Shakespeare: Random Thoughts (7SSC Blog)

The 7 Stages Shakespeare Company has a blog about the Bard and I contribute from time to time. Since I’ve had a close, personal relationship with Willy the Shake since my childhood, I find him actively involved in many of my musings–as any close personal friend should be.

[292] Shakespeare’s Weaponry. In the Elizabethan age, the Sumptuary Law forbade anyone carrying any weapons, except for noblemen, aristocrats, and those in the military—and those who play them on stage, actors. It should come as no surprise that Elizabethan English is stuffed full of slang terms for every imaginable weapon on earth, military and personal. And in those days of international warfare and a thriving printing industry (just 150 years old), those terms might be borrowed from French, German, Italian or even Greek and Latin. For instance, a “bodkin” is a short stick on which a weaver winds thread; it’s very close to our word “bobbin” which survives in contemporary sewing machine lingo. Metaphorically, it becomes a short dagger in Hamlet’s “might his quietus make (might bring his life to a close) with a bare (unsheathed) bodkin (short dagger).” A different sort of wordplay appears in King John. The Bastard (son of Richard the Lion Hearted) makes a weak joke in reference to a Spanish-looking word, “bastardo.” With the historical novelty of gunpowder and weapons that used it, inventors (like da Vinci) were crazy to invent the “ultimate weapon.” There was a plethora of new weapons and a plethora of new names for them, borrowed from any and all available languages. If you consider warfare from the standpoint of the victor, any weapon of the enemy might be considered an “orphan-maker.” It would rob the heirs of their father, but not of their inheritance. But from the standpoint of the vanquished, a particularly deadly piece of artillery would be a “bastard-maker.” It would rob the heirs of their father and of their inheritance through his defeat. They’d have nothing to inherit, giving each of them the same legal status of the speaker, a bastard.

[293] Shakespeare. Most accurately, we know a lot ABOUT him but we don’t know HIM. Scholars are constantly discovering artifacts about his life, that is, details of the history and culture he lived in. Sometimes, they get very close to him: the will, programs from theaters he worked for and in, various other documents with various spellings of his name (you’ve got to love those Elizabethans and their craze for writing things down and saving them), the occasional unattributed poem. Even tell tale names for native plants and colloquial expressions that are still used in the area around his birthplace, in Stratford. But I think, as time goes on and detail after detail is added to the enormous pile of information ABOUT him, the man himself becomes simultaneously more enigmatic and more fascinating. Defining Shakespeare is as tricky as discovering another planet in the galaxy. We can see its effect on everything around it and, conversely, the effect of everything around it on it, but we cannot actually see it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives all of us many degrees of freedom in our personal relationship to the bard. He can be the object of rigorous (and often frustrating) scholarly discipline, and an ale guzzling, horny bar buddy. He can be the keen, cool observer of human behavior as it ranges across ages, sexes, history, social and economic status, and he can be the smart-mouthed wag who pounds at least one sexual reference into nearly every line of text—even the most deadly serious lines. He can be boys playing young women, and men playing older women. He can be boys playing women playing boys. Sort of twists your head around until it’s ready to pop off doesn’t it, Sarah Bernhardt?

[274] Shakespeare restores my faith in the English language. I read a lot. I read many kinds of literature. I try to stay neck deep in a river of ink every day of my life. I read newspapers, E-mails; I write personal and business letters, essays, memos, stories, and poetry; I read history, biography, fiction, and poetry of all types. And nothing crosses my line of sight that isn’t examined critically. Ink, neck deep and, sometimes, over my head. Drowning is a serious thing. You lose focus, your lose your sense of down from up. All the things you go through life trusting that they’ll always be there and take care of themselves each suddenly demands your full attention: breathing, walking, certainly all the senses. That’s what it’s like for me when I go under in a river of words. And I know exactly where to turn to, not only regain my balance, my full sense of being, but also to regain my sense that language is MINE, it is MY tool to do with anything I choose. That’s Shakespeare. And it has been since my late teens. By opening him just about anywhere I have my faith in the English language restored. His use of language is not a pretentious assertion of propriety, of manners, of moral rigidity. It’s a celebration of the visual voracity of English, its ability to view anything as a subject and form it now as high art, now as casual conversation, now as earnest self examination, now as overt political persuasion. Each of those approaches jostling the others like a crowd of school children mobbing an ice cream truck.

[287] What role did Shakespeare write for himself in each play? It’s hard to imagine someone involved in every step of the promotion of his career. We imagine a writer as the creative hub of a great support team that includes an agent, a publisher, booksellers, and possibly a theater owner, director, and actors. And yet, most of those describe Shakespeare. He was part owner of the theaters. He was the author-in-residence of the company of actors, a member of the company, and acted in his own plays. It’s clear that certain roles in Shakespeare’s plays were written to specific actors’ strengths. (Shakespeare wrote the lead roles of Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, and King Lear for Richard Burbadge—who was also honored with the leads in Johnson’s Volpone, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, and Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.) If Shakespeare wrote the plays and acted in the plays, which roles did he write for himself? Probably not the big roles, the starring roles. Those were for actors with well-established reputations, actors who had box-office drawing power. He was part owner of the theater; he didn’t want to do anything that would diminish the take. But it seems there is at least one role in each play of a thoughtful character, standing off to the side, gluing things together, thinking things out, a standout from the crowd, but a member of the crowd all the same. I’m nearly certain he was Mercutio: minor character, really smart, great lines, in and out. Do you think he’d be Iago, or is it more likely he was Cassio? Mercutio and Cassio would both give him a chance to step out to the pub mid-play and get back in time for the bows. Strong argument.

