Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gift horse in the mouth

I have been thinking about gift giving in Shakespeare.

There doesn't seem to be too much of it if I remember rightly.

What there is tends to be more insult or cupboard love ... which is interesting.

Timon goes over the top with gifts - which in this 'Christmas' season might not seem a bad thing. I am not so sure.

I don't celebrate Christmas and I don't give (or take if I can avoid it) gifts. I've got around to a feeling of superficiality in both the giving and the taking - and there is certainly nothing spiritual in it.

So what is Timon doing? Is he weak in the mind?

I did give a gift this week though - and shall give another on Sunday.

Because of the state of my health and the severe possibility that I shall be leaving Romania for a long time, I passed on to one of my young friends my complete DVD collection of Shakespeare and my precious Oxford Complete Works - I hope it gives much pleasure and starts him on a path of adventure and exploration.

What I don't feel I've given is anything material. There was an intellectual gift there - and not a definitive one - it is more like a dowry, a source of future riches, a foundation

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wood within a wood ...

Although the play has no evidence for it, I like to think of Macbeth looking out over the castle walls at Birnam wood and reflecting.

Much in the way I have been reflecting on my tumour.

I can actually see it - the doctor cut a 'vent' so he could take the biopsy and has left me a nice view of the problem. For those morbid enough (or with the stomach) it looks a little like a walnut - or half a walnut (the doctor, struggling for the correct English comparison, described it as a cauliflower - which is much too floral). It reminds me of my time in school when we dissected things - and the vengeance of the mouse is upon me - very mouse brain with alcohol dripped on it.

Anyway, when you look at 'Birnam Wood' you see your fate - you have to face that fate, there is no alternative. You are looking into the probable end. Macbeth's initial reaction has to turn cold. It is not depression, it is not even depressing, there is a satisfaction as you look and reflect - a knowingness - of being tricked into a false security and of smiling at your own gulability.

There is a determination too - OK, you've got me, but I'm going down strong. Not necessarily fighting (although in Macbeth it is that), not necessarily raging - but with whatever strength you can muster and with at least an attempt at dignity.

There is a certainty of defeat - and this is possibly an English thing - fighting the game to take part, not to win. The battle will be the final one, and Macbeth has no illusions as to silly schoolboy ideals of glory - he has fought before and knows the hacking of limbs, the bathing in blood the agonies and screams - as I know the fight against pain of cancer - I've seen enough of my family fall to it not to have any illusions: There will be no dignity in the end, just the coughing up of blood,the manual evacuation and the balance between enough pain killer and not extinguishing life.

There is no bravery possible, you have a choice of illusion or facing the fight - bravery is when you choose to fight when you do not have to - Macbeth has to, I have to.

I am aware though of Macduff - Macbeth as he looks at Birnam knows nothing of him. I know there will come an energy sapping moment when defeat stares me very closely in the face. Macbeth, ever the soldier, 'lays on': I hope to goodness sake I can do the same.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Nothing serious in mortality

It is strange when Shakespeare pops into one's head.

I was flat on my back in hospital last week coming out of a spinal block and several quotes and ideas popped into my head.

Macbeth, of course - with an inevitability only to be expected -

There's nothing serious in mortality ...

- but I'm concentrating on the lack of serious.

Being recently diagnosed with a tumour, my sense of humour has been considerably sharpened. So too is Fate's - both the initial 'revelation' under local anesthetic, with the sound of 'jingle bells' (you need to think where the growth is spreading to get the full implication of that one) on the radio (strange music for the urologist I'd say) and then, recovering from the spinal block used for a more adventurous cutting expedition, to have to endure flat on my back without resistance more 'Christmas Cheer' - Angels are apparently singing - not about my plight I hope.

No, there is nothing serious in mortality.

The spinal block though was another Shakespeare moment.

I couldn't help but think of Titus and limb chopping. To have the sensation of legs but no feeling and no possible movement ... it is a weird, frustrating incomprehensibility of a sensation - I'll be coming to the play not too far from now and hope to explore a little that moment.

As regular readers of this blog will now understand ... my absence is fortold, but I do hope to get a bit further into the journey before the old antic pops his pin through brass.

And I promise to try not to be as self-pitying as Richard.

Monday, September 29, 2008

It's a miracle ...

In Our Time (link) is back - and serendipitously hit on a related topic ... Miracles. You can go and download the programme this week or listen on line in the future.

What struck me with regard to 'The First Part of the Contention' was the difference between the Protestant and the Catholic attitude to miracles - apparently the miracles of the Elizabethan age would be regarded by the stronger sort of protestant as works of the devil rather than of God - the age of miracles was past - with the ascension of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.

The scene in St Albans then shows two interesting things - one, Gloucester's skepticism is very modern and links him to the right religion on Elizabethan England. Two, the King is stuck in the old dispensation ... he is a Catholic King dupped by a false religion - which accounts for the failure of his religiousness to produce.

Much is made in productin of Henry's religious bent - perhaps Shakespeare's Henry was more ambiguously religious than we take him for ... he is not so much an innocent lamb as a fool (if holy one) like Gloucester's Duchess?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Animal Magic!

Lions and Lambs, Foxes and Chickens, Doves, Snakes, Wolves, Eagles, Crocodiles, Porcupines and Dogs … oh yes, and Caterpillars ... and a Calf and his dam.

