Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Shakespeare’s Use of Stage Directions

Did Shakespeare Write Any Stage
Compared with modern plays, the majority of Shakespeare’s work is somewhat light on the stage direction front.

However, when he does use them, they can be comical, impractical and, sometimes, downright bizarre.

Why Wasn’t Shakespeare a Big Fan of Stage Directions?

If we compare Shakespeare’s plays with those of George Bernard Shaw, you will notice a distinct disparity in the length and content of the playwrights’ stage directions. For example, Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession begins:

Summer afternoon in a cottage garden on the eastern slope of a hill a little south of Haslemere in Surrey. Looking up the hill, the cottage is seen in the left hand corner of the garden, with its thatched roof and porch, and a large latticed window to the left of the porch. A paling completely shuts in the garden, except for a gate on the right. The common rises uphill beyond the paling to the sky line. Some folded canvas garden chairs are leaning against the side bench in the porch. A lady's bicycle is propped against the wall, under the window. A little to the right of the porch a hammock is slung from two posts. A big canvas umbrella, stuck in the ground, keeps the sun off the hammock, in which a young lady is reading and making notes, her head towards the cottage and her feet towards the gate. In front of the hammock, and within reach of her hand, is a common kitchen chair, with a pile of serious-looking books and a supply of writing paper on it.

A gentleman walking on the common comes into sight from behind the cottage. He is hardly past middle age, with something of the artist about him, unconventionally but carefully dressed, and clean-shaven except for a moustache, with an eager susceptible face and very amiable and considerate manners. He has silky black hair, with waves of grey and white in it. His eyebrows are white, his moustache black. He seems not certain of his way. He looks over the palings; takes stock of the place; and sees the young lady.

Yes, that’s all before a word of dialogue has been spoken. Now, let’s compare this with the opening of Hamlet:

FRANCISCO at his post. Enter to him BERNARDO

It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s to the point. So, can we deduce anything from this comparison, other than the fact that Shaw is a pernickety windbag?* Well, all we really need do is think about the purpose of stage directions. They are there to tell the actors and the director what the writer has in his or her mind’s eye.

Shakespeare was a Director as
Well as a Playwright
A large part of the reason that Shakespeare does not need to tell us whether or not Francisco has a moustache or ‘something of the artist about him’, is because he was directing most of his work himself. While writing, old Shakey probably had actors from his company already in mind for specific roles. And, I suspect, he did not have the foresight to realise that, 400 years after his death, people would still be producing his plays. Subsequently, stage directions were largely unnecessary for Shakespeare.

In fact, because many of Shakespeare’s works were published from various sources after his death, we can’t even be sure that the stage directions we now read were written by him in the first place. There is no way of distinguishing between the directions that Shakespeare penned and those that have been added subsequently.

Of course, from an actor’s or director’s point of view, this opens a world of opportunities. We can quite freely interpret Shakespeare’s work, in the knowledge that no one can really know what the playwright had in mind. The same cannot be said of the likes of Samuel Beckett, who had incredibly strict rules about the way in which his works could be performed.

When Shakespeare Does Use Stage Directions

Even on the odd occasions that Shakespeare does use stage directions, they are much more concise than George Bernard Shaw’s. However, it seems to have been something he was more keen on during the early part of his career. Possibly, this is because he did not have as much of an active role in the rehearsals and production of the early plays. And, up until the Chamberlain’s Men gained exclusive rights to perform his work, companies he was not directly associated with may have been producing his plays.

Consequently, we have the likes of this: “The Tomb of the ANDRONICI appearing; the Tribunes and Senators aloft. Enter, below, from one side, SATURNINUS and his Followers; and, from the other side, BASSIANUS and his Followers; with drum and colours, in the opening of Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare’s Most Bizarre Stage Directions

Of course, Shakespeare makes up for the low quantity of stage directions with the quality of the ones he does use. As mentioned above, Shakespeare puts the ‘direct’ in stage direction.

For instance, in Othello, “He stifles her.” We don’t need to know that Othello’s head was ‘towards the cottage’ while his feet are ‘toward the gate’. We just get straight down to brass tacks.

