Dear friends and readers,
On Friday night, November 7th, most of the participants (or so it seemed from the crowded church pews) of EC/ASECS were privileged to see and hear a marvelously acted performance of Shakespeare Restor’d, a new play (mostly by Jane Wessel, directed by Sandy Ernst, co-directed Sayna O’Neill)) whose central characters, William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys, debated the relative merits of five of Shakespeare’s original plays against various 17th to 18th century improvements, revised texts, by conjuring up a group of actors to enact parallel scenes: we had
The death scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet against the death scene (very close even if they wake up) in Otway’s Caius Marius;
A first scene of Caliban encountering Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest against a parallel scene (with a second daughter, and a Hippolytus, an innocent good creature added to Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban) from Dryden’s Tempest;
Scene of the young Plantagenet princes having died and it mentioned and the dying murdered Princes in Shakespeare’s and Cibber’s Richard IIIs, respectively;
Sleepwalking and despairing soliloquies, the killing of Lady Macduff and her children, from Shakespeare’s and Davenant’s Macbeths;
The tragic and triumphant conclusions of Shakespeare’s and Nahum Tate’s Tempest respectively.
What was most striking was how well some of the “improved” scenes played when they were done as seriously as Shakespeare’s. I’ve seen some of these “improvements” in opera: an early 19th century Italian Romeo and Juliet where our lovers wake up, sing desperate arias to one another for quite a time, and then die; parts of the HD Met’s Enchanted Island, bits of Cibber stuck into a Shakespearean text.
After the performance the actors sat on the stage and discussed their experience with one another and the audience; Resident Ensemble players included Joshua L. Browns, Paul Hurley, Maggie Kettering, Erin Partin, Benjamin Reigel; producing artistic director, Sandford Robbins. There was a rehearsal and another performance on Saturday evening.
I’ll take this opportunity to recommend a 21st century Shakespeare I’ve been mesmerized by this past few weeks: I’ve described briefly Jonathan Bate’s remarkable series of on-line lectures Weeks 1-3 from Future Learn in the form of MOOC, Shakespeare and His World, for Warwick University and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Weeks 4-7 have been as well-informed, thoughtful, frank, original in perspective, and eloquent as the first three. The plays read and discussed for themselves and jumping off platforms were
(for week 4) Henry V, allowing Bate to discuss a world then at war too, with sections projecting the soldiers’ experience, the nature of the conflicts, how patriotism was used; (for week 5) The Merchant of Venice, used to depict Shakespeare as a businessman. I’ve heard so many times he was a cagey careful businessman and if you followed his career you’d see him rent and land empire building, not to omit getting his father a rank. This was the first time I saw it detailed. That’s what I’m liking about these videos: new insights now and again genuinely and then backed up by content. So ingeniously Bate says Shakespeare reflects himself in Antonio and Shylock. He did de-emphasize the homosexuality or homoeroticism of Bassanio and Antonio; he didn’t say it was not there but he gave a weasel way of avoiding it “as not important; then (for week 6) Macbeth and the attitudes towards witches and superstitious beliefs of all sorts, and towards medicine in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; and finally for now (for week 7), as embodied in Othello, the world of the Ottoman empire, the Mediterranean as a centre of war, commerce, different ethnic groups in conflict (including a remarkably explicit drawing of a white slave market). I say for now as there is more coming.
Bate compared Othello to Shylock as an outsider on the one hand, and to Macbeth as a seduced murderer on the other. He brings back and intertwines weeks: so the outsider in Shylock is also seen in Othello. I’ve bought myself his The Biography of Shakespeare’s Mind; I read and was irritated by Bate’s book on John Clare (Bate has written on the romantic poets and Shakespeare too) as excusing the wife for putting the man in an asylum and as critical of Clare as not socially performative in the middle class way and instead resentful of exclusion, but perhaps I misread …
11/18 Update: Week 8:
The play this week was Antony and Cleopatra and the subject the Elizabethan view and uses of Rome and Greece, as well as what we can ascertain was Shakespeare’s. He said he didn’t choose Julius Caesar because it was so much better known, and chose A&C because it had a woman centrally in the play and a powerful fascinating pyschological portrait of this pair of people. A lot of the lectures consisted of Bate telling about North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (from a French intermediary copy), showing us the book, describing it, and then comparing the text of Antony and Cleopatra to the passages in Plutarch to tease out the differences. That is to say, this one was not as generally informative as the previous weeks have been: no discussion of what boys (and girls in the Renaissance too when of upper class homes) were put to read of the Romans and Greeks, no talk of how they were educated in these languaqes, of what specifically was thought true of the two cultures, and how reflected elsewhere than Plutarch. Previous weeks gave far more general talk, but this time Bate really went into the poetry and showed Shakespeare’s mind changing perspective, adding depth, eroticism into his text. Central to the pleasure of all these week is Bate’s mesmerizing voice itself, like some inspired sybil, and particular utterances he makes here and there …
The play for this week is The Tempest and as in previous weeks Bate uses it to discuss Elizabethan and Shakespeare’s attitudes (as we see in the play) towards the “new” World (western hemisphere), towards magic. Maybe I was unfair last week in saying he did not discuss attitudes towards the ancient world because he did go over Plutarch; this week he had other texts and maps of the time. I begin to notice flaws though: Bate himself is careful to say nothing politically even if he goes on about how Caliban stands for a native of these islands; Shakespeare does comment on colonialism and coups. After all Bate is careful not to offend too over the course of these weeks.
He is very good on the poetry of the play — its use of sounds, music, the sea. He points out that the play is the first in the folio and speculates that it was so chosen because it is a culmination. He does dismiss with derision (so frank there) the idea the man Wm Shakespeare did not write these plays (though he does not go on to say how class prejudice leads to this).
Next week he’s going to get yet more fashionable: I was writing/chatting with a member of our listservs offlist: Bate’s approach is very contemporary, the way he pulls from the plays Shakespeare’s attitudes, his way of doing history; next week he’s going to give us a history of the criticism that led to idolatry and today. I wonder how frank he’ll be about that.
Each week you are told during the week what have been the best filmed versions of the given play (according to Bate, ever modest saying this is his view of course).
Each week also (second video, 15 minutes) there is a round-up of the week before, with an “assistant” who has read through (so it seems) all the “learners'” comments and brings forward (made more coherent and useful) general questions and assertions and Bate goes over these, always saying what an interesting question or some such praise.
I don’t know what Jim would have thought of this or the other MOOCs I’ve watched, but he would have immensely enjoyed Shakespeare Restor’d. I have in this house in a couple of books some of the improved texts in facsimile reprints (from the Strand bookstore in NYC) and remember he read and talked of them once. I wish I could conjure up what he would have said of this performance.