Monday, December 17, 2012

Book Note: Ungentle Shakespeare

Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001.

I've been using some of my copious free time to catch up on some required reading. For example, I should have read Katherine Duncan-Jones' Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life in 2001.

Duncan-Jones is one of the truly great Shakespeare scholars of all time, and even though her biography of Shakespeare covers most of the same material you'll find elsewhere, it's being handled here by the hands of a master. She's always enormously meticulous, incredibly scholarly, and eminently readable.

She also pulls no punches about detrimental information about Shakespeare's character. She lets us know that he may have been mean (in both senses of the word), selfish, and critical. If you want a biography that tempers the bardolators of the world, this is it.

Duncan-Jones places Shakespeare uncompromisingly in his day and age. There's no room for any authorship debate when the facts are so clearly outlined. One moment when this particularly struck me (although Duncan-Jones does not use it to refute any alternate authorship theory—she's just presenting the facts) was in this passage:
Just at the moment when he might have anticipated a life of prestige and privilege at court and elsewhere, Shakespeare in middle age was reduced once again to a stressful and uncertain period as a travelling player. He and his colleagues also experienced bereavement. Their patron, the affable and generous Sir George Carey, second Lord Hunsdon, died in September 1603, only six months after the death of his cousin and Queen. Closer to home, however, was the death in 1604 of the leading player Augustine Phillips, whose Mortlake house had offered shelter to the King's Men in the plague-ridden autumn of 1603. First mentioned among his colleagues, he left "to my fellow William Shakespeare a thirty shillings piece in gold." Phillips and Shakespeare were evidently close friends as well as close colleagues. (182)
That's very interesting. Augustine Phillips acted with William Shakespeare. If there were any sort of conspiracy in which Shakespeare didn't actually exist or wasn't actually an actor, why would Phillips be leaving him any money at all—let alone a substantial amount? Surely you're not allowed to leave a pseudonym a legacy in your will!

In any case, Duncan-Jones is only unintentionally debunking authorship theorists. Her main intent is to provide a clear, well-written, meticulous biography of Shakespeare. And she succeeds admirably.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Titus 2.0

Titus Andronicus 2.0 [a.k.a. Titus 2.0]. Dir. Tang Shu-wing. Perf. Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio (formerly No Man's Land Group). Web. 15 February 2011.

Titus 2.0 is one of the most masterfully done adaptations of Shakespeare's play I've seen. Seven actors, each dressed in black and with bare feet, sit in a line of chairs facing the audience. The plot of Titus Andronicus is narrated by the actors, who occasionally take on the roles of the characters—while continuing to speak in the third person much of the time. The style, which is a mixture of mime, dance, music, and drama, is simple but profoundly moving. The production avoids portraying the specific violence of the plot—no other character touches Lavinia during the description of her rape, for example—and, in so doing, it more deeply conveys the abstraction of violence. The lighting, which is masterfully done, adds to the depth of the production.

The scene in which Marcus discovers Lavinia is one of the production’s most effective (see the low-quality video clip below—the only way I could get it on this site—or head to MIT's Global Shakespeares site to see a full production of the play—this scene is about a third of the way in—near 43:30). The actor who has been telling Lavinia’s story stands on her chair at the up right corner of the stage while the actors who have just been lying on their backs representing Titus’ sons in the pit smugly stand at center stage. She delivers this narration:
Somewhere in the forest, Tamora’s sons were lustfully ravishing Lavinia. They even taunted her: I’d hang myself if I were her. Fine, just help her to tie the cord. Demetrius and Chiron knew she was helpless and left her in the wild.
The narrator then slowly looks at her hands and contorts them, stretching one around her neck and one behind her back. She runs down left, just out of a large half-circle of light that covers most of the stage, where a lighted rectangle stands vertically. The rectangle flickers as vague shadows cross its surface. The actor in the centermost of the seven chairs stands on it and delivers lines equivalent to Marcus’ in the text of the play. When the narrator of Lavinia’s story resumes—and not before—we learn that Lavinia’s hands have been removed and her tongue cut out: “Marcus spotted Lavinia’s amputated arms but from her silence and blood-streaked mouth, he knew her tongue had also been cut.” Tamora’s sons’ line about helping her with the rope now retrospectively makes a terrible kind of sense.