Now, of course, there are times when stage directions can provide an element of humour. However, whether the following bizarre stage directions are intended to be funny is open to interpretation.

Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand Titus Andronicus

Poor old Antigonus: Exit Pursued by a Bear
Exit pursued by a bearA Winter’s Tale

On the one hand, these scenes are both meant to be serious and tragic. However, both could easily be twisted for comic effect…and they wouldn’t have to be twisted much.

And I suppose that’s the beauty of Shakespeare’s stage directions - just like every other aspect of his plays, we are free to interpret them as we like. We can put our own stamps on the plays.

In a way, we can make them our own. Which, for my money, is part of the reason that Shakespeare is so treasured.

* I am actually very fond of GBS and he is neither pernickety nor a windbag.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

How Should Shakespeare be Spelled?

Shakespeare's Name as it Appears on The Title Page of
Love's Labour's Lost
AKA., the Topshop spelling of Shakespeare's name,
although it probably wasn't known as that in 1598.
Earlier this week, UK clothing giant Topshop released and quickly withdrew a women’s T-shirt with, ‘Romeo Romeo, Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ printed on it. Why did they hastily withdraw the item? Well, beneath the quote was printed the name, ‘Shakespere’.

Now, the great man himself asked, “what’s in a name?” so, he probably wouldn’t have been affronted. And, besides, during his lifetime, there was no standardised way of spelling….well, anything - including his name.

Shakespeare's Name as ir Appears on the Third Folio (1664)
In fact, Shakespeare himself spelled his name in various ways throughout his life, which seems a little bit odd even for that 16th century fast and loose approach to spelling. This, of course, is one of the things that anti-Stratfordians (those who think that William Shakespeare did not write the plays and poems attributed to him) use as evidence for their case.

This strange variety in both literary and non-literary documents, especially those that were written by hand, suggests (to some) that the name was merely a pseudonym.

Given the complete disregard Elizabethan and Jacobean societies seemed to have for spelling, this alone is not enough to convince me that Shakespeare was a fraud. Although, I admit, it strikes me as odd that a man would spell his own name in a variety of ways. But, who knows? Maybe he got bored with writing it the same way and wanted to mix things up a bit. Those early modern boys and girls were radicals, man!

Shakespeare's Name as it Appears on the Title Page of King Lear (1608)
Hyphens were often used in pseudonyms, which adds wait to
the anti-Stratfordian case
The fact is that we currently live in a society where spelling is very much a black and white affair, so it is difficult - almost impossible - to imagine a world in which you could write however the heck you wanted to, including your own name!

Subsequently, of course, there are many people who have come to the defence of Topshop and Tee & Cake (the company that made the T-shirts), claiming that, as the name had no standardised spelling, those criticising the companies are behaving like foolish pendants, who need to get down from their high horses, with the assistance of a stepladder.

While I don’t believe this particular sin puts Topshop or Tee and Cake on a par with Genghis Khan, I do have grave doubts over whether either company planned to spell Shakespeare as ‘Shakespere’. Call me crazy, but I can’t imagine a conversation between Topshop and Tee & Cake that went like this:

“Did you know that Shakespeare used to spell his name however he liked?”

“Really? That’s interesting.”

“Yeah, the current spelling didn’t become standard, until the 19th century.”

“Wow! So, with this T-shirt aimed at teenagers and young women, most of whom probably know very little about Shakespeare, why don’t we take an early modern approach to spelling?”

Shakespeare's Name as it Appears on the Dedication Page of
'The Rape of Lucrece' (1594)
This would become the standard spelling of his name
No matter how you dress it up or how much you use the argument that Shakespeare had a loose attitude towards spelling, the Topshop T-shirt was obviously a mistake.

No one could call it a heinous or offensive act, but, let’s be honest, it does make both organisations look rather foolish.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Is Lady Macbeth a Bitch?

Ellen Terry as
Lady Macbeth (1889)
I often think, if Lady Macbeth had a theme song, it would be Meredith Brooks’ Bitch. “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed.” Yes, I realise I’m showing my age. Is Lady M really a bitch, though?