Not a list of creatures you can see in a zoo, but the menagerie invoked in the first Scene of Act 3 of The First Part of the Contention … (Henry VI, Part 2).

It is quite a list – deliberately extending earlier references to both the domesticated and wild and linking them to the Duke of Gloucester (most are used with reference to him) the King and the realm of England itself.

Some carry a weight of obvious symbolism – the Lion, as king of the jungle is also the animal seen ‘rampant’ as representation of England itself (even Willy was a lion – the first ‘mascot in any Soccer World cup – now copied ad nausea and sub-intellect into every sporting event). Ravenous lions are a powerful image – but incorporate a residual (at least for the ‘true’ Englishman – and if you saw the mustache and leg hair on the average English beauty you’d know that was not sexist) jingoism and a degree of pride (sorry for the pun) in strength.

Lambs take on the inevitable representation of sacrifice and the christian association with Christ – as well as provoking the sentimental in urban dwelling moderns: Not an ‘original’ Elizabethan sentiment perhaps.

And of course – the lion shall lie down with the lamb – not exactly a threat in the long term.

A careful look at the list of animals reveals several ‘double edged’ and consequently ‘interpretable’ linkages.

If the fox is a predator on chickens he is also respected for his cunning – and as long as that cunning is used for good purposes it can be an appellation of respect ( it should be remembered that Shakespeare used ‘Foxes’ Book of Martyrs as a source) – chickens are silly, ‘headless’ creatures which make a lot of noise – begging the question, ‘Who, in this play, are the chickens?’

The King – who in this scene loses all the respect gained during his last appearance and is revealed as weak and ‘empty headed’- could certainly be seen as the chicken – but if the king is the head, then the dukes and the Kingdom are in fact the fowl so foolish. There plots and counter-plots, their clucking complaints and their single-minded stupidities are the very reflection of a bunch of farmyard hens.

Doves and snakes seem less ambiguous but both reference back to the ‘Book of Genesis’.

The Dove – as a symbol of love and peace – is the superficial reference made by most commentators … but in the play it is the King who first uses it in this scene – and his religiosity suggests the need to dig a little deeper: The dove is the bird that brings the leaf to Noah in his ark – a pointer to a future on dry land and final ‘saving’ after turbulent times.

The Snake – with its definite reference to Aesop and with a proverbial linkage - is also inescapably knee-jerk linked to the Satan/serpent of the Garden of Eden. For the Queen, daughter of Eve as she is (and French daughter of Eve at that), to raise the devil is an inevitable ‘back-fire’ with an audience schooled each Sunday in the sins of our progenitors.

The wolf is a pack animal – the Eagle is a noble bird: Not the intended meaning given by York as he hypocritically works against Gloucester and the King under the guise of legality.

Crocodiles and Porcupines are a touch exotic – and hence suspicious …weakening in this English context any power they might have and more suggestive of flights of fancy and trivial image making than serious insight.

At which point I go back to my last post –

and show itself, attire me how I can

the Duchess’s exiting lines and reminder that the truth will out in the end.

Having been both a writer of references for people applying for higher education and employment, and a reader of references written, one thing is certain – bad comments say more about the writer than the subject. The instant you read a negative comment you ask – why have you put that? – you don’t say, ‘really, that’s not a nice thing’.

Shakespeare’s loading of the negative comments here with the animal images is a fascinating exploitation of this phenomenon and a delicious insight (in our post-subconscious world) into the slip from domestic husbandry to vicious wildness that the country is making as it removes the final good shepherd from his post.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Diptych; Triptych

Key pointer to change in a stage performance is the passage of people – an empty stage is a far greater marker of end/beginning than the written word ‘exaunt’ (with or without a new scene or act number).

The flow of people onto the stage – sometimes with a musical accompaniment, sometimes silently or with the clashing of weapons, the marching of feet and waving of banners – is an important stimulus to pay attention – something new is going to happen; the draining away of all, leaving a bare wooden platform, is a sure fire kick-start to the question, ‘Well, what was all that about then?’

Part of the difficulty of ‘reading’ a play like The First Part of the Contention … is this lack of definition – I am tempted to say it is the difference between seeing a postcard of Nelson on his column and being in Trafalgar Square, pigeons, traffic, tourists and all.

Paradoxically, a greater clarity of the individuality of scenes also leads to a sense of cohesiveness: Humans love to sum the parts.

It is a mistake to over emphasis the narrative as sole foundation upon which Shakespeare is building. It is a mistake easy to make – especially with the History Plays which are based on a national narrative, pre-written and only adapted by the word-play-forger.

The director in me (small, sniveling, unfulfilled, deflated, vestigial lump that it is) never lets go of Shakespeare’s love of juxtaposition. Examine any two scenes he placed next to each other and you will usually find a wealth of links – frequently, but not exclusively, in the form of a contrast. Put three scenes side by side and the sum becomes greater than the parts.

Act 2 of The First Part of the Contention (Henry VI, Part 2) provides an example in scenes 2,3 and 4.

Quite frankly, they are not a good read.

We have a complicated spoken genealogy guaranteed to confuse, even when re-read; a scene that seems to be taking place in a court – possibly a public execution place – with a short announcement and bit of a fight; then a scene in a street with more talk and next to no action: Nothing happens twice with a bit of physical distraction in-between.

