Pelican is cool about its intellectual books, and it wants to be seen to be cool about This is Shakespeare. Emma Smith, we are told, is a Yorkshire girl who is into silent films, birdwatching and fast cars. She is also Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford. But the target readers are not wowed by that honour, and the book does not read as one that could only have been written by a professor. In and of itself, that is no bad thing, and those snooty enough to think that the author trails her gown too far might be reminded that Shakespeare was in the entertainment industry to make a living writing, producing and acting in plays. In the immortal words of a mature American student of Chaucer at Oxford, Shakespeare ‘did it for the mortgage’.
The book consists of twenty short essays on the plays – about half the total. The order looks to be broadly chronological. The really boring or odd ones don’t make it.
We begin with Taming of the Shrew, in the Zeffirelli movie ‘a passionate relationship in which pots and pans, but also underwear, would fly.’ Goodnight Oxbridge – even if some of us have trouble seeing the knickers of Ms Taylor dangling from the ceiling fan.
The hero of Richard II ‘is a consummate actor, so much so that we wonder if there is anything underneath.’ (That savours a bit of R D Laing. The lady does not mind citing Freud – which in this context can make me, and I think, her, a little nervous.)
There’s so much to dislike about Richard, and yet – or so – he is beguiling, seductive, ravishing, within the play and outside… as we have entered into a masochistic compact with this alluring protagonist.
‘History is full of examples of tyrants who looked like liberators’. (It’s just that Blair and Bush did not realise that they were trying to get into that club by the back door.) That is a valuable insight. But we don’t get much discussion of what a great night out this play, or many others, can offer. The McKellen film showed just how gripping this show can be. But for modern audiences, some pruning is required. I sat through the whole slog at the Barbican once, and it felt almost Wagnerian (and I have no qualms at all about taking the shears to Waggers), but the problem is that one of the first parts cut is that of the ageing queenly victims, dissecting the villain like black crows descending on witchetty grubs from a barbed wire fence. And the English stage cannot offer too much better than that, particularly if you have the growling, mordant Peggy Ashcroft version. (It adds a whole new terror to the notion of ‘in-laws’.) But the essay does contain the remark that being the last alive in one of the tragedies is ‘the hallmark of the nonentity.’
A Comedy of Errors gets a run, and I am glad. Well done, it is hilarious – Marx Brothers hilarious. And two citations show that we can trip over gems in unlikely places that others would die for.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself. (1.2)
For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too. (2.2)
For Richard II – which I often think should have been sung by Jussi Bjorling – we are helpfully reminded that an Elizabethan sermon (and Luther) inveighed against rebellion saying that Lucifer was the ‘founder of rebellion’. And the author goes on to quote the old Hollywood saying that ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’ Spot on. Asking what Hamlet means is as helpful as asking what the Pieta or Eroica means. The trouble is that when you grasp that simple truth, there may not be all that much that is beyond disruption in the professor’s job description. But she does offer the good advice that the role of Bolingbroke on stage is a master class of what is unspoken. And that truth coincides with her insistence that Shakespeare was into questions, not answers. Richard II may be my favourite. Especially with Gielgud, it has an effortlessly silvery timbre that reminds us of Verdi. The problem is that it has no hero.
‘Rediscovering an X-rated A Midsummer Night’s Dream means engaging with its dark, adult depictions of dangerous desire.’ Including, apparently, inviting ‘unseemly speculations about a lover hung like a donkey.’ Now that is a phrase that would have caught the eye of one of our Senators – a lady, ex-army – for which Ezekiel is cited as authority. Freud again gets a run, and there is even a reference to a ‘vanilla framing device.’ Well, some might go to ground with an ‘Hmmm….’, but Shakespeare and the Old Testament can be as raunchy as they are violent.
The author appears to share at least part of my aversion to Portia – an iron-clad divorce lawyer in a power suit who could thread your jellies through a garlic crusher for the mildest faux pas – but her discussion of race is very sane. The same goes for money.
The Merchant of Venice emerges as a strikingly contemporary play about commodified relationships, romantic and business entrepreneurialism, and the obscure transactional networks of credit finance.
Unsurprisingly, there is nothing new about Falstaff, but I cannot recall seeing before ‘the withering moral judgment’ of Dr Johnson that the ‘fat knight never uttered one sentiment of generosity.’ Falstaff is like those people who you talk to and who become a cold, brick, distracted wall if you are not talking about them – which may come to be called the Donald Trump Syndrome.
It is not surprising that the preoccupation with erotica continues with Measure for Measure, another close runner for my prize play. Your attitude to Isabella might depend on your age as much as your sex. To the extent that I can see her as real – as played by Kate Nelligan, the minds of very few blokes would turn to sex – I find her repellent. Not so the author.
But Shakespeare has deliberately made Isabella into more than a woman of upright moral character; rather, she is one about to devote herself to strict religious principles (this slightly obscures the ethical point for modern viewers: whether she is a sex worker or a nun, Isabella surely has our support when she refuses unwanted sex?
