Thursday, May 25, 2023

Book Note: The Merchant by Arnold Wesker

Wesker, Arnold. The Merchant. London: Methuen Drama Student Editions, 1993.

A much more interesting reworking of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice than Shylock's Revenge can be found in Arnold Wesker's The Merchant.

Wesker wrote his play because, in his view, Shakespeare's play could not escape from the antisemitism in it. This is what he says in the preface to the play:

[The idea came] when, in 1973, watching Laurence Olivier's oi-yoi-yoi portrayal of Shylock in Jonathan Miller's production at the National, I was struck by the play's irredeemable anti-semitism. It was not an intellectual evaluation but the immediate impact I actually experienced. (xvii–xviii)

The center of his vision of a new version of the play was the different way he imagined Shylock's reaction in the courtroom scene:

The real Shylock would not have torn his hair out and raged against not being allowed to cut his pound of flesh, but would have said "Thank God!" The point of writing a play in which Shylock would utter these words would be to explain how he became involved in such a bond in the first place. (xviii)

That idea led to the fascinating retelling of the plot of Shakespeare's play. In Wesker's, Shylock and Antonio are the best of friends. And Shylock would happily lend Antonio whatever funds he needs—gratis, as Shylock would call it. But Venice has a law that any loan from a Jew to a Christian must be public—a bond must be signed and registered.

That's when Antonio and Shylock hit on the idea of having a pound of flesh be the collateral for the loan. They want to mock this ridiculous Venetian law and show just how ugly that law is. Let's take a look at that scene:

That sets things up nicely. And the plot flows as we might expect. When Antonio can't pay up, it all comes into court. Shylock can't refuse to collect on his bond: To do so would be to undermine all the laws of Venice, putting the Jews of the city in particular peril.

As we build to that point, we see the antisemitism of the Christian characters interrogated—and they do not come off well. Shakespeare's Shylock's famous "Hath not a Jew hands?" speech is given to Lorenzo in the courtroom, making it condescending and patronizing rather than movingly eloquent of shared humanity.

It's a remarkable play that would make a fascinating companion work to be read in conjunction with Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Book Note: Shylock's Revenge

Smith, David Murray. Shylock's Revenge. From Tales of Chivalry and Romance. Edinburgh: James Robertson & Co., 1826.

I've been doing some work on Merchant of Venice recently, and it involves a number of tangents. Shylock's Revenge isn't terribly interesting, but it has its place in the history of uses of the play.

Largely, it's a prose retelling of the play, but it has its own particularly anti-Semitic characterization of Shylock. I suppose one might expect that from the title—it isn't the story of a merchant of Venice but of his enemy and his attempt to gain revenge.

Let me give you a quick sample:

It's not far from the play's plot, but I think there's a greater connection between Shylock's Jewishness and his desire for vengeance.

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Monday, May 22, 2023

Eye Shall Not Look Upon His Like Again

Shakespeare, William. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Hamlet. Ed. Horace Howard Furness. 2 vols. 1877. New York: Dover, 1963.

One of the things I often bring with me when I'm traveling is something to read that I can easily abandon. I'll grab the printouts of articles that I haven't gotten around to reading. Those are ideal—they're easy to read and recycle, and I return from the trip with my head a bit fuller and my bag a bit emptier.

But the last time I had a trip, I didn't have very many articles ready to go; however, I did have a variorum edition of Hamlet that was falling apart, so I grabbed it thinking it would provide some interest and could be left behind without much regret. "Besides," I thought, "I have the Harold Jenkins Arden edition; he probably covers anything this one has."

But the thing about a variorum edition is that it can pull from anywhere and everywhere, and I found one note particularly interesting. It's the note on Hamlet's line in Act I, scene ii (line 188 in this edition):

It suggests that the printed line "I shall not look upon his like again" (printed that way in Q1, Q2, and F) could instead by "Eye shall not look upon his like again."

That is an amazing possibility. It takes the line to an additional depth, moving it from "I'll never see anyone like him again" to "No one shall ever see anyone like him again." The first demonstrates Hamlet's individual mourning (which is deep and nothing to be sneezed at) to a more universal loss.

