Tag: Shakespeare

Life, Death, and Afterlife in Straford-upon-Avon

“I have good reason to be content,
for thank God I can read and
perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths.”
― John Keats

I don’t understand people who say, “Oh, I’ve already been to such-and-such, I don’t need to go back.” Things change, all the time. It’s pretty much the only guarantee in the universe. Even extremely old places change, and we as people certainly do, so it’s always worth revisiting a lovely and interesting spot to see what’s new or how your experience of it may shift.

In a related note, I don’t exactly understand why so few Britons travel within their own country as infrequently as they do. When I told a British friend how we were going on a trip around the southwest with my in-laws and mentioned we would be driving from London to Salisbury, he sighed and said it sounded like a terribly long drive. It wasn’t. I think we’re dealing with a sense of scale issue. The US is a third of an extremely large continent and Britain is smaller than many states, what is long to them simply isn’t to us. At any rate, we saw both Stratford-upon-Avon and Blenheim Palace in a single day and weren’t rushed in the slightest, in spit of the fact that they were in opposite directions from our starting point.

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Stratford-upon-Avon is lovely, but is really only one reason to go: Shakespeare. His family homes, that of his wife, and the church where he was probably baptized and married and definitely buried are within easy distances of one another and well worth a visit. The last time I was here was when I was studying in London still in university and there have been some changes. I don’t believe the extensive (and quite good) visitor’s center with accompanying exhibits had been completed then, and it was lovely to have a look round.

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Shakespeare’s family home is nicely the same as it has been for many centuries now.

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There have also been some recent research developments in the church, including some potentially hidden Catholic imagery, which would have been quite a big deal given the political and religious realities of the day.

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What really hooked me on this trip, however, was the gentleman in the striped shirt standing center. He was a wealth of historical information about the church, Shakespeare’s day, and the ways both the building and the faith climate would have influenced him. He also talked extensively about Elizabethan burial practices, which seems gruesome but was rather interesting. If you’ve every wondered how centuries of burials have been managed in enclosed spaces, the answer is that most churches would perform burials in circular way around the church, moving like the hands of a clock. It would take about a local generation to complete a pass, after which the bones would mostly be dug up (the flesh would have, er, been taken care of by time and other things) to be further processed by burning or mashing up. The word bonfire derives from this, a “bone-fire” meant to reduce bulky human remains to more manageable chunks.

Hence the famous scene in Hamlet of the gravediggers mucking about with Yorick et al.

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However if you were very wealthy or very influential, your remains could avoid this fate by permanent interment. You had to pay a hefty fee to the church powers of course, but in an age where being remembered was important, plenty of people found the funds. Billy S. doesn’t need a memorial for that, of course, but it’s very nice that we have one anyway.

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A midnight slaughter, Titus Andronicus after dark

“In peace and honour rest you here, my sons;
Rome’s readiest champions, repose you here in rest,
Secure from worldly chances and mishaps!
Here lurks no treason, here no envy swells,
Here grow no damned grudges; here are no storms,
No noise, but silence and eternal sleep:
In peace and honour rest you here, my sons!
― William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

It is a truth universally-enough acknowledged (ie, by Katarina) that the very best poetry I ever wrote happened in 8th grade and involved a tongue-in-cheek examination of all the misery and slaughter in Shakespeare’s plays. As I was of tender years at the time, my poem did not contain anything of Titus Andronicus since I’d yet to encounter it. In fact I’d never seen a production of it until a couple weekends ago when Jeff and I trotted off to The Globe, about half an hour’s walk from where we live (I know, my life is such a trial…) for this season’s midnight matinee.
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I’m pretty sure I first heard about the midnight production from the indomitable Kerry over at Planes, Trains, and Plantagenets, though I don’t remember precisely in what context, but I leapt at the chance for tickets this year. ‘Round midnight we convened and flooded into the theatre, feeling very Tudor-ish.
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The production itself was very well done. It was incredibly well acted, especially the disturbed and disturbing role of Lavinia who is traumatized (understandably) nearly out of her humanity. Titus is a hard play for me because while I can handle sex and violence in my entertainment, I don’t do well with sexual violence. Of all Shakespeare’s various victims, to me Lavinia is without question the most victimized and her whole narrative, though important, is incredibly difficult to watch. The direction gave her some wonderful moments of self-realization and justice…though of course her end is pretty terrible. Hats off to Flora Spencer-Longhurst for a powerful performance. Tamora was played by Indira Varma, of Game of Thrones fame (seriously, GoT actors are all over the London Shakespeare game), and William Houston absolutely nailed the role of Titus.
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The director made excellent use of the audience and groundlings, bringing much of the action out into the pit itself to use the audience to portray the Roman mob or Gothic hordes as needed. Titus’ entrance involved being carried through the audience in triumph while the crowds cheered his victory.

