Monday, August 31, 2009

But you don't have to take my word on the McKellen King Lear

King Lear. Dir. Trevor Nunn and Chris Hunt. Perf. Sir Ian McKellen, Sylvester McCoy, Romola Garai, William Gaunt, Frances Barber, and Monica Dolan. 2008. PBS, 2009.

My word, for what it's worth, is that it's a magnificent production, astonishingly acted and inventively directed. But the reason you don't have to trust me on this is that the film is now available for free viewing! Simply head to this PBS site and dig in!

In preparation for the school year, I recently purchased the DVD; while we're on the subject, let me offer a few comments that will serve as a micro-review of the film.

The production is beautiful rendered on DVD. I've written before about the privilege of seeing this cast perform this play at the Guthrie Theatre. Indescribable.

This video is nearly as good as being there. Certainly, it's the next best thing. The images in this post don't do justice to the clarity and detail of the video. You can see the seams of the costumes, for heaven's sake!

In addition to the stunningly effervescent acting—especially of Sir Ian McKellen and former Doctor (of Doctor Who fame) Sylvester McCoy, the decisions of the director are exceptionally interesting. There are moments that are too horrible to bear. And I suppose that's the point.

Trevor Nunn pays a considerable amount of attention to the relationship between the play's gods and the play's people. One way he does so comes near the very end of the play. Upon learning that Cordelia and Lear's lives are in jeopardy, Albany and Edgar desperately send Edmund's sword (the token of reprieve) in an attempt to stop the planned execution. The instant after the Gentleman departs, Albany says, "The gods defend them" (the text reads "The gods defend her" at V.iii.254; this change focuses our attention on the pair instead of on Cordelia alone) and each member of the entire company raises arms in supplication:

After only a few beats, Lear enters with his devastating line: "Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones" (V.iii.255). It's as horrific as you can imagine. And it's capped off with another line composed completely of monosyllables (Shakespeare is seldom high-falutingly verbose when he has his characters speak of the deepest emotions)—one of the most tragic lines in all of Shakespeare:
I know when one is dead and when one lives. (V.iii.258)
At the very end, the image of raising hands is presented again as the final speech (given, as in F, to Edgar in this production—not to Albany, as in Q) is delivered in voiceover. Edgar raises his hands and, in a gesture eloquent of despair, drops them uselessly to his sides.

It's terrible. And marvelous. But, as I said before (paraphrasing Levar Burton's Reading Rainbow phrase), you don't have to take my word for it! Watch it yourself! Enjoy!

Click below to purchase the film from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Nine Words Most Likely to Anger King James

The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2007.

In the few minutes between printing hundreds of pages of opening-day handouts and delivering them, I thought I'd try to squeeze in a micropost on King James' attitude toward the Geneva Bible.

He hated it.

He even hated it more than he hated all other English translations of the Bible—and that's saying something. That hatred was one of the reasons he was open to the suggestions of the committee to produce a new translation in English—the translation that would later be know as the King James Version.

In particular, he hated the marginal note on Genesis 1:19. Here it is:

Their disobedience herein was lawful, but their dissembling evil.

That first part got James' goat as much as a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes would have (he hated tobacco, too). To think that any disobedience to a lawful monarch could be itself lawful was anathema epitomized! And that's even considering that obeying "The King of Egypt" here is to commit horrific atrocities.

To get a sense of how objectionable—indeed, how seditious—King James found such a statement, listen to his adresss to the Parliament on 21 March 1609:
Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy, make or unmake, at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only.
Now that's monarchal power! James' subjects seem to have managed this authority (even as they managed under Elizabeth I and Henry VIII—who believed every word in that speech but didn't feel the need to say such things as blatantly as James did), but things changed dramatically under Charles I. Perhaps you recall the outcome of Charles' attempts to rule with such an iron fist wrapped in a concrete glove?

Click below to purchase the 1560 facimile of the Geneva Bible from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2007.

