Archive for The Year of Speare

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 05: ‘I DID Come Here To Make Friends’; As You Like It and ‘Reality’

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Set your expectations to ‘shocked’.  Prepare to be astounded.  Because I am about to utter (no doubt for the very first time on the internet) the most original, brave, singular thought ever articulated:

I hate reality television.

I know, right?  I’m so raw.  So real.  I just tell it like it is, y’all.  Truth bomb.  Finger snap.

Man, I should get my own show.

I guess I should clarify.  I don’t mean to slag off the whole genre …or, since I guess it’s too big to be called a genre, the ‘form’?  The ‘structure’?  The ‘plague’?  Lots of people love it – for innumerable reasons – and as a device it can take myriad shapes.  Honey Boo Boo can hardly be placed in the same discussion as Making a Murderer; and the soapy freak show of the Real Housewives franchise is worlds away from whatever the hell Naked and Afraid is attempting to be (although when are we going to see Real Housewives: Sesame Street? ‘Elmo so mad Elmo almost run her down in Elmo’s Ferrari…’).

What bothers me is the overt artifice with which these shows are fuelled.  The attempts to ape reality that are patently constructed.  The artificial people having artificial conversations – be they the Bratz dolls of The Hills or the Deliverance cosplayers of Duck Dynasty.  The concocting of zany, pre-arranged schemes.  The leaning in to stilted, predetermined confrontations.  The meet-ups in restaurants, or the drop-ins at someone’s start-up business to share wooden dialogue riddled with one-liners and rote exposition.  ‘Surprise’ telephone calls where both sides of the conversation are somehow filmed.  The spouting of rehearsed ‘spontaneous’ observations and manufactured realisations.  All those constant, ceaseless reminders that everything depicted is a fabricated mise en scene; that even before the highly selective editing process has begun, a narrative is already being orchestrated that renders any sense of authenticity moot.

Indeed, this whole pretence has reached such a saturation point that it’s now no longer a secret these shows have writers.  They might be called ‘showrunners’, and sure, they don’t type out dialogue to be repeated verbatim, but they do run story treatments, come up with loose plotlines, concoct scenarios, give shape and order to the action – and yes, offer one or two snappy lines of banter.

And this fakery doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.  Many people (my wife, for one) happily watch a platter of reality programming comfortably aware that it has, at the very least, been massaged by its editing, or wholesale invented for the cameras.  Personally, I find it tedious because it turns the viewing experience into a meta-game.  Rather than watching the show, you’re watching through the thin, shiny veil that covers the behind the scenes production meetings that designed the show.  Any sense of ‘reality’ disassembles into a meat-puppet theatre, one so commonly understood that there are now scripted television shows like UnREAL based around this premise.

A year or two back, I was compelled (it felt like at gunpoint, but I do have a tendency toward the hyperbolic) to watch what was then a new reality program titled It’s All Relative.  The show was centred around the family life of Leah Remini, onetime star of King of Queens and Scientology escapee.*  And I have to confess, by the standard set in a post-Kardashian universe, it was comparatively inoffensive.  Indeed, almost quaint.

Let me be clear: I still hated it.  I still squirmed and sighed and begged for freedom – but that’s a personal taste issue.  I’m sure for many others it was charming.

But what struck me at the time as one of the show’s virtues was its subjects’ unfamiliarity with the language of reality television.  To their credit, the family being scrutinised – Remini’s immediate family and mother – were uncommonly awkward with the fabrication of the filming process.  They were so conscious of the oddity of a film crew in their house that they would actually talk directly to the producers and sound techs as though they were new neighbours who had stopped by for a chat, commenting down the camera lens not only about what was being filmed, but the decision to film it.  In a world where Kardashians keep multiplying through social media photosynthesis, it was comforting to still see people try to grapple with the invasion of a guy with a boom mike having his elbow in their fridge.

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IMAGE: It’s All Relative (TLC)

In one scene, when a mock funeral for Remini’s mother had soured into a peculiarly melancholy affair (despite the zany music cues punctuating the soundtrack) Remini actually turned to camera, wiping tears from her eyes to ask, ‘Is this what you want, TLC?  Is this what you want to see?’  She was joking.  Ish.  There was a laugh tangled in the crying, and the absurdity of the whole situation was never lost, but by referencing the artifice of the scenario, she punctured the constraints and manipulation under which the program operated.  Clearly her mother didn’t just decide spontaneously to force her family to hold a living memorial for her; they didn’t all set a date and put on catering and get dressed in funeral clothes and all write eulogies on a whim.  It was crafted.  A display initiated for – and with – the film crew capturing it.  Perhaps this humanising awkwardness went away with time, but I appreciated the meagre glimpse of authenticity it offered behind the facade.

The real issue I have with these programs arises however when their calculated artifice bleeds into reality.  When asking an audience to playact dishonesty into ‘truth’ means we suddenly have to pretend that the Taylor Swift / Kanye West ‘feud’ is anything other than a cynical, mutually beneficial publicity stunt to be exploited for maximum exposure.  Or, after several seasons of The Apprentice, people get duped into believing the pernicious, fatuous fraud that Donald Trump was ever a ‘successful, self-made businessman’, instead of a thin-skinned, paranoid, self-mythologising, narcissistic, pathological liar who once inherited an empire from his father and spent the next few decades flushing it away on an unbroken spiral of hysterically asinine failed business ventures and multiple bankruptcies (at least six).  That a man with such a reverse-Midas touch that he spectacularly tanked everything he came in contact with, from an airline, to a travel agency, to a scam university, to a mortgage company (at the time of the country’s subprime mortgage crisis, no less), steaks, magazines, bottled water, vodkas and vitamins – a man who lost billions of dollars running his own casinos – that he was a successful business entrepreneur.

That guy.

If we have to swallow a lie that big, reality television should be a lot more fucking entertaining than it is.

In any case, all of this is just a protracted preamble to me saying that I was surprised, upon returning to As You Like It, at how many of the tropes of reality television Shakespeare employed, four centuries before it was even a genre

…Or a form

…Or a whatever the hell.

Because As You Like It is stuffed full of reality show fodder.  It has backstabbing, and betrayal, and reconciliations.  Its central conceit – aristocrats thrown into the wild – is pure Survivor.  The whole thing ends on a ‘surprise’ wedding ceremony, where shocking secrets are revealed in public.  Most every character is playing some sort of role to deceive, hide, or outwit their fellow outcasts, and above and uniting all of this, there is a general embrace of performative hamming it up and communal playacting.

In one delightfully convoluted moment, Rosalind – a woman masquerading as a man – is trying to disentangle herself from a pair of would-be lovers, Phebe and Silvius.  Silvius loves Phebe, despite her treating him like garbage, and Phebe has fallen for the disguised Rosalind, who likewise treats her with contempt.  And to a reality show cynic like myself, Rosalind’s  summary of their circumstance, ‘He’s fallen in love with your foulness, and she’ll fall in love with my anger’ (III.5.68), could serve as the tag line for every season of The Bachelor and its ilk.

(You can look also to Much Ado About Nothing for more evidence of how much Shakespeare loves a good reality show plot.  There’s its twisted fake funeral, the family squabbling, the vicious slut-shaming rumours, the zany schemes, and the will-they-won’t-they bickering couple whose romance everyone seems perversely invested in…)

Ultimately, As You Like It is soaked in the kind of pretence that drives me insane about reality television.  But here, that willing embrace of falsehood becomes profoundly transformative, because ironically, it actually succeeds in rendering something true.

The plot (such as it is) may not sound like a playful comic romp.  There are multiple familial betrayals and murderous plots; homes are ripped apart; loyalties sundered; choking declarations of unbridled hatred are made; most every sympathetic character is ejected into the wilderness to die – but the result is a celebration of farce and wilful play.

Primarily, the narrative concerns a gaggle of aristocrats who are banished from their homes into a nearby wood.  Some embrace their imposed liberty, unfettered from the concerns of the civil world; others, by necessity, affect disguises to protect themselves from harm.  But rather than descending into despair and savagery, playing out an Elizabethan Lord of the Flies, the characters meet this new, dangerous wilderness in the forests of Arden by giving license to their imagination.  They literally start playing around.  Enacting silly wooing games and writing poetry and dressing up to pretend.  It can all seem, at first glance, a bit unhinged, but Shakespeare keeps the tortured, tragic thread that motivated this excursion throughout, just to remind the audience that we’ve not simply wandered off into some giddy fantastical dream.

There is the heroine, Rosalind, who, while wearing the disguise of a country boy, meets up with Orlando, a man for whom she had romantic feelings back in the city and who now appears to have similar feelings for her.  While remaining in disguise, she convinces Orlando to let her ‘cure’ him of his love for Rosalind, by pretending to be her, and acting like a crazy woman.  So Rosalind finds herself playing a man, playing a woman, playing crazy.

And not a television production crew in sight.

Given this theme of contrasting civilisation and wilderness, it is perhaps no surprise to say that As You Like It is concerned on every level with the question of nature versus nurture.  What is it that defines us as people?  Are we born bad – the fact one brother is a villain and the other a sweet tempered benefactor, merely a quirk of biology? – or do we rather learn our dispositions, becoming shaped by our experience?  Do we merely affect an appearance of goodness to mask our intrinsic immorality?