Though our minds are looking back at that line, the plot moves forward to Marcus’ carrying Lavinia to her father. In this production, the actor who has been uttering Marcus’ lines stays on his chair but extends his arms toward the Lavinia character; with difficulty, she stands and slowly and painfully, as if carrying her own weight as well as Marcus’, crosses back to her chair. When she reaches center stage, she stumbles and falls to her knees. She slowly unwraps her arms from around herself, looks at her hands, stands and turns to face the audience, and slowly lowers her arms to her sides while the other actor, who is about four paces behind her and still standing on his chair, does the same. The distance between the actors and the characters whose stories they narrate is extended into an even greater distance between the characters themselves.

Stripped of the visual elements of violence, Titus Andronicus’ tragedy can be examined more fully both intellectually and emotionally in Titus Andronicus 2.0. The production avoids the possibility of distracting its audience with the physical results of violent acts—blood, severed limbs, corpses—and forces it to consider the emotional, psychological, and spiritual elements of violence to a greater degree.

Links: The Full Video of the Film at MIT's Global Shakespeares.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Richard III and Julius Casear in Gidget

"A Hearse, a Hearse, My Kingdom for a Hearse." By Louella MacFarlane and John McGreevey. Perf. Sally Field, Don Porter, and James Davidson. Dir. William Asher. Gidget. Season 1, episode 6. ABC. 20 October 1965. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2006

The same internet wag who made the joke about the archeologists not being certain that the skeleton was that of Richard III—remember, they only have a hunch—also risked a joke about Richard's skeleton objecting to being carried away in a mere ambulance. "A hearse! A hearse! My kingdom for a hearse!" he supposedly cried.

When I heard that joke come out of my—I mean, his—mouth, I wondered how original it was. A quick search revealed that the line was taken as a title for—of all things—an episode of the 1960s sitcom Gidget. Yes, the show with Sally Field—currently playing Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincon.

I requested the episode, just in case anything interesting should come of it, though I didn't really have much hope for a Richard III tie in. I suspected the episode was merely titularly parasitical. Yesterday, I put it on while grading essays and straightening up the office (it's not the sort of show you need to devote your entire attention to).

At first, I was disappointed.  Gidget wants to buy a cool hearse (apparently, it's "the end"—just the thing to cart your surfboards to the beach). To do so, she decides to sign up for auto shop. She hopes to earn money, impress her dad, learn about cars, and demonstrate that girls can do anything boys can do. The men are skeptical (not to mention patriarchal), and plot how to get her to drop auto shop.

At that point, an allusion to Julius Caesar dropped in out of nowhere! I imagine that the writers though the allusion appropriate for a fifteen-year-old high school student to make under the circumstances. I found it surprising and delightful—especially as it tends to undermine some of the overbearing patriarchalism of the two men.

Links: The Episode at IMDB.

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Doctor Who, Richard III, and William Shakespeare

Doctor Who: The Kingmaker. By Nev Fountain. Perf. Peter Davidson, Stephen Beckett, and Marcus Hutton. 2006. Audio CDs. Big Finish Productions, 2006.  

Richard III. Silent Shakespeare. Perf. F. R. Benson, Alfred Brydone, Murray Carrington, Eric Maxon, Violet Farebrother, Elinor Aickin, Mrs. Constance Benson, and Moffat Johnston. 1911. DVD. Image Entertainment, 2000.

The discovery of a skeleton that might be Richard III's led to an explosion of commentary and speculation on the web. Humorous remarks also spread like wildfire, one internet wag even going so far as to say, "I feel that I cannot stress this enough: The archeologists are not certain that the bones are Richard III's. They just have a hunch."

The story happened to correspond with my own acquisition of an audio drama related to Richard III: A story from the Doctor Who universe mentioned by a reader a long time ago in Shakespeare Geek's archives.

The plot involves Doctor Who traveling back in time to Shakespeare's age—and then, having gotten angry with Shakespeare, traveling even further back to Richard's time. [Note:  Spoilers follow—both in this paragraph and in the video / audio clip below.] Shakespeare sneaks back in time as well; eventually, he and Richard switch places.

The thing I liked best about the production was its use of the typical jokes about Richard III. I've compiled them in an audio file—and then attached the audio file to part of a silent film version of Richard III. The result is odd but entertaining. Enjoy!

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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