Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Excellent Shakespeare Exhibit at the Newberry Library in Chicago

Creating Shakespeare. Shakespeare 400 Chicago. Sponsored by Rosemary J. Schnell, Exelon, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, and Paul C. Gignilliat. The Newberry. Chicago. 23 September 2016-31 December 2016.

I was privileged to be able to see the Creating Shakespeare exhibit at the Newberry a few weeks ago. Two huge exhibition halls are filled with remarkable Shakespeare-related material. Once side is devoted to telling the story of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare; the other concentrates on what happened to Shakespeare when he got to the United States of America.

You only have a month left to see this exhibit—and I only have a few minutes to tell you about it (before I plunge back into the grading that was the reason I didn't tell you about this immediately after I went to the Newberry).

Let me give you some of the highlights—and you can get there to see the rest for yourself.

First, it's free. That is, in itself, pretty astonishing, considering what you'll find there. But when you actually consider what you'll find there, you'll be even more amazed at that fact.

There are quartos and folios aplenty. True, some of the folios are second and third folios, but there is at least one first folio in the exhibit. There's also a quarto of Much Ado About Nothing—printed in 1600—and . . . are you ready for this?

They currently have the first folio of Hamlet (printed in 1603). That's right. Q1 of Hamlet. The bad quarto. The quarto so bad it's good. One of only two extant first quartos known. It's there. Right there. It's the first time it's travelled across the Atlantic, finding itself within a stone's throw of the only other Q1 of Hamlet in existence. Well, that assumes you can throw a stone from downtown Chicago to San Marino, but they're much closer than they've been in a long time. It was a thrill to see it, and utterly amazing that the Newberry convinced the British Library to let them borrow it (along with many other things).

They have some early examples of the "book of the play"—handwritten copies of the play for the propter to use during a particular production of the play.

They have some early diaries related to Shakespeare performance.

There are postage stamps and songs ("Caliban's Jig," anyone?), modern artistic printings of the plays, a copy of a poem written by James Boswell during the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, and a vast array of Shakespeare miscellanea.

In the "Shakespeare in America" section, an array of early advertisements featuring Shakespeare were on display. I wasn't allowed to take pictures, but the Newberry kindly supplied me with some images of the ads. One of them heads this page: it details how Libby, McNeill, & Libby's Cooked Corned Beef will help us have men about us who are fat.

Since I'm from St. Louis, I have to include this advertisement from Anheuser-Busch. Note: Bardfilm does not thereby condone the drinking of alcoholic beverages or of this particular brand of alcoholic beverage.

I find that fascinating, though I'm not sure why they claim that Shakespeare's "favorite eating place in London was the celebrated Falcon tavern." Perhaps the Mermaid didn't serve Budweiser.

We're also shown how "The gravedigger with his meal of canned meat pauses at his task and listens" while "Hamlet moralizes o'er the death of Yorick." He seems to be about to eat the best ox tongues—making us wonder why the can isn't printed with the line "That skull had a tongue in it once."

And a joke on whether wherefore means where or why is never out of place:

There was talk of Shakespeare and film in the exhibit, but only one video clip on display—but that one was a rare doozy! Ruth Page, the famous ballet dancer, put together modern dance choreography to provide the sense of three Shakespeare heroines in what might be called interpretative dance. The Newberry has provided a bit of that on YouTube (see below), but you'll have to get to the exhibit to see the full thing:


All of this—and a series of tremendously informative charts, labels, and explanations—like the one below, which takes us on a tour of Shakespeare in America:

The long and the short is that this exhibit is not to be missed. Get there before time (and 2016) runs out! 

Links: The Exhibition at the Newberry.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Hamlet. Dir. Robin Lough. Perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Sian Brooke, Leo Bill, Ciarán Hinds, Anastasia Hille, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Jim Norton, Karl Johnson, Matthew Steer, Rudi Dharmalingam, and Ruairi Monaghan. 2015. Simulcast. National Theatre Live, 15 October 2016 and 15 November 2016.

I wish I had a lot more time at my disposal to tease out my thoughts on this production more fully. While we're at it, I wish that a DVD release of this film were coming soon.

Instead, I have a backlog of rough drafts to get back to students . . . and I'm not sure that the National Theatre Live is prioritizing getting its holdings out on DVD.

Therefore, I'd just like to get a few thoughts out there–and please feel free to join the conversation.

Benedict Cumberbatch was quite a marvelous Hamlet. His Hamlet is intelligent and immature, capricious and calculating, lucid and incomprehensible. He delivers the lines exceedingly well—having just thought of them, he delivers them to us. His is a very in-the-moment Hamlet, and that brings out a great deal in the play.

The production itself made a lot of interesting choices—many of which succeed admirably and many of which fall flat.

The overarching impression I took away from the play was that its stagecraft was marvelous. The production's greatest strength, in fact, is not Cumberbatch but the stagecraft. It was tight and fast and meticulous and gigantic.

The acting of the rest of the cast was very uneven. Indeed, I learned that a truly remarkable Hamlet can't make a production successful overall. It enabled me to realize that one of the great things about the Kevin Kline Hamlet is that every single person in the cast is at the very top of the game.