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Minions, it was fantastically gory! By my count, at least four people fainted and had to be carried from the theatre.

Perhaps that’s too enthusiastic a review? I can’t help it. The staff had an amazingly effective system in place. Something horrible would happen on stage, one of the groundlings would wobble for a second before going over, a staff member would make their way into the pit and stand guard while signalling the medic team, who would assemble and quickly cart the senseless, hapless individual away. Like unto the violence itself, there was a sort of method that was admirable and cynical at the same time – how meta!

The Globe, true to its roots, tends to do highly stripped down productions set-wise. It gives things an authentic Tudor feel on the one hand, but also makes their use of 21st century special effects downright eerie. When there is no complex set or costumes to distract you with their modernness , the scene where Titus lays his hand down to be hacked off in order to save his sons’ lives is horribly realistic. Let’s just say that intermission heavily involved mopping up the stage blood and gore from the first half of the performance. It was terrific fun!
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Our view, which admittedly did not suck in the slightest, offered a great sense of the stark design of the stage.

We didn’t get home until nearly 4 a.m., and it being summer in London which is a lot further north than a lot of people realize, the sky was already starting to get light as dawn approached. That Sunday was a bit long, but completely worth it, and I absolutely plan on repeating the occasion next year. Alas, it probably will not be nearly as bloody.

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune, Take II

“God’s will! my liege, would you and I alone, Without more help, could fight this royal battle!”
― William Shakespeare, Henry V

Awash with theatrical good fortune, I decided to meet up with Katie this morning so we could try our mutual luck at getting day of tickets to Henry V, starring Jude Law, with the Michael Grandage Company. We got in the queue early, and none too soon because the line was even longer than Coriolanus on Monday. But somehow I scored literally the last ticket of the day (Katie was just ahead of me and got in too, never fear).

What is happening?! Which good fairy/benevolent deity do I owe some serious devotions to?

You and me both, Hal.
You and me both, Hal.

(image via)

For My Future Spawn: Shakespeare

“The play’s the thing…”
– William Shakespeare,

There are countless versions, interpretations, and the occasional horrifying slaughter of Shakespeare so the choices are vast, but I was raised from a young age with the Bard.  And so will my children be.  Thus I bring you, C.’s Definitive Guide to Obligatory Shakespeare Adaptations:

The Taming of the Shrew

The best version of this is The Taming of the Shrew, Franco Zefferelli’s 1967 version staring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  Why?  Because however you choose to read the original play (pro wife-beating, proto-feminism, lighthearted, or sinister), Zefferelli’s adaptation turns the tale into a marriage of equals perfectly suited to one another.  Taylor’s Katherine is the less-loved daughter of a man who dotes on her sister (Bianca, a spoiled and manipulative wench).  She’s second best and spends most of her day hearing about it, and can only throw tantrums to get attention or satisfiy a sense of injustice.  Burton’s Petruchio is a loudmouth bore who’s never learned to behave himself and, in trying to turn Kate into a lady, becomes a gentleman.  Fantastic.

My mother watched this movie with me for the first time when I was fairly young and I loved it.  It was my introduction to Shakespeare, and I’ve never looked back.  Years later, when I found it one day on DVD in a bookshop, I snatched it up and mailed it home ten minutes later.  Of course, I also bought one for myself.  “Fear boys with bugs!”

