Sunday, November 21, 2010

Revenge Tragedies not by Shakespeare

While this is a Shakespeare blog and Shakespeare is undoubtedly the focus, there were many other wonderful playwrights and plays from the 16th and 17th centuries. This year, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater will present Hamlet, so I thought I'd list some of my other favorite revenge tragedies of the period.

As anyone who came to the lecture two weeks ago knows, I love Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. What's not to love about a play where Revenge and a ghost watch the entire action, where the revenge takes place in a play within a play where each character speaks a different language, and where the main character bites out his own tongue?

Another weird and wonderful play of the period is The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton. The world of the play is deeply cynical, but the language is beautiful and Vindice (the main character) is fascinating--what Hamlet would have been like if he'd brooded on revenge for years instead of days. This is the only play of the period for which there is a good film version.

 The Duchess of Malfi Homepage calls it "one of the greatest achievements of English Renaissance drama" and I agree. The Duchess is the equal to Shakespeare's Cleopatra in the richness and majesty of her character, the love between her and Antonio is, hands down, the most moving portrait of married love created in the period, and the psychological tension is almost unbearable.

Finally, I have to mention the fabulously named 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, about which I have only one thing to say: Romeo and Juliet with incest. Okay, I'll say one other thing. You will actually find yourself rooting for the brother and sister/lovers. Really.

While it would be wonderful if we could see these plays acted, they all read very well (especially 'Tis Pity She's a Whore) and all the plays are available in reasonably priced, well footnoted editions. So if you're looking for something to while away the long winter nights, any of these plays would go wonderfully with the dark and cold of late November!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Queen Elizabeth

For most of his life, Shakespeare would have celebrated November 17th as a national holiday, marking the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne. It is hard to overstate the importance of Elizabeth's reign, to England or to Shakespeare, and there are many wonderful biographies of her, so there is no need to go into details about her life, but the anniversary of her accession seemed like a good time to pause and consider a few salient points.

The first point, often overlooked, is simply that Elizabeth didn't die. After the six year reign of her brother, Edward VI, and the five year reign of her sister, Mary I, the simple fact that Elizabeth lived and ruled until 1603 (almost half a century) provided England with much needed stability.It could have ended very differently--Elizabeth was struck with smallpox in 1563, just five years into her reign, and came near death. If that had happened, there would likely have been civil war, with no clear claimant to the throne and Catholics and Protestants each supporting their own candidate. With the clarity of hindsight, we look back and see the Elizabethan era as one of stability and continuity--Merry Old England the way it should be. In reality, it was, for many decades, a period of uncertainty, politically, religiously, internationally and even economically. It was not until after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, that the Elizabethan Era can really be said to have arrived (and even then, fear of Catholic spies and invasions, and concern over who would succeed Elizabeth remained)

The second point develops from the uncertainty described above. It seems undeniable that one of the reasons the theater of this period was so incredibly rich is because of Elizabeth. When Shakespeare, and the other early playwrights--Marlowe, Kyd, Heywood and so on--were writing, they had constantly before them a living paradox. Elizabeth as she famously put it, had "the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but..the heart and stomach of a king." She was an unmarried woman in a patriarchal culture, yet she was more powerful than any man. She was the Virgin Queen who was a huge flirt and constantly dangled her marriage as a prize to be won (or bought). She was constantly second guessing and changing her mind, driving her council to distraction, but on certain things she was immovable. And she was incredibly skilled in how she presented herself, in language, in costume and in action. The greatest playwrights of the day grew up in her shadow, absorbed her lessons, and created a theater of complex characters that have never been equaled on any stage.

So everyone who loves Shakespeare, who has ever admired Cleopatra, Juliet, Rosalind, or even Lady Macbeth, raise a glass in honor of Queen Elizabeth I this November 17th. She helped make all those characters possible!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Macbeths

Last year The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater (PST) presented a production of Macbeth. This fall, Wilma Theater is doing their own version. Both productions were excellent in terms of acting and directing, but completely different. This is one of the things I love best about Shakespeare--unlike Beckett or Shaw, directors and actors can play with the Shakespearean text and provide radically different experiences for their audiences. So I thought I'd compare a few key moments in the two productions. One note: the night I attended the Wilma's production Ed Swidey played Macbeth. His performance was quite extraordinary, but since most people will not see him, I won't comment on or compare the Macbeths.

The Supernatural: PST had a much reduced cast overall, so instead of three witches they had one, Mary Tuomanen in a shapeless black robe, with a veil over her face and a rattling staff. In contrast the Wilma's production (which was all in modern dress) featured witches dressed as homeless women, in rags and bruised faces.