[275] Alternative titles. In King Charles I’s copy of the First Folio, which he took with him to The Tower, he has struck through the titles of several of the plays and suggested his own alternates. Shakespeare started it. The Moor of Venice and Prince of Denmark are obvious subtitles; foreigners need to be told who Othello and Hamlet were. What You Will is not so obvious; it’s Twelfth Night. Some Shakespeare plays were redubbed posthumously. The late 17th century version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is called The Fairy Queen (editorial hatchet job by Nahum Tate, music by Henry Purcell); and in the 19th century, Berlioz jettisoned all the pretense hidden behind Much Ado About Nothing (a title very close to What You Will in meaning) and called it what it is: Beatrice and Benedick. That puts it in line with other “lover plays”: Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra. Othello is harder to re name: Othello and Desdemona is probably too long for the handbills; Othello and Iago seems closer to the heart of the play. Some of the plays, especially the history plays, are obviously named after their historical subject but actually feature a solid, dramatic arc of one of the other characters. 7 Stages Shakespeare Company recently did a production of MCBTH that clearly featured the dramatic rise of Macduff. There’s my alternate title (although The Scottish Play is just too cute to supersede). I recently had the rare opportunity to study and see King John. In the 20th century sense of complex and evolving characters, it should be called The Bastard, hands down. Now there’s a title people will remember.

[295] Romeo and Juliet is not a tragic summer movie about teenagers in love. That high school approach seriously trivializes Shakespeare’s feats in writing. It trivializes the hybrid play structure—comedy in the first half, tragedy in the second half. It trivializes the unusual array of social and economic status of the characters in the play. R&J is a philosophical analysis of the many species of love in Renaissance England and the powerlessness of each before the amoral forces of history and politics. We start with the hormonal cases: the gang of young men, wandering the streets, making fun of their member, Romeo, who was just dumped by his girlfriend, Rosaline (the ideal “beautiful rose”). Their testosterone overload is burned off in gang warfare. Then there are Juliet’s parents, committed to love in the form of political marriages, the preservation of wealth, social status, and the line of inheritance. There’s also the nurse, who is a poor person, unlikely to marry into anything, unlikely to get anything out of love except physical pleasure and a good time. And there’s the presumably celibate friar, drunk on the ideal of heavenly love as mirrored in an idealized form of earthly love. And none of these loves—including the historically tenuous suggestion of “love at first sight” between our rebound boy, Romeo, and our reclusive, teen-romance blinded Juliet—is effective resistance to the primal gears—hatred, vengeance, suicide, and gang warfare—of this “nasty, brutish, and short” life. Absolute power, the supreme, God-given virtue of the Duke, is the only solution to it all, and it is exercised by fiat through the two simple weapons of the Old Testament God, reward and punishment. But I admit, at this point in the history of the play we wouldn’t dare present that version.

[273] Whose Shakespeare is it? In my 30’s, I was watching Pentimento in a movie theater with some friends. A crucial late scene takes place backstage at a theater in Moscow. I congratulated myself for recognizing that it was the graveyard scene from Hamlet, and I was titillated that it was in Russian. But the idea gnawed at me. You often read memoirs and letters by great authors from foreign countries who count Shakespeare among their greatest influences. That means either they read him in English, which wouldn’t be surprising but would make me wonder how he influenced them as writers, or they read him in translation. (The great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, was one of them; she read him in English.) As it happens, ten years earlier, I went to school with a Comparative Literature major named Geoffrey von Schlegel.  I looked at him with a raised eyebrow when he used his full, very elite, German name. He said, “Yes. Descendent of August Wilhelm von Schlegel. When Goethe and Schiller read Shakespeare, they read von Schlegel.” Later I discovered that the person Russians are quoting when they quote Shakespeare is none other than Boris Pasternak, who spent his time in official disapproval creating the classic Russian translation of the bard. (Akhmatova and he were friends, and wrote under similar circumstances.) I know there’s a classic French translation, but haven’t discovered the name of the (great?) translator yet. Makes me wonder who the great translators of Shakespeare are in Chinese, in Japanese, in Arabic, and Persian. I know he’s loved and performed in those languages, but whose Shakespeare are they quoting?