Henry V

Yeah, yeah, Lawrence Olivier, blah blah blah.  Best version in my opinion goes to Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V from 1989.  Did I mention Paul Scofield, Dame Judi Dench, and Emma Thompson are included (along with a not-yet-legal Christian Bale)?  This adaptation is sweeping, epic, gritty,  poetic, occasionally funny, powerful, and gripping.  Again, Mum got me hooked young.  As I recall, I hid my eyes during the gory battle scenes or she fast forwarded through them (remember VHS, darlings?).  I had memorized the St. Crispin Day Speech before I was 10 and in high school, my friend Moll and I had to make a movie for French class, so we acted out the scene where Alice teaches Princess Katherine English.  Honestly, probably one of the best Shakespearean films of all time.  “God for Harry, England, and St. George!”

Julius Caesar

Venice is probably the authority on this play, she teaches it each year and by the end, any Bard holdouts are converted.  She always has the best stories about the day the kids act it out (with stabbing, naturally) and we always go into raptures about the 1953 version of  Julius Caesar directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  Not that it’s referred to as Makiewicz’s movie, it’s invariably called “The one with Marlon Brando.”  And with good reason.  One of the best scenes of the film is Marc Antony [Brando] orating to the people in Rome’s forum and slowly, subtly rousing the mob to rebellion.  The moment when he turns away from the screaming riot and walks into the senate chamber smirking darkly still makes me feel chills.

Brutus is conflicted, Cassius is sly and evil, the actual assassination is a little off as Caesar just seems to take knife after knife without too much complaint, but still: best version.  Honor, loyalty, friend, patriotism, betrayal and the conflicting tug of each is brilliantly laid out.  “Et tu, Brute?  Then fall Caesar.”

Other Adaptations

So, we’ve covered one of my favorite comedies, histories, and tragedies, but wait, kids, there’s more!

Much Ado About Nothing – Branagh again, this time as the irrepressible Benedict and Emma Thompson as the fiery and fiercely loyal Beatrice.  A classic tale about the vicissitudes of love, the interference of friends (and enemies),  and kicking up a great row about nothing much at all.  Sparkling.  “The world must be peopled!”

William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – a tale of justice, honesty, and deceit, this film is utterly stolen by Al Pacino as Shylock.  Now, Scarface has never been one of my favorite actors, but the levels of emotion he poured into one of the most villainous (or victimized) Shakespearean characters is incredible.  The whole thing is nice and morally ambiguous.  “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

Twelfth Night – I first saw this version in the 8th grade, under the tutelage of my teacher The Friar, with whom I keep in contact to this day.  It’s never too soon to expose children to gender-bending, right?  “Most wondrous.”

Other Other Adaptations

And because the most odious thing in literature or culture is people who can’t take a joke, I have to recommend Shakespeare Retold, done by the BBC and first introduced to me my Angel two weeks ago.  Shakespeare brought into the modern day and frighteningly funny.  Hero doesn’t marry Claudio (and good on her, because he was an unbelievable ass and I could never believe she forgave him!) and Katherine, a vicious and snarling MP is tamed by Petruchio, a lonely aristocratic exhibitionist who really just wants someone to think the world of him.  “And all we do is set around in front of the telly all day eating chocolates.  I know I do, when I’m not running the country.”

“O, that I had but followed the arts!”

“Thereby hangs a tale.”
– William Shakespeare

Long ago, when J. was still a bachelor (side note, we’ve been officially together for two years now…weird) he lived with Scotticus, Cakes, Bear, Jaime, and Jazz.  They’re still very much around in our lives.  I affectionately refer to them as the Other Women when J. goes off to play basketball, get hamburgers, and generally boy about. 

One of my favorite memories of Jazz was one day hanging out at their flat.  I had glanced around and discovered that they had made a home entertainment system supported almost entirely by books.  I was remarking on a tome of Shakespeare upholding a television speaker when Jazz explained the reasoning.
“Girls will come over, see all these thick books everywhere, and think we’re all really intellectual.”
“Not if you’re using them as furniture, dear,” I replied laughingly.

To be a paper weight, or not be a paper weight, that is the question.

However, while making a V-day present craft for Marie (sidenote the second: Marie, beloved, would you send me a picture so I can brag shamelessly about it?) I noticed that the canvas had bowed annoyingly in the middle.  And the only thing I could think of that would be heavy enough to fix it, were Shakespeare and a dictionary.

Apologies, Jazz.  I now suspect you of secret genius.