Archive for the ‘‘Culture’’ Category
That’s more like it.
Twelfth Night is why I started this project. I had never read it; never seen it. And it was a pure delight. As usual, the nobility in the play — the Duke, Olivia, Viola and Sebastian — are mainly background to the true comedy workings of the secondary characters. The interplay between Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Maria, Fabian, Feste and Malvolio is the highlight of this frantic play. Their interactions, particularly in the cruel plank played on Malvolio, are hilarious. A good comedy needs a straight man but Twelfth Night features two: the vain Malvolio and the idiotic Sir Andrew, both of whom are played like fiddles for the amusement of Sir Toby.
That’s not to give short shrift to the convoluted romance around Viola. The overbearing melodramatic proclamations of the Orsino and Olivia serve as a sharp contrast to the more practical behavior of the others. Today, the homoerotic aspects — Orsino in love with a boy and Olivia in love with a girl — would be played to the hilt. I’m not quite sure how it went in Shakespeare’s day, with Viola being played by a male actor (a boy pretending to be girl pretending to be a boy). But the plot is tighter than a drum, culminating in a head-spinning Act V when everything finally comes to fruition and then is resolved neatly.
As I think about it, however, my favorite character has to be Feste, the Clown. He is the most intelligent and insightful person in the play, playing his role as a fool perfectly, moving the characters with subtlety and giving the last melancholy lines. He rapidly became one of my favorite Shakespeare creations.
Next Up: The Winter’s Tale
Wikipedia has about 745 pages on this play attempting to divine its true origin, its possible version and its possible meaning. You will rarely see people bend themselves into such amazing shapes to try to somehow exonerate the writer of a piece of literature and claim that the words on the page either aren’t his or aren’t really what he meant. The discussions continually circulate back to he old, “oh, that’s satire” excuse, even though Shakespeare is not generally that subtle.
But there’s a good reason for all this rigamarole: The Taming of the Shrew … well … isn’t good.
Oh, it has some redeeming qualities. Kate starts out as a good character. Smashing the lute over Hortensio’s head made me laugh, even thought it happened off stage (in act, almost all of the really hilarious stuff, including the wedding, happens offstage). Her initial wordplay with Petruchio is so sharp that I hoped I would go on to read more, that this would be another Beatrice and Benedick. Alas, by the end of that very scene, she is already reduced to a passive complaint woman, not even objecting to being engaged.
There is some fun dialogue when Lucentio and Hortensio are trying to woo Bianca. But that whole plot twists itself with the needless disguises, ultimately resolved in about two lines of dialogue. The character of Tranio is one of my favorites. He is probably the smartest man in the play. If there were any justice, he would have run off with Bianca.
Really, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the notions that this was a rough early draft or something that Shakespeare rushed out on deadline. There are just so many missed opportunities, so many problems, so many plot holes that I can’t believe this is what he intended to write.
Hence the contortions.
Next Up: Twelfth Night
I would say that it was due to reading on a trans-pacific light. But this is the second time this play had failed to make much of an impression on me. This was the play I saw in the redwoods at Santa Cruz and I barely remember any of it (I only recognized it because the actor playing Jaques looked into his pants when discussing what the time was.)
This just seems to be a play built from segments of other plays, notably the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The villain disappears almost immediately. The device of Rosalind’s disguise is a bit too clever. And most of the couples fail to make an impression.
There are some amusing parts and Jaques’ “All the World is a stage” speech is justifiably famous. I found it amusing in performance. But I’m inclined to agree with the critics on this one that it lacks the depth of the best comedies.
Next Up: The Taming of the Shrew
If it weren’t for the ending, I would like this play a lot better. As it is, it has its moments of brilliance, particularly Portia’s ridiculing of her past suitors and Shylock’s famous speech. The romantic subplot is side-lined, generating little tension. The idea that no one thought to pick the lead casket strains credulity. And maybe it’s just me, but the sidekicks — who usually generate much of Shakespear’s humor — seem subdued. But, all in all, this is a typical entry into the cannon — quotable, fun and a fast read.
Until, that is, Act IV.
Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish but the ending of this play infuriates me. Shylock is deprived of a perfectly reasonable debt by a legal theory that wouldn’t water in a kangaroo court administered by someone who, technically speaking, has no legal authority. The logic used to defeat Shylock — that he could not get a pound of flesh without spilling blood — easily destroys Portia’s argument that he tried to kill a Venetian. A more typical twist of this would be to have Portia’s argument used to threaten the hero, then to have him rescued by a wiser ruling. But, of course, the entire court scene is a farce, degenerating quickly into an excuse to impoverish, humiliate and convert Shylock, a character I find unsympathetic and deserving of a comeuppance, but not one as arbitrary and total as the one he gets.
That, of course, brings me to the big question about this play: is The Merchant of Venice anti-semitic? Well, there’s a good case to be made that it is. Jews and Judaism are denounced repeatedly. The hero of the play admits to abusing and spitting on Shylock. The happy ending has both Shylock and Jessica converting to Christianity and there is zero irony or ambivalence about it. To the extent that there is sympathy for Shylock — his famous speech — it still regards his religion as more of a tragic flaw. Othello the Moor’s religion was treated with more respect than this.
Historically, the role was played was little sympathy until modern times. The fact that the role can be made sympathetic has less to do with any subconscious sympathy in the writer and more to do a key factor of Shakespeare’s enduring brilliance: the ability of the plays to resonate in any context or performance. The Taming of the Shrew still appeals when converted into a teen comedy; Macbeth is still compelling even, as my Twitter friends discussed, he’s a vet with PTSD; and Shylock can be made into a sympathetic character. This happens because Shakespeare spoke to deep needs, fears and emotions. This happens because all of his characters and plots are multi-layered. This happens because he was Shakespeare.
