Friday, May 30, 2008

Knife Crime

1593: Leading Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe is stabbed to death in a pub brawl in Deptford.

Tragic for the English Stage, not much fun, I imagine, for Mr Marlowe himself.

This is supposedly an 'unusual event': A cover-up story for re-branding Marlowe as Shakespeare; for removing a distinctly colourful young man with extreme views on a number of sensitive issues (religion, politics and sex) and turning him to a quiet, gentle scribe.

I think events in the UK at the moment might give a clue as to the very usualness of the events.

If the newspapers are to be believed (Independent, Economist, Guardian), violent crime in the UK is actually going down. What is rising is the number of young men being killed or seriously wounded through knife attacks.

Taking a knife, to a pub, and getting into an argument when you are drunk can easily cut off a very promising career.

That was as true for the first Elizabethans as it is for the second, modern generation.

(Also posted on Thoughts from the Edge)

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Influence on History

Some ramblings ...

I've been asked to give a few guidelines on Shakespeare and his influence on history - and feel a bit stumped.

It is very difficult to say - 'he (or his works) are directly influential here ....'

What does Shakespeare's influence mean anyway? (Folger has an answer.)

I suppose as good a place to start as any is his influence on 'the' language - whether I would go as far as some and claim his 'invention' of hundreds of words I don't know - certainly he is creditable with first recorded usage. And because the plays were such a part of the English Education system in latter years, they definitely became fixed as a result. I just know the way the human mind works with language and everyone 'invents' words all the time.

Not unexpectedly the written works had a big influence on other writers - not only in the UK, but internationally. Personally I blame the Germans for all that dark romantic nonsense that gets associated with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

As to influence on the theatre - surprising really, but not until the 20th Century did the plays really kick in as a factor of staging - it took the revolutions of Brecht et al to free the Shakespeare texts from picture frame production.

Whether I'd go as far as this:

After we have said our strong word of Shakespeare's powerful influence upon literature it yet must be said that it is difficult to lay finger on one single historical movement except the literary one which Shakespeare even remotely influenced.
...I'm not sure - it does raise the 'two books' issue - The King James Bible and Shakespeare Complete Works as the most influential books in the English Language. The above quote is from a source with an axe to grind, so overstates the case I suspect.

As a subject of historical research, Shakespeare has been well trodden ground - and the focus of so much scholarship has certainly given the Elizabethan/Jacobean period a focus it might not otherwise have had in terms of the English National Image (internal and external).

Countless books written with countless theories and countless reviews (Try this from International Socialism). The fact that Germaine Greer's book, Shakespeare's Wife is making a splash suggests something ... but what? That our perceptions of the world are visible in our histories .. Shakespeare as subject of History is frequently used as justification for our own beliefs, or for changing the world. Greer, for one, would not deny she is trying to break one perception of the relationship between men and women in Elizabethan England with the intention of pointing out a greater equality and role for women ... more in line with modern Western Societies.

Shakespeare has thus become not an agent so much as a catalyst.

This can be seen clearly in the controversies which surround his supposed anti-semitism: School girls refusing to take examinations in England because of a play they have never read. Debates and arguments, papers and books within the Jewish intelligencia.

But it isn't only amongst some of the Jewish faith that Shakespeare is controversial ... I love this one (and all the quotes promulgated in a public blog claiming to want to protect children!).

There is a big industry based on Shakespeare - with serious financial consequences to the English Economy (whoops - perhaps British ... or even international). Stratford is second most visited tourist site in the UK (thank you American dollars - but can you do something about your economy to make the thing worth more?). Verona sells 'Romeo and Juliet' - I still remember a visit there where I saw not only a 40 min cut down version of the play in Italian in the Capulet house, but The Two Gentlemen (in German).

As a cultural icon you are not considered educated in many parts of the world if you don't know your Shakespeare - partly as a consequence of the English education system exported to the colonies, but not only.

Romanian children, Russian children, Korean children, Canadian children - I guess - all need to 'brush up' their Shakespeare ... and start quoting him. How many projects in Schools have a Shakespeare theme? Suffer the little (American - not suggesting anyone buy that by the way) children!

I was surprised when I first left England to go walkabout how much Shakespeare there was in the world.

But it must be the 'colonies' that were affected most -

This colonial baggage of using Shakespeare as the ideal emblem of Western power and English imperial culture is one that began in the United States and Canada and persisted through India, Australia, and Africa.
(That's from Shakespeare in Canada)

The film, Shakespeare Wallah is,

a film of unexpected juxtapositions and cultural conflict; it is a look at changing values in art, and an examination of the question of what it means to be indigenous to a place.
India is a classic case.

So too is the film industry itself - try this and this.

You'll have noticed by now I can't get to a point in HISTORY when Shakespeare did 'this' ... or maybe I can.

There is the performance of Richard II which was supposed to be the signal for an uprising against Elizabeth.

And there are people who are Shakespeare influenced who go on to be significant 'actors' on the Domestic or World Stage: Carlyle, an 'influential Victorian writer, for one; and ...?

People have seen performances of the plays done in periods of dictatorship ... as a sign of liberty (I think here of Richard III performed in Romania in Caucescu's time) ... but nothing happened.

No, I suspect Shakespeare hasn't caused anything to happen.

Maybe he's created the climate though.

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Monday, May 26, 2008


Got this little advert in my post box:


I would like to suggest our website for including into your link list, as we make the card models of famous landmarks, including Globe Theater.

Card model of the famous Shakespeare Globe Theater.

Thank you for your time!

-Andrew Visconti
Now i wouldn't normally post such blatant commercial activity (especially when they can't spell THEATRE) but I have a very soft spot for paper models of the Globe - a great teaching tool and lots of fun making with students - including older teenagers, who sneer at such baby activities and then get fully absorbed.

It was also, in the days before the internet, a good way to get the basic difference of the Theatre across.

In the days when I had full use of my hands and eyes I used to love making such models - some good birds and castles out there too.

