendours of the new theatre.

The trumpets blast out and the apprentices cheer. A mix of hissing and hushing is followed by a drum role; the back curtain is thrown open, a couple of ordinance fire and a great loud march sets in.

Straight away the audience understands we’re in a court – some proud king is about to make his entrance, and four stage hands are carrying in the state – so, its official business, big declarations and lots of boasting expected.

In they come. A couple of lackeys in royal livery representing the hundreds of servants who could never fit on the stage, a priest or two, several courtiers – one of whom is an old man, (surely that’s the actor who was playing Caesar last Tuesday?) - there’s Shakspear at the back pretending to be a soldier – and in progresses the King with one of the older boys by his side as the Queen (Time they let him grow a beard and get out of that costume – it fitted him well when he did Titania a couple of year’s ago).

Where’s Burbadge?

Up in the balcony – dressed in black – several of the crowd took him for one of the Gulls who’d managed to sneak in – posing in black – quite a popular colour these days – but the regulation hat’s missing.

Is he a lover, or a puritan? Why’s he up there and not down on stage with the court? Amazing workmanship on that black doublet – rich whoever he is.

Cheers on the stage, echoed by the more roisterous in the crowd, as the King sits in his throne and the Queen takes a chair by his side.

One of the Groundlings bellows, just as he’s about to speak, “Watch out, there’s a black crow above your head!”

This gets a good laugh and gives Burbadge the chance to nod his acknowledgements to the adoring Globe. Great applause and stamping of feet, from some; hisses and shushes from others only stopped by a repeated trumpet clarion – the King rises and attention once again is drawn to the court.

Very few notice the thought behind the eyes of the soldier at the back – but there’ll be changes to the opening of the next performance, if the rest of the play goes well.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

I know not why . . .

So many of the anti-Semitic accusations against Shakespeare's play, 'The Merchant of Venice' rely on Antonio, the Merchant of the title, being seen as 'Innocent, Christian Victim' that I am surprised a lot more attention hasn't been focused on the validity of the assumption.

Actually, I am not surprised.

Antonio is such an anodyne wimp and Shylock such a dynamic powerhouse that any focus on the former at the expense of the later is bound to seem wasted: The same is true of Milton’s Satan – now there’s a scene stealer is ever there was one – poor old god left right out in the celestial cold.

And then there is the circular argument – Elizabethan England was anti-Semitic – we all know that – after all, Shylock’s portrayal is one of the main pieces of evidence isn’t it?

Strange then how many of the great Shylock performances of recent times crack the cliché and reveal not a ‘stereotype Jew’ but a very human, if flawed, character.

But there – you see – hoisted by my own petard - off the subject of Antonio and onto Shylock!

The play starts with Antonio walking on (as though through the streets of Venice) with some friends and he answers a question which must have been asked offstage – the conversation going something like,

Friend: Why are you so miserable? This sadness is very boring!

Antonio: In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

Cue Romeo (Aye me . . .); Cue Hamlet. Oh the moans, the moans!

Any but the most drunken groundling jumps straight to the point – Melancholy: Quite a fashionable disease at the time – every self-respecting artist, musician or unemployed scholar (not to mention teenage lover) donned the black hat and sighed bad breath over his friends (sorry ladies, women had to go for the hysterics).

Antonio is striking a note of dissonance right from his first “oooooo th” – and there are more to come.

He continues:

It wearies me; you say it wearies you;

Get the feeling he couldn’t give a monkey’s?

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born,

I am to learn;

And that’s a half line – cue for a big pause.

Plenty of time for the audience to answer his questions – black bile. Too much earthy heaviness – several potential causes: Several types – so, what’s unbalanced this guy: Unbalanced? Yep – he is suffering from an excess of bile, he is out of harmony with not only the world, but his maker.

And then he jumps in with,

And such a want-wit sadness makes of me

That I have much ado to know myself.

So Antonio has nailed his flag to the mast.

But hold on – Much Ado? Not about nothing surely? And, ‘want-wit’? And, not to know myself?

Either he is serious – as this bunch of friends think; or he is posing – as Gratiano suggests later in the scene.

An interrogation follows – following good Elizabethan medical theory.

As a melancholic, Antonio is under the influence of Saturn – he will exhibit sadness, contrariness and deliberation; earth is the dominant element with the attributes of cold, dry, black sourness. A quick look at Durer’s ‘Melancholia 1’ reveals the ‘gifts’ of Saturn – numbering, measuring counting (land and money) – all low, earthly occupations.

