Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Note: Desdemona by Tony Morrison

Morrison, Toni. Desdemona. Lyrics by Rokia Traoré. London: Oberon Books, 2012.

This play (perhaps verse drama would be a better description) by Tony Morrison recently came to my attention.

In my Literary Studies class, we study Rita Dove's Darker Face of the Earth. Her verse drama retells Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, recasting it in the antebellum South.

Toni Morrison's play doesn't retell or recast the story of Othello. Largely, it gives the impression of the characters meeting in the afterlife to discuss the events of the play.

That leads to some interesting discussions—for example, Desdemona's mother has a brief exchange with Othello's mother.

But Desdemona herself is the main voice we hear.

She reports on the stories Othello told to woo here (here's a brief sample—there are more stories related in the middle of the play):

I find that intriguing—but even more fascinating was the use Morrison finds for Barbary. Readers of Othello may recall that, near the end of the play (and therefore—spoiler alert!—near the end of her life), Desdemona recalls a maid her mother used to have:
My mother had a maid call'd Barbary;
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her: she had a song of "Willow,"
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song to-night
Will not go from my mind; I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary. (IV.iii.27-33)
The moment is thrilling and moving and complicated—Iago had early alluded to Othello as "a Barbary horse" (I.i.111-12)—"Barbary" meaning "Arab" (according to M. R. Ridley's Arden edition) or "The Saracen countries along the north coast of Africa" (according to the OED in def. II.4.a).

Barbary and Desdemona meet in this play, and the sensitive and touching memory is undermined by Barbary's declaration "We shared nothing" and her accusation "you don't even know my name."  I'm including that scene in its entirety:

I find that to be a marvelous riff on that part of the play.

All of these scenes are interspersed with songs written by Rokia Traoré. They provide a different and poetic, lyric voice to many of the characters.

The work is short, but the doors it opens lead to long corridors.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Note: Vinegar Girl

Tyler, Anne. Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold. London: Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016.

My criteria for a novel that retells the plot of a Shakespeare play include (1) its ability to tell us something about the play that we hadn't noticed, seen, or thought deeply about and (2) its status as a novel in its own right.

Those two criteria sometimes fight with each other. If the work becomes too much its own thing, it may not have that much to say about the play (cf. Tempestuous). If it doesn't become much of its own thing, it may not tell us anything about the play (cf. John Marsden's Hamlet).

When the Hogarth Shakespeare Series was announced, I was expectedly thrilled. When great novelists take on Shakespeare plays, the result will surely be excellent, inventive, inspiring. It will also be useful in my Modern Shakespearean Fiction class.

The Gap of Time was the first, but it proved to be pretty disappointing (for which, q.v.).

And I'm afraid I have to say something of the same for Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl. I had even high expectations for this, having enjoyed some of Tyler's novels in the past. And I did start to enjoy it and find some depth in it after about a hundred pages.

The plot involves a scientist father who is largely absent, a daughter whose shrewishness is largely a tell-it-like-it-is attitude, a much younger sister who is falling for her high school Spanish tutor, and a lab assistant from Russia whose visa is about to expire and who therefore needs to marry an American as soon as possible.

I appreciate the inventiveness of that last plot element. Perhaps it helps to explain why a woman would marry a man quickly while still not particularly caring for him. The sample below gives a taste of that part of the relationship:

The one part of the novel that called our attention back to the play itself for realization, reconsideration, and reflection comes at the very end of the novel. Note: This is something of a spoiler. Here's how things wrap up:

Overall, the novel doesn't fit my criteria. But the attempted translation of Katherine's "I am ashamed that women are so simple" speech does have considerable interest in it—enough to provoke some good discussion both of it and of Shakespeare's original.

So let's start some! What's your impression of Anne Tyler's version of the speech? Is it a fair modernized version of the speech? Does it radicalize the speech or return it to largely-conservative territory? Give us your thoughts in the comments below.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Note: William Shakespeare: Scenes from the Life of the World's Greatest Author

Manning, Mick, and Brita Granström. William Shakespeare: Scenes from the Life of the World's Greatest Author. London: Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2015.