It is all, of course, part of the multi-million spin off of Words, Words, Words.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Shakespeare's Thoughtful Thug?


I've done two 'Tamings' in the past week - the BBC with John Cleese in the role of Petruccio, and the 'classic' Burton-Zeffirelli film. Perhaps the most interesting character in the play is Petruccio:

The actor taking on the role, if these two productions are anything to go by, has a lot of choices to make.

And I mean choices - there is no one Petruccio: He is myriad. Both these Petruccios work, and work well. I have a preference, but it is not a judgement so much as life-style choice.

Burton plays him as 'one of the lads' - distinctly 'Tough Boyo from the Valleys'. He is using his own reputation as a hard drinking, woman loving, wife swapping film star as part of the character (and Taylor's Kate is tapping in to the same spring. This works - especially in a film which is so 'big' - almost operatic). There is (or rather, can be) a macho element to Petruccio. He can be seen as the beer lout - especially by other characters in the play, but it is a superficiality which Burton manages to go beyond.

There is an attraction for Kate - when Petruccio sees her, he 'falls' - reflecting in Zefferelli's film, the earlier moment when Lucentio sees Bianca. There is a difference: It is not a puppy dog fawning 'love at first sight'; it is a hit by love's dart, I've met my match.

And he has too - this Kate never really submits, she retreats: Petruccio knows it, and doubts his own strength. There is a vulnerability here - his final command is more wish than assertion.

The fight goes on - he will continue drinking, she will continue fighting.

All this reflects the 60s and liberation element - but it is found in the script (although, as with all film adaptations which have any chance of working in the cinema, there is heavy cutting and shifting of things about). What will hold this couple together (if anything does) is the physicality and 'good sex'. The animal magnetism is paramount. The fight is part of the love - this is consenting bondage.

Which contrasts somewhat with John Cleese as Petruccio.

We have here the 'thinking man's' Petruccio.

Very early on in the performance you are made aware that this is an intelligent man: He is very self aware - he knows his wildness is a weakness. He is logical - he works out how to win Katherine. He is human, and knows others are human too.

Like Burton, Cleese is attracted to his Katherine - but it is not the love dart, it is a realisation, and an admiration. The wildness he sees in her is damaging - it needs to be controlled - but he sees the same extreme in himself, and thinks this is the woman who will force him to become more temperate too. This is a woman worth giving up his 'freedom' for.

Love for this Petruccio is to be found in harmony, not discord.

If Burton is wildman, Cleese is 'Madman'. It is Hamlet mad, and 'Tom O'Bedlam mad: It is a Fool madness that has a cleansing and understanding behind it.

When Cleese says 'Cruel to be Kind' - he means it, and has the academic references to prove it.

The BBC script allowed all of the lines, so there is a natural depth to Cleese's performance which Burton had no chance to develop. It was also a production that played whole scenes in one take - again, allowing for a dynamic which the cut,cut,cut of film finds it hard to sustain.

There is an assurance at the end of this 'Taming' which lets you know they will remain together - this is a marriage which will produce children - and what children!

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Shakespeare: Onion or Garlic?

... but definitely some type of Allium:

Now, some of you will finely think I've gone off my rocker, but hold in there:

(It's going to be a rough 'ne).

There is a scene in Peer Gynt when Peer eats an onion (raw) - one layer at a time. The onion is seen as a metaphor for Peer - by peeling off one layer at a time he should be able to get to the core.

I suspect that most people reading a Shakespeare play treat it in the same way - as a sequential thing, going deeper and deeper 'til you get to the core. For many readers, that core is encapsulated in the words and consequently (although not logically) the language and words become the core - you move from them to 'the' understanding.

I have never been happy with the metaphor.

Nor, the consequences - reducing a play to 'Literature'.

Taking up my theme of Multiple Intelligences, what the Onion represents is just one of the talents - at best, two (Language/Literature and Mathematical/Logic). It is an unsatisfactory and incomplete way of looking for both the text and the play.

Much better is another member of the Allium family, Garlic:

I think it is possible to view each play as a bulb of garlic - made up not of layers one outside the other going deeper to a central core, but of parts that are united at a root base, which can be peeled back but which have much less a core than a unity - the garlic smell, breath and flavour.

Each clove of garlic can be peeled - and there is a unifying outer skin, but it is a unity of parts rather than a sequence.

And the groundlings smelt of Garlic if Shakespeare is any judge!

(And an onion is only useful for making you cry - if the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew' is anything to go by.)

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Taming of the Shrew

And we move on ...

(a few first reactions)

I watched the BBC production last night (two nights ago now). I have, of course, seen it before - several times in fact. I watched it the night of its first broadcast:

That, I discover (in dismay), was back in 1980.

I still like it. I think it the most intelligent 'Taming ...' I've ever seen - and it is also great television. But I'll talk about the production another day.

What has hit me strongly, and somewhat surprisingly, is the strength of the connections I saw with Two Gentlemen of Verona. Maybe it has something to do with the two productions being BBC and therefore joined in style and values - but I think that is only a minor factor.

Throughout last night I kept waking with a new 'idea', a new 'link'. There was a storm and perhaps I'd have forgotten them all if I'd been allowed to sleep tight - but I think not.

At this point, I'm almost prepared to say that the two plays form a pair - a concious pair.

There is a very deliberate contrast in the main characters of the two plays - here we have a remarkable woman and a remarkable man - strong, impulsive, live, determined: Not words I'd apply to either the male or the female characters of Two Gentlemen. It is almost as if Shakespeare took the milkmaid from Lance's letter and gave her both social status and a lead role. He found an equally strong male and set them together.

The wildness is unexpected when you think of the civilised, 'courtly', idealised love of the previous play. But lest you forget, he inserts 'Proteus' into this one - Lucentio he calls him, and he is as changeable and as devious as his prototype. That same proto-love is played out again here - only as a sub plot.

It thus forms a comment on the earlier play too - that teenageness (which he goes on to take to its tragic end in Romeo and Juliet) is anodyne - the love a game, superficial: Adding a repeat to this play shows the incompleteness of the event too - the final scene in 'The Taming of the Shrew' indicates that the lovers in 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' have a bumpy road ahead.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Shrew

We're talking Common Shrew here - Sorex araneus.

The first thing to get clear is a shrew is not a mouse - you are very unlikely to come across one in the house, and unless you are something of a night hawk, not outside either. Mind you - if you have a cat, it could well have brought one in.

They are small - the UK's smallest mammal in fact (when it gets really small as the pygmy shrew) - and have a pointed nose. They don't look like mice.

Now, what on earth is Shakespeare doing naming one of his most feisty female characters after such a small harmless thing?

Well, they have a reputation - and what a reputation (and a deserved one to boot). Two shrews can't meet without a boxing match developing (they raise up on their back legs and wave the front ones about). They kick and they bite.

Try picking one up and see it go for you.

Shrews are also distinctly carnivorous - no use scattering a couple of grains of corn around and expecting a grateful shrew - give it meat - a big, juicy worm for preference - rare, not overdone - keep the blood flowing. They also take care of snails and slugs (although they have to get along on insects most of the time).

They are territorial - and active (they can't go more than a couple of hours without eating or they die).

Shakespeare seems to have been familiar with the little bugger. I can imagine him watching them in operation in the fields around Stratford - even in the garden of his own home.

Bit of a naturalist is old Shakey.

I'm about to turn to his second written play, The Taming of the Shrew - couldn't get there without at least a nod to the original.

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Shakespeare Intelligence

No, I'm not about to launch a review of Shakespeare the Thinker (the very title, for some reason, sends shivers of distaste through my body), but muse about something that has been brewing for a week or so now -



Multiple Intelligence

Multiple Intelligences has proved illuminating: It is an attempt to define "Intelligence" in a way that recognises the multitudinous and complex nature of the connections the human brain can make, and has provided a basis for explaining why some forms of education are just plain 'dumb-making'. What I really like about it is the fact that it is inclusive - it attempts to explain why there are differences in the way people think and why those differences result in a rich variety of human strengths.

Unfortunately, most Shakespearean scholars (of the old school) don't seem to have been raised in a Multiple Intelligence environment and certainly have never got to appreciate the differences between themselves and other, equally, but differently, 'intelligenced' people. Older, and less enlightened, educational systems - the ones which the 'Shakespeare Wallahs' were successful in - tend to emphasis language and numerical skills - they tend to call them 'standards'. What Multiple Intelligence theory suggests is that this is a very limiting (and ultimately counter-productive) educational endeavour.

Shakespeare's plays, and the massive dislike engendered in school for them, are a case in point. In the theatre, they are popular; in the 'linguistic' oriented, text based school, they are not. If you don't like School Shakespeare, it is your fault - generations have loved the plays - so there is something wrong with your Intelligence.

(I should at this point point out, Dr. Howard Gardner himself sometimes prefers the word talents rather than intelligence - which he sees as too limiting: I'm just being provocative sticking to the 'I' word.)

My main question could be framed, How does Shakespeare manage to survive in the hostile world of ivory towered scholarship and text based examination?

Well, the answer is glaring obvious - Shakespeare wrote plays. They survive in the theatre, on the screen (large and small) in the imaginings of a Multiple Intelligenced world.

What the plays in performance do is stimulate a whole range of 'intelligence' - in fact, there isn't one which a good production of a Shakespeare play touches on.

Shakespeare has 'coded' into his text a lot of the clues as to what to do - but the spaces are there for the actors, directors, and everyone else, to fill in the gaps - be it music or dance, movement across the stage, or a glance between characters.

There is nothing particularly revolutionary in what I have just said - but, rarely in the 'Literature' classroom is anything other than a nod given to these overwhelmingly powerful factors of the play.

Of course - there have always been teachers who have attempted to bring the plays to life and have treated the texts as a starting point (I was fortunate enough to have been taught by a couple of such teachers) - but the educational systems soon force the written exam and the 'language' focus on to the majority of students.

The Shakespeare 'experts' ,consequently, are selected from the people who perform well in 'Linguistic-Literary' intelligence area. These people define what is good and valuable, make decisions as to text and argue interminably over minute language details which are inconsequential in the extreme.

But the plays actually appeal and stimulate and entertain a much wider range of - Intelligenced - people.

One of the striking things about the Shakes(blogo)sphere is how wide a range of people contribute to it (and why are so many connected to the Logical-Mathematical realm of computers?).

There is another insight to be gained from thinking Multiple Intelligently - individual play popularity.

I happen to think that the best of Shakespeare's plays is 'A Midsummer Nights Dream'. I think Hamlet is a damp squib with a serious need for throwing away and forgetting about until it gets a make-over. I happen to like 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' - thinking it a better play than nearly every scholar who has commented has given it credit for.

Either I am a nut (and I don't come from Brazil) or something is going on here.

One thing worth noting is my Multiple Intelligence profile (as generated by the little quiz linked to at the start of this blog) - my strongest intelligence is Naturalist - no surprise the very 'green' 'The Dream' appeals. But also I notice the images to do with nature - the storms (I Like Lear) and talk of flowers; the cliffs of England, and worms.

The rest of my profile is fairly even - but the weakest area is interpersonal (I'm a Problem Play remember). Now, why don't I like Hamlet? Could it have something to do with all that uninteresting blah blah about relationships? Or maybe it is just that the interminable linguistic arguments and unsatisfactory performances generated from the incomplete final text?

It used to be put down to taste - with the suggestion that an 'educated' palate was more sophisticated and worthy than an uneducated one.

You can't do that in a Multi-Intelligent world - my tastes reflect my Intelligence - I AM right, 'A Midsummer Nights Dream' IS better than 'Hamlet' - you are just Naturalist-Intelligence deprived if you can't see it.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shakespeare predicted me!

In the spirit of all Looneys and such like, it has been revealed to me that I am nothing but an anagram Shakespeare predicted.