For a while, in order to tease these questions out, the play seems to have it most every way.  Two of the play’s brothers, Orlando and Oliver, appear to be diametric opposites, and yet both are the products of the same loving family, so Oliver’s cruelty, spite, and willingness to have his brother murdered, seems inborn; similarly, the two competing Dukes, the rightful Duke Senior and his usurping brother Frederick, who banished him with threat of death, were presumably raised together.  But before the play lets us settle on this idea of an innate evil, both villains, Frederick and Oliver, prove themselves to be redeemable.  Both, having left civilisation, are able to cultivate an inner peace that leads them to renounce their former behaviour and seek to genuinely better themselves in future.  And either way, whether this is some elemental better human nature, or the promise of a newly acquired philosophy, the play opens up to the eternal, hopeful potentiality for change.

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IMAGE: Rosalind by Robert Walker Macbeth (1888)

Despite this occasional, necessary cloud, it remains an exquisitely bright, celebratory play.  Those filled with spite and jealous rage are able to be healed by the unburdened welcome of the wilderness.  Brothers are able to forgive, to reconnect, to wish each other peace and goodwill.  Lovers can embrace foolery to find within it deeper truth.  Rosalind and Orlando get to shake out their playactings of love in disguise before they undertake the real thing, and the shepherd Silvius and his love Phebe (one hopes) get some perspective on their unhealthy emotional co-dependency, and actually agree to love someone who is capable of loving them back.

Shakespeare isn’t just detaching his characters from the recognisable world to make some lazy Garden of Eden reference (although that is overtly mixed into the imagery).  This is not about sneering at the fall of man and idolising the ‘freedom’ granted by naïveté.  After all, even though the two converted villains of the play vow to live more rustic, pure lives, most of the other characters gladly reclaim their lives in society.  Instead, I think Shakespeare wants is to remember just how stifling adulthood, social pressure, the acquisition of wealth and esteem can be.  It’s a daily fight for survival, as Orlando’s was at the beginning of the play, too swiftly propagated on competition and scheming, trying to outwit and outplay opponents you can see, and more tragically, those that you come to imagine.  Even those you should consider family or friend.

By ejecting these characters into the wild, those societal shackles are abandoned.  Life is no longer a competition, but an invitation to take solace in others, to support and encourage and give.  Shakespeare writes the ultimate reverse-Survivor fan fiction.  The gong is being rung for the eviction ceremony (is that how the show works?), but no one wants to partake.

And so, freed from the need to be grown-ups about everything, the characters embrace their youthful sides. Write mooney love poems; dress up and pretend; play-act getting married; chase each other around; fall asleep in the sunlight; sing songs.  There is giddiness and gambolling, and fun (even in spite of there being lions roaming the land eating people, apparently.)  All the crap, all the politicking and scheming and backstabbing, all those social institutions everyone believed were so integral back in the invisible prison of civilisation, are dissolved.  Instead, they carry that which is crucial and unquantifiable with them: love, fellowship, and kindness.

It’s a hokeyness that Shakespeare himself acknowledges he is indulging.  For much of the play’s run time it conducts a tongue-in-cheek interrogation of both its own structure (calling out its conventional failings) and its poetry (the hyperbole and disingenuousness verse relies upon for effect).**  Orlando – despite loving Rosalind intensely, writes objectively bad poetry, scattering his meagre verse throughout the forest to the derision of all.  Touchstone, wooing Audrey, says that all poetry is a fraud, ‘for the truest poetry is the most feigning’ (III.3.17-18).

Meanwhile, the plot seems to get forgotten in the salve of all this pretending.  The real peril that the characters are in meanders away; major shifts in the narrative occur unseen, off-stage.  When an as-yet unmentioned third brother of Oliver and Orlando rushes in at the end to exposition-dump that the danger of the usurping Duke Frederick has passed, it seems to be as unexpected an return to the narrative for the characters as it is for the audience.

And in Rosalind’s fourth-wall dismantling epilogue (which declares itself subversive for being delivered by a woman – or since women weren’t allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s time, technically a man pretending to be a woman  pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man…) – she cannot even be bothered to defend Shakespeare’s shapelessness narrative.  Rosalind teasingly denigrates the play’s writing, saying she cannot ‘insinuate you in the behalf of a good play’ (V.4.202-3); instead, she uses her charm, with which the play is overflowing, to invite the audience to take from the production what they will – as they like it.  They too are under no obligations.

Because this is not a play about story.  Just like in reality television, the premise is merely the thinnest frame upon which to hang the real drama; the game less significant than the games the players played on one another.  Fraud – and particularly poetic fraud – is here shown to lead to truth and growth, even in spite of itself.  Here, unlike in the carnivorous scheming of reality television, giving license to falsehood brings out the best in us.  Placed into artificial worlds we divorce ourselves from our engrained misbehaviours.  Counter-intuitively, by pretending to be what we aren’t, we can reconnect with what we should be.

Rosalind fakes being a boy to lead the man she loves through his delusions of adoration to the clarity of self-awareness.  Duke Senior, by playing at being a wild man, gets in touch with an unsullied vision of humanity where he can ‘feel not the penalty of Adam’ (II.1.5).  Even the melancholic Jaques gets to be tickled by the verbal play of a fool, stepping, if only momentarily, out of his self-imposed funk.

Fittingly, it is therefore when the play indulges its most artificial moment that it presents its most elegant portrait of humanity.  In the midst of what is in truth a bit of tedious stage business – literally Shakespeare needs to kill a few minutes so that Orlando can run off to retrieve his starving manservant Adam – the play stalls to have Jaques rhapsodise poetically about the lifespan of the average human being.  Jaques, an insatiable depressive (a weathered The Cure t-shirt away from being the prototypical emo), has spent his time moping around the forest, in his words, sucking melancholy from melody and railing against the world, and here, to fill time, Shakespeare grants him one of the most genuinely moving descriptions of the inevitability of death, decay and mortal frailty, the seven stages of man:

                                  All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages.  At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then, the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school; and then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow; then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth; and then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part; the sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound; last Scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.7.140-67)

Seven ages of man; our inevitable, unavoidable, solemn march toward the grave’s oblivion, sans eyes, sans ears, sans everything.  It will come, he says.  But that’s for another day, the play suggests.  And knowing what awaits need not deaden the beauty of youth and it virtue, but rather make it sweeter.  If we are to be creatures always ensnared by larger constructs like society and temporality, then at least we can be aware of them, and free ourselves from their burden.  Even if only in our minds.

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

On its surface, director Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous version of As You Like It (2006) appears to bear little relationship to this falsified ‘reality’ television show conceit that I’ve been blathering on about.  The production is set in a stylised pre-twentieth century Japan, with a group of English aristocrats.  But this notion of play-acting a superficial facade is nonetheless central to the themes being explored, becoming uncomfortably problematic as the film proceeds.

In many ways it is a lovely production: lavish visuals; a score that is evocative and sublime; acting that is solid to exceptional across the ensemble.  There’s a little less Rosalind (as played by Bryce Dallas Howard) than I would like as good portions of her dialogue appear to be excised, but national treasure Brian Blessed gets to portray both Dukes as twins, running the gamut of Senior’s benign saintliness to Frederick’s volcanic, paranoid psychosis, and Romola Garai, as Celia, is delightful, as always.  The brothers Orlando and Oliver (David Oyelowo and Adrian Lester respectively) are both fantastic – Lester in particular gives emotional depth and complexity to Oliver, a character that is often little more than a moustache twirler until his last minute conversion. And hearing Kevin Kline as Jacques deliver the seven ages of man speech never gets old.

And Shakespeare can work wonderfully in Japan.  Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) is a reimagining of Macbeth, taking a Jacobean English play about an 11th century Scottish King and translating it seamlessly – marvellously – into feudal Japan, elevating all the perversions of honour and madness of the original text.  But here there doesn’t seem to be a deeper thematic reason for transplanting the action of the story to a British trading outpost in Japan outside of aesthetic quirkiness.

A title card informs the audience that these are colonial traders who have set up a ‘treaty port’ during the nebulous late 19th century period of British-Japanese political relations.  Taken just at face value, Branagh appears to have simply replicated the original play’s romantic rejection of society and its embrace of the rejuvenating lustre of the natural world in the forests of Japan rather than a mythic British wilderness (although ironically he still films it in England).  And that’s nice in theory – the stuffy Brits are going to learn about real life by being exposed to another culture – but that doesn’t really manifest in the play.  In its place, a lot of complex, thorny issues of cultural appropriation are evoked that threaten to become outright controversial.

To begin with, all the of the principle characters are played by western actors – including many of those in the supposedly Japanese peasantry that have multiple lines.  Even Charles the wrester (here a sumo wrestler, natch) has a western manager who speaks for him.  Secondly, although Branagh attempts to utilise the trappings of Japanese culture to allow his western characters to access a truth within themselves (an impulse coming from a complimentary, if misguided, place) in practice, aside from a pretty estate, some fine clothes, a zen garden, and a token, unspeaking monk, there is little indication that Japan has impacted these characters much at all.  His principle characters remain western imperialist intruders into a culture that they are in the process of coopting as their own.

If I sound like I’m really down on the film – I’m not.  It’s still lovely.  It’s just a shame, because it feels like there is something of more substance to say in the work that is never fully articulated.  That in this enchanting Shakespearean fantasy cultures can be respected and genuinely shared beyond the limitations of genealogy.  In practice though, at best the Japanese aesthetic is a pretty but ultimately pointless coat of paint, at worst it risks playing as more of a celebration of imperialist assimilation and the coopting of a culture.