I was prompted to write this by something that caught my eye on ‘Yahoo Answers’ at the weekend. Someone wrote: “Lady Macbeth is consumed with such bitterness and hatred for the world that she has an extreme idea of what a man should and shouldn’t be. Lady Macbeth’s self-entitlement makes her idea of what a man should be revolve around pleasing her, protecting her, and giving her everything she needs. Her blood thirsty nature makes her version of a real man do whatever it takes to get what he needs, even kill.”

Now, for starters, I think this shows a distinct lack of understanding about the play – where does Shakespeare mention bitterness and hatred for the world? However, if we leave that to one side for a moment and address the crux of the statement, which is: it was all Lady Macbeth’s fault - I think there would be a fair few people in agreement.

Why Do We Blame Lady Macbeth?

Let’s be honest, when it comes to dishing out blame, Macbeth has to take the lion’s share. After all, he was the one who actually killed Duncan. Yes, Lady Macbeth encouraged him to do it, but if she were “blood thirsty by nature,” she would have done the job herself. After all, it would have made life much simpler – she wouldn’t have come back with bloody daggers still in hand.

Also, when it comes to evil deeds, Macbeth does the worst of 'em all by himself. He refuses to even tell Lady M about the plot to murder Banquo and Fleance, convinced that she should be “innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.”(III.ii) If he were simply incapable of murdering, without her pushing him to do so, he wouldn’t have continued to butcher everyone he perceived to be a threat to his throne, because she certainly doesn’t suggest any further bloodshed.

Is Macbeth’s Downfall Lady Macbeth’s Fault?

Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' 1948
Film Version (Welles implies that Lady M took a much
more 'active' role in Duncan's death)
I think there are a couple of reasons that people take a disliking to Lady Macbeth. Firstly, as far as some are concerned, she is responsible for Macbeth’s downfall.

Of course, this can’t be true, because Macbeth is a tragic hero. He, therefore, must be responsible for his own downfall. It is his hamartia that leads him to regicide and ever increasing acts of violence.

So, the notion that Lady Macbeth caused it all is shot right out of the water. More to the point, Macbeth is already thinking about murdering his way to the top – long before he’s sent word to his wife of the witches’ prophecy. “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…”(I.iii)

Is Lady Macbeth Ambitious?

I’ve heard and read many people state that it is Lady Macbeth who is the ambitious one in the relationship, which is why she keeps pushing for Macbeth to murder Duncan. This is something else that I completely disagree with, partly because ambition is Macbeth’s fatal flaw and, if you claim that he does not have that character trait, then you remove the thing that makes him a tragic hero.

Moreover, if you believe Lady Macbeth is ambitious, I would ask, ‘for what?’ She is a woman, in extremely patriarchal times; she can wield absolutely no power as queen, so it’s nothing more than a title. She is already the wife of a thane, she is well respected, reasonably wealthy, has a lovely castle in Inverness and servants. Being elevated to queen alters nothing, except she then has a lovely castle in Dunsinane.

To me, the only ambition she has is for her husband. She knows that he is a great man and that he could make a wonderful king – which he could, and the real Macbeth, arguably, did. As far as I’m concerned, there is no personal gain for her, with the possible exception of the fact that being married to a powerful man turns her on, which is a distinct possibility.

Lady Macbeth’s Lack of Femininity

Ellen Kean (nee Tree) and Charles Kean as
Lady Macbeth and Macbeth (1858)
When we really get right down to it, I think femininity is what it’s all about. The difference between ‘good’ women and ‘bad’ women is the amount of femininity they exude. This is something that goes right back to Medea and is still present in modern culture, with the likes of Cruella de Vil. It seems that, in order to be a strong woman, a gal must relinquish her femininity. If she relinquishes her femininity, she’s a bitch – but, in terms of art, that is often the only way a female character can take centre stage.