I quibble with the idea I intend to delude, but, what ho, Move over Bacon, I wrote Shakespeare and hid my name in my final goodbye to the plays!

(Thanks to Shakespeare Teacher)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Penguin (3)

After the introduction come two useful sections - The Play in Performance and Further Reading.

Considering its critical reception, it might be considered surprising that

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

has in fact enjoyed something of a revival in recent years.

Part of the explanation of this is the tendency to set the play in Modern Dress - so contemporary audiences can experience the play as relevant to themselves.

Also it seems to have taken a bit of a bashing in terms of conversions - most horrific sounding being the 'Two Gentlemen' 70's musical version.

There have been 'high heeled' dolce vita' productions, and Byronic late romantic productions; there have been traditional Italian Renaissance, and - a definite favourite sounding one to me - P.G. Wodehousian productions.

The inclusion of this sort of information about the play helps to give a context that is essential- the theatrical. It indicates the tremendous flexibility of the text and also gives an insight into changing attitudes not only to this play, but to the whole canon.

Mr Jackson's treatment of it is also intelligent. Several editions of Shakespeare now carry the 'In the Theatre' section - but too many are the product of 'cut and paste' scholasticism showing little sensitivity to either the theatrical times which produced them, or the theatrical nature of the texts. I would never accuse this edition of The Two Gentlemen of Verona of that.

The same too could be said of the Further Reading section. Curiously this is split into two sections - up to 1997, written by Michael Taylor, and an addenda, up to 2005, by Russell Jackson

Instead of a bibliography and listing, we have an introduction to various important texts related to the play. The two 'standard' editions are mentioned, Arden and New Cambridge - and a pencil sketch outline of the main thrust of their introductory essays given. I have to say there is even a wit at work in the finally selected item of reading - on Crab.

Finally we get to the TEXT itself - and a good, clean, clear text it is too - no clutter of notes, or distracting pictures setting one interpretation in the mind. It is great to just read - and allows for it. There are Act and Scene divisions, and line numbers, for those who want them - or who want to consult the notes at the back.

The edition was prepared back in 1968, by Norman Sanders - and he provides the notes and account of the text (basically, Folio - and nothing much to argue about) to be found at the back of the book.

As you'd expect, this is essentially a lexicon - defining words we now find obscure, making links between ideas and words throughout the play. Chameleon for example, is clearly explained, and anyone wanting to sort out what Speed and Proteus are talking about in the first scene won't be disappointed by a quick look at the back - prostitutes and all.

I didn't make much use of these - although I did find the excerpts from one possible source, La Diana, interesting, but far from essential, reading.

I have to say - I do like the Penguin Shakespeare. It gives me everything I need, essentially the text, and doesn't get in the way of my reading. The introductions are good, the format predictable.

It is going to take something really good to knock it off its 'My First Choice' pedestal.

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Penguin Shakespeare (2)

On the introduction to:

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona, an engaging comedy of love, ..."

And who am I to disagree?
(Meaning, I don't.)

The classic, and not often taken seriously enough, question -

What on earth do you need an introduction for?

I think Shakespeare Geek is touching on one possible answer to this in the post on Reading Shakespeare. If you are coming to the play on the page rather than in the theatre, you are missing a lot of essential material - material which will not only make the action clearer, but also point to possible interpretations and meanings, questions raised and relevance. One function (I'd say the most important) of the introduction is to help compensate for this lack of a theatre context.

If you are totally new to the play, the introduction might be essential in giving you a clear plot line: After all, Shakespeare has a wonderful tendency to knit together several stories and threads, and that can be very confusing.

If you are not so new, the introduction is more likely to be a reminder and orientation to a more performance-like interpretation.

If you are an old hand, the introduction is likely to be an irritation ... you'll have your own view and prickle at any divergence from it. But, 'By Gad's!' are Gadflies.

As I place myself in the latter category, I read the introduction after the play - other people might choose to do the same: I advise those new to the text to at least skim through the introduction in search of a plot before embarking on the real thing.

So, to Russell Jackson's Introduction.

The first thing I will say is that the writing is very clear - any reasonably literate (in English) person reading it is unlikely to go into the text without a very good idea of what will happen or of things to look for as they read.

After a quick overview, the play is examined in main plot order - starting with 'Friends and Lovers' - an examination of the early scenes.

As the sub-heading indicates, straight away we are led into the key conflict of the story, friendship versus love. There's a lot of use of words like amiable, eloquent and elegant; also truism, conventional and cliché; finally paradox and metamorphosis.

The musical metaphor of duets, solo, codas and base is explored - and whereas I favour the more modern game of table tennis (or football) for an image, shuttlecocks features here.

Emphasis is placed on Proteus as a plastic, mailable (and shape-shifting) entity which is indicated in his name, and Valentine as a more fixed, worthier and dutiful, if true to his name.

As long as things remain a game, the contradictions of love remain a sport - but Proteus has been metamorphosed, and things turn dark - necessitating an escape for all concerned to 'Law and Order in the Woods'.

Mr Jackson reminds us that the outlaws we are amongst here have all been exiled for the passionate crimes of youth - and although Valentine has not been totally honest with them in regards to his own crime, his good looks and, especially, his ability to speak foreign languages (which one can only assume indicates a traffic through the woods of various nationalities) allow for his taking over of the gang.

The events in the wood are frequently seen as problematical (enough so, we are told, for one English editor to withdraw the appellation 'Gentlemen' from the two title holders). Mr Jackson struggles with the problems and draws on a number of other Shakespeare plays in order to indicate possible resolutions and alternative solutions. One important suggestion is that Shakespeare is deliberately bringing in the 'real world' and connecting to his audience directly.

I must admit I find, in performance far fewer problems - and those that do occur seem to me to be a product of our interpretations rather than anything inherent in the text - a suggestion which is indicted by use of 'modern actresses' and Elizabethan audiences.