But it is beautiful, and well acted, and by the time Orlando has been attacked by some stock footage of a tiger, I am already in the thrall of Rosalind’s layers of playful fraud.  Because here too, reality is joyfully bent to a happier end – you just have to be willing to ignore the bad, socially disheartening stuff for a moment, and indulge your imagination…

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

* * *

* It’s All Relative appears to have run for two seasons before ending in 2015.

** He even uses verse sparingly, with the majority of the interactions between the two lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, rendered in prose.

* * *

Texts Mentioned:

Book: As You Like It by William Shakespeare (ed. by H.J. Oliver, Penguin, 2005)

Production: As You Like It, directed and screenplay by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Throne of Blood, directed by Akira Kurosawa, screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (Toho Studios, 1957)

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THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 04: ‘Making Troy Great Again!’; Troilus and Cressida and Rhetoric.

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

It is an understatement to say that Troilus and Cressida is a hard play to love.  More accurately, it seems near impossible to find anyone who says they love it.  Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays Troilus and Cressida is little discussed, infrequently performed, and when spoken of in criticism, usually prefaced with some backhanded commentary (like this) about how baffling a ‘problem play’ such has this has always proved to be.*  In his discussion of the play, Jack Vaughn repeatedly refers to elements of the plot and its characters as ‘botched’, ‘pointless’, ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘confusing’ (at its very best he calls it ‘stageworthy’).  Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, calls it ‘the most difficult and elitist of all [Shakespeare’s] works’ (p.327).

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had no idea what to expect from Troilus and Cressida before approaching it for this discussion.  I’d not previously read it, nor seen it.  I knew almost nothing of its plot, its characters, nor its reputation.  Somewhere along the way I’d gathered that it involved a love story, though I ‘d never read Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, upon which Shakespeare based his narrative.  I knew it involved the Trojan War (with which I’m more familiar) but did not know in what capacity, or from which angle he approached it.  So I went in fresh – arguably perfectly primed for the experience – and what I read, and then later saw, was legitimately haunting.  And it would take months, and the daily dispatches of the American presidential race, for me to figure out exactly why.

But more on that later…

In Shakespeare’s canon Troilus and Cressida is a bizarre outlier – and it seems to revel in this disorientation.  Described by some (including the First Folio of 1623) as a tragedy, by others a comedy (in the searing satirical vein rather than the playful or romantic), and still others as a semi-historical riff on Greek myth (the Quarto of 1609 calls it a history), Troilus and Cressida is altogether everything and nothing at once.  It sets up multiple narratives, only to then thwart or undermine every one.  It promises a love story (in its title, no less) that turns into less than a cheap one night stand and a torrent of bitter insults; concerns the most legendary war in human history, and yet reduces it to a gaggle of smug bros flexing at, shouting over, or ambushing one another like cowards.

It’s a play that I have come to learn has a bit of a curious history.  It seems to have never been presented at Shakespeare’s The Globe during his lifetime – although that could suggest many things.  Perhaps Shakespeare was not finished writing it to a producible standard (unlikely); perhaps its subject matter was potentially too inflammatory to be seen (given everything that happens in act 5 this might be possible); or it was performed there and the evidence is just lost.  The first recorded production of the original play (an altered version by John Dryden played during the Restoration) was in the early 20th century, a time that seems fitting for the pessimism and contempt for war that infuse the work.

Ostensibly it is the story of two Trojans, Troilus and Cressida, whose burgeoning romance is cut short by the politicking of their city’s war with the Greeks – but this is all an overt misdirection.  Really the plot concerns the war itself, and the character of the people engaged in it.  The other source that Shakespeare clearly drew upon for inspiration, besides Chaucer, was Homer’s Iliad – and that poem, which proves to be a war book to condemn the futility of war, Shakespeare’s play is similarly critical, offering a scathing social satire.

The play’s myriad subversions of expectation begin from its opening second.  As a prologue, Shakespeare has a narrator enter dressed in a suit of armour to give a brief account of the Trojan War.  There’s the vow to ransack Trojan King Priam’s city; the romance between Paris and Helen; ‘the quarrel’; the disposition of the warriors; the layout of the camps; the doorways of Troy itself.  He talks of the location and security of the two armies, the fortitude spurring them all on to impending hazard, but he also draws attention to his own curious costuming, and the play itself.

He has seemingly come to perform the thankless task of delivering exposition, informing the audience that the story is starting midway through the mythic events of the Trojan conflict, but more than that, he has wandered out on stage, dressed for war, to declare that war is not the principle thing on the menu.  In actuality, his whole speech is a stage-setting distinctly obsessed with defences and deflection – both literal and figurative:

                                ‘And hither am I come,

A prologue armed, but not in confidence

Of author’s pen or actor’s voice, but suited

In like condition of our argument…’ (‘Prologue’, 22-5)

Alongside describing the defences of each army, he is warning the viewer to be on guard too; he even admits that he doesn’t know if the play is any good, nor the acting that great.  He warns the viewer to take nothing in this caustically ironic myth at face value.

Which brings attention to the next great quirk of this introduction: there’s no mention, at all, of the play’s titular characters.  Unlike the introduction of Romeo & Juliet, which sets up the plight of the play’s lovers in a context of conflict and ruin – that of the corrupted ‘fair’ Verona – here the lover’s romance is not even name-checked.  The table is set for war – and perhaps love – but it is all placed deliberatively in a state of potentiality:

‘Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are:

Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war.’ (‘Prologue’ 30-1)

War may or may not break out; love may or may not happen; the play may or may not be any good – that will all be up to us to discern.  No wonder the Prologue so overtly alerts the viewer to the artifice of the production – the costumes, the writer, the performers – because the play itself is about to unfold, not as a battlefield, not even as a love story, but as an act of bewilderment.

It is about courtship amongst carnage; except that it’s not.  About mythic warfare; except it deflates that too.  In its title and its prologue, it intrigues us with the promise of wooing, and the tragic majesty of war, but will leave both unfulfilled, instead satirically exposing how empty the longing for both of these things is in a world of empty posturing.

For a story set in a war that famously ends with the sly infiltration of a walled city – the Trojan Horse – these negotiations of guarding and deceit are potent indeed.  As the play proceeds it takes up the images of protection and shielding that pepper the introduction, but in doing so reveals the whole psychology of the war, and these two peoples, Trojans and Achaeans, to be twisted into paranoid defensiveness.

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IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida by J. Coghlan (early 19th century)

The lovers, at first, both proclaim a need to hide their true feelings.  Troilus claims that he has to hide his affection for Cressida (‘buried this sigh in a wrinkle of a smile’ (1.1.38); his ‘sorrow … is crouched in seeming gladness’ (1.1.39));  Cressida has to outpace her uncle’s wit when he tactlessly tries to set her up with Troilus, a man she’s not yet actually met.  Being a woman in this world means remaining constantly at alert against attack.  Cressida lies, she says,

‘Upon my back, to defend my belly; upon my wit, to
defend my wiles; upon my secrecy, to defend mine
honesty; my mask, to defend my beauty; and you, to
defend all these: and at all these wards I lie, at a
thousand watches.’ (1.2.252-6)

Almost immediately after this she reveals that she does in fact like Troilus a great deal, she simply feels she has to hide it from him (and everyone else) lest he lose interest in her for being too easy to win over (and her fears of his fickle affections will indeed be proved true).

Cressida observes:

‘Men prize the thing ungained more than it is’ (1.2.275)

And the play proves her right.  Every longed for object – Cressida; Troy; Helen – is elevated to a state of impossible glory in the minds of those who claim to desire it.  But the result of this affected detachment is, ironically, the devaluing of that which is pursued.  In the case of the women being pursued, this belittling apparently occurs even in their own minds.  Love becomes a boast; a lover a trophy to wave in the enemy’s face.

Diomedes, the Greek sent to exchange Cressida for Antenor (a Trojan prisoner being returned) sees through the artifice of all this ‘nobility’ and is willing to describe it as a bitter squabble over a ‘prize’ that is already devalued by the conflict.  Helen, he says, is now either dishonoured or a whore, with the innumerable men who have died in her name only sullying her worth further (4.1.55-75).

‘She hath not given so many good words breath

As for her Greeks and Trojans suffered death’ (4.1.74-5)

And yet Paris, so enamoured with his ego-delighting prize, dismisses Diomedes’ words as envy, only continuing the pointless cycle of love’s debasement into pride.

The play is overstuffed with characters proudly displaying how little they know themselves.  Ajax claims he doesn’t even know what pride is (2.3.146), and yet he is locked in a petty pissing contest with Achilles; Agamemnon condemns pride (2.3.150) despite his own arrogance being the cause of the rift between he and Achilles; Paris claims to be doing the honourable thing in not offering up Helen, despite it clearly being selfishness; and Troilus argues the moral virtue of keeping the stolen queen Helen – all of which is proved, later, to be a projection of his own fickle lust for Cressida.  He calls Helen:

‘a theme of honour and renown,

A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,

Whose present courage may beat down our foes,

And fame in time to come canonise us’ (2.2.198-201)

And yet – as Hector suggests – Troilus is really just hopped up on his own hormonal longing for Cressida, and will abandon all these noble words of honour, and the supposed ‘glory’ of defending a stolen prize with blood, when Troilus’ own moment comes his fellow Trojans decide to trade Cressida away to the Greeks and he doesn’t fight for her.  Not even with more pretty words.

