Hamlet ~ MOOC

rolf-richardson-hamlet-statue-gower-memorial-stratford-upon-avon-warwickshire-england-united-kingdom-europeJust a quick post this morning to draw your attention to a new MOOC that is starting on the 13th of January.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Text, Performance and Culture is the first literature course to be offered by the UK MOOC platform, FutureLearn. It is being run by the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute which is part of the same University School to which I belong. Now, I can’t speak to the quality of the production values that will be involved, although if you take a look at the introductory video which you can find here then that seems to be encouraging.  However, what I can speak to is the quality of the scholarship that will have gone into the materials.  I work with these people week in and week out and I can assure you that they are amongst the leading Shakespeare scholars in the world; you won’t get better teaching anywhere. What is more, it appears from the clips that have been made available that actors from the RSC may also be involved.  The actress reading To be or not to be is Pippa Nixon, who is currently playing Ophelia and Jonathan Slinger, the current Hamlet, is also featured.

I haven’t yet sampled a FutureLearn MOOC so I don’t know how far they’ve got with developing areas such as assessment and discussion.  I do know that they themselves say they have some way to go and acknowledge that they are still learning.  You shouldn’t let that put you off, though.  This is a real opportunity to work with absolute experts.  What is more, those of us who have been struggling with the set texts for the Coursera Historical Fiction MOOC can take heart from the fact that not only is there just one text set for this module but also that it was definitely not chosen simply because the author was available to come in for a discussion.  I suppose it’s just about conceivable that someone nipped down the road, sat by the grave and asked Shakespeare whether or not Hamlet is ever really mad, but on balance I doubt it.

I’ve already signed up for this and if anyone else is thinking of doing so and would like to get together a small independent study group then I would be happy to host it.  Some of us have already done that with earlier MOOCs and it’s been a really good experience.  If you are interested then leave a note in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

Measuring ‘Measure for Measure’

William_Hunt_Claudio_and_Isabella_Shakespeare_Measure_for_MeasureI really have over-committed myself at the moment and as a result I’m getting very little time for reading for pleasure.  Something is definitely going to have to be done about that, but not until this week is out of the way and I’ve met all my obligations in respect of teaching and leading discussion groups.  So a brief post today based around my thinking on Measure for Measure for a discussion group cum lecture on Wednesday.

I’ve always thought that Measure for Measure was one of the more difficult of Shakespeare’s plays for a modern audience to understand.  Not only is there a lot of legalistic and religious argument to pick over, especially in the first three acts, but some of the laws that relate to the various types of marriage contract make so little sense these days that the basic premise of the play can seem nonsensical.  Let’s face it, if a law that says a man can be executed for having sex before marriage were to be implemented today then we would be about to see a very drastic culling of the population.

In fact, when Angelo condemns Claudio to death for getting Juliet with child he is overstepping the bounds over the law in 1604 as well, the more so because the contract of marriage that Juliet and Claudio have entered into would actually have been made more binding by intercourse. However, there were people who were asking for strengthened laws in this area and in 1650 adultery was made punishable by death, so Shakespeare would have been exploring an area that the growing influence of Puritan sects had brought to the fore.

So, parts of this play can be difficult both to understand and to give credit to.  However, the more I’ve worked on the text and read around what the various commentators have to say the more I am amazed that no one seems to have picked up on a point that I feel should be blindingly obvious. In order to save Claudio’s life, Angelo demands that Isabella, Claudio’s sister, sleeps with him.  Now, in contrast to his sources, Shakespeare makes Isabella a novice and so the debate as to why she should not give herself in exchange for her brother centres around the question of her chastity.  To some extent it replaces the question of her honour, which has been the core of the debate in the source materials.  Commentator after commentator, picking up on the fact that Isabella displays the characteristic extremeness of the newly converted, points out that she has misunderstood the notion of chastity and that it is as much a spiritual state of mind as a physical state of body. In other words, if she was to give herself to Angelo in these circumstances her spiritual chastity would not be violated.

Fine!  Let’s hear it for spiritual chastity.  But, what no one seems to point out is that if she did what Angelo demands she would be walking into a room and allowing herself to be raped.  Because let’s not be in any doubt about this, rape is what Angelo is proposing.

As it happens, I find it very hard to warm to Isabella.  She is as unforgiving in her stance as Angelo in his and has little in her that accords with any sense of Christian forgiveness.  In many respects they are two for a pair and the city or country ruled by them or their like would soon know the horrors of the rule of the despot and the inquisition.  However, that is immaterial. Whether I like her or not makes no difference to the way I feel about what’s been asked of her and the fact that I can’t find any commentators who even mention the word rape appalls me.

I shall certainly be bringing this up with my class on Wednesday afternoon to see if they think I’ve got this out of all proportion but I would be interested to hear what any of you think as well – preferably before Wednesday so that if I am going off on one without just cause I can be saved from making a complete fool of myself.

Let Slip the Dogs of War

imagesI’ve just come out of a very dramatic weekend, in, I hasten to add, the theatrical sense of the word.  On Saturday I was at the Birmingham Rep for the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of David Greig’s play, Dunsinane, followed on Sunday by the National Theatre’s Othello, screened around the country as part of the NTLive initiative.  Walking into The Rep on Saturday afternoon I hadn’t given much thought to any possible way in which the two plays might reflect on each other, but by Sunday evening I found myself deliberating about what each of them has to say about the nature of war and, more especially, about what military conflict does to those who are caught up in it.  It wasn’t just a dramatic weekend but also a war torn one.