And Lady Macbeth does the most cardinal of all sins, by actually requesting that her femininity be removed, in order to steel herself for the plotting and act of Duncan’s murder. However, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t work – she has to have a little alcoholic beverage when it comes to carrying out the deed and she is incapable of killing Duncan herself, because he reminds her of her father. So the old, “unsex me here” business didn’t remove all trace of her feminine sensitivities.

Is Lady Macbeth Guilty of Infanticide? 

The final, and perhaps most oft quoted, reason to condemn Lady Macbeth is, “I have given suck, and know/How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me…”(I.vii) I think the problem here is that many people misinterpret this passage and believe it to mean that Lady Macbeth either did kill her child or would want to. Well, this could not be further from the mark. What she’s saying is that she, “…would, while it was smiling in my face,/Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,/And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you/Have done to this.”

The important bits, it seems to me, are the ‘would’ and the ‘if’. Essentially, what she’s saying is ‘If I’d promised you I’d kill my baby, I would do it.’ But, of course, she hasn’t made any such promise and probably wouldn’t even consider doing so. However, she’s playing on his emotions – telling him that she loves him so much that she would keep any promise, no matter how heinous, she made to him. Is it emotional blackmail? Probably. Is she saying whatever she has to, to get Macbeth to go through with the murder? Yes. But this cannot be used as evidence that she has or would readily commit infanticide.

To me, claiming that Lady Macbeth is a bitch, that Macbeth’s downfall is her fault and that she has bloodthirsty ambition does the play and her character an injustice. She is much more complicated than many people give her credit for and, as far as I'm concerned, the popularity of her character among actors (many of whom would give a limb to play her) goes to prove that.

If you'd like to find out more about Lady Macbeth and the other characters of the play, why not take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth, which is available on kindle. You can find it right here.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

What Are Shakespeare’s Problem Plays?

The Cover of The First Folio, Which Doesn't
Mention Problem Plays, Funnily Enough.
What is a problem play? What were Shakespeare’s problem plays and, more to the point, what was problematic about them?

The term problem play began as a label for a form of 19th century drama, which contains contentious social quandaries. These ‘problematic’ subjects are debated by the play’s characters, who have opposing points of view on the topic.

When it comes to problem plays, the man was, arguably, Ibsen, whose An Enemy of The People or A Doll’s House illustrate perfectly the kind of subjects debated in problem plays.

So, how did a 19th century dramatic term come to be applied to some of Shakespeare’s plays?

How Do You Solve a Problem Like…Shakespeare?

English critic, Frederick Samuel Boas was the first to apply the term ‘problem play’ to any of Shakespeare’s work. He did so, because he saw a similarity between a group of the Bard’s plays and those problem plays of 19th century playwrights.

In other words, Boas believed that some of Shakespeare’s plays centred around, or at the very least touched on, subjects that were highly contentious. Moreover, the characters of the plays take opposing views on these topics and the audience is, effectively, encouraged to make up its own mind.

However, as well as being used to describe a social or moral problem that is discussed within a work of drama, the term 'problem play' can be used to describe a play that shifts, often uncomfortably, between the tragic and the comic - in the end, landing on neither one side nor the other.

In other words, it is a problem, simply because it cannot be neatly squeezed into one genre.

What Are Shakespeare’s Problem Plays?

Originally, Boas applied the term to only three plays, penned in the latter 16th and early 17th centuries: All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida.

Subsequently, critics and Shakespearean scholars would add to that list: The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice.

Thanks to the ambiguous shifts in tone mentioned above (which is present in all of Shakespeare’s problem plays), they are sometimes known as the ‘dark comedies’.

Swings between tragic and comic are fairly widespread in modern television programmes, films and plays. However, when it comes to Shakespeare, these shifts seem to make us much more uncomfortable - but they shouldn’t. And I would argue that almost every single one of Shakespeare’s plays has at least one ‘problem’ element, he certainly had a habit of sticking gags in seemingly inappropriate places, such as the gravediggers in Hamlet, the Porter in Macbeth or the Fool in King Lear.

What’s The Problem With Shakespeare’s Plays?

