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THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE: Prologue: A Re-New-View of Shakespeare

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2016 by drayfish

shakespeare by pablo lobato

IMAGE: Shakespeare by Pablo Lobato

Four hundred years ago Shakespeare died.

(Sorry if you’re hearing that for the first time. I should have warned you to sit down first.)

That is to say, on April 23, 1616, the man, William Shakespeare – who had already made his name as a wildly successful actor, poet, playwright, and producer – died.

That Shakespeare – the man – had grown from a glove maker’s son in Stratford-upon-Avon to running an entertainment empire in London. He had won the King as his patron. He owned property across the land. He was a father of three children (apparently with a son-in-law he hated), and had written a will that cryptically only left his wife, Anne Hathaway, their ‘second best’ bed (perhaps he still resented her performance in Bride Wars). That Shakespeare, the man, was buried in Stratford on April 25th.

But there is another William Shakespeare – the one that won’t die. The one that half-glances at us incredulously from that apocryphal black and white portrait on the cover of the First Folio. The one used to sell countless mugs and key chains and trinkets to tourists travelling through London. The one that appears as a zombie on The Simpson’s Halloween special. The one who met Doctor Who, and Blackadder, and who snogged Gwyneth Paltrow in a moustache. The one that is multiform. Eternal. That one is 450 year old and counting, and lives inside everyone who has some affection for his work.

That’s our Shakespeare. Yours. Mine.

Ernst Honigman, in a brief introduction to Shakespeare’s life for The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare makes note of the numerous times that people refer to the playwright as ‘our Shakespeare’. Understandably, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, used the phrase in their posthumous printing of his plays, the First Folio of 1623. They were attempting to publish a definitive edition of the man’s collected works (at the time theatrical pieces were usually only printed as cheap, unofficial knock-offs), and claimed they were doing so in order to ‘keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare’ (emphasis mine).

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IMAGE: From the cover of the First Folio (1623)

But that kind of personal identification with the poet playwright didn’t end with those who knew and loved him in life. In the centuries since, his legacy, and the affection with which he is held, has expanded exponentially.

Ben Johnson wrote the poem ‘To The Memory of My Beloved, The Author, William Shakespeare’, becoming quite sentimental about his Shakespeare despite having hated the man’s guts while alive and frequently slagging him off as a talentless hack. (It is believed that Johnson was riddled with envy of Shakespeare’s skill while they were contemporaries, which is understandable, but the turnaround can still give you whiplash.)

It’s why the Romantic poets, a century and a half after his death, felt they had discovered a kindred spirit in his verse. It’s why Stephen Greenblatt’s captivating biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, is quite open about using healthy dollops of imagination to spackle over the gaps in his exacting historical research. Why Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife, uses even more speculation and presumption (despite being far less honest about it) to argue that Shakespeare’s career was indebted wholly to his wife, Ann Hathaway – a fact, Greer asserts, that has been systemically marginalised by a history of male biographers.

It’s also why people continue to foolishly squabble over Shakespeare’s ‘true’ identity, with conspiracy junkies falling over themselves to insist that their Shakespeare was forced to work in disguise and unrecognised in his time. Snobs would rather believe that their Shakespeare was an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford rather than some preternaturally talented member of the lower classes; more ambitious guesses cite everyone from the already-dead Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth (who must have had great fun writing Richard II, a play she famously despised and that was used to try and inspire a revolution against her).

The point is, Shakespeare is many things to many people – the greatest dramatist who ever lived; England’s finest poet; a shrewd producer; a pseudonym; an actor; a closeted Catholic; a philosopher; a social critic; a feminist; a misogynist; a lover of cryptic codes; on into infinity – and the reason that he can remain equally as ambiguous as he is treasured is because we largely only have access to him through his plays.

And those plays! Plays that never seem to age. Plays that have been effortlessly restaged and reinvented in every new generation.

And yes, his plays exhibit a breadth of divergent subject matter – tragedy, comedy, romance, Roman, Greek and English history, myth, social satire, farce, fantasy – and a slew of characters from every walk of life – monarchs, maids, and madmen; princes and prostitutes; lords, ladies, and lawmen, soldiers, servants, senators, and soothsayers; tyrants and tweens; washed up drunks, clergymen, criminals, cross dressers, cads, clowns (not scary clowns), and everything in between, but what makes them eternal is their interest in universal human emotions: young lust; regret; unbridled fury; betrayal; the fear that we are not truly loved; hesitation; wonder; jealousy; the impulse to endlessly list things.

