Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Note: The Tragedy of Arthur

Philips, Arthur. The Tragedy of Arthur: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2012.

I recently finished listening to the audio book version of The Tragedy of Arthur. I was impressed by its wit and its complexity.

The protagonist of the novel, Arthur Philips, a relatively-successful novel writer himself, finds himself in possession of a unique book: the 1597 quarto of The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare. The novel takes the form of Arthur fulfilling his contractual obligations by writing the introduction to the first modern edition of this newly-discovered Shakespeare play.

The problem is that Arthur has become convinced that the play is a forgery. His father, who passed the book along to him, has served many jail terms for forgery, and Arthur thinks this is just one more forgery.

The novel successfully blurs all sorts of lines: between novel and memoir; between fiction and scholarship (in many ways, it reminded me of Nabokov's Pale Fire); between Shakespeare and his imitators. In his hints and suggestions that the play is a forgery, the narrator almost seems to protest too much. The more he hints that it's fake, the more the reader is inclined to consider its authenticity.

And the story he tells of growing up with a father who is part artist, part forger, and part confidence trickster is both very moving and very entertaining. Elements of the relationships within the family are reflected in the play. Is that coincidence, which would imply that the play is authentic? Or are they autobiographical reflections, which would make the play a fake? The questions continue the blurring of fiction and memoir.

A similar echo is in the exchange in the image above—not in the dialogue itself but in the speech headings. In the repeated "Arthur . . . Philip . . . Arthur . . . Philip" along the left-hand margin, the narrator finds another connection—one between the text and his own name—that's too hard to explain away.

The novel itself purports to be the introduction to a scholarly edition of the play. At the novel's end, the play begins. Arthur Philips (the novelist of the novel rather than the novelist within the novel) has written a five-act play in the style of Shakespeare. In terms of its plot and language, I found it to be a bit tedious—yet the introduction has set it up so cleverly that I couldn't help but think about how I would make the case for its being Shakespeare's or prove it not to be. The novel itself, as it turns out, leaves the question of its authenticity up in the air. The narrator is convinced it isn't—but many Shakespeare scholars and experts in printed texts of the 1500s come out in favor of it.

All in all, it was a fabulous and fascinating read. I enjoyed it immensely, and I highly recommend it.

Note:  For another review--one with a few more details, try the one Shakespeare Geek provides.

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


Thursday, February 13, 2014

J. R. R. Tolkien on "the folly of reading Shakespeare"

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boson: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

The general impression is that J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and miscellaneous other works set in the world of The Hobbit, did not like Shakespeare.

The reason for this impression springs partly from Tolkien's account of his imaginative creation of the Ents, which are something like walking, talking trees. The Ents are inspired by Shakespeare, but they sprang forth not from what Shakespeare did but from what he didn't do. Shakespeare Geek has an account of how Tolkein's disappointment with "the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of 'Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill'" (212) led him to imagine how walking trees might really march to war.

What might be more surprising is an account of Tolkein actually enjoying Shakespeare. In Letter 76, dated 28 July 1944 and written to Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien describes seeing a production of Hamlet. Tolkien argues that it's foolish to read Shakespeare . . . except in conjunction with seeing performances of the plays:
Plain news is on the airgraph; but the only event worth of talk was the performance of Hamlet which I had been to just before I wrote last. I was full of it then, but the cares of the world have soon wiped away the impression. But it emphasised more strongly than anything I have ever seen the folly of reading Shakespeare (and annotating him in the study), except as a concomitant of seeing his plays acted. It was a very good performance, with a young rather fierce Hamlet; it was played fast without cuts; and came out as a very exciting play. Could one only have seen it without ever having read it or knowing the plot, it would have been terrific. It was well produced except for a bit of bungling over the killing of Polonius. But to my surprise the part that came out as the most moving, almost intolerably so, was the one that in reading I always found a bore: the scene of mad Ophelia singing her snatches. (88)
I wonder if Tolkien would say the same about his own books today. Is there folly in annotating Tolkien—unless you see the films?

As a side note, he does object to Shakespeare's use of elves. We find that in Letter 151, written to Hugh Brogan on 18 September 1954:
I now deeply regret having used Elves, though this is a word in ancestry and original meaning suitable enough. But the disastrous debasement of this word, in which Shakespeare played an unforgiveable part, has really overloaded it with regrettable tones, which are too much to overcome. (185)
If he's objecting to the elves in Midsummer Night's Dream, I'll have to argue with him; however, if he means the elves in Merry Wives of Windsor, I'm entirely on his side.

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


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Notes: William Shakespeare: Very Interesting People and Coffee with Shakespeare

Holland, Paul. William Shakespeare: Very Interesting People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Wells, Stanley. [Co-written with Paul Edmondson.] Coffee with Shakespeare. New York: Sterling, 2008.

I've just finished reading two very concise books that focus on Shakespeare's biography. One was a great deal of fun, compressing impressively the most important information about Shakespeare's life and times into a very slim volume; the other was, quite frankly, very disappointing.

Paul Holland's William Shakespeare, one of the Very Interesting People series of books, is exquisite. It's a reprint of Holland's Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, and it adroitly covers Shakespeare's life. But it goes beyond that to be one of the best, most concise accounts of how Shakespeare attained his current position. It's going to be my go-to resource for students asking how popular Shakespeare was in his own day and in the century following his death. It also has a good (though necessarily cursory) overview of stage history, literary derivatives of Shakespeare, and filmed versions of Shakespeare plays. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, enlightening read.