[276] Shakespeare and classical music. Shakespeare’s plays are full of musical vocabulary, song texts, and musical cues. Having read music instruction books from the period, I can assure you he’s absolutely correct at every turn, even when he’s being oblique or metaphorical. Each subsequent age has produced new music inspired by the plays by its best composers. In college, I adapted Henry Purcell’s score for The Fairy Queen, a slice-and-dice version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to a production of the original. Mendelssohn’s 19th century incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is extremely well know. It does the Italian temperament full justice that the first Shakespeare play to be made popular in Italian was Macbeth. And guess what young opera composer recognized the great career opportunity that landed in his lap when that translation came out: Giuseppi Verdi. Later, when the aging composer found the right librettist, the young poet/composer Arrigo Boïto, he also wrote two undisputed masterpieces, Otello (no H in Italian) and Falstaff (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor), and was sketching ideas for a King Lear when he died. There are three great Romeo and Juliets, Tchaikovsky’s intense Fantasy Overture, Gounod’s opera, and Prokofiev’s breathtaking 20th century ballet. Shostakovich wrote for both film and stage versions of Hamlet and King Lear, and wrote an entire song cycle of 10 songs on lines by the fool in Lear. The 20th century has also given us William Walton’s music for Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V. And that’s just touching the surface. If you ever wonder what the word ekphrasis means, you need look no further than the relationship between Shakespeare and classical composers.

[288] My Mother and the play MCBTH. Watching the recent 7 Stages Shakespeare Company production of MCBTH, I was struck once again at how familiar my mother was with the play. She was educated in a country high school that was all about basics; no fancy college prep. Afterward she served as a Candy Striper in a Catholic hospital in Cleveland. After that, marriage to a World War II veteran. There was no clue where she obtained an actor’s familiarity with MCBTH, but she quoted it all the same. She had a wry sense of humor about it. “Is this a dagger I see before me” was a call from the kitchen when she misplaced a knife. “Out, damned spot, out,” was her way of commanding my siblings and me to get out from underfoot. (“Fly, Fleance, fly,” served the same purpose.) And nearly all the witches’ lines were about cooking from the Betty Crocker Cook Book. “Out, out brief candle,” as you might guess, was her hitting the light switch and telling us to go to sleep upstairs, “until the crack of doom,” which she led us to believe meant dawn. “Sleep that knits the raveled sleeve,” wasn’t at all about sleep; it was a reference to her incessant knitting. It sometimes included sweater sleeves, which are tricky apparently and had to be unraveled to pick up dropped stitches. And if she were introducing her brood of five, she’d call us “All my pretty ones” who were, of course, “full of sound and fury.” I didn’t make these connections until later in my life, after she left it and Shakespeare entered it, with a vengeance—but she’s still here, regretting her marriage to my father with an “unsex me here!” from the other room.

[443] Shakespeare Blog: Enginers, Petards, and Breeches. During the 7 Stages Shakespeare Company’s productions in The Press Room this 2014-2015 season, we have a rare opportunity to enjoy the two plays in which the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon uses the word “enginer”—accent on the machine, the “engine,” later to be spelled “engineer” in English, accent on the one using the machine, the “-eer”—and thereby hangs a tale. In Troilus and Cressida (II:iii, 6-8), the “deformed and scurrilous,” blaspheming and cynical servant, Thersites, suggests that if Achilles as a metaphorical “enginer” undermines Troy, it will inevitably fall; otherwise, time alone can bring down its walls. More famously, in Hamlet (III:iv, 202-209), Hamlet discovers his uncle Claudius’s plot to have him executed by the King of England, and compares Claudius to an “enginer” who has created an explosive device (“petard”) to explode the metaphorical walls of Hamlet’s life and inheritance. Hamlet muses on what sport it would be to reverse the outcome of this plot, effectively undermining the under-miners and blowing Claudius and his two co-conspirators, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “to the moon”—the meaning of the famously weird expression, “hoist on their own petard.” In both cases, the metaphor is the medieval siege technique of digging a mine or tunnel under a seemingly impregnable city’s wall, planting explosives, and blowing the wall up (as vividly portrayed in “Part II, The Two Towers” of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of The Lord of the Rings). This allows a breech through which the besieging army can enter and destroy the city. In Renaissance England, urban legend dictated that Welshmen were genetically predisposed to mining. England got much of its coal and tin from Wales. So, we’re not surprised to find Welsh “enginers” (although they’re never called such) in Shakespeare’s Henry V, offering a bit of comic relief through their accents (and the shtick about, Pistol, the loser of a bet to a Welsh soldier, Fluellen, eating a leek, the botanical symbol of Welsh nationalism). But it all has serious military purpose: Welshmen were assumed to be “enginers” by nature. Who better to dig mines under the walls of Harfleur and plant explosives to create a breech for the English to enter the city in Henry V. Perhaps even more curious is the exclusive association, in Renaissance England, of the profession of the “enginer” with mining, fortifications and weaponry. Mining was such a specialized occupation and required so much technological innovation over the millennia, that it was only after Shakespeare’s day that the term enginer/engineer came to be used in all human occupations involving ingenious (a word which shares its etymology with engineer) builders and the ingenious machinery they use.