Overtly scene 2 is York’s explanation of why he is the rightful heir to the throne and why Henry is an usurper. It is possible to dig out a genealogical table and follow his argument (although beware – Shakespeare, copying his source closely, gets a bit of it confused) – and come to the conclusion, ‘he has a point’.

Legally then, York should be King – but Shakespeare doesn’t leave it there – he adds a coda. When Salisbury and Warwick have knelt and declared him King, York goes on to suggest the need for all three to be deceitful and pretend to be what they are not – with the purpose of disposing of Gloucester, ‘the shepherd’.

At which point Mr Shakespeare empties the stage.

So – what was that all about?

We have a justified legal claim which sounds like ‘words, words, words’, and an intended illegal action in promotion of that claim. Do actions subvert rights? If York gets the crown this way is he in rightful possession?

By which time the trumpets are sounding and in walks the un-rightful king – in full splendour (complete with the crown) and power. He gives judgment in a court case – sentences, in full public view and with assurance (and a glimpse of god’s anointed majesty) to death evil-doers and, with rightful distinction, to internal exile their silly dupe (Gloucester’s wife). The language used is clear, straight and unambiguous.

The criminals go off to ‘execution’ and in come the master and apprentice for the trial by combat. One is drunk and getting drunker – the other almost insensible with fear. The drunk has pro-claimed York true King and is assured victory by both experience and physical size; the apprentice – and that meant boy – has no chance, even though right is on his side.

But a ‘miracle’ happens – the excessive drink confounds the man and the boy wins.

Watching this is Henry, the ‘young’ King, York, Warwick, and the rest of the court … including all of those mentioned in the previous scene as subverters of the state and its laws.

York, in two quick lines, sees not the actions of God, but the wine as cause of the victory; Henry, closing the scene in 6 lines (looking always for the interventions of God) heaven’s intent to punish and bring low the unrighteous, reward those true.

And the stage empties again … with trumpets and display, cheering and the dragging off of a dead body.

Clearly there is a demonstration of ‘right over might’ – but York was on stage – and all those lords he was talking about … is Henry falsely secure?

And where were the combatants standing? Was Henry ‘above’ and the fight below? Where was York (and his friends) standing in the scene before? If York, then the witch and Gloucester’s wife, then the fight are all seen on the same spot – they are linked.

Why the drink? The previous scene took place after the Lords had dined together – were any of them slightly drunk? (It would make for a more entertaining scene if Warwick was slightly tipsy). Excessiveness in drink is a metaphor for other excessiveness – and the armorer was the one who supported York’s claim to the throne – is there truth in wine or is it just oil for the wheels on the tumbrel?

In silence, Gloucester enters. He is here to watch his wife’s punishment and penance – was he ordered to?

Eleanor Cobham enters – dressed in a simple white sheet (a shroud? Memento mori? Gloucester and his servants are is mourning black).

Gloucester refuses to break the law and rescue her – but she, apparently learning nothing from her experience, berates him for allowing her public disgrace. She invokes the image of Gloucester as a bird when she says a bush is being limed for his capture. Gloucester gently rebukes her and tells her to keep faith with the laws of the land – she is being rightly punished for a crime she did commit. She warns him that he will not live long – he is next in line for the chop.

She is taken off to the Isle of Man and Gloucester leaving earlier to go to the King’s parliament. Eleanor’s words close the scene – no matter how well dressed, she will always bear the ‘shame’ of the shroud.

The biggest contrast between scenes 3 & 4– and surely the one with the initial impact – is the costume: Scene 3 is all colour, all state, all heraldic splendor – Eleanor Cobham is still ‘Duchess’ and is in her finery, the King in his robes of state, and the peers of England resplendent; Scene 4 is plain black and then white – the black of mourning and the white of the dead. There is the martial uniform and weapons of the Sheriff and his men encasing the woman ‘caught in sin’ … and a brief reminder, in the person of the herald, of the previous colourful scene.

Eleanor’s closing words force us to think back to the previous scenes – and point to the future – we cannot hide our guilt in our surface appearances. It is a common enough theme in Shakespeare – no less significant for its ubiquity.

These juxtapositions reveal interesting aspects of the play which might not be noticed as so significant if analysis is restricted to any individual scene (or the play ‘as a whole’) – but what happens if we look at the three of them as a triptych?

One element that strikes me is the intensity with which the relationship between legality and right is put under the spot light.

It is clear that York has a legal claim to the throne – but has he any ‘right’? The first doubt to his claim is found within the scene where he expounds that right – he is willing to cheat, lie and play false in order to win. This is immediately brought into contrast with the Kingly Henry – for the first time (and possibly last) behaving as a true king – and with the condemnation of those who plot against the rule of God and the state. The fight then emphasises the ultimate exposure of such falsity even when supported by might. The drunkenness suggests an excessive intoxication as a cause of ultimate failure, which is a point acknowledged by York – but not absorbed.

The failure to act moderately results in death – both the physical death of the man (as the body carried off at the end of the third scene clearly indicates) and the spiritual death of Eleanor Cobham – who goes to her exile not repenting her sin, but repenting her fall.

Eleanor Cobham and York are paired in these three scenes – both have been driven by ambition, both are playing the Devil’s game, both wish to abuse the laws of the land for personal gain.

Henry appears in the central scene as a right acting rock standing against a battering sea of false aristocracy – he is ‘Peter’ – the name given to the winning apprentice – and the true rock on which the foundations of Christianity are laid. He has a blind faith in right winning out in the end. But we mustn’t forget - true justice is blind!

Which pairs him with Gloucester – the ‘Good Duke Humphrey’ of the plays original, full title. For in the fourth scene Gloucester makes the claim that he cannot be harmed because he has committed no crime.

The second scene has prepared us to hear these words with a dramatically ironic ear – we know the plots and traps being laid for the old man, the limed twigs that will snare him – but we have also just seen right winning in the end. If York and Gloucester’s wife are linked – then the ultimate fate of both is also linked and no matter what deceptions York contrives, in the end he will be made to do penance for his crimes – and go to punishment after that penance.

It is worth remembering that Shakespeare’s play, despite its verisimilitude, has taken a great liberty at this point – it has moved the events of 1442 when Gloucester’s wife and the others were tried and condemned forward to 1448 when York and his two friends met in the garden. This is not the accidental juxtapositioning of chronology – it is the deliberate artistic mixing of disparate events in a unified space.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wind and fair weather friends… ?

After several days of wet miserable (English-style) weather, the rain dropped away and left a cool, billowy day yesterday.

I sat in the Park. Wet drips from the trees and grey clouds canvas out the sky; I listened to/read the first scene in Act 2 (The First Part of the Contention).

There were similarities – none more so than the difficulty the birds were having flying. Most of the ground level, tree flitting birds were OK – it was the cross the sky birds – the crows, the occasional adventurous pidgin and the Kestrel I usually see circling behind the cathedral tower that were having difficulties. They were there, they were getting on with their ‘birdie lives’, but it was difficult.

Wind is exciting – ask any school teacher on playground supervision (do teachers do that sort of thing now?). Great childhood battles brew under Aeolia’s influence …; Juno bribed and browbeat the original in an attempt to destroy Aeneas; Chicago, the windy city, is famed for its gangs and violent crime.

The Queen is under the influence of the wind – she enters the stage on a high. And if the behaviour of the Lords is anything to go by, they too have their schoolboy spirits stirred: Gloucester and the Cardinal plot, the others bicker. The King ignores, to his cost.

It is marvellous how Shakespeare, in a few moments of dialogue, can sum up the basic human experience of exposure to nature. And the wind will be back …

We are out in the wind with our ‘falcons’ – well, Taming the Shrew was an act of falconry and here, in the next play, the we are reminded again of that early marriage comedy – the King tells his wife to shut up – and she apparently does.

Behind the dialogue, spurring it on, one might say, is Gloucester’s Heraldic crest. This included a hawk – so the jokes which follow are bound in with the identity of the Gloucester family in a way which modern audiences have no real way of grasping.

Nowadays we are familiar with the Logo of sports teams and manufacturers of sports wear … a few people might recognise the heraldic devices of a few countries, some still carry them on their flags – but for most, the shield and the livery are quaint ideas, symbols of decadence or mere decoration.

Not so to Shakespeare – he after all, went to get his own coat of arms drawn up. It is worth noting that Shakespeare was not the only stage professional who did this – Augustine Phillips also applied … which would suggest that the heraldic was something of meaning and worth at least to the theatre people. One of the written pieces of evidence for Shakespeare as a writer is in the account books of the Earl of Rutland – payment to Burbage (a carpenter who could act and paint!) and Shakespeare for making/painting/writing a heraldic device and accompanying poem to be used at a ‘joust’ celebrating a visit of James I/VI .

Punning on the meaning of such devices must have been a very powerful ‘weapon’ in the political armoury of the play … giving the right ‘nickname’ to an opponent can be very revealing – children may shout out, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ – but they will go home and cry about it in the secrecy of their own bedrooms.

And the fact that the jokes about towering and raising above don’t reflect the person of Gloucester doesn’t negate the fact they do reflect his ‘family’ in the person of his wife – who we have just seen arrested and the news of whose arrest brings the scene to an end.

Which brings us to the second part of the scene – the revelation of false miracle and reminder of the ever-present ‘low-life’ undertow to the play.

What interests me at this point is plums (testicles) and climbing plum trees (sexual intercourse). We have some overt punning going on here. Again, likely to be lost to modern audiences – and to have been crystal clear to the early watchers of the play.

When ‘the wife’ says:

…, and bought his climbing very dear

a set of levels of meaning are activated – which resonates through all on stage.

Simpcox must surely be regarded as ‘driven’ by his wife – or led through his lust for her. His wife has possibly led him on using his uncontrolled passions.

On stage, we see Gloucester – he is about to fall, like Simpcox, because of his wife – although it is not Gloucester’s fault – but his wife’s blindness to god which will make her husband lame.

The Queen, who is still playing a virtuous game (Henry VI Part I, has not yet been written) is going to go the way of ‘The Wife’ and use a man’s lust to bring down the Lancastrian family fortunes.

The lustful man is surely William de la Pole – Suffolk: He, like Simpcox, will defy God and, attempting to climb into the Queen’s Plum Tree, fall and break his head.

