Shakespeare Blog Carnival #6

It’s that time again! Let’s see what the month brought in. Feel free to explore some blogs you haven’t seen before. Thanks to everyone who submitted and thanks to any and all readers! Remember to keep those submissions coming. I want to see a big carnival next month!

Welcome to the September 1, 2008 edition of the Shakespeare Blog Carnival.

Tom Parnell makes us think by setting Hamlet and Shakespeare against eachother in his post, Shakespeare Hated Hamlet.

Louise Manning gives us some quotes from Shakespeare’s work that she feels speak strongly to a modern audience.

Ashok says, “A close reading of a sonnet can make one look inward, especially if one is thinking oneself comparable (or not) to a summer day.” He dissects Sonnet 18 and adds his thoughts. Check out Some Personal Notes re: Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

David Gross shows us howConscience Makes Cowards of Us All, saying, “A Shakespeare quote makes an interesting and perhaps ironic appearance in a mid-19th century debate over the Pennsylvania state constitution.”

That’s all folks! Please submit your (or someone else’s) blog article to the next edition of shakespeare blog carnival using our carnival submission form.

What Would Shakespeare Think?

In a lot of articles and interviews with people who are creating scholarly, theatrical, or other artistic products of or based on Shakespeare’s works there seems to be a common question: “What do you think Shakespeare would have to say about what you’re doing?”

The common answer is something to the effect of, “I think he would have approved because Shakespeare was all about creating and updating art and finding new and creative ways of entertaining…” Or, “I’m sure he’d like to see his plays being taught in this manner…”

Whatever the reply is, the interviewee is quite sure that Shakespeare would have approved of his or her work.

What makes them so sure? What do we REALLY know about Shakespeare, the man, that gives us clues to his opinions on art or education or more specifically on the interviewee’s efforts? Isn’t it just as silly to try to determine what Shakespeare’s intended to tell his audience with his plays, or how he intended them to be acted? Sure we can find “clues” and pose theories that may seem very likely with all the evidence pointing in a certain direction, but we weren’t there and we just don’t know for sure.

Not that I like to bring politics into the mix, but the whole thing reminds me of the Republican presidential candidate debate in the Ronald Reagan Library on January 30th of this year. The final question given to each candidate was, “Would Ronald Reagan endorse you and if so, why?” The first three answered “Yes, of course!” and gave their reasons. But then Mike Huckabee said that he thought it would be arrogant to assume so, and that he didn’t know if Reagan would, “But I endorse him.”

So he was being clever with his words. I won’t tell you any of my political sympathies in this blog, but when it comes to art, you may have noticed I’m rather opinionated. It is rather presumptuous to say that Shakespeare would have agreed or supported the work being done. The work is being done, rather, to support Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, therefore I read/act in/direct/blog about his works, etc. When it comes down to it, Shakespeare’s works are public domain – freely available to everyone to download, read, hate or enjoy, and then do anything you want with it.

If ever I’m interviewed and asked if Shakespeare would support my work, I’d say “Who knows? But I support his work — without it I wouldn’t be doing [whatever it is I'm being interviewed for].”

Staging Textbook Shakespeare

By textbook Shakespeare I mean a history lesson exploring the time that the play is set in as well as learning about the audience mentality during the era when the plays were written and first performed. We can also say a historicist production.

If the title of this post sounds like I’m going to tell you how to do it – that’s not what you’re going to get.

My purpose is rather to explore its validity in modern theatre. Today, Shakespeare’s plays function as two very different things: Literature, and a play script. The former is an end product, the latter a starting point – raw material on which a theatrical production is built upon. Literature is often dissected to find the authors intent, inspiration, any philosophical messages or themes, allegories, allusions, similies, metaphors, symbolism, foreshadowing, and all that generally for the purpose of figuring out what the author was really trying to communicate. A seemingly objective process, but everybody’s different interpretation turns it into a rather subjective work.

Theatre, on the other hand, has its number one priority as — in my opinion — entertainment. Yes, you can comment on politics, society, etc. (and I’m ignoring most absurdism but I’m concentrating on the more common forms that we’re used to seeing) but those are secondary priorities in most cases. What comes first in the plays we like best is telling a good story, and telling it well. Theatre is full of plays about the most important episode of the lead character’s life (or end of).

Since Shakespeare has become such a huge literary figure, it’s very easy to lose focus when producing a play. Before I go on, I must say that I DO think it is almost essential to understand as much as you can about the raw piece of work that you can. Find the meaning of every word, discover how the play would have been understood 400 years ago, realize the significance of certain plot events to an Elizabethan/Jacobean audience. BUT when all is said and done very little, if any, of that work will be seen by the audience of the production. What might be seen is some work in drawing parallels. For example, if Shakespeare’s audience viewed such-and-such event THIS way, then we’ll have to stage it like THIS so that a modern audience will understand the weight of the situation.

