Troilus and Cressida

I have spent most of this week working on the text and history of Troilus and Cressida in preparation for a couple of classes I had to teach on Wednesday and Friday.  Although this is one of the first of Shakespeare’s plays that I saw on stage and one that subsequently I must have seen at least half a dozen times, I’ve never had reason to study it before.  It’s a stinker.

Its stage and publication history during Shakespeare’s life time is, to put it mildly, a bit of a mystery.  In fact, there is no real evidence that it ever was acted, although I have to say that I can’t see Shakespeare spending three or four months writing a play that was never going to see the stage – he needed the money.  Granted, the first title page for the 1609 Quarto states that this is a play performed at the Globe by the Kings’ Men, but that was almost immediately pulled and a second title page prepared that claimed it had never been acted by anyone and was all the better a play for it.  Was there some reason why Shakespeare’s Company preferred not to be associated with this most enigmatic of texts?  I think there probably was.

One of the aspects of the play that makes it such a difficult study is the language.  At times it can seem almost impenetrable.  Shakespeare uses more neologisms in this text than in any other as well as frequently employing words that he never uses again.  Many of these words start with the prefix un which means that to understand them in context the reader/listener has to first compute the positive meaning of the root vocabulary and then negate it.  By the time you’ve done that, especially if you’re listening, the argument has moved on and you’ve missed the next section of what is being said.  Add to this the tortuous syntax which can stretch over as many as a dozen lines and the likelihood of your remembering what the beginning of a sentence was about by the time you get to the end of it is pretty remote. This is further complicated by the fact that the characters so often talk in abstractions rather than getting straight to the point.  Take the beginning of Act 1 Scene 3.  Agamemnon and Nestor between them take fifty-five lines to say nothing more than that adversity is often a test of character.  That’s all.  I didn’t need even fifty-five letters, let alone fifty-five lines. Language isn’t being used to reveal, but to conceal – oh and to make the speaker sound cleverer than he (and in this play it almost invariably is ‘he’) really is.  Does that remind you of any one?

My own feeling as I work my way deeper into the text and context of this play is that Shakespeare was having a go at the politicians of the time.    One of the major source texts, George Chapman’s translation of several of the books of the Iliad,  was dedicated to the Earl of Essex who, as you will know if you’ve studied the history of the period, was a controversial figure.  Despite having been the country’s darling in the late 1590s, he eventually overstepped the mark, attempting to overthrow Elizabeth in February 1601 and as a result losing his life.  Chapman, writing in 1598, likens Essex to Achilles, whom he sees as the hero of the Iliad.  By late 1601, when this play was most probably written, it was almost certainly politic to make Achilles the far less attractive figure that we see in Shakespeare’s interpretation, especially as the Company had been lucky to escape severe censure after staging Ricard II with its deposition scene, the night before Essex’s rebellion.  However, it isn’t Achilles who has the worst of these mind-bending speeches; it is the other members of the Greek camp, Agamemnon, Nestor and of course, Ulysses.

Ulysses in particular is set in opposition to Achilles and if we translate that in terms of the Elizabethan Court then we have to see Ulysses as representative of the chief opponents of Essex, namely the father and son, William and Robert Cecil. By the time that this play was written William Cecil had died, but his place as Elizabeth’s chief minister had been taken by his son, who would go on to serve James I in a similar role, continuing in that office well past the 1609 date of the Quarto with the two title pages.  And if we look at the portrait that Shakespeare draws of Ulysses then we can see why the Company might have felt that being so publicly associated with the play in print was not a particularly good idea.

If people know anything about the Ulysses of Troilus and Cressida then it is the speech he makes in Act 1 Scene 3 about degree, about hierarchy, and about the way in which the world only functions if people know their place and behave according to it.  It sounds so good that for years critics treated it as if this was Shakespeare himself offering us his view of the way in which the world should be ordered.  The problem with this is that the next thing we see Ulysses doing is rigging a vote so that Ajax, definitely a couple of rungs below Achilles, who don’t forget has a goddess for a mother, is promoted above him as the greatest warrior the Greeks can put forward to fight Hector.  In other words, like politicians down the ages, he says one thing and then does another.  Pointing this out while Cecil was still in office was probably not the most politic thing that Shakespeare had ever done, especially not when you consider that the Court and its officers had the right to remove the Company’s license and throw them off the city’s stages.