Finally, another, easy to miss element is the onlookers – the crowd who will accompany Simpcox and his wife in the direction of fortune, cheering them on – and then join as heartily in the jeers as they are whipped through the towns – the playground crowd watching the for any excitement and excuse to coagulate.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Black Marks, on Skin of Calf ...

Ambivalent Writes, Certain Deaths

A little ‘sub-text’ developing in the play is concerned with writing.

The written word has made a number of appearances so far – too many to be accidental?

Each of the occasions has also shown a degree of falsehood and/or innate disaster.

The play starts with a written contract – the marriage contract; the petitioners try to present written petitions; Eleanor’s questions and the spirits answers are inscribed and recorded.

It is not hard to see the reaction of Cade to lawyers (hang all of them) and writing as potentially justified in the light of these documents.

The marriage contract is seen as disastrous – Gloucester has a fainting fit when he first reads it and it sets off the whole chain of events of the play. As I mentioned earlier, it is a contract binding unequal partners in a ‘til-death-do-us-part’ union.

The petitioners rightful grievances, once written, are either taken and used as a weapon against someone not concerned in the original petition (York) or are simply ripped up and prove impotent – although costly, for a scribe will have had to have been paid, and a lawyer consulted. Can we say it is the written word that ultimately causes the battle between the apprentice and his master – and the death of one of them?

In this last scene of the first act we have the written word associated with evil – it is used to write down the words of a Devil, and York, even though he knows the seriously ambivalent nature of what is written, still holds on to it. Again, the written words will be used in a court to condemn people – and whilst Eleanor gets sent to the Isle of Man (a living death) the others are killed. It is noticeable that the one person really responsible for the getting together of the condemned ( Hume – truly a devil’s advocate) escapes the power of the words to entrap.

For a playwright, written words are ambivalent – she or he puts into the written form meaning and intent - but the performance of any play will never equal the intent.

Shakespeare, as an actor and playwright was well aware of this. Indeed, all three of the plays he has so far written have shown considerable propensity to ‘interpretation’ – the words do not pin down to a single meaning, the actor has scope to interpret and almost completely invert the meanings.

There is a strong belief held by many (meaning me) that Shakespeare didn’t want his play texts published – that he didn’t want them read – precisely because they are not complete on the page – that as writing they are open to the evil of distortion and misjudgment – used to make a trap for fools – and, until in the mouth of the actor, they are incomplete.

Did Shakespeare play Cade? Did he want all the lawyers and dealers in written words, the teachers and those who can read, executed – Academics and readers of Shakespeare as literature, beware!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Devil in t' tale ...

Nothing separates me further from the average Elizabethan than belief in the supernatural.

There not only was a God, but a Devil – that personification of Evil was a physical reality which was capable of manifesting itself and which had servants, both human and other.

It is quite ‘remarkable on’, that, in this first of the History plays, Shakespeare brings on to stage one such ‘servant’ and several human exploiters of Evil – and provides what must have been a sensational end to the first act (if he was thinking in acts at the time).

When I say sensational, I am using the term in a way that indicates the stimulation of the senses rather than ‘original’ – because it is not very original - it is one of the older tricks in the book – for what is raised for the Duchess is very much a Mediaeval Mystery Play deceiving devil – the chase-through-the-crowd with horns and pitchfork devil which must have been a mix between clown at the circus and horror movie thrill.

There is not a great deal of subtlety in it – and Marlowe and Greene, both write around the same time plays which include spirit raising.

What is the supernatural doing in a retelling of History?

The obvious answer is that it was in the history books – the characters named and the events portrayed on stage were, more or less, in the chronicles. This, more than anything else, should hammer home the way the spiritual was ingrained in the early modern mind’s perceptions of reality.

What Shakespeare does is shift the timing – moving the downfall of Eleanor Cobham forwards into the time frame of the play – in reality she had committed her witchcraft (which included the making of a doll of the King for an ‘attempt on his life’ – things Shakespeare cuts) before Margaret came to England – they never actually met.


Two reasons fall into place for me – one to do with Shakespeare’s exploration of the metaphor of marriage and one to do with the ‘theatrical’.

In direct disobedience to her husband and all the warnings of religion, Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester consorts with evil spirits. She does so in order to promote her own status in search of the crown of England. This heady combination of ambition and disobedience is played out several times in the play – with consequences.

It is not only the female characters (for this is what Margaret does, and Simpcox’s wife) but, if we take the idea of husband equating with King, also the Cardinal and York – in fact, it is at the root of nearly every dispute and disagreement.

The only character who seems true to both king, country, religion and family is Gloucester … ironically enough. It is Gloucester who maintains the faith – as is shown in the previous scene where he sentences to trial by combat, despite the obvious physical disparity, York’s armourer and his apprentice. He is saying, ‘God’s will be done’.

This is not the passive Christianity of Henry – it is a forceful assertion.

Eleanor goes against her husband – showing as strongly as possible the doctrine of free will and independence of judgment. In Shakespeare’s previous play (The Shrew), Katherine submits to Petruccio not through force – but through realisation of the rightness of her submission. As a consequence, what will Petruccio not do for his wife?

So too with Gloucester – as long as it is within the bounds of morality, what will Gloucester not do for his wife – he has raised her to the status of second woman in the realm … but she wants more.