His work has endured for centuries not because a bunch of musty scholars declared that these plays were (dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn!!!) IMPORTANT, that society was obliged to inflict them on every student in the western world to warn them how loathsome antiquated puns can be. They are works that insist themselves upon their audience exactly because they remain so fresh, so urgent. We recognise the same impulses and temptation in ourselves, feel as if each work had been written by the author for us at this very moment.

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IMAGE: William Shakespeare’s Plays by John Gilbert (1849)

I’m not sure what Shakespeare is to me. I know that I adore what I’ve experienced of his work. I know that whenever I return to one of his plays I am dumbstruck at how any one person could have constructed something so compassionately human, so lyrical, and so true – even, at times, in its ugliness. I know that he is an astute observer of human behaviour, capable of rendering complex characters with rich interiors. That he sees us for the pathetic, snivelling wretches that we are, but captures the marvel we can be at our best. He can be merciless and silly and mad – sometimes in the same scene – can be thrillingly metatextual, and after four hundred years, and innumerable versions of his work, is still capable of surprise. That ending of King Lear, for example, still gets me every time.

Also, he created Viola, the most marvellous character in all literature. For that you could tell me he was a member of Nickelback and he would still get a free pass.

So this year – this four-hundredth anniversary of the man’s death – I’m going to try to better know the evolving myth that can be gleaned through his work. I’m going to watch as many different productions of Shakespeare as I can manage over the coming twelve months (and, let’s face it, almost certainly beyond, because when have I ever been punctual?) I’ll read each play – some with which I am unfamiliar, others I don’t know at all – and then experience a modern production of it, be it on film, or radio, or animation (I know there are graphic novels out there, maybe I’ll try one of those). Afterwards I’ll attempt to unpack my feeling about play and production. What I felt worked; what failed; what I thought the text was primarily about; whether Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, or Derek Jacobi was in it (there’s a law: you have to have one of them).

Mostly I’m just going to try and explore, for my own amusement, the myriad ways in which this extraordinary, multifaceted, writer’s work continues to be refracted through our modern preoccupations; to see what new dimensions are revealed from these endlessly malleable works of art.

I’ll be watching and listening to some fantastic stuff (I’m not always a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Bard’s material, but his Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is a delight; and anyone who loves Game of Thrones would be blown away by the BBC’s 2012 Hollow Crown production of the underrated Richard II), but I’ll also be exploring some problematic pieces (what’s that? Sicilian actor Al Pacino playing the ‘Jew of Malta’ in Shakespeare’s controversial, possibly-horrifyingly-racist Merchant of Venice (2004)? …okay… and why is Helen Mirren being wasted in a rote production of The Tempest (2010) that does exactly nothing with its exciting gender-flip conceit?).

I’ll also, no doubt, be watching some crap (I’m looking right at you, Australian Macbeth (2006)). After all, just because Shakespeare’s batting average is so astonishingly high doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his shakier plays; and it certainly doesn’t inoculate directors and actors from indulging all their laziest impulses in translating his work.

I may even tackle a few eclectic pieces just to mix it up a bit. Again, ‘Shakespeare’ has appeared in Doctor Who and romance films and that comically asinine Roland Emmerich film Anonymous (2011); and although clearly none of these addendums to his career are canon, they are worth considering for the way in which they reflect his legacy and enduring cultural cache.

But I will not watch She’s The Man (2006).

I don’t care if it’s a ‘retelling’ of Twelfth Night. I don’t care if it has Channing Tatum in it. I will not do it and you cannot make me and shut up.

How dare you.

Obviously this won’t be of interest to everyone (and I’ll be posting other stuff throughout the months for those who aren’t), but Shakespeare’s work is a heady, diverse mix. There’s murder and intrigue, frivolity and play, romance, sorrow, war, scheming, charming antiheroes, and some of the most compelling depictions of inexpressible emotion ever rendered.

So join me, won’t you, on this half-baked windmill tilt that I will almost certainly give up on in a couple of months, as I scoff at Keanu Reeves attempting to express more than one emotion playing Don John, instantly forgive Michelle Pfeiffer’s overacting as Titania because she’s so stunning I can barely hear what she’s saying, and try to disentangle the Gordian knot of crazy that is Mel Gibson playing Hamlet. …Or maybe I’ll leave that one alone.*

Join me on a journey I am calling ‘The Year of Speare’ (TM). Because apparently I have no shame.

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IMAGE: ‘The Shakespeare Code’, Doctor Who (2007)

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If you would like to follow along with me, the first film up for inspection be the controversial but fascinating Baz Luhrmann directed Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Yeah. That’s a plus sign. Because that’s what the kids like, yo. Radical.