I chanced upon this book at my local library—and it just goes to show that a trip to the local library is very seldom wasted.

This recent children's book provides an invaluable survey of Shakespeare's biography in an engaging yet highly informative way. Not only do we glance at Shakespeare's history and culture, we get a number of very large spreads with careful (albeit brief) summaries of the plays.

I'm providing a couple of the spreads as examples. Click on them to engage them.

First, we have the "Lost Years." There's speculation here, but it's presented as speculation rather than fact. It seems a bit heavy on the "Shakeshaft" theory (see the sidebar in blue), but it does present a balanced position on that idea:

Second, here's a two-page spread on Henry V that gives us the plot of the play—together with some speeches and some audience annotation.

Finally, a small quibble (that is, I'm afraid, an uphill battle) with part of the text. In a section about Shakespeare's theatre (one that nicely re-tells the story of the parts of The Theatre being used to build The Globe), the book tells us that The Theatre—built in 1576—was "the first purpose-built theatre" in England. Although there's not absolute scholarly agreement on the subject, many scholars consider the Red Lion (in use from 1567) to be the first purpose-built theatre in England. But they do get the bear baiting (and good old Harry Hunks) right:

The books is pretty terrific, and I'm certainly going to add it to my library. I highly recommend it for libraries—public and private—as a tremendous introduction to Shakespeare's life, times, and works.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Book Note: Still Time

Hegland, Jean. Still Time. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015. 

You may have noticed that Shakespeare Geek has provided a good review of this book. I just want to add a bit to it and do what I can to increase the novel's visibility.

Still Time isn't a derivative version of any Shakespeare play, but it contains multitudes. The main character is a retired Shakespeare scholar who has recently been admitted to a nursing home. He's suffering from Alzheimer's disease or dementia. He struggles to remember his daughter, and he keeps insisting that he's meant to be heading home before nightfall. He recalls bits of his career from time to time—and bits of Shakespeare. Those seem to stick deeper than some other elements, but even those are occasionally hard to grasp for him.

As you can imagine, that's a tough story to tell. What impressed me most was the deep and convincing way in which the story is told. This isn't a tearjerker—though it's likely to make you cry. This isn't a simple narrative—though it's clear. This isn't a story about recovery from loss—though it provides thoughts on that subject.

I also felt like I might be reading my future in the novel. That makes it harder, of course, but it also makes it genuine.

I often talk to my students about writing with depth and significance. This complicated novel provides just that—without providing an easy moral at the end. 

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Note: "The Merchant of Stratford"

Ramirez, Frank. "The Merchant of Stratford." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine 3.7 (July 1979): 125-33. Rpt. in Laughing Space: Funny Science Fiction Chuckled Over by Isaac Asimov and J. O. Jeppson. Ed. Isaac Asimov and J. O. Jeppson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982. 293-300.

It took a while to track this one down, but I managed it (with a little help from the magic of Inter-Library Loan).

Most of us have (I daresay) wished for a time machine so that we could travel back in time to Shakespeare's day. This short story imagines just such an event.

Or, I should say, events.

The story imagines what would happen if nearly everyone who wanted to visit Shakespeare in a time machine did so. It's told from the perspective of the first time traveller in history. He arrives toward the end of Shakespeare's life, cautiously and carefully approaching the great man so as not to shock him.

Instead, he's the one who's shocked. Shakespeare has been plagued by time travellers since his youth. Once time travel was possible, everybody and their second cousin wanted to visit him.

It's great fun, but I won't give any spoilers on the plot. I will, however, provide an interesting moment from the middle of the story. It turns out Shakespeare is a Science Fiction fanatic—and he makes something of a case for treating SF as literature. After all, he argues, his own work wasn't considered literature in its day.

Track the story down—it's worth the search. It will probably make its way into my "Short Packet o' Short Shakespeare Adaptations" in my Modern Shakespearean Fiction class next semester.

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 2008-2016 (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