Once the main plot has been finished with, the Introduction turns its attention to 'The Servants View of Life'. Mention is made of their comedic potential, the social class difference, the reality versus the theatre presentation ... all very essential for the new reader, but nothing particularly new or stimulating, apart from the observation that the servants seem to have disappeared from the end of the play. I linked this with the idea of there being no longer a need for the 'realistic' servants as the two sets of lovers are now forced into a realistic situation of their own ... possibly an intended implication from Mr Jackson.

The Introduction finishes with three fairly conventional (and, again, necessary) sections: Love and Disguise; Characters and Conventions; Love, Sex and Language.

Here you find some originally phrased and easily followed slants on standard ideas - I like the idea of role-play turning into disguise, of the intelligent individual driven to follow the clichéd path knowing it's falsity, the pointing out that many of our problems with the play come from our conventions, especially theatre conventions prevalent in the USA, and the un-erotic nature of the language - yes, there is a bit of bawdy, but the deep sensuousness of some of the later plays is missing.

Mention is made (and several important ones listed) of the connections to later plays - and of the idea that this is a dry run for the comedies. I suspect that Mr Jackson is not totally convinced by this (I certainly am not) - there is a sudden dryness in the language at this point ... I wonder if it was an enforced addition, possibly self-enforced?

One very important idea mentioned with regard to the text is that of this not only being the first of Shakespeare's plays, but also that we might have a 'touring script' - hence the reduced number of characters and apparently missing material.

Something I really liked in the introduction was the awareness of the play as a text for performance. It is the sort of introduction that prepares you to see the play, even if you are only likely to read it. Indeed, it is partly the theatricality of the play which allows for the final summation of it:

... The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for all its relative simplicity, and despite the apparent foreshortening of its concluding scene, is a sophisticated comedy.

Enough said - I'll deal with the rest of the edition in my next post.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Penguin Shakespeare

There are various, nay, multitudinous, editions of the writings of William Shakespeare available for purchase.

As part of my Complete Works tour, I intend to dip into some of the editions I know, some of the ones I don't know, and some I will not want to know ever again. Each edition I look at will be read with regard to a particular play - I'll have watched the play beforehand, most likely in the BBC production. I'll also have read through the The Oxford Shakespeare's The Complete Works (Compact Edition).

I start with a firm favourite of mine - The Penguin Shakespeare.

The Two


of Verona

This is an attractive little book - small enough to slip into a pocket and carry off to read somewhere, like a park bench or beside the local river (two of my usual habitations). It is paperback, so won't last a lifetime of scholarly mutilation - but that's not what it's designed for - it is certainly sturdy enough to take multiple readings. And it has great illustrations on the cover. You'll find snuggling in the lower, right-hand corner on the back, an endorsement by the National Theatre - that's the British National Theatre, quite a prestigious body in its own sweet way.

There are also a couple of directional quotes on the cover - one on the front, one on the back. This is typical of the whole edition. On this front cover there is a quote from RALPH WALDO EMERSON (capitalisation courtesy of Penguin) pointing in the direction of lovers outloved and sages out saged; the back quote, from the play, puts us firmly in sight of Silvia, one of the characters.

Once inside we meet the 'Senate' - Founding Editor, General Editor, Supervising Editors - all very nice, all very important and all not worth stopping at - so, into contents, where we discover the Penguin Format.

A General Introduction (courtesy of Stanley Wells); The Chronology (their definite article) of Shakespeare's Works; Introduction; Play in Performance; and Further Reading.

Then we get the actual play text - Title, Characters, Play (split into Acts with scenes, and with line numbers - page number, play title and Act,scene numbers appear at the top of each page).

After the text there is An Account of the Text; then a Commentary - complete with notes and explanations split by Act/scene and linked clearly to line numbers.

That's the standard format of the whole series - and relatively successful it is too.

Let's look in a little more detail at some of the features: The General Introduction for starters:

All books in the edition carry the General Introduction written by Stanley Wells, General Editor. It starts with the statement that,
Every play by Shakespeare is unique.
... which is hard to disagree with, on a certain level.
It does however betray an attitude - an attitude increasingly seen as dated with regard to the 'value' to be found in Shakespeare. It values uniqueness in itself, which, with a little bit of thought, can be seen as not necessarily valuable, or good, or honourable. It also seeks to emphasise a distinctiveness from others as opposed to 'collectiveness' with others ... which is creepingly out of fashion - Shakespeare is increasingly seen as a collaborator, as a Theatre Professional (with all the interconnectivity that implies), as a part of a group.

The introduction goes on to discuss what is known of Shakespeare's life - with a degree of unavoidable supposition - to indicate some of the standard views of Shakespeare's greatness (such as the emotional range and depth of his characters) and to briefly outline the importance of Shakespeare to latter developments in theatre and language history.

I was struck by a certain sketchiness in this, as compared to Wells's excellent introduction to the Compact Oxford. Mind you, available space must certainly have had its effect - and it is not a bad introduction.

Next is the Chronology - based on the early Oxford Edition, and not the 'standard' one adopted by many other editors. It is a chronology which puts this play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as the first play in the canon, and upsets the apple cart in a number of other instances. There is no justification for the ordering here - but you are referred to the William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion in which it originates.

We then move on to the Introduction to the play itself.

(To be continued)

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Two (not 3, or 1) Gentlemen ...

Some insights flash upon one as in the Road to Damascus - others have a slow dawning... this is an example of the latter: Silly really, considering I posted on the importance of titles a couple of months ago.

Twoiness (or two-i-ness, or two-y-ness?) is quite noticeable in

The Two Gentleman of Verona.

Let me make it plain from the start - not just obvious (i.e. you see it) but noticeable ... in performance.

some things you get when you read over the text - very


(and for a development of that I refer you to Brook, not me).

When watching the BBC production - Spaniels hit me twice ... and Chameleons. I thought it odd at the time, was Shakey being a bit 'shakey'? Was he repeating himself like a school child who gets an idea and can't let go? Then I realised, a couple of days later - I noticed those words and ended up posting on them ... erm, interesting.

Then another dawning - I mentioned Speed's 'swinging' when I reviewed the production - and he actually gets two of them in the play.

Walking to work through the park another development of the two-y-ness (settle for that I think - pun on the 'y') : Two men, two women to go with the men, two servants, two suitors, too many twos to be accidental?

And that led on to thinking about the idea of pairs and two-ness (don't want it to sound like chewiness this time).

What first popped out of the cogitation was, of course, the 'famous' pair play - The Comedy of Errors. And what struck me was the difference.

There the pairs are twins - here they are not. You get the pair of a master and a servant, a man and a woman, a man and a dog ... united in a difference.

In fact it is the differences that make the two 'individuals'. So what unites them as a pair?

Love and duty.

'To love, honour and obey'

Is this a play about the break needed for marriage - a play about sorting out the difference between the play friend and the partner for life?

If so, there is a very strong religious vein running through the play which, although treated lightly by the text, is implicit - and obvious to an Elizabethan audience in a way it isn't to us.

Take the two servants - Speed is a boy - an intelligent, lively, beer drinking boy who gets treated like a boy. He is the model of youth who stays just that throughout the play.

Lance is on a threshold - he is contemplating marriage - and a move out of one type of service into another? His 'lament' over leaving the family, and the excessive emotions, reflect not just the parting of a servant to go with his master - they suggest a ritualised weeping: Was this typical of Elizabethan marriages? I have seen weddings where the leaving of the girl from the mother's home is in fact linked to such wailing.

I am not suggesting this as fact - it is speculation ... and that is what thinking about the play after viewing does - makes one think and speculate.

Which brings me to the final scene - and A Midsummer Nights Dream has the quotes that help ...

"Begin these wood birds but to couple now?"

The first word is begin ... Two Gentlemen shows the ending of one phase, and the beginning of the next - but there is a touch of reality here ( in what can be seen as a very unreal play):

"The course of true love never did run smooth."

None of the participants in this scene is going to 'happy-ever-after-dom' ... it is marriage they head for.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008


and proof thereof.

It never ceases to amaze me how some people judge plays.

I mentioned that I enjoyed 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' more than I've enjoyed 'Hamlet' for a long time - and someone suggested my wits were crumbling.

Then I remembered me - of course, his is a judgement based on the book, not the performance.

How many people actually sit through a performance of Hamlet and come out of it able to say, 'I enjoyed that'?

As an imaginary percentage, if one were to compare the 'enjoyment' in a a performance of 'A Midsummer Nights Dream' to 'Hamlet', which would win?

Puddings are judged in the mouth, not the recipe book - plays should be judged in the theatre, not the script.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

A kind of Chameleon ... hyper-link

This fascinating animal gets dragged up twice in Two Gentlemen:

SIL. What, angry, Sir Thurio? do you change colour?

VAL. Give him leave, madam, he is a kind of chameleon.

THU. That hath more mind to feed on your blood than live in your air.

Usually associated with love ...

SPEED. Ay, but hearken, sir; though the chameleon Love can feed on the air, I am one that am nourish'd by my victuals, and would fain have meat.

But, published around the time of the play's writing, I came across this fascinating little snippit:

But herein they rather disgrace than adorn their persons, as by their niceness in apparel, for which I say most nations do not unjustly deride us, as also for that we do seem to imitate all nations round about us, wherein we be like to the polypus or chameleon; and thereunto bestow most cost upon our arses, and much more than upon all the rest of our bodies,

It's in a description of England by one Mr William Harrison - part of Holinshed's Chronicles. What I like is the connection with clothes - which is the context it pops up in with Thurio ... killing two birds with one stone.

Do you also notice the 'polypus'? Now, searching high and low I eventually got a 'none-medical' connection ... the cuttlefish. What on earth is Proteus? Well a sea creature ...who changes shape in order not to be captured. I admit, I am stretching it a bit, but I can just hear this sort of conversation going on after the play - all very 'witty' all very 'intellectual' and schoolbookish.

We've also got the poor thing popping up in Lyly:

Love is a chameleon, which draweth nothing
into the mouth but air and nourisheth nothing in the body
but lungs.

So linking in the theatrical hyperspace too.

Am I getting into tangled webs here? Most likely, but I get the impression that this is the way this play works ... sparks of ideas fly around and 'conceits' abound.

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Dogs, Wives and Walnuts ...

The woman, spaniel, the walnut tree,
The more you beat them, the better they be.

Stanley Wells digs this one up in his Shakespeare and Co (to be reviewed, not too soon). It's origins are 'folk wisdom' its particular form here, care of John Taylor, ferry-boat man - who was a published author.

It's the spaniel that gets me ... hyper-linking in Elizabethan England.

This particular case is after 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' but I think it illustrates nicely both an attitude (one assumable as common, if not provocative, even in Elizabethan England) and a process - the interlinking of images and ideas across the 'hyper-space' of the Elizabethan mindset.

nux, asinus, mulier verbere opus habent

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Shakespeare and football, again ...

One of those strange things I thought about when I watched 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' was a football match.

No, don't stop reading ... there is a point to this.

(Oh, I better clarify again for the poor deprived Colonials over the water .. I'm talking "Soccer" - real soccer, with young enthusiastic, dedicated players in it for the glory as well as the cash - sorry, Mr Beckham.)

What struck me were the 'set pieces'.

In soccer, there are moments (usually when a foul has been committed or a corner given) when the game stops and everyone rushes around to position themselves for a pre-planned action: The set piece. Coaches spend hours working out exact moves and then attempt to get the players to do what they are told - in the hope of the all elusive goal. Football players tend to think they know better and don't do what they've been trained to do - so the move regularly fails to achieve the result.

There are a whole set of rituals associated with set pieces - eg attempting to put the ball closer to the net by spinning it forwards and dropping it - pleading innocence when the referee bothers to send you back.