The PST used a light hand with the supernatural elements--Banquo's ghost was not on stage and the apparitions were represented by flashpaper bursts. Instead, the focus was on Macbeth's reactions, and Ron Heneghan was more than up to the task of creating the visions for the audience through his voice and body. The one special effect PST did use was one not called for in the play--the basin of water the Macbeths (and eventually others) used to wash their hands in had a second, hidden, bowl of stage blood, so that people could variously be seen as purified or corrupted.

Theater companies often go overboard with the special effects in Macbeth but the Wilma managed to be elaborate and innovative. Instead of Macbeth traveling to see the witches, they swarmed into the castle on the heel of the banquet scene, tossing dishes to the floor and turning the soup tureen into their cauldron. When Macbeth appeared, they dragged him to the upper level and the apparitions appeared below, each actor clad in black but with a blacklight mask so that they appeared to be floating heads. The effect, especially with the addition of multiple overlapping voices, was quite powerful.

Music: Here I have to give the nod to the PST--the use of live music and exotic instruments created an entire world for the audience and made the performance much more powerful and intimate since the actors provided the soundscape. The Wilma's music was generally effective, although the mass like song that greeted Duncan's entrance at the opening of 1.4 seemed excessive. At no point, however, was it as powerful as that produced by the PST.

The Macbeths' relationship: Here is a place where the two companies overlapped a great deal. In both productions the deep affection between husband and wife was obvious in the early scenes, and Lady Macbeth's devotion to her husband's career was clear. Both productions showed the first cracks in their relationship early on, even before Banquo's death, and both productions demonstrated the loss of love through physical separation of the actors at the end of the banquet scene.

Both productions received high praise from those I went with--in one case a number of colleagues who, while academics, were not English professors and in the other an Introduction to Shakespeare class. In both cases, everyone commented how much seeing the play added to the understanding and enjoyment of reading it. It's perhaps an obvious point (being made on a theater company's blog) but Shakespeare wrote his plays to be seen and  heard, not read, and they really come alive best with a talented company of actors. Even films are second best to a live performance, so everyone should see as much live theater as possible (not that I'm biased).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Favorite Shakespeare Films

Out of the overwhelming number of Shakespearean films and adaptations, which are the best? This is, of course, a highly personal and idiosyncratic list, but I hope it spurs discussion and additions to Netflicks cues!

1. Ran (adaptation of King Lear): Kurosawa also directed an adaptation of Macbeth (Throne of Blood) that is better known, but I'm choosing this one because of the staggeringly beautiful cinematography, the amazing battle scene and the depth of emotion Kurosawa creates.

2. Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, . As a Shakespeare scholar I'm supposed to prefer the Olivier version, but I absolutely think this one is better. I think Branagh's attempt to make a post-Vietnam, post-Falkland Islands, dark version of the play, and the fact that Henry still ends up admirable and heroic, exactly catches the complexity of Shakespeare's original (Norman's article "Rabbits, Ducks and Henry V" admirably explores how the play is both a heroic epic and a cynical expose, depending on where the viewer looks). Emma Thompson is adorable as Princess Katherine and Brian Blessed is having way too much fun. This is the film that rescued Shakespeare from the perception of being box office poison and created the 90s boom of Shakespeare films. Plus, it has the St. Crispian's Day speech.

3. Orson Welles' Othello. This highly personal, deeply interpretive view of the play does suffer from Welles playing Othello in blackface, but I still marvel at the surreal direction. This clip from the final scene demonstrates this--much of it is just Othello's face, emerging from the darkness, and there is no shot of him killing himself, just bodies falling. Mirror and reflections abound and this is one of the few films that I think finds a visual language as rich and complex as Shakespeare's textual one.

4. Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. Like Welles, Almeryda finds a visual language and symbolism that works with instead of against Shakespeare's text. The film is not just a modernized version of the play we all know too well; it's a thoughtful investigation on how media influences our reactions to events, even personal ones. Everyone is always watching, filming, reviewing and editing their experiences, unable to simply live them. Brilliant.

5. Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Okay, this is a sentimental pick! More than 50% of the verse is cut. It's hokey. It's got a ridiculous love song. No one can speak the lines. But it's so pretty! Everyone is beautiful, Italy is beautiful, the costumes are beautiful, and sometimes you just need to sit back and soak up some pure and unalloyed schmaltz. And if you're only up for five minutes of schmaltz, this Youtube video gives you all of the pretty and non of the mangling of Shakespeare's language.

So those are my top 5. Today at least. What are yours?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some thoughts on Macbeth

This weekend I was at Fairleigh Dickinson University taking part in a day long colloquium on Macbeth. There were four talks given and I thought I would summarize and highlight some of the most interesting points.

