22 Comments

  1. I haven’t read anything by Shakespeare (neither plays nor sonnets) since high school, so I wasn’t surprised that I understood less than half of the 11 panels (and of that, at least two I reconstructed from general history knowledge, knowing nothing of the actual plays).

  2. Well, I just got done preparing for a book club which got cancelled due to current events; we were reading 1000 Acres (spoiler: it’s a modern retelling of King Lear), and so after I read the book in question, I went to read Lear. First off, the book is just loosely a retelling, it seems to me it was just a sort of fun exercise to set it up roughly parallel to Lear, but not let that become obsessive or in anyway overwhelm the story she had in mind to tell, so really, its being based on Lear is more like a trivia detail than anything profound. Second, I only got through to like the 4th Scene of the first Act before I gave up and just read synopsis — I’ve read Shakespeare, I’ve performed Shakespeare, but in the end, when actually faced with the source material, I’m always underwhelmed, and find it overwritten and over-plotted, and tedious. And when you look at his source materials, you realize that if you want to argue that the essential plots are what is genius, he basically just lifts those intact from other sources. Lear for example he took from 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history — all the plot is there, he just added unnecessary complications and confusions, mostly to employ more actors — why do we need Bourbon and a King of France, for example? Anyway, I know this view is near heresy, but I do find it interesting that for nearly 150 years, the Shakespeare version was not performed, an adaptation by Nahum Tate being preferred because it had a happy ending — my first reaction of course was: the Philistines! But then after trying to read the damn thing without wanting to spend a semester on it, I came around to their point of view — it could use improvements.
    Anyway, my reason for posting is that the author of the above comic we’re discussing didn’t bother to read Lear or even the Cliff Notes, because Lear’s having an army of retainers isn’t even remotely the point, and doesn’t happen at all the way he suggests, so social distancing would be moot anyway: Lear decides right up front to divide his Kingdom and give it to his daughters, no discussion or debate; as such, he gives up power and his two “loyal”, flattering daughters take up his power; as such, they reduce his retinue — it is forced on him, he has no (more) say in the matter — it is part of what drives him away from his first daughter to his second, who then reduces his retinue even further. Social distancing, him voluntarily reducing his retinue — all of this is nonsense, and missing the point — Lear regrets his rash act, but is powerless to do anything about it, and has to come as a supplicant to his daughters, who in turn demean him all the more, until he finally ends up supported by the daughter whom he disinherited in the beginning because she wouldn’t flatter him. It’s almost like the cartoonist is trying to fake his way through knowledge of Lear….

  3. You might enjoy John McWhorter’s remarks about Shakespeare’s language in modern performance. I think he is pretty happy with the plays overall, but thinks it would be great to do some rewriting for clarity, so the meaning can survive the language change that has intervened since S’s time.

    The interview is at https://medium.com/conversations-with-tyler/john-mcwhorter-tyler-cowen-linguistics-language-learning-7026a329ef32

    His answer, and joking about the usual excuses, are quite funny when hearing this on audio. I’ll copy a little from the transcript. If you want to see more about this topic, just search-in-page for “Shakespeare” .


    On translating Shakespeare into English
    COWEN: When will Shakespeare require a translation?
    MCWHORTER: Today.
    [laughter]
    MCWHORTER: And we know the drill. “Oh, it’s just poetry.” “Oh, you just have to let it roll over you.” “Oh, it’s better when the people are British.” “Oh, you’ve got to have a good director.” “Oh, you just don’t want to reach up and do the work,” et cetera. No, no.
    It’s that every 10th word, and especially late Shakespeare, means something different than what we think it means. It goes by, and you’re a little confused if somebody says “generous,” and you think they mean magnanimous, and they mean noble. The line doesn’t make any sense, and you go “Huh?” Then about 10 lines later, somebody says “wit,” and what they really mean is knowledge, and you’re wondering why the line was funny. What, what? So you’re confused again.

  4. Wow. Amazed at these responses. I thought the jokes were very funny, “got” them all, love KING LEAR and have acted in it in community theater (as “Burgundy” — it’s not “Bourbon — doubling as Edmund’s Captain), and my only mild gripe was that TROILUS AND CRESSIDA is not typically classed among the tragedies. But . . . whatever.