Many of the students have complained that even after seeing a good staged version of the play they have still been unable to follow the scenes in the Greek camp.  In fact one of them even asked me if this was where the phrase it’s all Greek to me came from.  I am trying to comfort them by suggesting that Shakespeare probably didn’t intend that they should understand the half of it and that if they saw it in a modern setting with the characters spouting the same words in a recognisably political setting they would know precisely what to infer and that in this instance at least, actions speak louder than words.

A Tempestuous Few Days

I know a lot of you are probably sick and tired of the Olympics already but bear with me, because only the first part of this post will touch on them.  By sheer coincidence I had tickets last Saturday to see this season’s RSC production of The Tempest, the very day after Sir Kenneth Branagh began the opening ceremony of the London Olympics with Caliban’s wonderful lines.

Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,

That if I then had waked after long sleep,

Would make me sleep again; and then in dreaming

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me: when I wak’d I cried to dream again.

I have to say that knowing the play as I do, the idea of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and in this instance a particularly smug looking Brunel, spouting these lines at the top of Glastonbury Tor didn’t exactly seem appropriate, but I’m pleased Shakespeare got a look in somewhere.  I was glad, then, to have the chance to almost immediately hear them in context, spoken by the remarkable Palestinian actor, Amer Hlehel , who is a member of the Company this year staging three plays concerned with the aftermath of  shipwreck, The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

The notion of shipwreck, both real and emotional, is one that haunted Shakespeare throughout his career.  The Comedy of Errors is one of his earliest plays.  The actual date is disputed but it has to have been written by 1594.  Twelfth Night came at the height of his fame, not long after the move to The Globe.  And, The Tempest was his last solo text.  I’ve come at this season’s productions backwards, so I don’t know if there is any sense of that progression but certainly the three shows are linked through a shared set that has the feeling of a construction battered by the winds and waves.

When it first opened this production of The Tempest got very mixed reviews and people whose opinions I trust were very unsure of its merits.  Talking with members of the company on Saturday morning it became clear that of the three plays this was the one that took longest to settle, which perhaps explains why seeing it a couple of months into its run, I thought it was very interesting indeed.

It’s a modern dress production in that sort of fairytale modern dress way that is very popular at the moment and the links that my mind kept making were with last season’s magnificent revival by the same director, David Farr, of Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming.  There you have the character of Lenny who has controlled and manipulated all those around him for so long that he thinks it is his right to do so. Then along comes his sister-in-law, Ruth, whom he assumes he will also twist around his finger, only then to find that his control has been ripped from him and he is left at her mercy.  The echoes were probably stronger in my mind because Jonathan Slinger, who played Lenny, also plays Prospero.

Any Prospero has to be concerned with control.  Here we have a Prospero who has suffered because he has neglected his duty and someone else has taken control from him.  Like any one in that position might he has fallen to the temptation to get his own back by imposing tight control over those who are less able and less ruthless (no pun intended) than he.  He is the archetypal petty tyrant.  But mixed with that was fear.  This Prospero knew only too well what it was like to be stripped of power and was terrified of finding himself in that position again.  On the island he has control; leaving it will he have the strength to reclaim what he carelessly lost before?

More than any other Prospero I’ve seen, Slinger played the epilogue in character.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

And, instead of offering those last two lines in a ringing tone that invited the audience to applaud, he spoke them without any sense that they were the end of the speech so that the audience faltered for a moment before granting him his freedom – a moment long enough for a look to flicker across his face suggesting that he truly was looking into the jaws of despair.

I will remember that final horror in Slinger’s face for a long time.  If you have the opportunity to see this production I would ignore the early reviews and take it.

I went over to Stratford at lunch time for a dialogue between Ewan Fernie and Paul Edmundson about the latest volume in the Shakespeare Now! series, Shakespeare and I.  Ewan is one of the series’ General Editors as well as having contributed to the new book and Paul has written the Afterword.