If you add to that the sheer number of times the word "eye" comes up in the play—a quick search shows more than thirty eye(s) in the play; there are only fifteen or so ear(s)—it makes for a significant difference.

The variorum edition notes that the ear will probably hear I rather than eye (or, I suppose, ay), but I good actor would be able to bring the word "eye" forward at that point. Eye, for one, would like to see that.

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Thursday, May 18, 2023

South Park's Philip Performs Hamlet

"Terrance and Phillip: Behind the Blow." By Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and David R. Goodman. Perf. Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Eliza Schneider. Dir. Trey Parker. South Park. Season 5, episode 5. Comedy Central. 18 July 2001. DVD. 
Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment, 2015
While we're on something of a "Shakespeare in various animated works," we might as well go on down to South Park and see Phillip perform as Hamlet in Hamlet.

Phillip is part of a famous comedy duo (within the world of South Park) called Terrance and Phillip. They are known for their over-the-top scatological humor. 

In this episode, that team has broken up, Terrence trying to continue the act with a replacement Phillip and Phillip pursuing what might be termed more serious drama (though there's plenty of scatological humor in Shakespeare). The South Park kids are trying to get the duo back together for a reunion concert, so they travel to Canada to try to convince Phillip to rejoin the act. Here's what they find:

As you've seen, what they find is a fairly-straightforward production of Hamlet—with some Canadianisms thrown in. The humor relies on knowing that Phillip is much more inclined to make a gross fart joke than to play Hamlet.

That's different from the humor involved in the episode with the turkeys who quote from Henry V (for which, q.v.).

Links: The Episode at IMDB.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Coraline is a Piece of Work

. Dir. Henry Selick. Perf. Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, and John Hodgman. 2009. DVD. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, 2010.

Really, that should read "Characters in Coraline quote from Hamlet's 'Piece of Work' Speech," but I was going to have to explain the differences between the three contemporary printings of Hamlet and the way the film alters that quote, and that's too much for the title of a blog post.

It might be too much for the body of a blog post, too, but I'm going to do it anyway.

But not yet. Since you're here for the Shakespeare in Coraline, we'll start there (if you need a plot summary, try this Wikipedia entry). First, we get a couple of establishing moments that let us know that there's a Shakespeare festival in the town in one of the two worlds the film presents. Then, in the other world, we a treated to a trapeze performance that includes quotes (and / or misquotes) from Hamlet

You may be dismissed—or you can stick around for a bit more.

Here are the relevant passages in Q2 and F and Coraline (Q1 isn't absolutely relevant to this, but I'll include it below for interested parties):

What peece of worke is a man, how noble in reason, how infinit in faculties, in forme and moouing, how expresse and admirable in action, how like an Angell in apprehension, how like a God: the beautie of the world; the paragon of Annimales . . . .

What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in Reason? how infinite in faculty? in forme and mouing how expresse and admirable? in Action, how like an Angel? in apprehension, how like a god? the beauty of the world, the Parragon of Animals . . . .

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

Q1 isn't relevant because it is essentially a CliffsNotes version, boiling down the much-longer speech to four lines:

Yes, faith, this great world you see contents me not,
No nor the spangled heauens, nor earth nor sea,
No nor Man that is so glorious a creature . . . .

The major differences are "man" instead of "a man" and "In action like an angel" instead of "In action, how like an angel." [The use of "a piece" instead of "peece" follows the Folio, which, in this case, standardized the form of expression.]

The question of whether and to what degree these are significance depends on the interpretation of the insertion of these lines in the film. 

Why, in the creepy alternate world, do these alternate characters give this part (and only this part) of this speech? Frankly, I don't know. The expurgated speech delivered in the film celebrates the human being—coming dangerously close to blasphemy as it does so. Hamlet's full speech, though, brings us down from those heights to "and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" I interpret that omission as typical of the creepy alternate world—everything is lovely and wonderful and happy; no shadows of unhappiness or dissatisfaction can fall here.

That's my take. What's yours?

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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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