After all, we don’t really go to the theatre to learn about history. I love learning about history, but it’s not why I go to the theatre. I want to see a good story told well. And if I learn in the process, cool. If not, fine. Good theatre has to be relevant today somehow. We can’t just dig up a play – by anyone – and say “it’s a classic, let’s do it.” There are plenty of blockbuster plays from not even 50 years ago that are no longer produced because they were such a product of their time that they would be incomprehensible to us today. Shakespeare’s power, I believe, is that the plays are extremely adaptable to play in front of a modern audience. We’re not necessarily showing how they were originally staged. Instead we present them (with minor alterations) to tell the story that will resonate most with the hearts and heads above the butts in the seats. They are about the human experience and today and tomorrow will still find truths that we can relate to.

As they are in your Arden, Riverside, Pelican, or other edition the plays are pieces of literature. The footnotes and introductions often explore what those words meant 400 years ago and how the play was received by a 16th or 17th century audience. If we today tried to put such a historicist production onstage I have no doubt that not too many people would enjoy it. Theatre is about the now. It’s an opportunity for catharsis – you can’t get that from a textbook history lesson.

Hamlet and Son

The Shakespeare Geek has asked yet another interesting question that got me thinking quite a bit. “What do you think Hamlet’s relationship was with his father?” and later says, “… I think much of Hamlet’s hesitation comes out of a fear to acknowledge his true feelings about his dad.” The following is mostly in response to the aforementioned post.

Whether or not Hamlet Sr. was a loving and affectionate father, it’s hard to say. Perhaps he was lacking some tenderness toward his son, but I have no doubt that Hamlet had the utmost respect for his father as a person and as a king.

Look at how Hamlet compares his father to Claudius:

So excellent a king, that was to this Hyperion to a satyr

That’s a huge comparison there. His dad is a sun-god and his uncle is a sex-mongering goat man. Hamlet’s comparison here illustrates that he has the most respect for his father and none at all for his uncle.

so loving to my mother That he might not beteem the winds of heaven Visit her face too roughly.

If King Hamlet wasn’t a tender father, he certainly was a very loving husband — at least in Hamlet’s eyes. These words describe the marriage as very caring, very gentle. Back to Hamlet’s relationship with his dad…

If [the ghost] assume my noble father’s person,

Noble isn’t just there because he was a king, or an extra word to fill the pentameter line. If Hamlet calls his dad noble, he thinks that of him in this case. I don’t think there is any irony here. I think you’re starting to get my point. Skipping ahead to the “closet scene,” look at how Hamlet describes his father in the picture he shows to Gertrude.

See what a grace was seated on this brow:
Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
This was your husband.

And her current husband is nothing but “A slave that is not twentith part the tithe Of your precedent lord.” I’m quite convinced that Hamlet didn’t have a bad relationship with his father. Maybe he feared him some, but not because his was horribly distant or cruel, but because he was a powerful, stern, yet respectable man and king.

As for Hamlet’s hesitation because he’s working out his feelings for his father, I don’t agree. As you can see from what I’ve already said Hamlet is quite clear on how he feels about dear dad.

Hamlet – in his mind – isn’t so much hesitating as being careful. He needs to some time to show the court that he is mad so that he will not be thought of as a threat to the king. He then uses the players to be absolutely sure of Claudius’ guilt. Hamlet wants to be king after (“He that hath [...] Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes”) and he can’t afford to be wrong about anything. So when Hamlet find Claudius praying, it is really the first time they have been alone together. No is his chance to kill him. But Hamlet doesn’t just want to kill him… he wants to send his uncle’s black soul to hell. The man must be punished, not just released from his Earthly body.

But then Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius. After this he is sent off to England so his revenge is delayed again (“How all occasions do inform against me.”) But he realizes now that the only way to be revenged is to stop being so careful, and just DO IT.

O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

Hamlet gets back, gets in a fight with Laertes over Ophelia’s grave, and is challenged to a fencing match for “sport.” At this point it’s rather unclear what Hamlet’s plans are toward his uncle, but he’s only been back for a day it would seem. Ever respectful Hamlet’s plans are delayed until after the match. He’s not about to say no to the wishes of the king and his mother I suppose. Maybe he was planning on killing Claudius that night.

But Hamlet ends up mortally wounded, and his mother is poisoned. Laertes tells him “Thy mother’s pois’ned. I can no more—the King, the King’s to blame.” So Hamlet kills Claudius for killing his mother.

Hamlet isn’t procrastinating, and he’s not unsure of whether he should revenge based on his feeling for his father. He is instead trying to carefully plan (“thinking too precisely on th’ event”) so that he can be king after the treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain is sent to hell.

Wicked Sisters?