I first saw Dunsinane two years ago when it was staged in the Swan Theatre at Stratford.  As the title suggests it has close ties to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although part of what Greig sets out to do is give a more accurate portrayal of Scottish history at this time, which means acknowledging that Macbeth actually ruled for over fifteen years and that compared with a lot of his counterparts he wasn’t a bad king at all.  It also means that as the play opens Lady Macbeth is still alive and fighting to put her son on the throne rather than the English backed Malcolm.  The central dramatic interest is the relationship between Gruach (Lady Macbeth) and Siward, the commander of the English forces, with a cynical political commentary from Malcolm running alongside.

In the Swan, which is a small theatre that draws audiences in and very much encourages involvement with the characters, what came over most strongly was the way in which the ‘common man’ was destroyed by the whim of those above him.  There is a choric figure, called simply the boy soldier, who speaks directly to the audience and who we watch becoming hardened through the course of the play.  Forced to acts of violence himself and seeing his comrades killed before his eyes, he soon loses the innocence of his opening monologue but nevertheless he is bound by his duty to his commander and the play finishes with his dogged obedience to Siward’s order that they go on searching for a child almost certainly dead, in the name of a cause they have both forgotten about.

The Rep is a much bigger theatre with a wide stage that is configured completely differently to that of the Swan.  Although the sight-lines and acoustics are superb it is still possible to be a very long way from the action and so, although this was the same production, by the same director and with almost the same cast, there were times when I thought I was watching an entirely different play.

What came through most strongly this time was the nature of war itself rather than the effect it has on the individual.  This time I found myself listening more closely to what MacDuff has to say about war in Scotland and by extension to any country where there are tribal groupings fighting for domination in a landscape that makes survival itself a battle.  When Siward suggests that it would be best if the English went home and left the Scots to live in peace, Macduff just laughs at him and points out that all the presence of the English has done is give the clans someone new to fight against.  If Siward withdraws the conflict will go on because the Scots will simply go back to fighting each other.  In tribally organised countries it isn’t peace that is interrupted by war but rather a continuing state of war that is very occasionally punctuated by a fragile peace.  Disturbing as this is as a concept when you look back in history it is hard not to acknowledge the truth of what MacDuff is saying.  Even more disturbing is the way in which it resonates with current conflicts.  I came out of the theatre even more unsettled by the thought of the damage done by Western intervention in overseas war-zones than I was before.

And then there was Sunday’s performance of Othello.  Set in the present day with all the main male participants in battle fatigues I realised for the first time that it is the fact of the army environment that is key to this play. When you have the constant reminder before your eyes that these are soldiers suddenly the motivation and the means that propel Iago’s plot make complete sense.  As Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British-led Division in Basra, says in the programme notes trust is the basis of all soldiering and Othello himself tells us that he has known nothing but the life of a soldier since he was seven years old.  In all probability he and Iago will have found themselves in situations on the battlefield where it has been necessary to put implicit faith in the knowledge that each has the other’s back.  There will almost certainly have been occasions where each has saved the other’s life.  What hope does a marriage of a few weeks, an acquaintance of no more than months, have against a bond like this? Othello knows he can trust Iago, not just in his word but in his deed.  Desdemona doesn’t stand a chance.

And what of Iago and his motiveless malignity?  His trust has been betrayed as well.  He has every right to expect the preferment that instead goes to Cassio.  He has proved himself, not just as a fighting man but also as a comrade.  In a profession where promotion ought to follow merit that position as Lieutenant should have been his.  When he doesn’t get it, when Othello betrays his trust, he tips.  There was absolutely no overt suggestion of this in the performance, but I found myself thinking about the number of army personnel that we now know develop some form of mental health issue after years of service and in the light of that what Iago does seems not only completely believable but also completely understandable.    In fact, excellent as Adrian Lester’s performance as Othello is, this production belongs to Rory Kinnear’s Iago.  The menace of the man who can smile and smile and be a villain when seen in the dress of a modern day soldier is remarkable.

The other thing that the modern day setting emphasises is the dynamite that is the situation Othello finds when he reaches Cyprus.  He has set out thinking that he is going to be commanding troops in battle, a role he knows well and for which he is supremely suited.  What he finds instead is a war that is over.  Just like the Armada in 1588 the enemy has been drowned and as a result his role changes to that of overseeing a garrisoned force with not enough to do.  This demands the skills of a politician rather than those of a battlefield tactician.  Skills that Othello knows are not his strongest point.  When you are faced with a bunch of bored squaddies play fighting like a litter of growling puppies it is so much easier to appreciate the powder-keg waiting to explode.  And, to understand the fatal mistake that Cassio makes.  Officers do not go drinking with enlisted men.  You cannot do that and expect to retain the authority which is essential to army discipline.  If Cassio had had the years of experience that Iago has he would not have made such a basic mistake.  Othello has no option but to demote him.  Had he done otherwise military discipline would have fallen apart.  It is this which Desdemona completely fails to recognise.

I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to see both these productions, but more especially to have seen them in such close order. Not only did the one play inform the other in terms of understanding how central to life the army and the fight can become to those who have known nothing else but also in combination they forced me to think again about the nature of warfare, the role of Western nations in the foreign field and the implications for society of the integration of military and civilian life.