The of the title is, as one of our Post Graduate students pointed out, a fractured because the volume comprises a number of essays in which a variety of writers, not all from academia, but all very reflective and highly intelligent thinkers, examine their personal responses to particular Shakespearian plays or poems and explore the extent to which their development as individuals, or in some cases their understanding of that development, has been influenced by their exposure to this author’s works.

So, as an example, Ewan Fernie’s essay considers Angelo’s speech from Measure for Measure when the character first realises the attraction Isabella holds for him and explores the need Ewan himself recognises of desiring to possess something that is good in a way which ultimately and selfishly destroys the very goodness that attracts.  (As an aside, this is the first essay I have ever read in which the writer sees the need to declare not once but twice ‘I am not a rapist’.)

I can see the intellectual impetus behind the argument the book is proposing in as much as any piece of criticism, however objective it purports to be, is going to be influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the personality and experiences of the person who writes it.  There is no such thing as complete objectivity so why not bring the subjective element in the response into the light.  However, what does bother me is that all the contributors to this book are people who have learnt and practised the control of writing ‘objectively’ to meet the criteria of academia and are therefore unlikely to go off on a completely uncontrolled, bare everything, ego fest.  I am not so sure that the same is true for the majority of undergraduates; it certainly wasn’t true of me at eighteen.

Please, any undergraduate out there reading this, believe me when I say that I am not intending to belittle you in any respect.  As I said, I know that some of my own essays went off into areas that were more to do with me than they were with the text I was supposed to be commenting on.  My point is that it takes practice to be able to write objectively about your subjective response to a work of art.  The contributors to this book are able to do that but they are all practised commentators, students reading these essays are unlikely to have developed the skills necessary for a similar level of control.  As someone who worked with undergraduates for many years I would be concerned about their approaching criticism in this way.  To draw a musical analogy, it seems like trying to improvise on a theme by a great composer before you have learnt how to interpret the original work itself.

Am I worrying too much, I don’t know.  Does anyone else have any experience that might put my mind at rest?  Or is there anyone with other strong views?

King John ~ RSC

I’ve always booked tickets for the theatre on the basis that some you win and some you lose and you’re just going to have to hope that over a lifetime of theatre-going the winners outnumber the losers.  This is particularly the case where booking tickets for the RSC at Stratford is concerned because in order to get seats at all it is usually necessary to commit before any reviews come out.  Nevertheless, so far I reckon I’m on the winning side.

The 2012 Stratford season is still in its early stages and up to this weekend I’d only seen a couple of performances by visiting companies – the score being one each way.  However, the omens were not particularly good for a two – one on the winning side on Saturday given that I was going to see King John and that the reviews have been luke warm to say the least.  The production is in modern dress (not something I have a problem with), has cast both the Bastard and the Papal Legate as women and has changed the text so that it is now the Bastard who is asked to kill John’s eleven year old nephew, Arthur rather than the soldier, Hubert.  Furthermore, if you don’t know the words to Land of Hope and Glory you will have difficulty joining in with the singalong at the very beginning.  (I understand that this has been a real issue with performances largely populated with school children.  Perhaps they should invest in a karaoke machine.)  I really wasn’t expecting very much.

Well, it just goes to show that I should know better than to prejudge, because I loved almost every minute of it and what is more important I still came away with a pretty good idea of what Shakespeare was trying to say about both the ruthlessness and the fickleness of those in power.  In addition, because of its modern setting, the production  casts some fairly damning spotlights onto the behaviour of current important figures, whether they be monarchs, politicians, churchmen or business magnates.  The bottom line is always that you pattern your behaviour according to whatever is going to best further your interests.  Concepts such as truth, loyalty and patriotism have nothing to do with it and if you happen to stumble across someone who holds to such values then you exploit their ‘weakness’ for all it’s worth.  This is the strength of having John order the Bastard to kill Arthur.  I don’t think the fact that the character is here female has anything to do with it, the point is that this is now someone whose loyalty and patriotism we, as an audience, have come to believe in and so we understand much more clearly than we would with the less sympathetic Hubert what exactly is being asked.  The Bastard’s dilemma is clear.  Can she justify the most appalling deed imaginable in the light of her loyalty to King and Country?  Can she kill an innocent child?  I wish I could say that there is no way this particular element of the play could be translated into a modern equivalent.  The truth is that after the news coming out of Syria this weekend it is all too apparent that some people are daily being put in exactly that position.

So, I sat back and enjoyed the parties, the singing, the dancing and the balloons because in most respects this production was true to Shakespeare and also to what I believe to be the theatre’s primary role, namely to force the audience to take a good hard look at its own society and ask the difficult questions.  Add to this the fact that the verse speaking was excellent and on balance I think this was a winner.

I have two ‘grumbles’.  While, in a modern context at least, I could believe in a female bastard. I couldn’t believe in a female Papal Legate.  I’m not Catholic, so I don’t know, there may indeed be such people, but here the character didn’t have the necessary force.  And then there were the productions final words.

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (5.7.112)

I’m not sure, I would need to see the production again, but I think this was cut.  I think what we had was

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
…………… nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (5.7.112)

Include those missing two and a half lines and you have a rousing exit.  Omit them and both the sentiment and the fractured verse makes the ending peculiarly downbeat.  It might have fitted with the overall pattern of thought, but it let the play down in its final moments.

Despite those caveats , I would still recommend this to anyone who happens to be close enough to Stratford to see it.  Go with an open mind, throw yourself into the spirit and remember that Shakespeare himself, rarely missed a chance to be innovative.

Two Roses for Richard III

I’m finding it difficult to pin down why I was so disappointed in the Brazilian production of Two Roses for Richard III. It isn’t really fair to compare it with the Iraqi Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad because the two productions were driven by entirely different concepts. The Romeo and Juliet was an adaptation; it didn’t pretend to be a faithful presentation of Shakespeare’s play although it was entirely true to the spirit of the original work. Two Roses was meant to be far closer I think, deviating from the original not so much in terms of the text used and the nature of the characters, but in the manner of presentation. Whereas Romeo and Juliet was theatre, the performance style of Two Roses lay somewhere on the boundary that extends between theatre and circus with those elements of the bizarre that belong to the world of the nightmare thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, I find myself making that comparison and coming down fairly and squarely on the side of the Iraqi production.

However far the Baghdad troupe departed from the source text they still, despite the problems of language, communicated narrative, character and emotion to their audience triumphantly. The Brazilian Company, on the other hand, failed almost entirely to engage me in any one of those areas. I could see the point of having five different actors playing Richard, showing different facets of his personality, but it inevitably meant that my capacity to identify with any one of them was fractured. And surely, one of the most important elements in the character that Shakespeare wrote is his ability to win the audience to his way of thinking in those early scenes? Part of the horror of Richard III is the guilt we feel in having been drawn to such a Machiavellian figure.

Using flying equipment to launch the ghosts of Richard’s enemies into the air above the two camps was an understandable staging device, but playing it so that we could see all the mechanics behind the equipment took so long to set up and made the effect so cumbersome that any effect the company was trying to achieve was lost.

Perhaps a sense of alienation was part of what the Brazilian actors and directors were after. Certainly, they were intent on emphasising the point that we were part of something that was being staged, that the people we were watching we’re actors pretending to be characters and that the notion of a predictable stability of time and person was something we could no longer count on. But if that was what they wanted to achieve then I have to say that Brecht did it a lot better.

Interestingly, when I went to hear the directors discuss their work before the performance, I was in sympathy with what they said they were trying to achieve. I don’t have a problem with the idea of trying to break down boundaries between different art forms. But, you have to be able to bring it off and offer the audience at least as much, if not more, in the way of engagement as a tradition production would do. Maybe the problem was trying to adapt an existing work. Perhaps it would have been better to have started from scratch with something new. I think I would go and see them again doing something that was original, but not Shakespeare. For me their work diminished rather than enhanced the play.