  5. Shrug, I didn’t get around to actually commenting on the comic!, but I thought it quite clever and pretty funny.

    I studied “Troilus and Cressida” in a Chaucer class, so as you might guess we had other fish to fry than a pure analysis or appreciation of the play. But in any case, whether you count it among S’s tragedies depends on how many categories you have. It’s clearly not a comedy nor a history, so that might seem to settle it right there — maybe a case could be made for calling it a romance, but not a really good one, if you ask me.

    If you go beyond those big three or big four categories, the people who talk about “the Problem Plays” probably count T & C in that. But I don’t think of that as a separate category on a par with the big three or big four — but rather a group it is sometimes useful to talk about together, with that as an additional marker, but the plays still being first of all in one of the traditional classes. Thus, T&C is a Tragedy (and a problem), Winter’s Tale and Measure For Measure are Romances (and problems), and All’s Well is a Comedy (and a problem).

  6. Burgundy, Bourbon, whatever, there’s a totally unnecessary extra French party starting with “B” confusing things, probably only so that one more actor could get onstage and have lines.
    😛
    Mitch thanks for that McWhorter link, I like him in general, so I will definitely give that a listen.

  7. But poetry isn’t necessarily supposed to be plainspoken.

    Also, I thought Shakespeare plays already contain annotation to explain the meaning of the texts.

  8. My wife has a T-Shirt by the artist of that comic. It’s just a list of those stick figure-type things, one set for every one of Shakespeare’s plays, in alphabetical order. Only it doesn’t list the names of the plays, so you have to know pretty close to all of the 38 plays — or at least to have heard the titles and have some vague idea of what they’re about — in order to appreciate it.

    We’ve seen 34 of the 38 plays over the decades we’ve been together… we still haven’t ever seen the three Henry VI plays, and we haven’t seen Two Noble Kinsmen, but we’ve seen all the other ones. And liked most of them pretty well. Some are definitely better than others, and some are REALLY dependent on actor and director — sometimes the play itself isn’t great, but the people putting it on can do amazing things with it. Lis and I saw CORIOLANUS in Boston; she additionally saw another performance when she was in Washington DC once without me, and we were both underwhelmed by it. (She saw the second one BECAUSE she was underwhelmed by the first one, and wanted to see if a different company would do better with it.) And then we saw the BBC production with Tom Hiddleston — and that was amazing. HE made it work. We wouldn’t have been able to check our box for “have seen this play acted live” based on the Hiddleston one, but, of the three, it was the only one that was genuinely worth our time.

    As a response to various other comments — Shakespeare is good at two, maybe three things: characters, language, and maybe spectacle. His plots are nonsense and contrived. He wrote the most awkward “As You Know, Bob” infodump I’ve ever encountered:

    OLIVER: Good Monsieur Charles, what’s the new news at the new court?
    CHARLES :There’s no news at the court, sir, but the old news. That is, the old duke is banished by his younger brother the new duke, and three or four loving lords have put themselves into voluntary exile with him, whose lands and revenues enrich the new duke. Therefore he gives them good leave to wander.

    But he makes characters that just stick with you. Not all of them are remotely believable, and I don’t think he has Great Insight Into The Human Condition, or whatever, but they are all just fun, often over-the-top, and cinematic.

    And, when he’s on, his language is fantastic. It just sounds good, it is clever, his dialogue is snappy and witty with unique voices for unique characters — and, of course, it’s ALL dialogue. This is my problem with McWhorter’s argument that Shakespeare needs translation: when one of the strongest things Shakespeare has is his mastery of Early Modern English, how do you preserve that when you translate it into Modern Modern English?

    That said — the very best filmed version of MACBETH isn’t even in English: it’s Akira Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD/SPIDERWEB CASTLE. So Kurosawa was able to translate Shakespeare into Japanese and make it even better — but that has to do with Kurosawa being at least as much of an artistic genius as Shakespeare was. Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada did the best filmed Macbeth and Lady Macbeth ever, even if they were called Washizu and Lady Washizu; Kurosawa did the best filmed spectacle of the creepy magic and dramatic battles of the play ever, even if his three witches were one creepy nature spirit, and Washizu is killed by his own troops instead of by Macduff.

  9. Another problem with translating Shakespeare is that puns don’t translate well (Asterix notwithstanding).

  10. Translating Shakespeare into English? Been done: Hipsters, flipsters and *snap* *snap* finger-popping daddies, knock me your lobes. (Now that’s a geezer reference.)