Ultimately, this is a play to make you hate men.  Simpering, cowardly, narcissistic Paris; braying, egomaniacal, thuggish Achilles; hypocritical, inconsistent Troilus; conniving, manipulative Ulysses; sleazy Pandarus; Ajax the blowhard idiot; Agamemnon the smug; Menelaus the belligerent and petty; even prideful Hector.  Mankind, in all its forms, is cast in the most unflattering light.  As Ulysses says, speaking of Achilles but proving a fitting summation of most every male character in the play:

         ‘possessed he is with greatness,

And speaks not to himself but with pride,

That quarrels as self-breath’ (2.3.164-6)

Each is so distracted with ‘imagined worth’ that they become lost in a fruitless battle with themselves.

Meanwhile women – when they are not being disingenuously exulted – are derided, discarded or damned.  Those not placed upon dehumanising pedestals are subjected to other insult.  When Aeneas arrives (Act 1, Sc 2) to announce Hector’s challenge to fight any Trojan brave enough to fight him, the challenge comes loaded with the insult that no Greek has a lover as fine as Hector’s wife, nor one worth defending as he does.  Greek women aren’t worthy loving, he says.

Cassandra, who appears to see through all this idiocy into the madness of it all, goes ignored; Andromache is shushed and dismissed; Helen is squabbled over and objectified, both a jewel and an albatross around the Trojan necks, with no worth but to be lusted after, even by those who hate her; and Cressida, after being pimped out by her uncle, is traded like cattle into her enemies’ hands, is then condemned, both by her wavering, spineless ‘lover’, and seemingly the play itself.  When she even entertains being wooed by one of her captors she is called unfaithful, false, stained, a whore, a depravity that debases all of womanhood (and that’s Troilus saying most of that – the guy who handed her over to his enemies without hesitation, having just slept with her – so, charmer) (5.2.127-31).

Troilus and Cressida 02

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

Women are expected to maintain some impossible, saintly image in this play, to always defend the ‘virtues’ and ‘beauties’ and fantasies that men project upon them, while those same men go to every effort to tear down those defences, to undermine or ignore them.  They are set with an impossible, irrational, doomed task, and then are condemned when they inevitably cannot satisfy these contradictory demands.

In this sense, it may well be Shakespeare’s most modern, if unrelentingly bleak, plays.  In the wake of Gamergate, the uproar over a female Ghostbusters, and an unceasing industry of patronisingly sexist articles like the drooling interview with Margot Robbie in Vanity Fair, this searing indictment of entrenched patriarchy and systemised, celebrated misogyny retains all of its bite.

Amidst this ugliness, Shakespeare does not even offer the audience a sympathetic character with which we can identify.  The closest, perhaps, are two characters who actively repel the audience.  The first, Pandarus, is the play’s most peculiar character.  Distractible, a little thick, so focused on trying to woo Cressida in Troilus’ name that he is blind to most everything else – even Cressida’s seeming indifference.  And yet, if there is an audience equivalent in this play, a window into its fiction, it is he.  When the whole narrative has seemingly abandoned Troilus and Cressida’s story in order to fiddle about in the Grecian camp, watching arrogant men poke one another’s pride, he is the only one left asking what is going on with the love story that gives the play its name.  In a suffocating war, he still raves effusively for love.  Like the audience, he seems to be the only one who came to see a love story; and so, by the end of this play’s action, he is left sick and mad, destroyed both body and soul in the face of so much hate and carnage and waste.

The second potential point of view character for the audience is Thersites, a guy so cynical and fed up with everyone around him that when faced with death his bid to live is: ‘I am a rascal; a scurvy, railing knave; a very filthy rogue’ (5.4.27).  Essentially, I’m not worth killing because I’m a scumbag who doesn’t care about any of this war crap.  And while that is a bold self-critique of the play and its themes, it makes it a difficult work (as the play’s prologue warned) to love.

It is probably this wilful discomforting of the audience that has led to this being one of Shakespeare’s least filmed plays.  There are no major motion pictures based on his script, and the one production I found to view (there is another 2015 short film version that I’ve not been able to track down) comes from the BBCs television film series in which they were obligated to produce every one of this works.

Troilus and Cressida (1981) is worth watching, though, as it makes some curious choices in its staging, casting, and acting that only adds to the undermining of expectation that begins from the first moment the actors step on stage.  The result is a series of stylistic choices that annoyed me at first, but that are clearly designed to create a jarring effect which ultimately won me over, even if my unease with the original work still remains.

Firstly, it has to be said that the mythic soldiers of Greece and Troy are rather a bit older than one might expect, and (to put it politely) considerably less battle-ready than the text itself would suggest.  Across the board the acting is solid (if leaning a little too far into stagey pronouncement at times), but the performers’ age and appearance make all the talk of warfare and bloodshed and hand-to-hand combat comical.  When war councils are called it looks more like a gaggle of AARP members passive-aggressively bickering over how to split the cheque at the early bird buffet.  When Achilles turns up, the most brutal, merciless, unstoppable warrior of all time looks like a retired plumber.  And although according to legend the character of Aeneas will go on after the events of Shakespeare’s play to gather the refugees of Troy, travel perilous seas, have a doomed romance with Dido, descend into Hades, invade Italy, and found the great nation of Rome, here he looks like Santa Claus in a duffle coat.  After he delivers a message he looks like he needs a good lie down.

There’s no fury, no passion, no sense of urgency in any of them.

Clearly this was a deliberate choice rather than merely the natural result of a 1980s BBC casting call.  Troilus and Cressida are played by comparatively younger performers, so it draws a bold visual distinction between the titular lovers and everyone around them: youth versus weary age; idealism versus cankerous cynicism; affection versus  self-adoration.  However, the consequence is a play that undermines its central characters from the very start – opening them up to the satire that courses throughout every aspect of the play.

Unfortunately, for me, this creates a stumbling block in the production.  Rather than sharing Troilus’ misconception that his fellow warriors are men of nobility and honour, only to later be disabused of this misconception, we begin already mystified by his misplaced regard.  For Troilus, his disenchantment with war and love and valour is four acts away; for the audience it occurs as soon as Aeneas shuffles onto stage and sighs in Act 1 Sc 1, robbing the play of its methodical unpacking of ‘heroic mythology’ by making the subtext immediately text.

Again, this is no doubt part of the desired effect, but by keeping the conflict so abstracted from the glib posturing of these heroes, by making them so comically unfit for war in the first place, to me, the play gives away the thematic twist all too early, meaning that the audience is never able to invest in the mythos being dissolved.  We begin contemptuous of Troilus’ delusions long before his – and his society’s – hypocrisies are revealed.

Troilus and Cressida

IMAGE: Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

The set design and costuming are similarly a curious mix of anachronisms.  There is more than a bit of Doctor Who to the production – not surprising for a BBC television production with a limited budget – with only two sets, a great hall in Troy and a Greek encampment, getting filmed from multiple angles to give an illusion of expansiveness.  For its part, Troy has a Giorgio de Chirico vibe, filled with staircases that go nowhere, empty corridors into nothing, bare arches and plinths, with the whole environment having no sense of yet being under siege.  The Greek camps are seething mud and campfires, cramped tents spilling over with throw pillows and prostitutes.  There’s a marked contrast between the two spaces, but no real sense of how they relate to each other.  The fighting between Trojan and Greek is sparse, filmed in awkward close up, or in the case of Ajax and Hector, as an afterthought slap-fight in the background.  The only real sense that the Greeks are in any way inconveniencing or encroaching upon the Trojans comes in the final scenes when the dead and dying start piling up.  Only then does the stark, museum lighting give way to a shadowy gloom.

Just personal preference, but I’m less in love with the costuming – this production chooses to ditch the ancient Mediterranean for more of a renaissance fair vibe – because the chipping away of the classical pseudo-historical myth of the Trojan War  seems to me to be the point of the play.  However, the alternate-reality perpetual-war evoked by this grab-bag of outfits and set design works well enough.

For a couple of months now, both before and after I saw this BBC version, I’ve been trying to diagnose what it is about Troilus and Cressida that so unnerves me.  Yes, it is a dark satire.  It sells itself on themes of love and heroism, only to actively denigrate those concepts; to prostitute them out, in the language of Pandarus, until, like him, they are diseased and vile.  And for that, I admire the work, and the statement about humanity it makes, as callous and spiteful as that message proves to be.  But there’s something more, something I find genuinely disturbing.  And then, this past weekend, I read an article by George Saunders in The New Yorker called ‘Who Are All These Trump Supporters’ and it all clicked into place.

Saunders’ article is about the rise of Donald Trump throughout this presidential campaign, and the temperament of his most ardent followers.  It explores both the grassroots supporters and the protesters that frequent Trump’s rallies: those that turn up to cheer, that parrot the talking points, that jostle and attack and whip themselves into a fury on both sides of America’s needlessly bifurcated political spectrum.  As you can imagine, it is a dispiriting read.  But what it reveals most is that there is an impulse – in the vile, intolerant rhetoric that Trump uses to enflame his followers’ sense of disenfranchisement; in those supporters’ willingness to overlook or excuse the repugnant behaviour of their presidential hopeful; and in the protestors’ willingness to descend into the same bigotry and rancour they claim to oppose – to willingly devalue the very principles one is hoping to celebrate, if it means claiming victory over your opposition.