Shakespeare's England was soaked in the Bible, and the enormous number of biblical allusions squeezed into Shakespeare's plays indicates how like a sponge Shakespeare's mind was (in a good way).

I've been doing a lot of work on Shakespeare and Calvin this summer, and I've also been reading through the Bible. That happy conjunction led to my noticing something in 2 Kings 8:7-15 that might have some bearing on Macbeth. And the recent arrival of a facsimile of the 1560 Geneva Bible (one of the main contenders for the title of "the version of the Bible Shakespeare probably used most") forms another happy conjunction—all the happier because of the astonishingly-low price is currently asking for the immense and remarkable volume! (See below for purchasing information.)

In the passage (quoted in full below), Ben-hadad, the King of Syria (the 1560 Geneva Bible reads "the King of Arám"), is sick, and he sends Hazael to ask the prophet Elisha whether he'll recover. Elisha says, "Oh, he'll recover all right. But he's also doomed to die." Then Elisha stares at Hazael until Hazael gets really uncomfortable. And then Elisha starts to weep. Eventually, he reveals that Hazael will become King of Syria and that he will serve as an instrument of God's chastisement of the people of Israel in that position. Hazael reports back to Ben-hadad the good news about Ben-hadad's recovery—and smothers Ben-hadad the next day.

The entire narrative strikes me as remarkably Macbethesque—not in the way Elisha might be compared to the Weird Sisters (Elisha's motivations are clearly different than the witches—he speaks the truth sorrowfully about the sovereignty of God while they seem to revel in the chaos they seem to hope will result), but in the similar ways in which Hazael and Macbeth respond to the truth presented to them.

Neither man is told that he will kill the King—yet the messengers seem to know that murder is a temptation for each man. Each man acts to hasten a prophecy he believes to be true, and each man becomes King as a result of his own actions.

Of course, the primary difference is that there's no Lady Hazael in the passage at hand. But when Hazael says, "Is this a damp bed cloth I see before me, the hem toward my hand?" it's pretty much a dead giveaway that Shakespeare had this passage in mind when he composed Macbeth.

Actually, allusions to scripture in Shakespeare (as opposed to biblical references in Shakespeare) are never as cut-and-dried as that. But I'm still pondering, in light of Shakespeare and Calvin, what to make of Macbeth and Hazael.

And I'm also wondering about Elisha's response. Is there some equivocation in his answer? Basically, he is asked whether the King will die of his illness, and his answer is "No, he won't die of the illnesss—nudge, nudge, wink, wink." He doesn't encourage Hazael, but he shows Hazael that he knows Hazael's heart.

Finally, I'm thrilled to possess the 1560 Geneva Bible! Not so long ago, its price put it out of the reach of all but large research libraries. Now it can sit on my desk to be consulted at will (especially thanks to the book allowance my college gives me every year) at any time of the day or night.

Especially interesting are the marginalia. I've included an example above—one in which we're told that, "Vnder pretence to refresh or ease him, he styfled him with this cloth." It gives a certain dramatic motivation or stage direction to the text that I find immensely appealing.

In a similar way, the Geneva Bible glosses Elisha's comment about the recovery of Ben-hadad: "Meaning that he should recover of this disease: but he knewe that this messenger Hazaél should slaie him to obtaine the kingdome."

These are only preliminary thoughts. But they at least point toward the remarkable presence of the Bible in Shakespeare. And they point toward a remarkable edition of a remarkable translation of the Bible.

Click below to purchase the 1560 facimile of the Geneva Bible from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


Here is 2 Kings 8:7-15 from the English Stadard Version:
Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick. And when it was told him, “The man of God has come here,” the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD through him, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’” So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he came and stood before him, he said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’” And Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he shall certainly die.” And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was embarrassed. And the man of God wept. And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.” And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.” Then he departed from Elisha and came to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” But the next day he took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his place.
Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest