“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come” (Gratiano, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare)

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday (probably).  It’s almost definitely his death day, but that has a less festive feel to it, so let’s go with birthday.  Happy Birthday, Bard!

Image

(Image from http://tudorhistory.org/people/shakespeare/ )

I love Shakespeare.  I was lucky enough to fall in love with him at school and I love him still.  I know he’s not for everyone, so I’m only going to discuss one play. But firstly, I thought I’d try and convince you of what I firmly believe, that he is for everyone.  This has probably been done before, so if it has and it was you, please accept my sincere apologies and let me know and I’ll credit you.  I promise I haven’t stolen this from anyone as far as I know.  I thought I’d try one of those “if you liked…” lists that are so annoying  when used by retailers to try & get you to buy more stuff, only in this case I’m using (mainly) Hollywood films (the modern equivalent of a Shakespeare play) to try and get you to buy into the drama.  In no order at all, just how they occurred to me:

If you liked…. Then you may like to try… Because…
The Godfather Julius Caesar/Coriolanus There are power struggles, machinations & murder
French new wave Hamlet Nothing happens, and he tortures himself a lot
 
Rom coms Much Ado about Nothing/As You Like It Bit obvious, this one
 
Indecent Proposal Measure for Measure Sexual bribery abounds
   
Lord of the Rings The Tempest It’s magic
   
Hansel & Gretel/Snow White Macbeth Witches & violence
   
1930s screwball comedies eg  It Happened One Night Taming of the Shrew It’s a battle of the sexes, sometimes physically
   
The Simpsons’ Movie Henry IV parts 1&2 I’ve totally stolen this idea from Dr Emma Smith, who convincingly draws parallels between Homer & Falstaff
   
Scarface Titus Andronicus It’s a bloodbath
   
Grease Love’s Labour’s Lost There are boys, there are girls, they all get together
   
War films Henry V Battles & bloodshed
 
Some Like It Hot Twelfth Night Cross-dressing is the route to true love
   
Trading Places Comedy Of Errors Mistaken identities, a focus on money, it all works out in the end
   
John Grisham adaptations Merchant of Venice Features the greatest courtroom speech ever, even better than “You can’t handle the truth!” (seriously)
   
In the Loop/Political thrillers Richard III Power corrupts…
   
Game of Thrones King Lear A kingdom is divided, power struggles and torture ensue (no incest or wedding massacres though)
   
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Midsummer Night’s Dream It’s trippy…
   
Psychological thrillers eg Sleeping with the Enemy Othello The course of possessive love n’er runs smooth
The Wolf of Wall Street Timon of Athens Money is the root of all evil
   
Romeo + Juliet   Um, ….Romeo and Juliet Take a guess…

 

Any further or different suggestions are very welcome!

For the second part of this post I thought I’d discuss one of the plays that isn’t that well-known (for a Shakespeare play) or frequently performed, but I really like it, and I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s ignored: King John. King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, a history play that looks at arguments around royal succession. If that sounds yawnsome, the arguments involve battles, betrayals and murder, as so often in the medieval history plays.

What makes this play so interesting is the central character, who arguably isn’t King John, but his half-brother Phillip Falconbridge (who has more lines than anyone else).  However, no-one calls him by this rather dashing name, or the new one he is given at the start of the play, Richard Plantagenet; he is consistently referred to in the text as The Bastard.  As the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, he is of royal lineage, but legitimacy being of huge significance at the time, he is not an heir.  Other illegitimate children in Shakespeare are somewhat troublesome: Edmund in King Lear and Don John in Much Ado both cause no end of grief.  The Bastard however, is one of the more appealing characters in a play filled with dark, devious, self-serving manipulators.  He has a way with words, and his own morality is uninfluenced by society.  His response to his mother about Richard the Lionheart being his father does not berate her for stigmatizing him:

He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman’s. Ay, my mother,
With all my heart I thank thee for my father!
…Come, lady, I will show thee to my kin;
And they shall say, when Richard me begot,
If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin:
Who says it was, he lies; I say ’twas not.

Pretty liberal for the time.  He goes on to fight for King John, and prove himself brave, clever, and more humane than others in what is quite a bleak play:

But as I travell’d hither through the land,
I find the people strangely fantasied;
Possess’d with rumours, full of idle dreams,
Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear: 

Cheeky and irreverent when he’s in court, The Bastard is a man of action who is actually a more accomplished leader than any of the courtly power-wielders. His illegitimacy places him outside of things, and as such he is able to cast a wry and sardonic glance at the action. “Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!” King John is weak, and the play demonstrates that rather than a god-given right to rule, kings are as flawed and human as the rest.   The Bastard gets the last lines of the play, and in his mouth the words:

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

become not an assertion of England’s strength, but an ironic observation on the weakness and hypocrisy of rulers. The Bastard isn’t a historical figure or in any of Shakespeare’s sources.  He is entirely invented, and one of the many reasons that Shakespeare is still as Ben Jonson described him: “The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage”.  Happy Birthday William Shakespeare – “Shine forth, thou star of poets!”