In King Lear, the sisters Goneril and Regan are often seen to be rather… evil. They do after all turn away their father from their houses. But each time I see it I’m a little bothered by the portrayal. It seems to me that they are resigned to be cruel from the start after they get their land from dear papa.

I’m interested in seeing the sisters plead with dear dad to come to his senses about how many knights he needs, not cruelly deny his demands. I’m always more interested in seeing someone fight for what they want from someone, especially a loved one. It’d be far more moving to see the sisters fight with their father to realize his folly until the point where he runs off into the stormy night… and then give him up as a lost cause. Not before. They might not be the best people, but they surely have some respect for their father as well as hope for his wits.

It seems to me that Lear’s daughters are not quite as wicked as we sometimes see them, but rather in Lear’s mind. Sure, they do some pretty crazy things later on, but that arises AFTER they give up on their father. Then their ambitions and jealousies can take hold of them.
Has anyone else seen productions on stage or screen of Lear with “evil” sisters? And have you seen it a different way? And reading the text alone how do you perceive their actions?

What are you reading?

It’s time for some show and tell. I’m curious to hopefully find some new reading material…So who’s reading some good books right now?

Currently I’m working on a very interesting piece called The Shakespearean Dramaturg: A Theoretical and Practical Guide by Andrew James Hartley. He’s the resident Dramaturg at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival. There’s a lot of cool thoughts on editing scripts; working with directors, designers, actors; and lots about how to effectively serve the production rather than become “The Shakespeare Police.” I’ll post a write up after I’m finished.

Next on my list will be Think On My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language by David Crystal, co-author of Shakespeare’s Words. I’m very excited to read that. I don’t know too much about it but I’m a fan of the author.

And after that I enter into the world of Shakespearean fiction novels for the first time. What’s on your reading list?

Hamlet Uncut is 5 Hours Long!

“The play as written is 4 1/2 to five hours long,”
“Depending on the staging, a full, uncut production of Hamlet can last four to five hours.”
“Uncut, Hamlet runs a good five hours”

Or does it?

Those few random statements I found in articles online are everywhere. Reviews, books, classroom lectures, essays, and in people’s mouths. Where does this number come from?

How many of the people who say this have seen an uncut Hamlet, I wonder. I must confess that I have not seen an uncut version ON STAGE, but here’s what I do know:

  • Arkangel’s audio Hamlet, uncut, includes plenty of music between scenes, as well as before and after the play with credits, etc — 3 hours, 25 minutes
  • BBC Hamlet, uncut, with Derek Jacobi — 3 hours, 30 minutes, including intro and end credits.
  • Kenneth Branagh’s “complete” Hamlet – uncut, plenty of cinematic sequences between text, extra action, and feature film length opening and closing credits! — 4 hours and 2 minutes.

So how could an uncut production take five hours?

In general films move faster than theatre does. It’s quicker to show something than to say something. But the BBC complete works series is basically filmed versions of the stage play, just on a sound stage and not in front of an audience.

What about scene changes? If you have a different complicated and giant set for every scene, sure, you’ll probably add an hour with scene changes… but who’s gonna do that? With a well designed unit set with smaller bits and pieces brought on and off for locations it’s not too difficult to keep the action moving with minimal or no pauses.

How about when Hamlet was first performed? For starters, we don’t know which text was used when it was performed in Shakespeare’s day. The text from the First Quarto, Second Quarto, and First Folio are all of various lengths. The most “complete” Hamlet that you’ll see in most published editions today is around four thousand lines of text, and close in length to any of the three versions of the play that I mentioned above. And if that full text was used, it is speculated that plays were acted at a much brisker pace than they are today. Perhaps in the 18th century, with more theatrical technologies and the use of spectacle becoming popular, it is possible that there were different complicated giant sets for every location and an hour was added on… but that extra time has very little to do with any performing, or anything to do with the text itself.

I have a feeling that the 5 hours long myth is meant to “wow” the audience, and make them be thankful before the curtain rises that they will only be seeing an edited, 2 and a half hour version.

Shakespeare Blog Carnival #5

The month of July didn’t bring in many submissions at all. I’m sure you were all out playing in the sun. I sure wasn’t. I’ve spent too much time indoors this summer. Well here are the links you’ve been waiting for!

Hannah gives us a few comments on As You Like It in the poast TransShakespeare.

Bill, The Shakespeare Teacher, astounds me with his talent to create anagrams. He has surely outdone himself this time when he Anagrams the “To be or not to be” speech. Have a look at Shakespeare Anagram: Hamlet .

That’s all folks! If you want to see more submit your blog article, or someone else’s, to the next edition of the Shakespeare Blog Carnival using the carnival submission form. Any other info you need about the Carnival can be found on the Blog Carnival page in the menu bar on page right.

May the Bard be with you!