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* And how could I not watch Fred and Wesley get the happy ending they deserve in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012)?

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Texts Mentioned:

Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury, 2007)
‘Shakespeare’s Life’ by Ernst Honigmann (The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, ed. by Margeta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, 2001, pp.1-12)
Will In The World by Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head, 2014)

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Shift Change: ‘My’ Doctor Who

Posted in criticism, movies, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2013 by drayfish

Doctor Who the TARDIS

IMAGE: Doctor Who (BBC)

It’s been a good year to be a fan of Doctor Who.

From the introduction of a new companion in the character of Clara Oswald (okay, technically she was ‘introduced’ last year through a bit of tricksy foreshadowed storytelling, but she took her place in the TARDIS properly this year), to the command of the role that Matt Smith now effortlessly brings to his portrayal of the Doctor (by the way, early-Matt-Smith-critics: he was always this good), to the rollicking, world-record breaking fiftieth anniversary special, ‘Day of the Doctor’ (which has become the highest rating drama on BBC and BBC America this year; is the first dramatic program to have screened simultaneously in 94 countries; and was running over with fan service and love for the series), those who love Doctor Who and all its glorious, sprawling wonder and goofiness have had much to revel in.

On the other hand, for those who just don’t see the point of Doctor Who the past couple of months were probably wearyingly tedious…

After all, there has been a veritable onslaught of retrospectives and news broadcasts and spoofs devoted to anticipating this birthday event.  There was Mark Gatiss’ love note to the series and its original star, William Hartnell, in the historical drama An Adventure in Space and Time (the hypercritical part of my brain acknowledges that it was all highly romanticised and at times clogged with self-aware exposition; but the emotional part of me was charmed utterly, and even choked back a tear in that final scene when the echo of this actor’s legacy was met with a warm smile from his latest successor).  There was Peter Davison’s (the fifth Doctor’s) playful, homemade spoof The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot; there was Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide; there were hours and hours of talking heads espousing their love and recounting the minutia of the show in specials.  Google even changed its homepage in an enchanting homage.

For anyone not a fan of Who, all of this fuss must have started to seem like a waking nightmare.  And considering that these people are already very sick indeed (their crippling medical condition, Being Terribly, Tragically Wrong (BTTW), affects innocent people the world over) my heart really goes out to them.

(Incidentally, donate now to the BTTW fund.  Your small donation can help get DVD box sets to baffled viewers who desperately need them.)

But for anyone not sick to death of hearing about all things Who (and who can stand to hear me pontificate further), this past week I published a retrospective on the Doctor over at PopMatters.  I discuss the history of the show; how its ingenious conceit allows it to regenerate itself along with the needs of its medium and its viewing audience: how week to week it can bounce between genres and plots, from science fiction to historical drama, from parody to tragedy, philosophical think-piece to screwball fun.  I gush about how vital and innovative the show has always been; ramble shamelessly about how grand every single little bit of ‘Day of the Doctor’ was; I even get in a petty dig at K-9.

…Also, I liken Colin Baker’s costume to something ‘hosed out of a unicorn enclosure.’

So there’s that.

In any case, it’s my quick (for anyone who has ever read anything I have written, you know ‘quick’ is a thoroughly misleading word) love letter to the most unique, and most brilliant television-y television show that has ever been.

Despite all of my self-indulgent waffling, however, the one element I didn’t get to discuss was my own relationship to the show…

Because that’s the great thing about Doctor Who.  It’s generational.  Enduring.  You can stumble upon it while channel surfing.  You can inherit your devotion to it like you would a football team.  You can watch it change and grow – revel in the good years, gnash your teeth at the bad – all the time knowing that your opinion, like everyone else’s, is relative.  It is a show to fall in love with and grow alongside.  Watching it as a child you can be wonderstruck by all the gizmos and daring-do; as an adult you can marvel at the boundless imagination on display, at the ideological and philosophical debate being dressed up and played out in colourful metaphor.

It’s why many fans have a ‘my’ Doctor.

‘Sure, all the other Doctors are great,’ they will say, ‘but [INSERT NAME HERE] was my Doctor.’  And at that point they will twiddle the tassels on their floor length scarf, rock in place in their Converse All Stars, or take a bite from the celery stalk on their lapel.

Frequently, this favoured Doctor is the one that the viewer grew up with – the first incarnation that swept them off on an adventure, who they first saw repel a Cyberman invasion, who they first saw stroke the TARDIS console tenderly.