The first paper, by Arthur Kinney, grappled with the question of why Macbeth remains appealing to audiences as a character, despite his murders. Kinney's argument is that Macbeth has more interiority than almost any of Shakespeare's characters--we the audience know what Macbeth thinks, his doubts, hopes and struggles, and this bonds us to him.

I gave the second talk, and argued that the Weird Sisters (side note: did you realize that these characters are never called witches in the play?) embody a kind of ambiguous fluidity that is opposed to the masculine world of Macbeth, where everything is ordered, structured and clearly labeled (even murder). After all, the Weird Sisters win in the end--everything they prophesied comes true and they are never called to account.

The third talk, by Steve Mentz was, to my mind, the most fascinating. He is engaged in the newest form of literary criticism--ecocriticism. This is a way of examining works of art through the lens of humanity's engagement with the natural world. Mentz argued that there is a "green world" of forests, a world of stability that is supportive of humanity (think of Birnam Wood) and a "blue world" of water, a world of instability that is either hostile to or simply inhospitable for humans. When he first started speaking, I wasn't sold, but by the end I was. I had no idea how many metaphors of water there were in Macbeth, from the "two spent swimmers" in 1.2 to Macbeth's request that the Doctor "sound the waters" of Scotland. Very impressive.

The final speaker, Iska Alter, spoke about the movie Scotland PA which is a wonderful adaptation of Macbeth. If you haven't seen it, it is well worth watching--Shakespeare's play is set in the 1970s in a fast food restaurant. The witches are dope smoking hippies and Macduff is a vegetarian police detective. In case you haven't see the movie, here's the trailer to whet your appetite!

In all, it was a wonderful colloquium that gave me some new thoughts about Macbeth and also made me remember the fantastic performance The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater did last year. The Wilma has a production of the Scottish play running now and I'm going to see it this Friday, so I'll be able to write up a comparative review soon.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Shakespeare in Five Minutes

Just for fun: an almost wordless, five minute run down of all of Shakespeare's works? Can't be done? Watch and see:


Welcome to the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater blog!

Our goal in starting this blog is to provide Shakespeare lovers with behind the scenes information on upcoming productions and events, fun and informative posts about Shakespeare and his times, and links to all things Shakespeare.

You'll see posts from a variety of people--scholars, directors, and actors. We hope this blog enriches your experience with Shakespeare and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater. Please let us know what you think or what topics you'd like to see covered.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hamlet a woman?!

Hamlet is one of the greatest roles in theater history and so it is unsurprising that women as well as men would dream of playing the prince. What may be surprising to some, however, is how longstanding the tradition of women playing Hamlet is and how much the casting of a woman can bring to both the play and the audience. 

Shakespeare, of course, was entirely familiar with cross-gender casting since all of his female parts were played by boys. And in several places, most notably As You Like It and Twelfth Night, he created at least the idea of the opposite, as the heroines in each case spend most of the play “disguised” as boys. In the comedies, at least, Shakespeare seems to have encouraged his audience to play with and blur gender. 

The tragedies do not often offer the same kind of blurring that the comedies do—although in plays like Macbeth and Othello the tragedy seems to grow out of the protagonist’s inability to escape from “being a man.”  Hamlet, however, is different, and scholars from the early 19th century on have noted that the character of Hamlet crosses many boundaries—medieval/modern, hero/coward, and male/female. In fact, in 1881, Edward P. Vining wrote The Mystery of Hamlet, in which he argued that Shakespeare had meant Hamlet to be a woman, stating “The charms of Hamlet's mind are essentially feminine in their nature.” Delacriox painted Hamlet with feminine characteristics and Asta Nielson produced and starred in a silent film that provided backstory to explain why a princess would have been raised as a boy. Each time there have been political struggles for women’s rights, female Hamlets have taken the stage—in England, in America, in Asia and Eastern Europe, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.

When a director casts a female actor as Hamlet, there are two choices for that actor—to play the character as male or to reimagine the role as “Princess Hamlet.” Neither is the better choice but they each offer actors and audiences a different experience. The former brings into sharp focus questions of Hamlet’s universality, as well as the play’s treatment of grief, love and revenge, without drastically changing the relationships within the play. The latter choice forces a more overt and feminist reconsideration of gender roles in terms of politics and violence, as well as a necessary change in many of the relationships (Ophelia and Hamlet, for example). In Nielson’s movie, for example, Ophelia clearly goes mad because her love is (to her, inexplicably) unrequited, while the disguised Hamlet pines for Horatio. Only on her deathbed is she able to reveal both her gender and her love to her friend.