Salerio assumes this is where the source of the Antonio’s trouble lies – excessive worry over his material possessions. Solanio backs him up (both giving essential plot details). Salerio returns with more – jointly giving a total of over 30 lines on the worries of being a merchant. How many in that first London audience must have recognised their daily concerns. The recent discovery off the coast of Cornwall of a vast sunken treasure in silver and gold only adds weight to the assumptions of his friends.

Antonio denies the diagnosis – incidentally confirming his melancholic ‘strengths’ of counting, numbering and deliberation. But am I talking about the merchant or the moneylender? It certainly seems to me as though they are two sides of the same coin.

Solanio makes his second, wild guess – love!

Quickly, and contemptuously, dismissed (although many modern productions choose to ignore this dismissal and try to hang Antonio’s character on a secret homosexual love – I suppose it gives the modern method actor something to worry away at, even though it has nothing to do with what Shakespeare intended).

Solanio seems to give in at this point – you have inherited the sadness from nature – but he does bring up ‘two-headed Janus’ – which again suggests, to me, Shylock and Antonio as aspects of a single unity.

We have not got to a solution when Bassanio, Lorenzio and Gratiano enter – and instantly Solanio bids goodbye:

Fare ye well;

We leave you now with better company.

If Solanio has made the Melancholic diagnosis, then the cure includes companionship, unburdening of the heart, and peace of mind (and music and drama) – all designed to ‘lighten’ the humours and restore balance. He and Salerio are not doing too well – although they are trying – they have business to go to, and that is the last thing Antonio needs to be thinking about – so, a quick exit is called for.

Antonio, sourly, thanks them for their company and doesn’t fail to point out that they are ‘embracing the occasion’ to depart.

This is true – but what is the motive?

Well, that’s a very 20th Century question – Shakespeare, having set the scene of a Melancholic ‘Title’ character, now needs to move the plot on a bit – and introduce a second theme, friendship.

Bassanio is Antonio’s friend – Solanio and Salerio, like Romeo’s mother and father, withdraw to let friends talk and, hopefully, ‘unburden’.

But before that can happen, there is a last stab at the diagnosis – this time from a straight talking Gratiano.

He assumes ‘care’ about earthly things is the cause – and points out how greatly changed Antonio is.

This is one of those important indicators that slip through – how does Gratiano know? What is Antonio doing that is ‘changed’? Surely, like Hamlet, we have visual as well as reported indicators. Antonio must be in black – reduced in finery? Hence the constant assumption ‘material wealth’ is at the bottom of the Melancholy.

Antonio now comes out with the much quoted:

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano –

A stage, where every man must play a part,

And mine a sad one.

This, of course, is the ‘All the World’s a Stage’ thought – it is, additionally, the ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable; Seems to me all the uses of this world’ of Hamlet.

It is also a half line ending – and Gratiano, not taking this ‘feigned’ nonsense, leaps straight in, playing the fool.

Standard medical treatments are recommended – and an interesting accusation – some men wilfully take on the mantle of Melancholy in order to seem wise – and Antonio doesn’t actually deny this, but says he will talk more.

What are we to make of Antonio’s Melancholy?

Well, the first important point is that Antonio cannot be seen as an example of Christian virtue, in harmony with his maker.

Melancholy, whether feigned or real was an indication of dispair – one of the greater sins to your average Elizabethan – it represented a refusal to enter into a relationship with god.

Next there is the question of the type of Melancholy – and we have dismissed the major contenders – concern for business and love – which leaves us with two further possibilities, ‘The Intellectual’ (indicated by Gratiano) or one not mentioned – The Malcontent.

It was the Malcontent who, finding no place in the social system, joined the extreme religious sects – such as the Puritans or, in Elizabethan England, the Catholics.

And Angelo is most likely in black – just as Malvolio.

Antonio to the groundlings of The Globe, would be seen as a potential figure of fun – and a joke will be played on him which is as cruel as that played on Malvolio. Black humour certainly, arising from the black humor of bile.

But knowledge of this also prepares the audience to expect from Antonio statements of an extreme nature:

The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian, and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities. Those which are sad and pensive, rise of that melancholick humour, which is the grossest part of the blood, whether it be iuice or excrement, not passing the naturall temper in heat whereof it partaketh, and is called cold in comparison onely. This for the most part is setled in the spleane, and with his vapours anoyeth the harte and passing vp to the brayne, counterfetteth terrible obiectes to the fantasie, and polluting both the substance, and spirits of the brayne, causeth it without externall occasion, to forge monstrous fictions, and terrible to the conceite, which the iudgement taking as they are presented by the disordered instrument, deliuer ouer to the hart, which hath no iudgement of discretion in it self, but giuing credite to the mistaken report of the braine, breaketh out into that inordinate passion, against reason.