Those generalizations arise out of these specific points:
  • The opening is intriguing. We skip the usual opening with the soldiers' (and Horatio) viewing of the ghost, but we get the lines. Hamlet is listening to an LP of Nat King Cole (a theme that comes back periodically through the film) when he hears a noise. "Who's there?" he cries.
    "Nay, answer me," he demands. A bit later, Horatio enters and they have an exchange about Horatio coming back from Wittenberg (but not a conversation about any ghosts that might be in the offing). The effect of this is to give us a Hamlet that is almost exclusively from Hamlet's perspective.
  • During a couple of soliloquies, this Hamletcentric theme is developed; the rest of the cast goes into slow motion while Hamlet tells us his thoughts. It was an effective device, not overused.
  • The ghost was quite tremendous. He sounded a lot like Lawrence Olivier—the same catches in his voice from time to time. The actor doubled as the gravedigger, and gave us a marvelously funny performance there.
  • Claudius and Gertrude were not very good. Indeed, I was quite struck with Claudius' one-level ranting at one particular point in the play. Hamlet had just said to the players, "suit the action to the word, the word to the action" and "O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably." Enter Claudius who does just that.
  • We don't get to know Ophelia too well—I think primarily because the play centers on Hamlet's perspective.
  • Horatio is played as an outsider—something of a hipster, I suppose.  At one point, he comes in complaining about people buying commemorative plates with Claudius' picture on them (while obviously having bought one himself.  I guess he bought his ironically, so that makes it okay.
  • Polonius and Ophelia have no sympathy. I wondered why she would be upset at the death of someone so distant—but it made me wonder if she was upset because she felt such relief and freedom at her father's death—and if guilt from that was part of what drove her mad.
  • The text was modernized here and there, and some lines were simply added to it. When they did that, they did try to make the lines iambic. Some modernization made sense, but others did not. Why would Gertrude need to say "cast thy nightly color off" instead of "nighted color"? And, in all my years of teaching Hamlet, I've never had a student ask, "What do they mean by 'jump at this dead hour?'" Does it need changing to "just at this dead hour" for clarity?
  • Ophelia starts to write a note to Hamlet in the middle of the nunnery scene. Great choice—but there was no follow-through. I was hoping Hamlet or Claudius would chance upon the note and know that Ophelia is either more (in the first case) or less (in the second) to be trusted.
  • Hamlet's madness was played as a person trying to act like a comedy would think lunatic would act. Cumberbatch played it well, but it wasn't a subtle choice, and I'm not sure it worked.
  • Ophelia's madness scenes contained snatches from dialogue in the rest of the play (as well as some of the traditional songs). That worked marvelously well.
  • The part after intermission was generally very bad. The palace had been filled with charred bits of wood and other rubble—knee-deep or higher in some places—without much preparation. It was a neat idea, but it didn't organically fit the rest of the vision of the production. Additionally, that part was extremely rushed and didn't always make a lot of sense. Claudius suddenly says, "Do not drink, Gertrude" after Hamlet chases Laertes down and stabs him back. She's choosing that moment to have a quick nip of wine?
  • Speaking of wine, we do not have a Claudius who drinks very much. We do have a Hamlet who's often polishing off a goblet of wine. It's a nice touch—his complaints about "We'll teach you to drink deep" are then transferred from his own problem to Claudius'.
  • "To be or not to be" is placed extremely early. I think that's a good choice. We're not building up to it and preparing to judge it by the others that we have heard. It seems more spontaneous and straightforward. I think they followed Q1's placement of the speech there.
All in all, the production gives us lots to think about. But if I owned a DVD (which I will—if you release it, O National Theatre Live—and please do), it would not become my stand-by full Hamlet for students to watch in their entirety. Cumberbatch is brilliant, but he can't hold up the production on his own.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Subtle Shakespeare in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Dir. Nicholas Meyer. Perf. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Ricardo Montalbán.  1982. DVD. Paramount, 2009.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn never made it to my post "Shakespeare and Star Trek Complete" (for which, q.v.)—perhaps because the reference was visual rather than auditory or perhaps because the references to Moby Dick and Paradise Lost overshadow it.

Today is the anniversary of the 1851 publication of the English edition of Moby-Dick (titled The Whale). And plenteous references to Melville's novel can be found in the Star Trek universe. But I'm always interested in the Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare in Wrath of Kahn is found in the image above. Among the expected volumes—Inferno, Paradise Lost / Paradise Regained (in one convenient volume), Moby Dick, Paradise Lost (in one large volume) the Bible, and Statute Regulating [the Something Something], we find King Lear.

The film itself doesn't offer much in the way of plot elements drawn from King Lear—the vengeful hunt by Kahn for the white whale of Kirk is uppermost.  But imagine what great quotes Kahn could have hurled at Kirk had he spent more time with that volume of King Lear and less with Moby-Dick:
The bow is bent and drawn, Kirk!

Now, Kirk, stand up for bastards! [Would Kahn have known about Kirk's illegitimate son?]

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.

I will have such revenges on you, Kirk,
That all the world shall . . . I will do such things—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!
For best effect, read all of those in Ricardo Montalbán's unique accent.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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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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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