(Defenders claim Shylock is vilified and humiliated more for his greed and usury than his religion. Apart from ignoring the plain text, this misses the context. Banking was synonymous with European Jews in the last millenium because Christians tought charging interest was sinful. Since Jews were going to hell anyway and were barred from most other professions, they naturally became bankers. And it wasn’t long before the caricature of the greedy Jew arose. So vilifying Shylock for usury and greed, in the Elizabethan Era, isn’t that far from vilifying him for his faith.)
In the comments on one play, I noted arguments I had in college over Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale”. The Prioress’s Tale is clearly anti-semitic but my professor and my class bent over backward to pretend that it was really mocking anti-semitism. I countered that their desperation to prove Chaucer was free of or wasn’t exploiting any anti-semitic feeling was a form of modern chauvinism. Chaucer didn’t invent anti-semitism. He was a man of his time, born into a country that had expelled Jews and regarded them as intrinsically evil. Anti-semitism would be as natural for a man of 14th century England as racism was or a man of the 19th. His writing is just as brilliant if he were anti-semitic than if he weren’t. In fact, the Prioress’s tale is quite well-told, for being a blood libel story.
Shakespeare didn’t invent anti-semitism and, to my knowledge, it doesn’t appear in any other works. And it’s likely that, like Chaucer, his use of a Jew as the villain more to do with is culture that any particular feeling of his. But the disdain for Jews and Judaism by the heroes of Merchant is unmistakable. Why should we refuse to accept that he might have accepted the same things about Jews that everyone else did?
Frankly, the beliefs of artists don’t really bother me. There are many modern artists who embraced the murderous soul-crushing evil of communism. There are many who have embraced racism, anti-semitism, anti-Islamism, sexism and any other form of bigotry you care to nominate. We shouldn’t ignore the brilliant things they make when they are not irreparably tainted. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history. Merchant of Venice is a great play. That Shakespeare might have bought into the common and official belief that Jews were evil does not change that.
Next Up: As You Like It
I’m sure wiser heads have commented on this, but I was struck by something while watching Tron: Legacy the other night: the growing influence of minimalism in American movie soundtracks.
Let me back up a bit. In the early 90’s, I saw an outstanding documentary called The Thin Blue Line. Errol Morris, who is the film-maker Michael Moore wishes he were, made a compelling case that an innocent man was on death row — such a compelling case that he was released a year later.
One of the great things about the film is the score, which was put together by minimalist composer Phillip Glass. At the time, I had no idea what minimalist music was. When I first heard the name, I assumed it was what it sounded like — an orchestra where the violin would play one note, the trumpet would play another and that would be it: a more upbeat version of Cage’s silence. But minimalism is more complex than that. And Glass’s score, with its emphasis on rhythm and harmony at the exclusion of melody, was perfect for the movie. It gave an unusual urgency to the narrative and the increasing complexity of the harmony emphasized the increasing complexity of the story you were required to believe to conclude that Randall Dale Adams was guilty.
Glass did another score for The Hours which was very similar — his music all begins to sound alike after a while. But it also elevated that movie, especially the scene where Julianne Moore hallucinates that the room is flooding.
So, back to Tron. Daft Punk’s score is very good and also very minimalist. It is built on a handful of leit motifs with lots of repetition, increasing complexity and changing emphasis. It gives the film almost all of its energy and drive. But Tron is not unique. Inception had a very minimalistic score. Doctor Who uses a fair amount of minimalism. Both Batman movies use a lot of minimalism. Hans Zimmer, in particular, has been driving the minimalist train for several years with dramatic success.
So why is minimalism so big now? I think because it is well-suited to the kind of entertainment we’re seeing — fast-paced, quickly-edited, quick moving films that have little time for symphonic scores. They need a score that moves the movie, rather than emphasizes it. This is especially true of science fiction and fantasy films where a minimalist score can match the “techie” look and feel.
That’s not to slam symphonic scores like those of John Williams, whose epic scores for the three Star Wars prequels were the best things about them. Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings, with its strong Wagnerian influence, is wonderful. But the palette has now broadened to the point where a minimalist score can not only be acceptable, but one of the best scores of the year.
We’re in a golden age of movie scores. If only the scripts could keep up.
“And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends.” – Bottom
What can I say about A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has not already been said? It is (so far) the best of the comedies. Some of the lesser comedies drag on a bit (at least on the page) and I have to will myself to finish. Every time I read Dream, I fly through it, delighted with everything I’m reading — every plot twist, every beautiful turn of phrase, every word. Not a character or scene is wasted. By the time I reach the end, I feel like I’ve rushed through the story.
I did notice one thing this time around, something I’m noticing when I read plays that I read previously in high school or college: the characters with whom I identify the most has changed. The first time I read Dream, my favorite character was Puck. But this time, I found myself in far more sympathy with Bottom, the little man who so dreams of being big. The play at the end, which previously annoyed me, now seems almost poignant.
(As an aside, the 1999 film version of this play is quite serviceable. Kevin Klein, Stanley Tucci and Michelle Pfeiffer all show a wonderful ease with the material, eschewing the usual overdramatic intonation that tends to characterize bad Shakespeare productions. It’s not great, but it’s very watchable.)
Next Up: Merchant of Venice