- Timothy Bright, A Treatise of Melancholie, (1586), Facsimile Text Society, New York, 1940. p.102.

Taken in this light, the strong anti-jewish sentiments expressed by Antonio cannot be seen as inherent anti-Semitism either in the play or in the playwright.

(Appologies for the not quite right layout - Blogger ain't behaving!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

By Popular Demand

One of those quirky thoughts you get crossing over the bridge coming to work in the morning.

Shakespeare and Warhol have a lot in common.

Like the artist, Shakespeare took what was common in his culture and made people really look at it - not look 'new' so much as look deep.

There is tremendously little originality in Shakespeare in terms of philosophy or politics or plot.

No one looks at the plays in performance though for originality - especially nowadays when everyone has read the text before going into the cinema (whoops, should I have said theatre?).

You want to see a slant on your preconceptions: You want a push towards the edge for the thrill of it.

Must try to sleep more and think less.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


The play of departures!

Just finished the second half of the BBC Henry the Eighth: Jolly good too!

What struck me most was the number of departures - and no one given a bad end.

Written well after the events - in a Protestant country - out of the Tudor reign; and no blame to be seen.

Wolsey dies an honest Christian; Catholic Catherine dies a saint's death; Cranmer - to die at the stake under Catherine's daughter's yoke - is deeply holy and prophesies, at the christening of baby Elizabeth, nothing but glory - and virginity and death.

What was Shakey thinking?

Surely it was written for a court performance under James? It is a chamber piece - so much 'internal' - so protagonist free.

What vice there is, is that of ambition and court pettiness. There is no evil here.

It is the fall of angels. Foreshadows of Milton – Wolsey’s words at his end especially.

And what a production – as close to where it should be as the Beeb could get – genuine Tudor locations (so right for this chamber piece).

But still something missing?

Maybe the theatrical.

How intriguing that the original Globe burnt down during a performance of this play – the theatre itself rebelling at so strange a play?

Friday, May 11, 2007

'enery de aiff!

What a reputation the man has!

(Not Shakespeare this time - Good old 'King Henry'.)

Tudor playboy, musician, sportsman, passionate lover, wife killer, church destroyer, (and saviour) in one.

American WASPs are 'P' because of he.

And Shakespeare has a play with the title, 'Henry VIII'.

Well, it is also known as ‘The Famous History if King Henry the Eight’ but that’s far too long for the playbill and we already know the man is famous.

Not so the play.

I’ve just watched the first half of it in fact – from the BBC complete works.

Surprising really – intelligent matter. You don’t notice that when you read it – and I have only a vague remembrance of watching this performance back in 1979 so I only know it through a dutiful, once only, read.

You expect a different treatment of the characters – and much more vitriol against the Spanish (so far it is the French who have had to suffer a jolly good dose of Great English Xenophobia – can’t keep a respected enemy out of it). Catherine, Henry’s first wife, seems a most sympathetic character.

There is an ambiguity with Wolsey – everyone kicking at his common ancestry and ambition – but he is effective and another not exactly unsympathetic ‘representation’ (especially, one suspects, to a working class chap like Shakey).

And at this point there is a dreadful sense of fate weaving – a dark thread slipping into the cloth of gold.

Is there anything anyone could have done?

Which brings up the parallel with Romeo and Juliet: Several times there are little stage actions and theatrical moments that remind one of the earlier play. There is the masquers interrupting a feast, for example, and a man singling out a young woman – with talk of hands; there is the old worldly wise woman talking to the young girl who pretends an innocence not entirely believable, but not hypocritical.

But with R&J you know it didn’t have to be like that – here there is no escape – and it is not just a personal tragedy, it is National History.

(Image at the top is the 18 year old, newly crowned king: You start to think the poor bugger could have been manipulated into a marriage when you look at that!)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Birdseye frozen fishfingers

You sometimes come across something in the shops which awake long forgotten memories - this time it was Heinze ketchup sending me off after fish-fingers.

The delight in slices of white bread, buttered thick (frozen butter essential - to melt when in contact with the too hot fingers) overdose of ketchup designed to dribble and create extra washing, and sheer physicality of biting through that lot - oh, heaven.

Bardseye has done the same for me - not so old or frozen and image, but almost as physical. After a period away from the Bard, he has started on one of those topics that have my mind stimulated.

Expect more posts coming this way.