All’s Well That Ends Well - After saving the life of the King of France, Helena is given the right to choose the hand of any man she wishes: she chooses Bertram, who ain’t thrilled by the match. After the wedding, he runs from France, informing his new spouse that he will never be her husband, unless she manages to get his family’s ring and become pregnant with his child.

Distraught, she ventures on a religious pilgrimage, and accidentally meets her husband, who is trying to seduce a young virgin named Diana, in Florence. Between them, the girls fool Bertram, get his ring and, thinking that his spending the night with Diana, he beds his wife.

Eventually, the trickery is revealed and Bertram finally accepts Helena as his spouse.

Problem: There is a huge question mark over whether or not there is a ‘happy ending’ in All’s Well That Ends Well. Some productions do choose to show it as one, whereas others maintain the bitterness between the pair.

In addition, the fact that Helena is beguiled by a character who seems so completely unlovable, means that we are left feeling more sorry for her than pleased that she finally got her man.

In terms of a moral or social problem, there are a couple to grapple with. Firstly, the fact that Helena is attempting to marry a man ‘above her status’. Secondly, the play throws up lots of questions about the roles of men and women, the function of marriage and fidelity.

Claudio and Isabella From
Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure - The Duke of Vienna announces that he’s going to leave (actually he remains, but in disguise) and places a judge named Angelo in charge in his stead. Angelo decides to imprison the nobleman Claudio for fornication - Claudio is unofficially married to Juliet (some technicalities mean they are not seen as married in the eyes of the law).

Claudio’s sister, Isabella (a novice nun) visits Angelo and pleads for her bother’s life. Eventually, the very moral and pious Angelo offers her a deal: if she agrees to relent her virginity to him, he’ll spare her brother’s life.

At first, Isabella refuses, but the Duke (disguised as a friar) plots a way to trick Angelo and get him to consummate his marriage to Mariana.

Problem: The play contains the social debate over what ‘marriage’ really is - Claudio and Juliet were married, but for a technicality. It also delves into moral and religious debates over sex and the soul. Isabella refuses Claudio’s insistence that she should bed Angelo to save his life, because she fears for her, and her brother’s, immortal soul.

And, like All’s Well That Ends Well, the ‘happy ending’ we expect from Shakespeare’s comedies is decidedly dubious, as the Duke claims that he will take Isabella’s hand in marriage. She, however, makes no response. Her silence can, and has been, interpreted in various ways. However, it strikes me that if she were even slightly pleased by the notion, she would have at least said something!

Troilus and Cressida - During the Trojan War, a Trojan prince, Troilus, falls for the daughter (Cressida) of a man who has defected to the side of the Greeks. Eventually, Troilus finds her and the pair vow eternal love for each other. However, Cressida’s father, Calchas, makes a deal with the Greek leaders to exchange a Trojan prisoner to get his daughter back.

Troilus Watched Cressida Agree to Become Diomedes' Lover
Torilus and Cressida
The next day, Cressida is taken away by a Greek lord, Diomedes, much to the dismay of Troilus. That afternoon, after some fighting between the Greeks and Trojans, Troilus and his brother Hector feast (in truce) with the Greeks. After the meal, Troilus discovers that Cressida has consented to be Diomedes’ lover.

The next day, the two armies engage in battle, with Achilles eventually killing Hector. The Trojans are forced to retreat and the play ends with them mourning the death of their hero.

Problem: The play fluctuates wildly between tragedy and bawdy comedy. In fact, the categorisation of the play varies, with some calling it a tragedy and others labelling it a comedy. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays Troilus and Cressida is possibly the most difficult to define in those terms.

In terms of socially contentious issues, there is of course the debate, between the Trojan princes, about the validity of the war and whether there was a battle worth fighting.

The Winter’s Tale - The King of Bohemia, Polixenes, visits his friend the King of Sicilia, Leontes. All is well, until nine months into his stay, Polixenes wishes to return home. Leontes, however, wants him to stay and, after failing to convince him to do so, sends his wife, Hermione, to plead with him. Hermione, seemingly simply, convinces the Bohemian king to stay, prompting instant jealousy from Leontes, who becomes convinced his wife and friend are having an affair, and that her unborn child is Polixenes'.
Perdita from The Winter's Tale

Polixenes, fearing for his life, flees for home and Hermione, who gives birth prematurely in prison, is placed on trial for treason. During the trial, Leontes is told by the Oracle that Hermione is innocent and several prophecies are made. Leontes refuses to listen, and immediately receives word that his young son has died from grief (one of the prophecies). Hermione promptly faints and we’re lead to believe that she is dead, too. Leontes, distraught, realises the error of his ways.