To end, one of the most famous portrayals of King John, back in the days when he was still a prince:

“By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” (Robert Frost)

Oh, the joys of mid-January.  The seemingly never-ending greyness of it all.  The lights of Christmas and resolutions of New Year have long faded and you’re back at work.  Work: the daily commute wedged into someone’s armpit, steam rising off everyone’s drizzle-soaked clothes; arriving at your office to realise the barbarian you share a kitchen with has stolen your favourite coffee mug and still hasn’t eaten the unidentifiable gelatinous foodstuff they brought in from home 3 weeks ago; faux-friendly emails from your work-shy boss asking you for fourteen completed reports before the end of the day, signed off with an inappropriate and frankly borderline-sarcastic emoticon. If this is your experience take comfort from the fact that you are far from alone.  This week I’m looking at novels that deal with the daily grind of our work lives.

Firstly, Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971). Bukowski is one of the best-known beat generation authors, and Post Office was his first novel.  It’s a short work (160 pages in my edition) and details the insanity of working for the titular organisation with its impossible targets and low pay. Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s alter-ego) suffers at the hands of his bullying supervisors, indifferent colleagues and the unpredictable public.  His hard-living ways do not anaesthetise the situation:

“Each route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them.  Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were ready for a rape, murder, dogs, or insanity of some sort.  The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets.  That was the only advantage they had – except knowing their case by heart.  It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, went to bed at 2am, rose at 4.30am after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.

One day I was out on the street and the route was going well, though it was a new one, and I thought, Jesus Christ, maybe for the first time in two years I’ll be able to eat lunch.”

Needless to say, he doesn’t get lunch.  Bukowski is great at describing the tedium of a job that holds no meaning (for him, my particular postie has been doing the job for 30 years this year and tells me he loves it for the most part), and the seediness of the life he lives and those who surround him.  But he tempers the tale with humour which stops the portrait being too relentlessly bleak:

“I picked my cap up out of the street, put it on my head.  Put the sack back onto the left side of my spine, started out again. 100 degrees.

I walked past one house and a woman ran out after me.

‘Mailman! Mailman!  Don’t you have a letter for me?’

‘Lady, if I didn’t put one in your box, that means you don’t have any mail.’

‘But I know you have a letter for me!’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Because my sister phoned and said she was going to write me.’

‘Lady, I don’t have a letter for you.’

‘I know you have! I know you have! I know it’s there!’

She started to reach for a handful of letters.

‘DON’T TOUCH THE UNITED STATES MAILS, LADY!  THERE’S NOTHING THERE FOR YOU TODAY!’

I turned and walked off.

“I KNOW YOU HAVE MY LETTER!”

Another woman stood on her porch.

‘You’re late today.’

‘Yes, mam.’

‘Where’s my regular man today?’

‘He’s dying of cancer.’

‘Dying of cancer? Harold is dying of cancer?’

‘That’s right,’ I said.

I handed her mail to her.

‘BILLS!BILLS! BILLS!’ she screamed. ‘IS THAT ALL YOU CAN BRING ME? THESE BILLS?’

‘Yes, mam, that’s all I can bring you.’

I turned and walked on.”

Post Office is unrelenting in the cynical gaze it casts over tragi-comedy of the working day.  If you’re sick of your job, this is the novel for you.

Secondly, Year of the King by Antony Sher.  I’m going a bit off-piste here because this is a diary and not fiction, but Jeanette Winterson says there’s no such thing as autobiography, only art and lies, so I think this allows for admission into a blog about fiction.  (Confession: when I first thought of this blog post I was going to write about Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris as the second book, but I started it 3 weeks ago and I’m only 100 pages in.  It had cracking reviews so I’m surprised I’m not getting on with it.  If you’ve read it can you tell me, should I persevere or give up?) So, I chose Year of the King for this theme as it details a year in a working life, in this case one of the finest actors of his generation as he grapples with the eponymous role in Richard III.  If you love your work but worry constantly that you’re not good enough, this is the book for you.  It’s so reassuring to read how this incredible actor feels he struggles with the language of Shakespeare, and messes up his first reading in front of the rest of the cast.  Having admired so many of his accomplished performances, I found myself thinking really? Well, if Antony Sher struggles maybe I’m not doing so badly after all…

“‘Just read it,’ says Bill grinning.

‘ “Now is the winter of our discontent…”’

I read badly, rather monotonously or else I over-stress.  Mercifully Bill stops me after about ten lines and starts to pick at words and discuss meanings.

We have begun.”

Sher is a great writer (it’s something he’s done more and more of) and his style is easy to read yet vivid.

“Bill suggests running the scene ‘trying to be more bestial’.  The result is a disaster.  Behaviour not from the animal world but the world of pantomime.  Cackling laughter, food being thrown around, sinewy ‘wicked’ acting. Although I’m participating and probably responsible for some of the worst excesses, I can hardly bear to watch the others.  Have to bury my head on the crutches for much of the scene.”

