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Introduction: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

shakespeare - November 16, 2009 in Introduction

One of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays, and also one of the most frequently reinterpreted. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was systematically cut and blended with other works, David Garrick’s version (1755), entitled The Fairies, contained, for example, only 600 of the original lines to which were added several lyrics by Dryden. The play has also been rendered as an opera on several occasions, the best known by Mendelssohn (1826) and Britten (1960). Even once the use of the full text was re-established, directors, operating under the influence of the opera and ballet traditions of interpretation, still took every possible occasion to make their versions of the play as spectacular as possible. An 1840 production had Puck entering on a flying mushroom and one in 1856 had ninety fairies dancing.

As for the plot, Shakespeare frames his narrative around several key relationships. First we have the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta announced at the play’s beginning and celebrated at its end. Next the relationship between the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, that enters stormy waters over the question of Titania’s “Indian Boy”. Third is the relationship between Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander, and Helena. At the start of the play, Demetrius loves Hermia, and his father wants them to marry, but Hermia loves Lysander and together they elope to the woods outside Athens, with Demetrius in pursuit and Helena, who loves Demetrius, pursuing him. As in many Shakespeare plays, the wood becomes the site of several magical transformations as relationships are at first confused by the tricks of Puck, and then reordered. The sub-plot of “rude mechanicals” rehearsing in preparation for the queen’s marriage further complicates matters as Puck turns Bottom the Weaver into a donkey, and then, at Oberon’s instruction bewitches Titania into loving the beast. This too is all resolved, and the play ends with a series of reflections on the events in the wood. Bottom articulates the strangeness of his half-recalled experiences, Theseus dismisses the young lovers’ accounts as ramblings typical of “the lunatic, the lover and the poet”, whilst Hippolyta points out how such tales “grow to something of great constancy / But howsoever, strange and admirable”. Puck concludes the play with an epilogue that tells the audience that they have “but slumbered here”, further complicating an already ambiguous play that combines meditations on married life, falling in love, power and dramaturgy with the tantalising, half perceived language of a dream. “Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream”.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: Love’s Labour’s Lost

shakespeare - November 5, 2009 in Introduction

The Duke of Navarre persuades his three friends to foreswear with him the company of women, and to devote themselves to study. Almost immediately afterwards, the Princess of France arrives with her three female friends. It does not take the men too long to realise, in a three-way eavesdropping scene, each others’ attraction, and, having disguised themselves as muscovites they go to woo the ladies. The play borders on the farcical and yet is stuffed with parodies of poets, academics, and priests. The disastrous performance of the Nine Worthies at the end of the play even parodies the art of acting itself, as Berowne interrupts the first, hapless Worthy’s introduction with the words “You lie, you are not he”. However, the play’s conclusion marks a sharp turn away from the earlier lightness, when a messenger arrives bearing the news that the King of France is dead. Reality intrudes into the fantastical world of Navarre, and, in a more complex bargain than the opening vow of abstinence, all the nascent relationships are postponed for a year. Don Armado, the boisterous, excessively eloquent Spaniard, is left to conclude the play with the haunting words: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo / You that way: we this way”.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: As You Like It

shakespeare - November 5, 2009 in Introduction

With one Duke exiled, his younger brother takes his place in the court; a pair of girls, Rosalind and Celia, the daughters of each Duke, are forced by the new Duke’s anger and their ties of friendship to travel into the Forest of Arden, followed by a courtier, Touchstone. In the forest where the elder Duke resides, the girls’ paths cross with Orlando, himself fleeing his elder brother’s tyranny. Through song and dance, with poetry and cross-dressing, four couples take shape and eventually marry before the goddess Hymen. The play concludes as it began, with the old Duke leaves Arden and his brother entering the forest: one Duke absent, one Duke in the court.

Anne Barton described this play as “the most classical of Shakespeare’s comedies”, and any glance at its plot will prove her insight. For many critics the play closely follows the comic pattern of movement from injust world, to disorder, to a better place. That said, much more is “Obscured in the circle of this forest”, than any formula implies. In this play, Shakespeare probes the limits of the pastoral, a genre that was popular amongst the Elizabethans. What does it mean to say “Sweet are the uses of adversity” when the exiled courtiers must take the deer and “kill them up / In their assigned and native dwelling place”? Do we agree with Touchstone when he says “the truest poetry is the most feigning”? For all the classical elegance of the play, there are no shortage of subtleties: the boy playing the female Rosalind must disguise himself as the boy Ganymede – and where does that leave the question of gender? As we laugh in condescension at the buffoonery of the rustics, or in incomprehension before Rosalind’s complex machinations, we can never forget nor fully grasp the complexity of one of the most famous of all Shakespeare’s speeches: Jaques, the melancholic fool, telling everyone that “All the world’s a stage…”

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith

Introduction: Romeo and Juliet

shakespeare - November 5, 2009 in Introduction

Probably composed in late 1596, Shakespeare’s version of ‘the greatest love story ever told’ marks a new stage in his writing career. Ever versatile, Shakespeare now creates pathos from the forbidden love plot that he had previously parodied in the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Similarly, the Senecan excesses of Titus Andronicus have been toned down to produce the first example of a ‘Shakespearean’ tragedy. Shakespeare takes Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet as his source, but gives the theatrical version two new features that make the original story even more ‘tragical’: pace (the lovers court, marry and die in a matter of days rather than months) and sympathy with the protagonists (Brooke presented the lovers’ desire at the expense of filial duty as the greater sin than the older generation’s feud).

The play is firmly rooted in the tradition of courtly love and is even considered responsible for a boom in sonnet-printing in London at the end of the sixteenth century. Examples abound: Romeo’s paradoxical musings on love echo Petrarch; when he meets Juliet, their first words to each other form a sonnet; and the lovers’ separation following Romeo’s exile is inspired by the contemporary French poet Guillaume du Bartas. However, the play never seems like a poetry anthology with a plot, thanks to its textured cast of secondary characters; the staging possibilities provided by masked balls, sword fights and descents into crypts; and an often-overlooked sense of humour.

Although a performance is not officially documented until Samuel Pepys expresses his disdain for it in 1662, the play was popular right from its composition. A quarto edition of 1597, successful enough to be reprinted just two years later, declares that it “hath been often (with great applause) plaid”. This popularity has endured: no other Shakespeare play has been filmed in more languages and it has survived modifications in plot (as an inter-racial or lesbian romance) and setting (to 19th Century Louisiana, 1960′s New York, and 1990′s California). But all of these adaptions keep Shakespeare’s Verona as their inspiration, a place where “love’s light wings” struggle to overcome the “stony limits” of conflict.

Contributed by Jack Belloli

Introduction: Macbeth

shakespeare - October 20, 2009 in Introduction

Essays on Macbeth: John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, despite being supposedly cursed: in theatrical circles its name is taboo, and it is referred to simply as ‘the Scottish play’. It is also one of the shortest plays, at just over half the length of Hamlet. Drawing on material from the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, the play displays the temptation and hubristic downfall of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. In addition to Macbeth, we see in his wife one of Shakespeare’s famous ‘strong women’ placed on the side of evil. Medieval Scotland provides an eerie background for the tragedy and also acts as a homage to the king at the time, Scottish James I. The king acceded to the throne, thus unifying England and Scotland for the first time, in 1603, the date of Macbeth‘s first performance, and he was thought to be a descendant of Macbeth’s opposite, Banquo, who resists the tempting prophecies of the play’s three witches. The play’s powerful themes of murder, wilderness and the supernatural have influenced horror films today and the witches’ famous lines “Hubble bubble, toil and trouble” are now a Halloween stockpiece. Macbeth is a stunningly ghoulish example of Shakespeare’s dramatic art.

Contributed by Colette Sensier

Introduction: Hamlet

Rufus Pollock - October 16, 2009 in Introduction

Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s best known play; a tragedy of monumental depth and linguistic brilliance. The play opens to an atmosphere of darkness and confusion. The scene is Elsinore; the royal castle of Denmark, where King Claudius and Queen Gertrude’s recent marriage has followed on the heels of the late King Hamlet’s funeral. In this strange and suspicious state where mirth and dirge unnaturally mix, it is clear that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.

After the recent death of his father, our protagonist, the melancholic Hamlet, soon seeks revenge. Yet, over and over again Hamlet loses his mettle and his will to action develops into tortured reflection. Hamlet is a dramatisation of all mankind’s moral struggles; at once comic, tragic, and romantic. In its depth, Hamlet defies all definitions and continues to captivate audiences and readers alike.

Contributed by Jude Jacob

Introduction: Measure for Measure

Rufus Pollock - October 15, 2009 in Introduction

As equivocal and all-encompassing as its title suggests, Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s first forays out of Renaissance pomp and convention into the more complicated sensibilities of the Jacobean era. Probably written while the playhouses were closed between March 1603 and April 1604, Shakespeare takes his audience to a Vienna which seems much like London: the brothels are being closed and the new ruler is deeply worried about how a king should conduct himself. The play’s main sources are a short story from Cinthio’s Hecatomitthi and its English dramatisation by George Whetstone as Promos and Cassandra, but Shakespeare has higher ambitions for his plot. Instead of having a novice nun agree to sleep with a corrupt tyrannical magistrate, in exchange for the release of her brother, what would happen if the nun’s righteous devotion prevented her from agreeing? What would be the effect of replacing the benign emperor Maximilian, who arrives at the end to resolve the action, with an “old fantastical duke of dark corners”, who manipulates characters throughout the play and whose motives are far from clear?

Of the three so-called ‘problem plays’, Measure for Measure is perhaps the least classifiable: while Troilus and Cressida leans towards unfulfilled tragedy and All’s Well That Ends Well towards bitter comedy, this play is more concerned with offering its audience a literally open-ended debate about the role of the law than conforming to any genre. Ostensibly a comedy, Shakespeare now refuses to take for granted the genre conventions kept to in his earlier works: disguise, obsessive love, the working-class fool and the happy ending signalled by marriages all become problematic and artificial. Conversely, he seems at first to be creating a tragic villain in the character of Angelo – the ruthless self-examination in his soliloquies of Acts II and IV betray the fact that this play was written alongside the great tragedies.

Decried by both Johnson and Coleridge, and almost ignored for much of the nineteenth century, the play has since been rehabilitated by both directors and critics. Whatever it occasionally lacks in coherence of tone and plot, it compensates in its thoughtful and still-relevant exploration of the division between justice and mercy, the spirit and the letter, piety and pragmatism.

Contributed by Jack Belloli