    I find the recent efforts to present Shakespeare in something resembling the way people spoke in the Elizabethan Era interesting.The plays are shorter than when done in Received Pronunciation, the actors stand and move differently, the rhythms are often more dynamic. Good stuff, even if they do all sound like Captain Barbosa from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

  11. @DemetriosX: “(Now that’s a geezer reference.)”

    Lord Buckley? MAD magazine in the late 1950s? I know I read/heard it somewhere…

    (Great; now I’ve got a Lord Buckley earworm. Well, there are many, many worse things to have, mi’ Lords and mi’ Ladies.)

  12. A very few years ago there was a half hour comedy series about Shakespeare called “Upstart Crow” out of the UK – 3 seasons and I wish they had continued.

    Each episode is about his writing a play. He goes from home – with wife, parents, children – including a sullen teenaged daughter to his flat in London – male servant and his landlady’s daughter who cannot understand why women can not be actors. (Standard answer to her – “Where would you put the half coconuts?”)

    Extremely funny and generally the overall plot follows the play he is writing. If you come across – take a look.

  13. @Shrug: Lord Buckley. It’s part of his Willy the Shake routine. Ah, YouTube comes through:

  14. Oh, and here’s a shorter video on Shakespeare in the Original Pronunciation. There’s also an hour-long that’s quite interesting. If it doesn’t show up at the top of the YouTube sidebar, search for Ben Crystal Original Pronunciation. It’s all pretty interesting.

  15. Mitch4: To make classifying Troilus and Cressida more confusing, it isn’t in any section of the First Folio of 1623 (which is separated into comedies, histories, and tragedies). It’s stuck in between the Histories and the Tragedies, and isn’t mentioned in the Table of Contents. Personally, I think it’s a VERY dark comedy. Shakespeare’s only satire.

    As for the comic, I thought it was hysterical, and I’m going to repost it on the Shakespeare groups I belong to.

  16. Meryl, thanks for the recco of Upstart Crow. I think I’ve seen one episode but will try more.

    Another TV dark comedy related to Shakespeare, this one from Canada, is “Slings And Arrows” — https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0387779/reference . It’s highly admired.

    There are three seasons of six episodes each, approximately 45 minutes to each episode. It’s about a Shakespeare-festival theatre company, and each TV season corresponds to one theatrical season. Their headline production each year is one of the big tragedies, but they also are doing other Shakespeare and works by other playwrights. So the seasons center on Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear in turn — and the TV writers find ways to mirror some of the mood and details of the Shakespeare plays.

    P.S. I once got into an online discussion with a person who was really excited to find a source for a fourth season, that she mentioned she hadn’t even known existed! But I was surprised she said it was from New Zealand; and she didn’t understand my question about how the natural progression of the familiar three series thru the big tragedies was extended to a fourth. …
    … Turned out she was discussing ” Outrageous Fortune” not ” Slings and Arrows” .

  17. I don’t entirely agree with McWhorter on this bit, but I should mention that parts of that interview beyond what I quoted do contain what might be responses to some of the issues raised here.

    For one thing, he does read the plays some, but not every time he’s going to see one. So his broad statement that the audience won’t understand some major parts of the play acted in unrevised text, was subject to some qualification — he said it applied more to later works, not all equally; and he also was calling it a problem just for the audience members who had not read the play, or not recently (this also came out as “five years, say” at one point).

    I don’t know what he thinks of “modern dress” productions in general, where the modernization does not extend to rewriting — for that matter, I don’t know what *I* think of those. I mildly enjoyed the 1996 Baz Luhrman “Romeo + Juliet”, but admired the cleverness of some touches in the semi-modernization: the dialogue would have one of the gang members threatening someone with his “sword” but the action would be him brandiishing a pistol — and then we would see the brand name on it, a “Sword”.

    Both “modern dress” with original text, and the sort of mild rewriting McWhorter is advocating, he sees as distinct from the sort of hip rewriting and reframing you would get if somebody 50 years later and not getting the joke tried to do what Lord Buckley had started, in contemporary terms and very seriously thinking this would make it available to today’s youth. Or something like that. McWhorter mentions this, and I think he sees that as unintentionally amusing.

  18. …and now that I’ve heard the Lord Buckley monologue, I think that one needs to be translated into modern English….

    😛

    (Actually I thought it was cleverly done, but that particular period in time seems as far removed from our time as Shakespeare’s).

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