Thursday, 8 September 2011

On Shakespeare Today

I think a lot of period piece reconstructions of Shakespeare are too deferential - remember the originals were in Elizabethan i.e. contemporary dress, not some kind of antique clothes. The ones that I find work best are those like David Tennant's production of Hamlet or Ian McKellern's Richard III which are modern in dress style. Laurence Olivier's Richard III is a hunch backed grotesque with the kind of diction that Vincent Price might use for hamming it up; Ian McKellern is the ruler of a fascist Nazi like state that is all too realistic.

Falstaff: We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.

Having said that, Orson Welles "The Chimes at Midnight", which cheerfully cuts up two plays and weaves them together into a brilliantly paced and atmospheric film - Welles knew there must be a difference between play and film, and his version is cinematic - is my personal favourite - it's not deferential, but it captures the essence of Shakespeare, and the battle scene is wholly cinematic, but symbolic of how the world is changing and has no time for Falstaff, an old man of the past who cannot fight the modern wars.

The scene of the battle of Shrewsbury is justly famous. It lasts fully 10 minutes, chaotic action at a brutal pitch, horses and men confused in smoke and fog, steel crashing against steel, cries of pain, desperate struggles, confused limbs caked in mud and blood, men falling exhausted or dead. Barbara Leaming, one of Welles' biographers, says the scene was created by careful framing; Welles at no time had more than about 100 extras, yet seems to have a multitude....The battle is intercut with shots of a fat man in armor, hurrying and scurrying out of the way and finally playing dead.

And when the Prince becomes King, Welles subverts Shakespeare, and has us sympathise with Falstaff rather than King Hal.

It is a new reign, a new world, and no place for a fat, pleasure-loving old man. The close-up of Falstaff's face - greed, love, and relief combined - when he hears the good news that the old king is dead contrasts all the more sharply with the close-up of his anguish when he hears the new king, his "sweet boy," reject him. In Shakespeare's world, Hal's act is proof of prudence and maturity; in Welles's recreation of that world, it is more treasonous than anything that Hotspur ever did. The chimes at midnight that old men once heard are now the bell tolling for the banished friend. Falstaff dies soon after, trundled off to obscure burial in a great chest of a coffin, his few remaining friends heading off to fight.

Falstaff: My King! My Jove! I speak to thee my heart!
Prince Hal: I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers!/ How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

School usually kills Shakespeare either with stagey productions, or a dissection of the text that I'm sure reads into it things that were never there. Shakespeare was writing not for posterity, but for the theatrical season, and to support himself financially, and Oddsocks probably captures something of that vitality with their crazy and funny productions.

There are loads of Shakespeare phrases that people use that have found their way into the English language, in one form or another, but without realising their origin - so he's still very influential.

"To be, or not to be: that is the question". - Hamlet (Act III, Scene I).
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry". - Hamlet (Act I, Scene III).
"This above all: to thine own self be true". - Hamlet (Act I, Scene III).
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him". - (Act III, Scene II).
"But, for my own part, it was Greek to me". - (Act I, Scene II).
"The course of true love never did run smooth". - (Act I, Scene I).
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't." Hamlet quote (Act II, Scene II).
"The play 's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king". Hamlet Quote (Act II, Scene II).
"Brevity is the soul of wit". - Hamlet Quote (Act II, Scene II).
"The devil can cite scripture for his purpose". -( Quote Act I, sce. III)
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see The pretty follies that themselves commit. Quote Act ii. sce. 6.
All that glisters is not gold. The Merchant of Venice Quote. Act ii.
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" - ( Quote Act I, Scene IV).
"Nothing will come of nothing." King Lear Quote (Act I, Scene I).
"I am a man more sinned against than sinning". - ( Quote Act III, Scene II).
"I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at". Othello Quote (Act I, Scene I).
"It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock". Othello Quote (Act III)

I suppose my favourite is the seven ages of man, which is brilliant. I don't think anyone has captured so well the changes of life.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the bard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav'd, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I'm fast approaching the stage "In fair round belly with good capon lined"!


1 comment:

alane said...

Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins is a great movie. Not stuffy and over reverential.