Ah yes, the crutches.  If you don’t know, Sher performed the “bottled spider” role in crutches.  What’s so interesting is amongst all the self-doubt and creative process, are vacillations over the use of the crutches, which for the reader 30 years on is a source of amusement.  The play went down a storm, Sher’s performance was showered with praise, and the crutches became stuff of theatrical legend:

The book holds all the things you would expect in an actor’s diary: taking us though the research process, details of the politics of rehearsal, fond (and discreet) portraits of his fellow actors and theatre professionals (Michael Gambon in particular seems a large, hilarious personality).  But Sher offers much more, such as beautiful images of the surrounding environment:

“An oil slick on the river today, from the long weekend’s abuse.  In the morning sunshine it’s as if a rainbow has fallen in the water and is being gently rubbed against the bank, washed and cleaned until its transparent again.”

The diary is also filled with his brilliant drawings, such as this one of Olivier, whose filmed performance of Richard casts a long shadow:

Image

Year of the King has a lot to offer the great variety of readers (little – very little – joke there for any Shakespeare fans): if you’re interested in the acting process, in approaches to Shakespeare, in the realities of theatrical production, or in Antony Sher himself, you’ll find Year of the King a rewarding read.

To end, here is a clip to bring some joy & colour into these grey January days spent in dreary magnolia offices:

Feminist Sundays: Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

Feminist Sundays is a meme created by Elena over at Books and Reviews. Here’s what she says about it: “Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.” Do head over to Books and Reviews to read the excellent posts for this meme so far.

So, this isn’t my usual sort of post, with a theme and two book choices.  Instead, as part of Feminist Sundays I was thinking about any times that a feminist discussion has come up around something I’m reading.  And I remembered a tutor of mine saying that she thought she’d been such a doormat in her first marriage because she’d unconsciously integrated the misogynistic attitudes towards women from her specialism, Renaissance literature (inappropriate disclosure to her students about her personal life was another speciality of hers).

Now, I love Early Modern literature, but I’m not going to try and claim that sixteenth-century England was a progressive, proto-feminist society.  However, at the same time I think my tutor was talking nonsense.  When we look back at Early Modern texts, there are strong females for us to identify with, and I’m going to take a look at one of my favourites, the brilliant Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Here’s Emma Thompson in the role:

Beatrice

Image from: (http://www.monologuedb.com/comedic-female-monologues/much-ado-about-nothing-beatrice/)

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays; the city I live in (London) has seen 3 productions I can think of in recent years (one at the Globe in 2011, the other with Catherine Tate and David Tennant at Wyndams the same year, one this year with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones at the Old Vic); Joss Whedon also released a film version earlier this year.  I think this is a good indication that Beatrice is a character who still has something relevant to say to us.

For those of you who don’t know the story: a group of soldiers arrive in Messina.  One of the officers, Benedick, has some romantic history with Beatrice (niece of Messina’s governor), and they spend a lot of their time bickering and proclaiming they’re not interested in each other at all – lies, all lies.  Their friends conspire against them, convincing each of the other one’s feelings.  Meanwhile one of the younger soldiers, Claudio, wants to marry the governor’s daughter, Hero, but the evil Don John works to tear this all apart…

This being a comedy, it all works out OK in the end.  Along the way we have some brilliant sparky dialogue from Beatrice.  On hearing Benedick will arrive:

“In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse;”

Ouch.  Their first meeting:

Benedick. Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice. A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick. God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice. Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.

Beatrice strives to establish and maintain her own personality amongst a society that deems women should be seen and not heard – something she resolutely refuses to do.  She’s witty, she holds her own against Benedick’s jibes, and she’s caring and honest.  She’s also feisty until the end:

Benedick. Do not you love me?

Beatrice. Why, no; no more than reason.

Benedick. Why, then your uncle and the prince and Claudio
Have been deceived; they swore you did.

Beatrice. Do not you love me?

Benedick. Troth, no; no more than reason.

Beatrice.Why, then my cousin Margaret and Ursula
Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.

Benedick. They swore that you were almost sick for me.

Beatrice.They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.

Benedick. ‘Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?

Beatrice.No, truly, but in friendly recompense.

[…]

Beatrice. I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,for I was told you were in a consumption.

Benedick. Peace! I will stop your mouth. (Most productions have him kiss her at this point)

Aww, true love conquers all.  And although my feminist side balks at her mouth being stopped once she’s in a relationship, I also think you could never keep Beatrice down, and marriage will not silence her. She and Benedick form a relationship of equals. Compared to the insipid rent-a-virginal-romantic-lead Hero, Beatrice is a fully realised, complex and intriguing female character.  She’s definitely one of my feminist icons.

Here’s a clip from the very enjoyable Globe production mentioned earlier.  Eve Best plays Beatrice, bantering with Charles Edward’s Benedick: