Saturday, May 17, 2008

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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