And they are moments watched with increased intensity by the fans - of both sides. A good 'free-kick' can be a match winner, a great corner is a work of operatic scale splendour. They can provoke in the goalkeeper flights of balletic elegance, and regularly result in clashes of heads, in elbows in faces and, the ultimate in set pieces - the penalty.

There were several moments in 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' when I felt like I was watching just such a set piece - exchanges of 'wit' between Speed and Valentine; the verbal jousting between Valentine and Thurio; Speed in conversation with Lance, Julia with her maid, Lucetta.

There were aspects of each of these exchanges that suggested to me a 'spectator sport' - one where a partisan bunch of watchers would be 'rooting' for one participant, or just delighting in the idea of battle.

Technique is important - not just victory. You really need to 'Bend it, like Beckham' - in his glory days.

And this is where Speed shows his talent - and also where he becomes incomprehensible to the majority of people: It is a talent in a game whose rules have become incomprehensible to us - almost like an American watching Cricket.

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Shakespeare Hyperlinking!

Protean Pre-echoes?

Did Shakespeare invent hyperlinking?

Look at this:

O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away.

(I, 2)

And ‘compare’ it to this, Summer’s Day:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd,

(Sonnet 18)

I bet you know the second, but the first?

Both Shakespeare, both written in his early career – one a sonnet, the other from

The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

I’m reminded of what Brook said about how Shakespeare had a memory – and used everything that came his way. My only question is which came first – the play or the sonnet?

A couple more:

O, but I love his lady too too much,
And that's the reason I love him so little.
How shall I dote on her with more advice,

(II, 4)

And, Friar Laurence to Romeo:

And art thou chang'd? Pronounce this sentence then:
Women may fall, when there's no strength in men.

Thou chidst me oft for loving Rosaline.

For doting, not for loving, pupil mine.

(Romeo and Juliet, II, 3)

And –

Yet (Spaniel like) the more she spurnes my loue,
The more it growes, and fawneth on her still;

(IV, 2)

with -

And even for that do I love you the more;
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be used as you use your dog?

( A Midsummer Nights Dream, II, 1)

What is it that is going on here? Is Shakespeare just recycling a good idea – like the costumes and props of the Theatre Company? Or is it something else?

One thing I think worth mentioning at this point is that I ‘heard’ these connections when watching the BBC production – they are not the product of reading the play closely or searching – although I have since ‘confirmed’ by digging them out (and am in the process of a read through).

They are memorable images in terms of sound.

Shakespeare’s audience, much more tuned than I am to listening, must also have picked out connections – maybe not for the Sonnet, which circulated in writing privately, but for the other plays – and several other instances I could quote.

What Shakespeare seems to be doing here is ‘hypertexting’ – downright naughty of him so early in the history of the internet. These links do precisely what the little under-linings in this blog do – make you leap across a world of experiences to a specific point.

However, if ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona is the first play, then this implies something very interesting: It is a foundation other plays build on. The other plays are referencing this play.

Even if it isn’t the actual ‘first’, it is certainly early, so part of the foundations of the whole Shakespeare Experience.

This is recognized in the Oxford Shakespeare, where the play is printed first – and therein lies a problem: We read linear … first suggests earlier, suggests less mature, suggests less good.

I’ll say it again – I enjoyed watching this play last week – I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed a Hamlet in many a year. For me, at this time, this is better than Hamlet.

Now, maybe I’m just stupid. And maybe not (chorus of assembled acolytes, “No, Enlightener of the World, never!”).

The fact that Shakespeare has deliberately linked to this play would suggest he had a degree of respect for it – and that the audience of his time would have seen enough performances to be able to make the connections. This is not saying the play is a prototype – something tried and discarded, but that is an active ingredient in the repertory.

Of course, strange things happen with hyperlinks – you can go back and change a text to add an extra reference or delete one (it’s called editing) – so, did Shakespeare – or anyone else, like Middleton – interfere with the text and add a link here, swap a link there?

Most likely: The text we have is from the first folio of 1623 – which Wells suggests is a snapshot of the version actually last performed. And that would suggest Shakespeare could and would have changed anything he didn’t like – and also that the other company members would have thrown in their three penny worth …

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Down to business.

Janus is the God of doorways - and if Wells et al are right,

'The Two Gentlemen of Verona'

is the first play He wrote - in other words, my entrance into the Complete Works.

It is certainly a play which looks forward - there are countless points when reading and watching when you go - ah, that's in Romeo and Juliet, that's in A Midsummer Nights Dream, didn't that happen in The Merchant of Venice, or Othello ... that reminds me a little of the scene in Twelfth Night, or, surely that is a little like Hamlet's ....

But it's more than just action and incident, word and phrase - there is a usage of language and a usage of theatre that makes this a very Shakespearean play.

This is already Shakespeare the poet (in Brook's sense) - the resonance and reference looking back into experience and encounters.

This is Shakespeare digging into the works of other stage professionals - there is a strong link, I think, to Lyly - I couldn't stop thinking of the 'courtly' actions and the word play found in the older man's work and attempts to satisfy for Elizabeth's taste.

There is Greene, in the character and spirit of these two young men.

But it is not the 'borrowed clothes' plagiarism of A Groatsworth of Wit, which would suggest an insecurity - for this is quite a confident play - it is an early exploration of the power of the theatre to self reference - and to deepen and even create meaning through such reference. It is a shorthand - why waste time going over the same ground already covered. It is a playing with the audience - spot the quote (remember, education was mainly about quoting the right authority when you are debate).

Curiously enough - it is a play about leaving a woman you love to go to another city - and, to commit the sin of implied biography, I can't help linking this to the earlier sonnet (1 aka 145).

It is also very much a genre play, with a set of conventions to guide both the performance and the watching - and I suspect part of its unpopularity is due much more to the genre being out of fashion than with any quality of the play itself.

This is a play of wit - and therein lies another difficulty: Wit frequently requires a knowledge of and easy flexibility with language - and we are just too distant to take the 'set-piece' exchanges without a degree of study beforehand.

Above all else, this is an entertaining play - something doubted at times: I enjoyed watching it, I enjoyed reading it through.