To get it she chose the summoning of spirits … and how could Shakespeare not exploit the theatrical possibilities of such an opportunity?

As I mentioned above, there is the thrill and excitement of such an enactment – sound effects and special effects (the stage directions of the time call for them) were possible – if the play is being performed on stage there is the chance to raise the devil through the trap on stage: The stage picture itself emblematic – a semi-circle of conjurers around the chalk marks on the platform, one man with pen – putting to paper the words spoken and on the upper platform, standing at the apex of a triangle, Eleanor.

Eleanor doesn’t speak – her words are transmitted – through writing: Later, in Macbeth, Shakespeare (or Middleton) dares go one further and have a direct between the questioner and the answerer.

In the theatre, you remember this scene – on the page it looks somewhat limp and silly.

There is another element which is worth comment.

Giotto, an Italian painter who looks somewhat dated to us (although with his frescoes nicely cleaned he has a great line in blue), has claim to be the first great modern man – certainly in the world of arts. Before Giotto, the visual representation of people was somewhat formulaic – and very one dimensional. With a few strokes of his brush he gave a reality to his people – three dimensional bodies. It was the start of a roller coaster leading to perspective, the portraits of the Renaissance and even the Sistine Chapel roof painting.

Shakespeare’s first ‘spirit’ manifestation has something of that renaissance makeover feel too.

If it is the child of the Medaeval Mystery Devil – gone is the flatness. This is a devil in torment. The language spoken, nodding in the direction of ritual and Latin (kick at the Catholic church?) is clearly a modern English – and the modernness of it is an extra source of fear … this is possible, this is real, this could be us.

Cutting edge or what?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Base Cullions ...

The need to protest against a perceived injustice runs deep in all of us. It is an expression of faith in the power of those that hear to redress the injury.

A couple of days ago Romanian football threw up another occasion for spontaneous popular protest. The machinations of the footballing barons, the disputes over ‘territory’ and the helplessness of ordinary against the powerful, resulted in several hundreds of fans protesting publicly, a minor skirmish or two (complete with broken heads), the temporary blocking of traffic and a loud march to the centre of the town.

It was quite exciting – I followed the crowd in the hope of seeing some action but in the end was disappointed as it fizzled out – the protesters were leaderless and, by the time they’d made it to Opera Square, it was late.

Although this made the national press little has appeared outside of Romania - which is strange, because it was such a minor protest in the same city of Timisoara which caused the Revolution of 1989, which brought down Nicolae Ceausescu (I won’t say communism) to start.

The difference, I guess, is the comparative political stability now. The spark of a minor grievance is not enough to set a significant social blaze – but should be heeded as a warning by those in power.

Shakespeare gives us a similar ‘protest’ at the start of the third scene of ‘The First Part of the Conflict …’. The protesters are the petitioners – men with a grievance they wish to make public and have redressed by the powers that be (in their eyes, the Lord Protector: Gloucester).

They are not able to get access to the person who counts (much as the Timisoarian protesters, who really need UEFA and FIFA to listen don’t get their voices heard through international media indifference).

The Queen, showing a severe lack of insight, sends them off with an:

‘Away, base cullions.’

She might as well have said, ‘Let them eat cake’!

In less than 40 lines, shifting from the seriously dangerous devil-dabblings of Gloucester’s wife, to an ‘all is not well’ in the body politic Shakespeare has given the foundations for all that is to follow – here we have the rule (and importantly spirit) of right and justice being swept aside, earlier we had basics of ‘respect’ and ‘God-given authority’ being ignored.

The protesters in Timisoara appear to have been as unsuccessful as those in Shakespeare’s play … All they need is a Jack Cade though to feed on their genuine grievances.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Family Values ...

The fun and games going on over the other side of the pond with regard to illegitimate babies, women in politics and ‘redneckidness’ might seem to be far removed from Shakespeare and Elizabethan Theatre, but I’m not so sure.

One of those constant metaphors (in western society at least) seems to be to view the body politic as a family. There is the head of the family, the family itself and, in earlier times at least, the servants. The very powerful combination of man and wife in harmony, with children growing under their protection, operating within a sometimes hostile world is a very strong idea – just look at the galvanizing effect the ‘Republican ticket’ has had.

Shakespeare starts his first History play (The First Part of the Contention) with this image.

Henry is united with Margaret and they go off to unite with the state in her coronation. But there is a degree of family disharmony – the elder statesman, Gloucester is not happy with the settlement – this is not a marriage of equals and too much has been spent – there is a danger to the stability of the family – his ‘uncle’ argues and goes behind his back, others do the same … just as in any normal family. Instead of looking to the family, each (perhaps with the exception of Gloucester) is looking to himself.

It is the job of the head of the family (and his wife) to control this natural sibling rivalry – and it is the responsibility of the children to follow the rules of the family … to the Elizabethan, this was a God-given responsibility: I suspect, to a number of dwellers across the seas, the same would apply.

We are so used these ideas we forget the element which was so exciting to the Elizabethan was the changing role of the woman in all this.

As I pointed out in an earlier post the significant role of the junction of man and wife as a religious, moral and ideal unit was a consequence of Protestantism and Shakespeare’s promotion of this ideal could be considered almost revolutionary.