That wasn’t really my experience.  To be honest, my earliest memories of watching Doctor Who were hardly love at first sight.  I remember I was about five years old, watching it at my grandparent’s place in black and white…

The television!  The television was black and white!  The show was in colour.  It was the eighties.  And… and… it was probably a rerun (it wasn’t).

How old do you think I am?!

Anyway.  It seems extraordinary to say now, but at the time neither the show nor its principle character made much of an impression upon me.  There was no ‘my’ anything.  In fact, if I recall correctly, I spent most of the time thinking that he was the Riddler (it was Colin Baker, and the question marks on the collar threw me off); I kept waiting for Batman to turn up and kick him in the neck (again: it was Colin Baker).

It was only when I returned to the show years later that I became enamoured with what I found.  Here was a sprawling, discordant text colliding against itself in reruns, shifting and mutating with every tale.  The Doctor I first watched properly was multiform.  He bounced between a youthful, puffy-haired cricketer, to a Victorian dandy in a vintage roadster; from a velvet voiced hippie to a skittery, conceited explosion of light and sound.  I leapt about in his lives the way he leapt around in time, liking aspects of some, abhorring elements of others (Hey Doctor, Y U strangle Peri?!), but appreciating them all as part of one great potpourri of splintered sci-fi selfhood.

And even when I caught up to the show itself, I still saw them all as one.  Sylvester McCoy had a lovely wellspring of cunning under his sunny exterior that I found arresting; despite the tonally disjointed mess of the Doctor Who television movie, I was charmed by Paul McGann’s romantic Doctor; I admired (even if I didn’t completely embrace) Christopher Eccleston’s haunted soldier; and I swooned (in a totally manly way) at David Tennant’s heartsore, lonely wanderer.  Each had new inflections that brought further depth to this amorphous creature, but for me, no single face could hope to encapsulate it all.

And then Matt Smith happened.  And then I got it.

Doctor Who Matt Smith

IMAGE: The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)

Because here, suddenly, was my Doctor.  The Doctor I hadn’t realised I’d always wanted.  Goofy, awkward, all limbs and hand-gestures and muddled lexicon.  Sombre and soulful, with eons of pain in his eyes; this marriage of Peter Pan and a sad old god clicked with me from the moment Matt Smith scrunched up his face and said, ‘Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall…’

So for three seasons I finally watched the show as if I was seeing it all for the first time.  I finally saw the Doctor – my Doctor – send the Cybermen horde on their way.  Saw him outwit the Daleks, and the Sontarans, and the Weeping Angels, and… well, pretty much everyone by the end of that first year.  I saw him grieve the loss of his companions.  Saw him reaffirm his abiding romance with the TARDIS.  I saw all of time and space, and the eternal sartorial flair of bowties.  And best of all, in ‘Day of the Doctor’, I saw him restore hope to the heart of the Doctor Who mythos: to save the Doctor from himself and undo his greatest mistake…

But there is one more Doctor Who rite of passage that all fans of the show must endure, and that I am now about to experience for the first time.  Because eventually, everyone’s Doctor dies…  Their ‘my’ must give way to the communal ‘our’.  And as has already been announced, this Christmas it will be Matt Smith’s time to surrender the role to another.*

I would never, of course, do anything so asinine as declare the show ‘cannot go on without him’, or ‘it’s best years are over’.  That is abject nonsense.  Peter Capaldi will be great, the adventure will be grand, and many exciting new wonders have yet to be explored; but I am still going to reserve my right to observe an utterly self-indulgent moment of celebratory sadness.

My Doctor – the Doctor I had waited for – is going to die.  However, as innumerable other fans before me have already experienced, in spite of the sorrow, what is about to happen becomes one of the greatest gifts that is built into the heart of the show.

Because Doctor Who will endure.  It will be different, sure, but even though it won’t have this Doctor anymore, it will take the best parts of his narrative, his portrayal, his quirks, and fold it into the whole.  The journey will be cosily familiar and exhilaratingly new all at once, and there will be a whole new universe to explore, and adventure to be discovered, through brand new eyes.

Because even though my Doctor will be gone, someone else’s is just about to be born.

It’s a good year to be a Doctor Who fan.  It turns out it’s also a good year to become one too.

the eleven doctors copy

IMAGE: The Eleven Doctors (BBC)

* And considering that this is a Christmas story, and is the culmination of the ‘Silence will fall’ arc, I’m guessing I will never be able to hear the song ‘Silent Night’ again without wistfully peering into the middle distance and sniffling.

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