Whether it is a play to be 'studied' is a different question - but then, I very much doubt whether any of the plays should really be studied - death by academia.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (3)

If there is any wisdom in the adage, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind,’ the Duke has a chance of his daughter falling in love with Thurio – but there isn’t; especially when he enlists Proteus as a go-between.

This Duke seems to know more than most – there is a look in his eye as he claims Proteus as a ‘friend’, and his parting, “I will pardon you,” almost has an all seeing quality to it. It is also Antony’s, ‘ ..Now let it work’, and Oberon’s sending of Puck out to solve the lover’s problems: Here is both care and mischief combined.

Suddenly we are in the woods – and the design makes a leap – this is not an identifiable wood – the trees are tubes of something – almost a dream world. If the earlier scenes have been Wodehouse, now we are straight into Gilbert and Sullivan, complete with lovable bandits. Surely one has the look of Robin Hood - in Lincoln Green? Another, more robust, an escaped character from Pirates of Penzance? Smiles and flashing teeth in tasteful, and clean, dishevelment.

Valentine (with Speed) wanders in, is captured and instantly impresses enough to be made ‘King’. This is the material of fable and romance – Don Quixote should be here …

Back in Milan Proteus sets about wooing Silvia ‘on behalf of’ Thurio – musicians to serenade included. As they set about tuning their instruments, for these are real musicians and will play live, as they have throughout the production, in creeps the disguised Julia with the host from her inn – who has brought ‘him’ to find the gentleman ‘he’ asked after.

Proteus sings – ‘Who is Silvia?’. He is not a great singer, his voice cracks a little – which makes an honesty of Julia’s lines about not liking the musician. In most productions the song is sung by a beautiful voice – it is the sort of stand alone song which is easy to take out of context – the BBC refused to follow that path and consequently made it a revealing element.

Proteus gets rid of Thurio and the musicians, and engages Silvia in conversation – she on the balcony, he below. He tries to persuade her of his love, she reminds him of his former love – who comments throughout. Another set piece – beautifully controlled. In the end Silvia, to get rid of Proteus, agrees to send a picture of herself in the morning, and Julia, wakes the snoring Host, and departs heavy of heart.

Enter Sir Eglamour with the daybreak. I wondered where Don Quixote was, and Eglamour, if not the romantic knight himself, is the spitting image. It is a bombasting, deep voiced, rounded sound and movements performance. Silvia has entrusted him with a plan to help her escape the city and follow Valentine. They will meet at Friar Patrick’s cell, where she is to go for confession (!).

Launce fills in time with his ungrateful dog speech – lest we forget how topsy turvy the world has become: And in case you haven’t got the point, in walks Proteus employing ‘Sebastian’ (martyr killed by shooting full of arrows – in this case, cupid’s) the name Julia has taken on, to go to Silvia and deliver the very ring he exchanged with her on departing Verona, as a gift for Silvia and a sign of his ‘love’.

Proteus departs, Julia philosophises, Silvia enters.

Julia attempts to deliver the ring, Silvia, recognising it, rejects it – and you notice the make-up. Sebastian has darker skin than Julia, having thrown away his veil, and then goes on to use the multilayered ‘boy acting girl acting boy’ who acted ‘a girl being betrayed by a man’ image. It is delightful. The peel of sound released from that bell tower will resound through all of Shakespeare’s latter works – it’s there in ‘All the World’s a Stage’, it’s obviously there in ‘Twelfth Night’, but also in ‘Othello’.

And you are back into the play.

Julia and Silvia part, Eglamour enters, Silvia re-enters and they go off together to the forest. There is a build up of pace – but not enough to make things hasty … there is still time for another quick exchange on love.

Thurio is in conversation with Proteus about the success of his suit – Proteus gives evasive answers but Julia, now transformed fully into a page boy, comments in asides mirroring Speed earlier on in the play – and just as before, the Duke enters. He asks after Sir Eglamour and his daughter – Friar Laurence met them in the woods and (obviously having learnt his lesson) reported their flight to Silvia’s father.

The hunt is on … into the woods we all go.

The production added the fight, flight and capture of Silvia in fine swashbuckling detail – and she’s taken off to the ‘Captain’ of the brigands.

Valentine, sighing, lamenting, and ‘doing penance’ in the woods hears approaching voices and hides. Proteus, having rescued Silvia, and accompanied by Julia, attempts to persuade Silvia, then force his love on her. Valentine interrupts – and soundly ‘tells him off’.

When reading the play, this scene causes consternation; watching it, it doesn’t.

Valentine is a prefect who’s caught a naughty fifth former cheating at cricket – it’s a game. He’s more concerned with honour and friendship than any sexually driven love. This is the threatened assault of Demetrius in the woods – just gone slightly too far.

When Proteus ‘confesses’ it is genuine – when he repents, it is true. No audience has time to ‘go deep’ at this point – things are happening too quickly.

For Valentine now to give Silvia to his friend is almost an expression of faith in Christian forgiveness – and the production made it seem just that.

Julia’s fainting brings us all back down to earth (again).

Suddenly everything unravels – the mistake over the rings and the revelation of Julia in a shower of golden hair; Valentine, seeing his true love next to the mirage of Silvia, returns to the fold of faithful lover; the Duke, captive in the script – but not seeming so in this production, (with Thurio, who quickly disowns Silvia) bestows his daughter on the now worthy Valentine.

And off everyone goes, to an explanation and a wedding, or two.

There was a sense of great satisfaction at this point. The darkness had been but the shadows cast by a full glorious summer sun.

The BBC’s policy of shooting in great chunks – a full scene at a time, worked well; the casting, superb; the underplaying of both Launce and the Duke giving more a feel of wholeness and lightness than of slapstick; the design never letting go of the literacy and genre of the piece.

A final note on the music – essentially English composers of the period, live and weaving melancholy dance tunes throughout – a great success in television where the usual practice of ‘sound track’ adds a mechanical aspect to what should be ‘live’.

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