In his two previous plays he dealt with the issues directly in terms of comedy – of male uniting with female.

Here, in the first of a new genre of play for the writer, he deals with a more abstract, almost philosophical conception – the power of an ordered group over the disorder of chaos – the need for a natural balance with people fulfilling their roles, accepting both their strength and limitations. The play which follows from the union of Henry and Margaret is in a direct line to the speech of Katherine at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

But what we get here is not Petruccio and Katherine’s story – it is that of the Widow and Hortensio, or of Bianca and Lucentio. The necessary submission for unity is not going to be made.

I think it is very telling that the first very public, very political scene is followed by the private domestic scene between Gloucester and ‘Nell’, his wife, the ‘Duchess’.

Central at this point is Gloucester – he is the only one in the previous scene who seems to have the needs of ‘King and Country’ foremost in his mind – he is rebelled against by everyone, behind his back … and when he is at home, his wife preaches rebellion and treachery – and (significantly) goes behind his back and disobeys his orders – for her own benefit rather than the countries or even her family.

But Shakespeare isn’t only drawing a parallel here, he pushes it one stage further – it involves consorting with the powers of evil, with a going against God and consulting the devil and his subordinates … and these actions are linked to a supposed holy man (the Cardinal Uncle) and others of the political commonweal.

Rebellion in the family, rebellion in the state and rebellion of the soul against the heavenly ordained.

The redneck Cade and his followers are merely and extension – the wild consequence of a breakdown in the values enshrined in the family.

What is playing out in the US of A at the moment is an echo of this first history play – and is an exploration in real life of the issues Shakespeare explored (based quite closely on real life) several centuries ago.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Olympics, Democtatic Convention ...

and Shakespeare’s first history play.

It’s a sort of weird brace of metaphor for:


During the Olympics I couldn’t help thinking of the way in which people were investing the participants with a sort of representative nationality – by this I mean they became like the ‘coronated’ king (yes, I know the word should be crowned but I wanted to ‘mark’ the idea); the sporting hero went out as a single champion (even if they were in a team) and fought not so much for a national pride as for that part of ‘me’ I had deposited in the symbol of ‘you’.

A bit abstract maybe ….

It was easy with Thorpe: Henry V if ever there was one. What a hero, what a fund of pride … and strangely, like Shakespeare’s Henry V, his magnificent success transcended any nationalism. By the end, all but the meanest minded wanted him to succeed … even if at the expense of ones own favourite. Bolt was more a Hal than a grown king – his antics not quite mature.

For Henry VI there were a number of contenders … we need a sportsman who shows a lot of early promise but who hasn’t quite lived up to them. The obvious contender is the British diver, young Mr Tom Daley: The build up he got, the press coverage and the general media attention lead a lot of people to expect … and what a flop (except, it wasn’t …) ! No medal, lost hopes, wasted investment.

No blame to the young man himself – it was our over expectation, our unsolicited demands, our unreasonable faith in a maturing boy … sound familiar? Henry VI is expected to perform in the same way … especially in competition with France. He doesn’t … and at the start of this play, we feel that disappointment. The magnificent ceremonial hype of trumpets and hautboys … and the immediate disaster of the loss of France.

But the Henry VI of this play is not Mr Daley - he is older … maybe Tom is the Henry of Henry VI Part 1. (And I want to make it very clear the boy done good – I am talking here of the expectations of others and the disappointment their wrong placed expectations result in.)

We need to look for an older, high expectation, low performance competitor … someone like Andy Murray?

Tennis got a bit of a rough ride from the English sporting press (well it might) for not really being an Olympic sport … there are much more important events for it than the Olympics (bet Mr Nadal and certainly Mr Federer would beg to differ). Murray wasn’t taking the competition seriously, he hadn’t prepared, he was focussed elsewhere. He thought he could swan in and get somewhere reasonable and people would be happy …

Now, that is more like the Henry VI of the ‘First Contention’. Henry is more focused on the Kingdom of Heaven than that of England … his paradise is not of this earth, he is not so interested in an Eden, although he doesn’t mind being there whilst he waits for a more important job of work over in the Flushing Meadows of … perdition.

But we are stuck with Murray – he’s the English number one, but there are obviously much better foreign princes and real monarchs out there … he is never going to perform, not even at home.

But, hold on, he’s not English … he’s really not entitled to the job of representing me … isn’t there someone else with a better right to do that?

Welcome to the American Political Conventions!

In the UK speechifying is about as important as … learning grammar: People nod in the direction but realise it is an outdated and impotent way of getting things done. The press conference and the sound bite are much more important (like genre and texting).

Not so in the quaint old US of A!

The conventions (origin: with talk although I had hoped it was with wind) are back to back speech making getting prime time coverage and swamping a nation already deaf to meaning with more meaningless but impassioned sounds.

And we are back to Shakespeare’s play.

As soon as Henry enters, his warm-up man, Suffolk, gives us a speech. It is one sentence long, lasts for around 15 lines and drops a lot of names. Great start to the convention. Set the ground, pull out all the supporters and place yourself at the centre of attention whilst nodding in the direction of the guy currently in power.

The new Queen throws in a similar but more fawning speech … great to be here, happy with the husband and the land (Mrs Obama or what? – God Bless America!). Then it’s the turn for the heavyweight contenders to way in … old powers first, Gloucester … (read Kennedy) and Cardinal Beaufort (read Clinton – which one I’ll lead you , and the results of this November’s election to decide).

But this is not the convention of today … this is a ‘certain loser’ convention. As soon as the candidate leaves the stage the speeches of descent start – each speaker jockeying for position.

I will watch the Republican convention with interest …

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Playing Tag ...

Strange game for grown people ...

However, seeing as El Geek has set the challenge I will go, so far, with it ... with a difference:

1) My first 'big' role in a school play (apart from doing 'all' the singing in earlier productions) was as Oberon - and Theseus ... and my costume was on hire from the RSC - as worn originally by ...Ian Richardson, I am not sure - but I think it was the one worn in the production Judy Dench played Titania and Helen Miren one of the lovers - so my costume 'big' resonance.

2) My mother, when she was at school, had stared in a performance of 'Midsummer Nights Dream' as Titania ... and was on her way to being a professional until struck down with TB. She always claimed to have been pushed in her pram by a young Charlie Chaplin and his brother Sid - but after she died we discovered it wasn't her but her older sister, Madge, who had that honour ... my grandmother, also invalided off the stage ran a 'guest house' for Music Hall performers in Manchester.

Her 'god father' was George Robey, the Prime Minister of Mirth which sort of compensates for her claiming more of a connection than she really had to greatness ... I of course would never dream of doing such a thing!

3) Willy Russell once described my acting as being, 'like that of Orson Welles' - he described me as a 'King Actor' ... and then added the somewhat deflationary, 'not necessarily good, but certainly big.' That was at a time he was casting his play, 'Blodd Brothers' first productin in Australia ... which eventually included Russel Crowe in the cast.

4) I attended the first ever public performance at the New London Globe - quite by accident. I was on holiday in London and had heard the place was opening ... went along with a friend to see it and they were selling tickets ... so, we bought a couple for the yard and that was it ... i was one of many, my friend, the first Romanian ever to see a production at the Globe!

5) When I was training to be a teacher I did my teaching practice in 'Mirfield', which is in Yorkshire - and many would regard it as the armpit of England. It is a town with two famous inhabitants .. one, the Yorkshire Ripper ... the other Patrick Stewart. He, as you may be aware, has gone on to greater things ... although I did teach at the school he attended, it was some time after he left - and no one knew in the school just what a star they had on their hands.

6) And a final Shakespeare (not spectacular) Farrar experience - Hamlet (above) is being played by Doctor Who ... the actor who played the Doctor before, Christopher Eccleston was taught drama by the boy (grown to man) who played Lysander in the production of The Dream I appeared in at school ... he also went on to teach the most recent 'Othello' at the RSC.

Small world isn't it ...

Wiving it at the Globe

It was, to say the least, an interesting day.

National Gallery in the morning – complete with red dressed, blond-haired Virgin; Globe Theatre for the ‘Merry Wives’ in the afternoon; a quick dash to ‘The Sound of Music’ in the evening. We ended squeezed in the last tube to Victoria … tired and somewhat satiated.

Nothing was quite what was expected.

I like Shakespearean comedy – you might have noticed.

What I didn’t know (because you sometimes forget that it is the ‘experts’ that have told you – and you should always be cautious and careful of expert opinion) is how good a play The Merry Wives of Windsor is.

I don't understand why there are not more school productions ... it would make an excellent school play.

After the Globe production I can’t understand why it isn’t better known or better loved. Verdi chose it for his operatic masterpiece and he obviously realized something – it is very funny.

It is also remarkably ‘feminist’ – the only sensible and solid people are the two wives … merry, and virtuous. All the men seem to be missing something – usually restraint.

In this production the women got good solid performances: As with the Romeo and Juliet production which visited Timisoara last month, it is an ensemble production – although with a full cast. There were no star performances – but that is what makes these comedies … they are not vehicles for individuals.

Falstaff was a part – and only a part, but an excellent part. He is balanced in the play with a “bugger”ing French doctor; a jealous, knuckle biting, husband; a language crunching schoolteacher and a small cheeky boy. And the production did just that – balanced.

The Globe experience is partly the stage and staging – the speed of the production (not breakneck like Romeo and Juliet) and the closeness to the audience all contribute to make the play user friendly. However, I was a little uncomfortable with the set – it had been extended into the courtyard with a walkway which seemed one step too far, I also don’t really think there was any necessity to cover the back of the Globe’s stage with a ‘mock-Elizabethan’ house front. This forced a lot of the action forward and made it difficult at times to see (I chose to try standing at the side of the stage and was acutely aware of how little the back area of the stage was used - in a previous visit I’d noticed how well it was used).

Maybe a danger for the modern productions at the globe is the designer … maybe they should just have a costume wo/man and dump the superfluous modern element of design (which was, strangely enough, the big problem of ‘The Sound of Music’ – all very impressive technicals interrupting the music)?

But that was a mere niggle: On a rain-threatening afternoon I stood for a couple of hours and laughed rather a lot … at a witty play with a social conscience delivered by a group of excellent performers giving the audience exactly what they need – an uplifting theatrical experience.

Having travelled across most of Europe for the day to see it … I was not disappointed. In fact, I'm looking at a way of doing it again.

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