Stanley Wells' Coffee with Shakespeare was a let down—especially considering Wells' great scholarship and keen writing ability. But perhaps it was just thrown together for the gift shop at the Shakespeare Birthplace. Whatever the case may be, it's an imaginary conversation with Shakespeare over coffee about his life and times. It's a pretty good idea—but it doesn't play out very well. It becomes over-sentemtalized at points; at others, it takes a quick and easy stance on matters that are really quite complicated and nuanced (e.g., the order of the sonnets). I include a few images from the book below to illustrate:

Near the beginning of the book (Shakespeare's contributions are in brown; the questioner's are in green):

The middle of a conversation about the sonnets: 

Thoughts about living away from Stratford: 

Grab a copy of Holland's William Shakespeare—it's great. But try Wells' Shakespeare & Co. instead of Coffee with Shakespeare.

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

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Quick Review of Anonymous

Anonymous. Dir. Edward D. Wood, Jr. Perf. David Hasselhoff, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mark Wahlberg, Lindsay Lohan, and Willem Dafoe. 2011.  DVD.  Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2012.

After several years and many attempts, I finally found enough time and a hearty-enough constitution to watch Anonymous. In the interest of accuracy (unlike the film itself), I'll reveal that I watched it in several sections over about a week's time, occasionally watching it at three times the speed with the subtitles on, frequently grading papers as I did so.

The film is awful in all sorts of ways. For the ways in which the plot is ludicrous—both historically and logically—I point you toward Holger Syme's take on the film. In addition to that, the acting is bad, the writing is worse, and the editing frequently makes very little sense.

I don't imagine it comes as a surprise to any of Bardfilm's readers, but I was utterly appalled by the film. Here are a few of the more notable things this film asks us to believe:
  • Elizabeth I goes on progress in order to give birth to illegitimate children (one of whom is fathered by a former illegitimate child of Elizabeth's). Every time the Virgin Queen gets pregnant, they have to go on progress, have the baby, and then shuffle off the little mortal coil to some noble willing to raise it. According to Mary Cole's The Portable Queen, Elizabeth went on twenty-three progresses during her reign. The math suggests that Elizabeth was certainly doing her part to increase the stock of heirs to the throne of England by at least (there could have been twins!) twenty-three. Note: Thanks to @commish24 and @historyadjunct for their help in suggesting this source and passing along its information.

  • The Earl of Oxford has a stockpile of a dozen or so plays that he suddenly decides to release to the world. It's always good to be prepared with a Brilliant Drama Slush Fund.

  • William Shakespeare is too idiotic to be taken seriously as an actor, but everyone swallows the idea that he's a playwright—make that the playwright—without any question. He's also completely ignorant—except when it comes to extorsion and theatre business, which he manages quite nicely.

  • Elizabethans hate hunchbacks. Therefore, they hate Robert Cecil. The Earl of Oxford decided to give the Richard III of his eponymous play a hunch in order to mock Robert Cecil. That was the first time anyone ever said anything about Richard III having a hunch.

  • Christopher Marlowe was murdered by William Shakespeare because he suspected that Shakespeare might not be the author of the plays. 

  • Writing anything in iambic pentameter is inordinately impressive to everyone—even other playwrights.
I've pulled a seven-minute clip out of the middle of the film to give you all an idea of what goes on in the film. The clip starts with Ben Jonson and the Earl of Oxford (seated in separate parts of the theatre) watching Henry V. The actual Shakespeare in that scene isn't all that bad—which just goes to show that you can't kill Shakespeare's words, no matter how hard you try. We then see Oxford overcome with the power of his own words to move the many headed. Then William Shakespeare seizes an opportunity to claim authorship of the play when the crowd begins chanting "Playwright!  Playwright!" (with, perhaps, some homage to Doctor Who there). Shakespeare makes a speech worthy of an Academy Award winner. Then Oxford chews Jonson out for letting Shakespeare claim authorship. But he browses through his collection of genius plays to find one that's suitable anyway. When Oxford tells him that it's in iambic pentameter, Jonson asks, with great incredulity, "All of it?  Is that possible?" Jonson then exits, leaving the Earl of Oxford to practice his new pseudonym's signature. Take a gander:

There are innumerable blurbs for Anonymous scattered around the Internet. By way of conclusion, I've collated a few of the more notable ones here:
"Remember when Regan and Cornwall gouged my eyes out? This was worse."

"This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard."

"Eww, that's disgusting. She's old enough to be his mother! Oh, that's right.  She is his mother."

"I had never seen this film before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous film that ever I saw in my life."
                                  —Samuel Pepys

"Well, I'll admit it.  As slurs on my character go, this tops Ben Jonson's 'Not Without Mustard' joke!"
                                  —William Shakespeare

"Never, never, never, never, never."
                                  —King Lear

"O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!"

"I rather liked it."

". . . of course, sometimes they are just plain bad."

Works Cited

Cole, Mary Hill.  The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Note: Brick Shakespeare

McCann, John, Monica Sweeney, and Becky Thomas. Brick Shakespeare: The Tragedies—Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.

It's sometimes hard to find gifts for Bardfilm. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try, of course, but I often already have copies of books and films that interest me. And, if I don't already own something, I've often heard of it already.

And that's why this Christmas gift was such a delight. I went extremely quickly through these three states in a few brief milliseconds: (1) Realizing that a Lego version of Shakespeare existed; (2) Deeply desiring a Lego version of Shakespeare; and (3) Actually owning a Lego version of Shakespeare.

The volume I have contains four of the tragedies. Essentially, they're edited and reduced versions of the text illustrated with photos of Lego characters in Lego landscapes. The image below (click on it to enlarge it)

It's fun, and I'm enjoying it—while waiting for the film version to come out!

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

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