Meanwhile, Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, has been abandoned on the coast of Bohemia and is found and raised by a shepherd. Fast forward sixteen years, and Polixenes’ son, Florizel, is infatuated by the young shepherdess. With the help of a clownish rogue, Peridita’s true parentage is revealed and the families of Bohemia and Sicilia visit the statue of Hermione, which was erected after her death. The statue comes to life, as Hermione reveals that she was not dead after all.

Problem: The Winter’s Tale is almost like two plays for the price of one. The first three acts are filled with quite intense drama and dark psychological exploration.

However, the final two acts are filled with comedic moments, including bawdy humour. And, undoubtedly, the play offers a happy ending with the marriage of the young couple and the reunion of daughter, father and mother.

Timon of Athens - Timon is a wealthy Athenian, who is generous to a fault. He is so generous that not only does he give all of his money away, but also finds himself in debt supporting his friends. However, when he needs some assistance in paying off his creditors, they refuse to return the favour.

The philanthropic Timon turns misanthrope and, after giving some of his ‘friends’ a few home truths, curses the city of Athens and disappears into the wilderness, making his home in a cave. In his new hideout, he discovers a trove of gold and offers the majority of it to Alcibades, who is planning an attack on the city.

Envoys from Athens attempt to seek Timon’s help in assuaging Alcibades attack, but he refuses to help them. Shortly afterwards, he dies. The play ends with Alcibades reading the epitaph that Timon wrote for himself.

Problem: Timon of Athens is probably Shakespeare’s most confusing play, it’s disjointed and it has been asserted that it was probably co-written with another playwright. Within the play, there are numerous debates over philosophy and the nature of humankind.

The Merchant of Venice - A wealthy Christian merchant, Antonio, is approached by his good friend, Bassanio, who requests money to enable him to travel to Belmont and woo the lovely Portia. Antonio has no money, his own being tied up in his merchandise, which is at sea, but agrees to borrow from the Jewish usurer, Shylock.
Shylock and Portia from
The Merchant of Venice

Shylock, who has been tormented by the Christians, inducing Antonio, suggests a ‘merry bond’ in which, if Antonio is unable to pay the money back, a pound of his flesh will be forfeit. Antonio agrees and off Bassanio goes.

Meanwhile, another Christian, Lorenzo, has fallen in love with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and plans to run away with her. When Antonio’s shipped are wrecked, Shylock, angry about the loss of his daughter, for which he blames all of the Christians who aided her elopement, is determined to take his revenge and demands his pound of flesh.

At the trial, a disguised Portia, who has married Bassanio, appears and finds a loophole in the bond - there must be no blood spilt. Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and his worldly goods must be passed to Lorenzo.

Problem: The Merchant of Venice is certainly not all laughs, although there are some to be had. There are some intensely dramatic scenes within the play, too.

Of course, today, the added problem is the portrayal of Jews, which would not have caused any offence in Elizabethan England. However, I would assert that Shakespeare offers a sympathetic view and, arguably, questions the Christianity of the Christians.

Nevertheless, there is certainly an uncomfortable end, once again indicated by a silence, this time Jessica’s, as she says nothing when told of her father’s fate.

What’s With All This Genre Business Anyway?

Personally, I question the value of labelling any plays, but especially with the narrow categories of: tragedy, comedy and history. There are actually elements of all three, and dozens more, in most of Shakespeare’s plays. Therefore, I would make an argument for all of Shakespeare’s plays being, at least somewhat, problematic.

However, in terms of how they are officially categorised, those listed above are Shakespeare’s problem plays.

Any thoughts or questions, feel free to write them below. I’d love to hear from you!