As Saunders displays, Trump and his supporters want to protect free speech – unless someone else is saying something they don’t like.  They want to make their country great again – by ignoring its founding principles of freedom and papering over the realities of its history.  Protestors against Trump want to stop the racist slurs and invective – unless they are the ones using it.   And everyone, everywhere, on both sides, is intent on propping up whatever their position is by making fraudulent assertions, claiming to be the most patriotic, and mistaking bullying aggression for strength.  It’s Troilus and Cressida – only it is stripped of all the mythology and just lying bare and ugly for all to see.

As human beings we live in a perpetual state of opposition.  We identify ‘Others’ and try to distinguish ourselves through the contradictions in our world views.  Us and them.  Male and female.  Democrat and Republican.  Trojan and Greek.  But what we miss, in this blind, defensive posturing, this willingness to boil everything down to a false bipolarity of thought, is the similarities in our behaviours that bind us (even if sometimes only at the most base, lizard-brain, elemental level) to one another.

The consequence is that we now live in a time where public discourse itself seems to have devolved into a despairing farce.  A time when news organisations blatantly perpetuate their own narratives  and create their own ‘facts’.  A time in which one of the two nominees running for control of the most powerful country on Earth – a candidate whose popularity resoundingly trounced his rivals – is a man that routinely demonises immigrants and Muslims and ‘elites’.  Who insults women, mocks the disabled, and scoffs at prisoners of war.  Who celebrates himself after national tragedies, advocates for war crimes, and looks to Mussolini and multiple white supremacists for inspirational quotes.  A man so insecure and desperate to prove his machismo that he has to stop a presidential debate to assure that world that he has a wonderful penis.

Trump pledge

IMAGE: Donald Trump at the University of Central Florida, March 2016

I said earlier that Troilus and Cressida might well be Shakespeare’s most modern play.  Not only for its gender politics, but for the scathing catalogue it offers of a world of self-destructive misogyny, xenophobia, and feckless bluster, one that celebrates arrogance and  ignorance and brutality in a cruel, empty campaign of fraudulent self-gratification.  Sure, these have all been features of contemporary society for generations now – Shakespeare clearly saw some of it in the turn of the 17th century – but in the wake of the Trump Presidential campaign, now it seems downright prophetic.

Troilus and Cressida promises much – the great romance of Romeo & Juliet, the heroic battle of Henry V, the interrogation of human interiority of As You Like It, even the tragedy of Hamlet – and yet it thwarts these at every opportunity.  It shows the emptiness of its ‘tragic’ heroes, reveals characters driven by blind obsessions and pride, reveals war to be an ugly, deceitful, squalid business, and exposes it’s ‘lovers’ as inconstant frauds.  It is a play that dares you to hate it (again: that prologue), and yet in its constant frustration of expectation it becomes a fascinating, if disturbing, portrait of humanity’s natural inclination toward self-deception and fear.

troilus-and-pandarus2

IMAGE: Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida (BBC, 1981)

This play ends with a madman ranting about how diseased he and his world have become.  Trump, the world-view he espouses, and the slurry of bloodthirsty bipartisan hate speech that he has gathered around himself, seem equally as contemptible.

Just not as honest.

donald-trump

IMAGE: Donald Trump

***

* The term ‘Problem Play’ was coined by F.S. Boas in 1896, and is used in reference to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well – all plays that are too dark and filled with disturbing subject matter to be easily classified as comedies, and yet too playful in tone to be outright tragedies.  Of course, the term ‘Problem Play’ is itself plenty problematic.  Other titles are frequently added or subtracted from that list, including Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale, and the term itself remains contentious, with many critics not recognising its validity at all.

***

 Texts mentioned:

Book: Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare (ed. by Kenneth Muir, Oxford World’s Classics, 1982)

Production: The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare: Troilus & Cressida (directed by Jonathan Miller, BBC television movie, 1981)

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (Berkley Publishing Group, 1998)

‘Troilus and Cressida’ by Jack A. Vaughn, from Shakespeare’s Comedies (Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1980)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 03: ‘Despair and Die’; Richard III and Anarchy in the UK

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2016 by drayfish

richard iii richard

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

I had no idea Shakespeare was a such a punk.

I mean, I’ve read Richard III before.  I remembered how unnervingly charming the central character was, even in spite of (or perhaps because of) his physical and psychological deformity.  I recalled how drenched in blood the narrative becomes, starting with the overthrowing of Henry VI (whose death occurs before the play even starts) and descending from there into a whirlpool of slaughter, with Richard happily carving up his family, colleagues, conspirators – and even country when it descends into a full blown civil war.  But reading it again, and then watching Ian McKellan’s feisty film production, Richard III (1995), it all became so obvious:

This is the ultimate punk rock story. 

Sure, Shakespeare missed the heyday of the punk period – his play was first performed four centuries before The Ramones were transformed into Hot Topic’s best selling t-shirt.*  And sure, the only time that ‘music’ is mentioned it’s when Richard is gloating about how sweet the sound of two young boys being murdered will be (although those could conceivably be Misfits lyrics).  But the whole play’s sensibility is so anarchic and anti-establishment that it’s hard not to picture Shakespeare in a Mohawk and sleeveless denim, shouting the plot in the face of the police officer he just tried to glass.

Shakespeare was young when he wrote Richard III.  The play is said to have been penned around 1592 when he was still in his late twenties, just starting to flex his muscles in the leap from an actor to writer.  And this youthful exuberance shows, in all the best ways.  This feels like the work of an audacious young writer, one willing to push boundaries, upend historical record, and risk offence.

The Richard Shakespeare presents  has become infamous for his delighted scheming.  He stands alongside Iago from Othello and Edmund from King Lear in pantheon of charismatic Shakespeare villains, but to me he outstrips them both because (at least for the first portion of the play) he’s so utterly, irredeemably badass.  Full of scene-chewing sarcasm and bile, he laughs at the snivelling halfwits that make up his family and colleagues, all of whom he knows he can dance like puppets.  He uses and discards people without compunction.  At the height of his power he is able to seduce the woman whose husband he killed, literally while his corpse lies beside them.

He’s a character so comfortable in his ruthlessness that he doesn’t even bother inventing a justification for his villainy.  The closest that we get comes in his opening soliloquy in which he says he is just bored:

Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away my time (1.1.24-5).

The war is over, and there’s nothing else to do, so why not burn everything down for the fun of it?  It’s no wonder that the play’s signature line, spouted by the ghosts of everyone Richard has murdered becomes ‘Despair, and die!’  ‘Trollin’ for the LOLS’ presumably read a little less poetic.

And Shakespeare clearly has a ball with Richard’s gleeful, unrepentant, pantomime evil.  Near every line the character speaks has a wicked double meaning that throbs with evil portent if you’re in on the gag.  ‘Well, your imprisonment shall not be long; / I will deliver you’ (1.1.114-5), he says to the brother whose murder he has already planned; ‘A greater gift than that I’ll give my cousin’ (3.1.115) he says to the boy he has already marked for death; ”Tis death to me to be at enmity; / I hate it, and desire all good men’s love’ (2.1.60-1), he says to a gathering of his royal family, almost the entirety of whom he is about to murder, frame, threaten or manipulate into ruin.

He blows up or hollows out every monarchic ceremony he confronts.  He fakes the call to rule – pretending to be unwilling to accept the crown that he has manipulated and schemed for until his fellow countrymen beg him for it.  He throws a conversational hand grenade into a scene of familial peacemaking – ‘Oh, are you guys all patching things up?  Cool, because I forgot to tell you that because of all of you our brother was killed, like, five minutes ago.  Nice job, bro.’  He perverts one scene of courtly romance by staging it over the corpse of his conquest’s dead ex-husband, and perverts the next trying to convince a mother to marry off her daughter to him, despite the fact that he happily killed most everyone else in their family.  He slaughters prisoners.  He snaps at and berates his military advisors.  And as he upends each of these sacred, kingly duties, you can almost hear the voice of Sid Vicious, shouting into a beer-soaked microphone:

Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.**

The full scene of Richard’s seduction of Anne alone is a fantastic expression of this punk ethos.  Anne, furious, berates Richard with charges of murder, but he twists her rage into a perverse attraction, corrupting everything sacred by robbing it of meaning.  If her husband Henry was such a great guy, he says, then it’s probably better off that he’s dead, because we live in a world of sin.  And Richard himself, he claims, is less suited for hell, as she claims, than he is for her bed, because she’s so hot.  He even claims that his attraction for her is the reason he murdered her husband, and ultimately turns ‘love’ itself into an infection by remodelling her insult (‘thous dost infect my eyes’ (1.2.148) into a come-on (‘Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine’ (1.2.147-9)).  Their warped, psychosexual exchange culminates in an offering of murder as romance: when she says she wants him dead, he actually offers her a sword:

[he lays his breast open: she offers at it with the sword]

Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry,

But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me.

Nay, now dispatch; ’twas I that stabbed young Edward,

But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.