Let us put to one side the uncharacteristic question mark, and abstain from Lenin’s question – ‘Who are we?’- the author does not here fairly state the question. Isabella doesn’t want to be defiled. Nor does Claudio want to be killed. In the scheme of things, what is worth more – her hymen or his neck? As I said, the answer may differ between boys and girls. Boys would tend to refer to the relative convalescence times, and since Osama got lucky at the Twin Towers on 9 November 2001, fanatical subscription to alleged imperatives of dogma have lost a lot of their calling power. The notion that a man should die for another person’s ideal is as repellent as you can get.
While discussing Isabella, the author says that ‘As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play where the largest role is female.’ She has said that ‘Antony out-talks Cleopatra’. That is a curious notion. She later says these two are ‘celebrities’, which is fair enough, but there is a preoccupation with the number of lines allotted, which may be less helpful than stats at footy. Saying one bloke got forty kicks and another got six, means little if the bloke with six won the game with six goals. (And we are later reminded that ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.’)
And Cleopatra is the star turn of that play; Lady Macbeth might fall over before her husband, but it was her injection of steel that put him up to it – on her day, she could make witches blanch; and Queen Margaret rules over so much of the three parts of Henry VI. More, she is one of the most captivating and sustained characters ever on our stages. She is the nemesis of four plays. I cannot forbear citing my favourite lines of this playwright. They come in her appalling travesty of the Passion of Christ where she mocks Richard III:
And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,
Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies? (1.4.70-77)
It’s like an Essendon supporter saying to a Collingwood supporter the day after the Grand Final: ‘I suppose your lot just folded their tents – as usual.’
About thirty years ago, I went to a pre-show talk about Othello at the Melbourne Theatre Company with my daughters. The lead was played by a Maori. A lady said she thought the hero was coloured. The bemused actor said that his director obviously thought that he was coloured enough. Race and colour are huge in this play. The author tells us of an incident in South Africa in 1987 when the police said that the public ‘were disgusted by all the love and kissing scenes’ – in alleged breach of the Immorality Act. (About twenty years later, I saw Hamlet in Chicago. Gertrude was as white as snow. There was a palpable frisson in the audience when the King came out – as black as the Ace of Spades.) ‘…some critics have even wanted to wonder whether or not Othello and Desdemona ever consummate their relationship – perhaps with the underlying racist feeling that it would have been preferable if they hadn’t.’ To quote Jane Fonda, ‘you don’t want to go there’. (Has she tried that line out yet on the arresting officer?) Thankfully, the author does not go there. C S Lewis nearly had kittens facing the same question with Adam and Eve. (How else were we bloody-well supposed to get here – by the Stork?) The short answer is that none of them existed. They are creatures of the page. You may as well ask whether Batman had it off with Robin – and if so, whether they took their masks off while they were at it.
When you are dealing with an expert, you may need to remember that they come from a different space. There is a fascinating discussion of how the tragedy Othello is built on comic frameworks. This is not to suggest that there is anything comic about the play, least of all about Iago. He for me is evil made flesh. He has none of the allure of either of the Bastards or Richard III. The phrase ‘motiveless malignity’ has, in my view, been unfairly trashed. Rather, we are I think looking at one aspect of the ‘banality of evil.’
Iago gives new meaning to the word ‘insinuate.’ Some of the plays bore me; some like Troilus and Cressida repel me; but after enduring Cyril Cusack’s ruthless whining insinuation so often, I could no more sit through Othello – either here or in Verdi – than endure half an hour of a shock jock like Andrew Bolt. (Pray do not be dismayed. I am the same about Tristan und Isolde, and the mere mention of Parsifal is enough to generate severe depression.)
In Antony and Cleopatra, we are reminded that ‘Women in tragedies tend to be ancillary victims of the male hero’s egotistic downfall.’ The primacy of Cleopatra is acknowledged, but the play presents at least two problems for some of us. As in the French Revolution, it is hard to find a hero. And the play is punishingly long – especially in a theatre that is not air conditioned in summer – even in England. (The reference to a ballet of Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky is, I think, an error; and ‘Gender is, or at least contributes towards genre’ is a statement that at best goes nowhere.)
What we know about Shakespeare can be set out on a post card. Some knowledge of his education may help understand the wordiness of some plays, but otherwise history tells us very little about them. It is therefore best to just pass over stuff like:
Bond’s Shakespeare emerges from the archives as a capitalist more likely to be identified with the patrician grain hoarders in Coriolanus than with the hungry citizenry.
Lawyers are used to this kind of bull. We don’t look for the actual intention of the legislator; we look for the inferred purpose of the legislation. Biography may help to explain the conduct and pronouncements of Luther or Hitler; it is as good as useless with following the plays of Shakespeare, or trying to divine what they may reveal about what was going through his mind. And it is an insult to his genius to pretend otherwise. The bush lawyers should keep to the bush.
The book peters out. From the peak of the Everest of King Lear, there had to be a form of descent, and for me at least plays like A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are better heard and not seen. Prospero is a bit of ‘a distinctly unlikeable, manipulative control freak,’ and but for the stuff that dreams are made of we may not hear that much about a play that does bear marks of condescension that could have put Mr Collins into quite a tizz.
But there is more than enough in this book to ensure that fans of our greatest playwright – our greatest author – will not put it down either unimpressed or unimproved. It is an island of coral sense in a sea of colourless ink.