[she falls the sword] (1.2.179-82)

And when she flinches, dropping it to the ground in horror, he hands her the weapon again, upping the ante: ‘Take up the sword again, or take up me.’ (1.2.183)

Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995) (he not only stars as the title role, but co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s director Richard Loncraine) not only understands this punk sensibility, it doubles down on it.  From the opening titles – in which Richard guns a man down in cold blood, and the name of the movie is splashed in bold red across his face, one letter appearing with every blast – through to the film’s end, in which Richard, grinning, hurls himself backward off a building into a consuming ball of fire, the film continuously pushes its boundaries, testing offence.  In McKellen’s version Richard mocks the children that he’s about to murder.  Robert Downey Jr., while literally in the middle of having sex with a stewardess, gets (somehow) stabbed through the chest.  There are hangings.  People get their throats slashed in the bath.  Richard sits bopping along to a big band album while happily flicking through photos of the guy that he framed and had murdered.  In a fever dream, McKellen appears with his face twisted into a grotesque mutant boar.

And what else?  What else…?

Oh, yeah: Richard turns England into Nazi f**king Germany.

Which is pretty wild.

Richard III Nazi

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Even as a way of showing how perverse Richard and his corrupted rule have become, even as a natural extension of the original play’s punk spirit, of the evoking Godwin’s rule is a bold move.  Not that it doesn’t have precedent.  For Shakespeare, the sitting Queen of the time, Elizabeth, was granddaughter of Henry Tudor (Richmond in the play), so there was no way he was going to make Richard, the guy who her grandfather defeated, sympathetic.  Charmingly maniacal was fine, but someone to empathise with?  Hell, no.  So Shakespeare’s Richard became a ghoulish creature: a nasty, withered hunchback, who spent two years in the womb, and arrived sneering and chewing at the world will full grown teeth.  McKellen and Loncraine can be seen to be simply continuing this demonization of Richard in their film by taking it to the next extreme: Nazis.  And so, with a few cosmetic tweaks (the swastikas are swapped for boars heads), suddenly England is being policed by jackbooted thugs, war is declared, and Richard is one hunt for a religious artefact away from being punched in the face by Indiana Jones.

The element McKellen and Loncraine perhaps best capture is the seduction of the viewer.  One of Shakespeare’s most ingenious moves in the crafting of his play was to make Richard alluring to his audience.  When he first begins his anarchic campaign of upending of the status quo, Richard playfully invites the audience along for the ride: Watch me screw around with these idiots, he says.  See me set up my dumb brother.  Watch as I get away with all this crazy crap and take the throne for myself.  And then, with glee, he goes ahead and does it.  All of it.  He weaves an elaborate web of lies that only we in the audience know is a complete load of bunk and smiles at us, sharing the joke.

‘Was ever a woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever a woman in this humour won?’ (1.2.227-8) he asks us after winning over Anne, then immediately adds that he’s going to kill her too eventually: ‘I have her; but I will not keep her long’ (1.2.229).  He makes us his confidant, tempting us into laughing along as the world burns.  We become, in effect, accomplices.  Tickled by this schadenfreudeian thrill, we share in his murderous glee, delighting as goes about thinning the herd of the fatuous, idle rich.

McKellen’s Richard is Effectively an Elizabethan Tyler Durden from Fight Club.  He peers out of the screen at us, breaking the fourth wall and scampering across every layer of text to drag us into his cynical amorality.  And the first (and most famous) speech of the play is a perfect enactment of this seduction.  Here, the opening portion of the soliloquy (‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious by this sun of York…’ (1.1.1-2)) is delivered into a microphone, turned from an expositional aside into a beguiling toast of false flattery to a room full of the people he despises.  But it is in the second portion of the speech that he gets metatextual.  At first growling to himself as he uses the urinal (‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks…’ (1.1.14)), he eventually transitions into a direct address to the audience once he catches sight of us in the bathroom mirror.  It’s a wonderfully jolting piece of staging, emblematic of his beguiling stretch beyond the boundaries of his fiction: he peers out at us through a reflection of himself, his delivery dripping with sarcastic malice.***

Richard III close up

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

And from that point on, Richard is all of our focus.  Indeed, if there is one criticism that could be levelled at this film it is the decision to cut almost everything from the script not featuring, nor directly about, Richard – but it is entirely the right impulse.  McKellen is captivating in this film.  He tears every scene up, right through until the film’s frenzied, reworked endpoint, with the country beset by civil strife of his making, the monarchy rocked with multiple murders that he arranged, and Richard plunging himself backward into a maelstrom of hellfire, chewing a delighted grin.  He repurposes a line that in the play is delivered to his army: ‘Let us do it pell-mell; / If not in heaven, then hand in hand to hell’ (5.3.310-11), offering  the ultimate anarchist, punk-rock end.  He may as well have shouted ‘YOLO’ and flicked everyone off, with the new king, McNulty from The Wire, left to wonder why he too ever bothered to give a f**k.

Richard III YOLO

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Of course, by this point the viewer has long since become immune to Richard’s charms.  Like the punk movement itself, Richard’s  unchecked nihilism has played itself out and eventually the fun is over.  Richard becomes king – he win the day; getting it over on all his stupid relatives – but he doesn’t know when to stop, and inevitably pushes his twisted campaign too far.  As the play progresses he devolves from a charming schemer into a myopic, pathetic bully.  He starts lashing out at his underlings.  He turns on his loyal lackey Buckingham and has him killed.  He has his nephews murdered, even though they are already imprisoned at his mercy.  He’s not being witty or clever.  He’s no longer stinking it to the man.  He is the man.

McKellen’s version plays this tipping point beautifully, presenting it as the culmination of Richard’s blinding arrogance.  In this version he is shown sitting in state, watching his own coronation being played on a black and white film projector as the dispirited members of his court sit idle.  The camera circles him as he issues orders to Buckingham dismissively, barely turning his head, and smirking in cruel delight.  All the swagger that had so energised him earlier, the crafty, energetic conniving, is now slumped into facile complacency.  And it is in this moment of masturbatory self-reflection that he orders the royal heirs – his young nephews, who he has already imprisoned in the tower – dead.

Throughout the play Richard has brilliantly used his appearance to knock his accusers off guard, to make them underestimate him.  Oh, so you think I’m wicked just because I look freaky, and cannot flatter you? he asks his enemies, even as we are watching him perform a master-class of flattery and wickedness.  It makes people underestimate him.  And by this midpoint of the play we realise that he has done the same thing to us, the viewer.  We get charmed by Richard initially because he appears to be telling us the truth, taking us into his confidence in a way he seemingly never does anyone else in the play.  We are his co-conspirators, and the sensation is intoxicating.  But, of course, he’s not really treating us differently to anyone else.  We are just seduced like his followers were – just like Anne was – at the start of the play.  And we too will be ignored when we’re no longer of any use.

Richard is repeatedly shown invoking a telling imagery of horses.  He declares ‘I run before my horse to market’ (1.1.160) when he is getting ahead of himself in his scheming; calls himself a ‘pack-horse’ (1.3.122); and in the lead up to war seems particularly obsessive about horses, shouting for one when he wakes from his guilty nightmare (5.3.177), commanding his soldiers to ‘Spur your proud horses hard’ (5.3.340), and repeating the word four times in twelve lines of dialogue while issuing his battle plans (5.3.289-300).  And of course, after all of this, as he meets his end, abandoned on the battlefield, his famous final lines cry out to the universe for one thing:

‘A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!’ (5.4.13).

What we realise is that we were his horse for the play.  We held him aloft in our delight of his scheming.  But when that relationship turns sour – when we lose the sense that he is a whip-smart underdog punching upwards, and instead see him (as everyone else in the play has all along) as simply a petty, psychotic despot punching down, his charm is overthrown (to borrow a phrase) and we, his loyal horse, buck him, leaving him for dead.

And that’s where the film concludes: in Richard’s pseudo-suicide; with fire and death and fury.  But the most punk thing about the original play is that it doesn’t just end here.  It keeps going.  The genius of Shakespeare’s play is that it doesn’t sputter out on empty nihilism; or paper over it with a superficial happy resolve.  Having used Richard to denigrate the social order, belittling monarchy and embracing anarchy, Shakespeare flips the script and punks out on punk itself.  The play celebrates the restoration of the monarchy that Richard tore down, now with a renewed significance.

Indeed, despite having scoffed at the idea of kingship, Richard too, in the end, proves to be just as blinded by its charms.  Despite doing everything in his power to debase and undermine the position of king – himself having stripped that title of all meaning – on the day of battle he still believes that his name as England’s monarch will inspire his soldiers to fight for him.  Richard – rogue, anarchist, and sociopath – reveals that even he didn’t believe his own disaffected swagger.  But unsurprisingly, his men, disenchanted, fail him, despite being superior in numbers.  He becomes a victim of his own cynicism.

Just as punk music gave way to New Pop, just as postmodernism subsided to allow for post-ironic embrace of sincerity, Richard III reaffirms the monarchy by first blowing it up.  By undermining the whole position of king and kingship, Shakespeare fills the concept with meaning.  And so this, the final play in Shakespeare’s eight-play account of the War of the Roses* ultimately asserts that the people of this world need a king – their rightful king.  Shakespeare might have used the image of a ‘bottled spider’ and a ‘foul bunch-back’d toad’, McKellen might have used the Nazis and mutant boars, but both show the inherent danger of a nihilistic anarchic impulse that collapses in on itself when there is nothing else left to believe in.

*             *             *

AS AN ASIDE:

Briefly, I should mention that I also listened to the audio production of Richard III, directed by David Timson and starring Kenneth Branagh, but I found it a little difficult to embrace.  Amidst some strong performances there are also a few moments of woeful overacting – even after you make allowances for the non-visual medium.  Clarence’s performance, in particular, is so hysterical that I was a little glad when his untimely death arrived, and Branagh himself doesn’t seem to entirely have a handle on his character.  His Richard spends the first half of the play fluctuating between a squirmy obsequiousness and a hiccoughy, giddy glee at how wicked he thinks he is, constantly rolling his words around in his mouth like he’s the moustache twirling villain of a telenovella.  To be fair, he gets considerably better when he embraces the ugly, snarling side of Richard later in the play, berating his soldiers and snapping at underlings, but as it is the early scenes that show Richard’s blindsiding charisma, it feels like something of an opportunity missed.

*             *             *

* Punk was a movement in the mid seventies that rejected the excesses of mainstream rock.  It presented itself as anti-establishment and railed against the perceived evils of ‘selling out’.  It was about non-conformity and individual freedom of expression.

** This quote may have only been apocryphally attributed to Vicious.  But misapplying quotations without academic scrutiny?  That’s pretty punk.

*** The movie is also subversive in other, more subtle ways too.  This play is famous for its dialogue not simply by virtue of being a Shakespeare play, but because this text in particular has one of the most iconic opening lines in history: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’  Here, however, it is 10 full minutes before a single line of dialogue is spoken, as the stage setting is done in a lush, non-verbal montage.

**** In their order of historical chronology: Richard II, Henry IV pts 1 and 2 and Henry V, Henry VI pts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III.  However Richard III was written before the first four plays in this list.

richard-iii-(1995)-large-picture-still

IMAGE: Richard III (United Artists, 1995)

Texts mentioned:

Richard III, screenplay by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine, directed by Richard Loncraine, adapted from William Shakespeare.  (United Artists, 1995)

Richard III by William Shakespeare, ed by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge University Press, 1968)

Richard III by William Shakespeare (audiobook), directed by David Timson (Naxos, 2001)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 02: Fair is foul, and foul is fair… unless it’s Macbeth (2006)

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by drayfish

macbeth-2006

IMAGE: Macbeth (2006)

I won’t bother trying to build suspense (the film itself certainly doesn’t): Macbeth (2006) is not good.

Almost everything that I was surprised to find myself praising about Romeo + Juliet (1996) is on display here again – the affected filmmaking techniques; the gutting of the original script; the breaking of mimetic reality – but unlike in Luhrmann’s inventive reappropriation, here it is done with such cynicism and laziness that the film tips over into derivative slop, unable to even invest in its own wrongheadedness and become a so-bad-it’s-good hate watch.

It’s just bad. It’s not good Shakespeare – besides spitting out a Cliff Notes version of his dialogue, it bears little thematic connection to the original play. It wastes good actors – well, most of them. And it misses the point of its own narrative utterly.

The list of own-goal blunders in this adaptation are almost too numerous to list, but before I take a stab at it (sorry), let me get the most obvious one off my chest:

Macbeth is meant to fall.

It’s at the heart of the tragedy. It’s the whole point of the tragedy. It’s arguably what tragedy means. A character starts in one place, and ends in another. Broken. Defeated. Corrupted. He falls.

Even if we don’t admire Macbeth in the beginning of Shakespeare’s play – he certainly has enough flaws straight out of the gates that reveal he’s not the most immediately lovable guy – we are still compelled to see that he is a highly regarded man. He is a proud and loyal soldier, respected by his fellow military and trusted absolutely by his king – a monarch, ‘Gracious’ Duncan, that we are told is not only adored by his people, but blessed by nature itself.

Shakespeare shows us all this so that we can feel acutely how far he has been reduced when we later see him splashed in his king’s blood, scheming his best friend’s murder, lying to the court, barking at ghosts, beating up his servants, patronising his unhinged wife, and screaming mad prophesies into the air as he slaughters his brothers in arms. We see how good he was so we can measure it against how bad he has willingly become. It’s not a difficult premise. Again, it’s basically screenwriting 101.

And yet…

In this version of Macbeth, the man we meet in the first minute of the movie is a drug-dealing, psychotic thug working for a murderous crime lord.

That’s where he starts.

So that ‘fall’ is going to be negotiable at best. Indeed, the narrative’s whole moral baseline is so completely out of skew that it undermines the remainder of the film.

You are meant to feel the horror of Macbeth killing his king: a righteous, generous, trusting father figure is slaughtered in his bed by a man he considered his host and his friend. But here it’s just one psycho killing another. ‘Dear me!’ we are meant to gasp. ‘That shady drug dealer who has already slaughtered multiple people and laughed beside their corpses is thinking of killing the degenerate mob boss who’s been groping his wife all night? How frightfully upsetting.’

So when he stumbles off to murder Duncan, you almost wonder whether it’s not meant to be a good thing. I mean, if Macbeth is still ‘good’ (by the presumed not exhibited logic of the film) then wouldn’t him getting rid of a bad guy potentially be a tick in the plus column? Why, he might really turn this organisation around! Maybe build a community outreach program or something.

Except no. He remains a baseline bloodthirsty maniac and the film’s moral compass barely twitches. Macbeth will still claim to have ‘murdered sleep’ in this version, but it becomes almost comical; it seems more like he was planning on using those bed sheets later and knows nothing is going to get those stains out.

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IMAGE: Underworld 4: Rise of the Copyright Litigation

It’s clear from the beginning what the film is trying to do. This is an Australian film, and if you believe that funding bodies of Australian films, what audiences wanted at the time was gangland crime stories. And lots of them. There seemed to be a slew of films produced that were either concerned with, or set on the periphery of the seedy, criminal underworld of metropolitan Australia.

Macbeth director Geoffrey Wright had made his name on a film called Romper Stomper (1992), the story of a gang of white supremacists. Eric Bana’s Chopper (2000) was a semi-biographical film about a gangland killer. Heath Ledger’s Two Hands (1999) was a comedy thriller about a kid in debt to a mob boss. And that’s before you even get to movies about all the impossibly beautiful heroin addicts apparently littering the country, like Candy (2006) and Little Fish (2005). Only two years after Macbeth’s release there would be a television series called Underbelly (2008-2013), an anthology miniseries that glamorised real-world Australian gangland crimes (think: a matey Sopranos with far clunkier writing and even more gratuitous nudity). ‘Inspired by real events’ and running for several years of diminishing returns it catalogued the murky dealings of drug dealers, killers, and the special police forces tasked with investigating them.

So you can understand the impulse of the filmmakers. You can almost feel hear the first production meeting:

‘Let’s make Macbeth feel contemporary and fresh. Let’s not just do another am-dram Reservoir Dogs version, or a cops in 1920s Chicago – let’s go to today’s headlines. What’s in the news?’

‘Well, there’s still plenty of talk about how the Victorian police force is corrupt…’

‘Police, eh? I like it. Gangland murders.’

‘That’s not what I –’

‘Yeah yeah yeah. Macbeth as a drug dealer. A Tony Soprano type. Clipping guys in the head. Going all Scarface on everyone’s ass. Prostitutes and guns and motorbikes and a dude having an orgy with three girls in Catholic school outfits.’

‘Wait. What?! What was that last one?’

‘I love it. Write it up. Get me the least expressive human in this country – he can be our lead – and populate the rest of the cast with great talent that get nothing to do but glower and have their dialogue drowned out with rock music. Orgies! I love it.’

‘But there are no girls in Catholic school outfits in Shakespeare’s –’

‘Didn’t you say there were bitches?’

‘I said witches.’

‘Witches. Bitches. Whatever. Just get it done. I want Goodfellas in singlets. Oh, and that Lady Macbeth washing her hands speech is a bit dull. See if you can get her to do it in the nude.’

And so we get this. Lots of shaky-cam and slow motion. Head-shot executions and machine guns and squibs. Long brooding pans of corpses littering the streets and tables spilling over with Jack Daniels bottles and lines of cocaine. An equally pretentious and predictable tonal misfire that wastes great actors (all except Avatar’s least three dimensional performer, Sam Worthington) and a promising premise for an antiheroic action film, resulting in an exploitative, self-satisfied snore.

And yet it could have all been so easy to fix. Had the filmmakers looked to the front page of any metropolitan newspaper in the country in the past few decades they could have seen a better set up for this premise staring them in the face. The Victorian police force (the very state in which this version of the film is set) have, in the past, become infamous for some major corruption scandals. Had they just run with this conceit – had Macbeth been a cop, an upstanding, celebrated member of the police force who becomes tempted by the power and prestige of becoming the commissioner, say – the story could have kept its seedy gangland vibe, and yet legitimately shown his descent from heroism to morally bankrupt carnage.

Even if they were married to the whole criminal in a criminal enterprise thing, there are ways to play that too. We could have watched an ethical man become incrementally compromised, like Walter White in Breaking Bad. We could be charmed by a morally repellent man, like Kevin Spacey and his inscrutable accent in House of Cards. Instead we get Sam Worthington (who, despite being terrible in this performance, to be fair, isn’t offered anything to work with), in a film that seems designed to hollow all the complexity and depth of the original text into hackneyed spectacle.

Macbeth 2006 witches

IMAGE: Totes Witches

Because I wasn’t kidding before about those witches. For no reason I can fathom , aside from the obvious cheap titillation, the three witches (who in some productions are played as being disinterested in Macbeth’s plight, such as in Roman Polanski’s film, or in others actively intent on destroying him, like in Orson Welles’ version) here are presented as three hot extras from The Craft who decide that what they really want from Macbeth is a laughably gratuitous orgy scene in a cheap knock-off of the Playboy mansion. Lost in a swirl of candles and veils and theatrical O-faces the second prophesy scene unravels like it was directed by a pubescent boy with two handfuls of undressed Barbie dolls.

It doesn’t even work as symbolic of his corruption; again, he’s already a murderous, drug-dealing senior player in a metropolitan criminal enterprise. He was already grinding on them during the scene where they imparted their first prophesy. By the time this orgy lazily meanders onto the screen, the idea that he might sleep around – let alone cheat on the wife that was calling him a dickless coward (‘screw your courage to the sticking place’, I.7.60), and encouraging him to massacre his boss – is not exactly a shocker.

And this complete lack of character psychology is true across the board, which, considering Macbeth is deservedly labelled Shakespeare’s most psychological play (an argument could be made for Hamlet, but I think Macbeth’s anti-heroic self-immolation clinches it) is a catastrophic misstep.

Macbeth is a play all about the unknown motivations that lie beneath the superficial masks its characters present to the world around them.* It’s why Lady Macbeth has to keep schooling her husband on how to play-act innocence (‘Your face, my thane, is as a book where men / May read strange matters’ (I.5.60-1); ‘look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t’ (I.5.63-4)). It’s why, beneath his hypocritical mask of grace and cordiality, Macbeth’s image of himself is finally eaten away, until all that is left is the performance, emptied of all meaning:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. (V.5.17-23)

But in this adaptation, just as there is no height from which these characters can fall, there likewise appears to be no subconscious from which they can be tormented.

And this superficiality is most detrimental in the depiction of the film’s two leads, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

To dig into my first example of this, you have to know that there has been a long academic squabble about whether or not Lady Macbeth had a child.  The dispute stems primarily from a moment in the play in which she is attempting to goad Macbeth into following through on the murder of Duncan:

                         I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would while it was smiling in my face
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.7.54-9)

It is a powerful, horrifying image, one used to jolt both husband and audience to attention. You made me a promise, she says. I would never break a promise to you, no matter how vile the act – even if it was to kill my own child – a child she implies did actually exist (‘I have given suck’). It is a collision of absolute dependence and complete betrayal, rhetorically realigning their morality to a personal bond, to which all else is sacrificed; Macbeth’s breaking of his word to her is more egregious a betrayal than infanticide.

It works. Macbeth goes off and does the deed, grumbling that she should only ever produce male children because all her femininity has clearly dried up. And since he spends the rest of play fretting that he has no heirs to inherit his throne, a whole history of critics have inferred that this means Lady Macbeth must actually have once had a child, who is now dead.** The speculation therefore runs that the couple is perhaps displacing their grief at losing a child into building a new future through murderous insurrection. A lost life gives birth to a new kingdom of death.

What some of these literal readings of Lady Macbeth’s words often do not address is that the whole speech is a performance. She has been hyperbolically perverting Macbeth’s image of himself as a man to make her point (‘Be so much more the man’ / ‘Then you were a man’), and when that doesn’t work, she likewise twists the image of herself as a woman to draw out the apparent disparity in their convictions. The ‘baby’ might well be metaphorical – a bit of knowing overstatement to make a point about their respective genders, and his relative weakness.

And indeed, Lady Macbeth’s word is later revealed to be suspect, the play going on to show that she is not the ghoulish immoral creature she declares herself to be. Despite inviting darkness into herself, claiming that she would willingly commit any villainous act, she chickens out of killing Duncan herself because he looks too much like her father; instantly begins to worry when it becomes clear her husband is off slaughtering people on his own; and is so horrified by her role in the murder that she becomes impossibly lost in a suicidal spiral of grief, nightly rising in her sleep to try and wash the blood from her hands. Just as Macbeth spends the play lying to himself about still being a good man, even after all his evil acts, she was lying to herself about being evil, while unable to entirely silence the remnants of her humanity.

And this baby marvellously exhibits the myriad ways in which her character can be played and interpreted: it may or may not be the reason she is so willing to embrace deceit and murder; it may or may not be at the heart of her motivations to spur he husband into action; it may or may not be entirely rhetorical. It’s a subtle piece of alluded back story, one that the performers and audience are free to engage with or ignore as they wish. It may be a clue to her behaviour, but it equally may be nothing.

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IMAGE: Lady Macbeth from Macbeth (2006)

In this production all that subtlety is gone. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are visiting their child’s grave in the first scene. His empty bedroom remains preserved in their home. And just in case you still didn’t get it, in the moment before Lady Macbeth prays to the dark forces of the world to ‘unsex’ her and fill her ‘from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty’ (I.5.40-1), she stares off at the theatrically foreboding silhouette of a child’s swing, empty and creaking in the night. Rather than deepening the inner life of this character and her husband, it plays more as cheap manipulation, a way to compel the audience to empathise with people the film has not bothered to give any other identifying features.

Another example of these characters’ superficiality is the way the film, distracted with its gangland theatrics, forgets to show its titular character’s mounting isolation.

One of the essential steps on Macbeth’s journey toward tyranny is the way in which he begins to distance himself from the people around him. As the story progresses, his support structure – the people through whom he used to see himself reflected – are slowly pushed away. At first, having heard the prophesy, he isolates himself from his King and fellow soldiers; then he distances himself from Banquo, who heard the very same prophesies he did; then his wife, with whom he planned and executed the murders; and finally even himself, as his entire sense of being deteriorates into an irresolvable, debased facsimile. By play’s end he is the hollow shell of what he once was – a lonely, self-loathing paranoiac, lashing out at everyone like a wounded animal.

But in the yet further mystifying choices this adaptation makes, Macbeth never sheds these support structures, because it’s not clear he ever had them to begin with. Banquo misses hearing the prophesy; when Macbeth is visited by the witches his friend is puking in the toilet (because rock and roll, man) and hears nothing, so the knowledge has no chance to tear their brotherhood apart. Macbeth’s relationship with Duncan never seems to rise beyond a grudging subservience, so his murder seems inconsequential. His fellow ‘soldiers’ are treacherous criminals, so not trusting them seems only natural. And most bafflingly, Macbeth and his wife are already irreparably estranged at the beginning of the film, leaving nowhere for that relationship to go.

By the time Macbeth is swaggering around dressed like Bono and wearing a kilt because is-that-meant-to-be-funny-who-gives-a-damn-anymore the film has so utterly lost any semblance of a point that the tedious, jerky slow motion shootout, silently set to orchestration, becomes its own cruelty, artificially prolonging a fall from grace story that was over literally before the opening credits rolled.

…Oh yeah. And Fleance comes back and kills the innocent nursemaid for no reason. Because ‘cycles of violence beget violence’, or some other equally asinine, thematically half-baked crap.

Shakespeare’s original play offers an almost unassailable treasure trove of gripping psychological drama. It’s what has made this one of his most enduring, captivating plays. Thrilling versions have been made over the years. Unique, inventive, wild, inspired versions. With samurais and stately kings and politicians and mud-spattered warriors. But rather than dig into Shakespeare’s original material, this version tries to get a buzz from his second-hand smoke, gutting the dialogue but not bothering to replace it with anything visually compelling or symbolically interesting.

Even now, only hours after seeing it again, the whole experience is already dissolving in my memory like smoke. Only two images remain: the first is when ‘Birnan Wood’ comes to Dunsinane. In this version it is a logging truck smashing through a barricade, sparking with gunfire – which proves to be the extent of the adaptation’s inventiveness. The second is the signature ‘dagger’ Macbeth sees, that leads him toward Duncan’s room to commit the murder. Here, the ‘dagger’ is the shadow of a garden pot plant (which I realise sounds a lot more interesting than it is). As presented, the moment is rather more bizarre than one suspects it was intended, with Worthington’s Macbeth lovingly stroking a play of light and shade on a wall, selling away his soul at the behest of a lawn decoration.

And that seems to be a fitting summation of the adaptation itself. It is a film that wants so bad to mean something, it just has no idea what exactly. It becomes a gesture toward a shadow, the substance of the thing it is evoking completely misunderstood in the misguided attempt to chase its simulacra. Both man and film chase after a meaningless image and each destroy themselves:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.5.24-8)

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IMAGE: Psst. You’re meant to be playing an emotionless Terminator in the other film

***

Texts mentioned:

Macbeth (2006), screenplay by Victoria Hill and Geoffrey Wright, directed by Geoffrey Wright, adapted from William Shakespeare. (Film Victoria, Mushroom Pictures, 2006)

Macbeth by William Shakespeare, ed by Stanley Wells and George Hunter (Penguin, 2005)

***

* As an aside, in a way it is even why the play’s ‘hero’, Macduff, is such a baffling guy. Despite knowing that Macbeth is evil, and almost certainly out to kill him, Macduff mystifyingly leaves his wife and child unguarded at home while he flees to England, only later, when he later hears the news of their predictable slaughtered, is surprised. He is so focussed on virtue and saving Scotland that he becomes personally inhuman – an accusation his own wife levels at him when she hears the insane news of his abandonment.

** There is also speculation that Lady Macbeth may have been married to someone before Macbeth, and that she gave birth to that man’s child – but again, this is all wild speculation unsupported by the play’s text, arguably best left only to function as subtext.

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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