SHAKESPEARE:

THE LOVER AND THE POET

 

Review

 

 

Shakespeare in Love. Director: John Madden. Script: Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Shakespeare: Joseph Fiennes. Viola: Gwynneth Paltrow. Philip Henslowe: Geoffrey Rush. Lord Wessex: Colin Firth. Ned Alleyn: Ben Affleck. Queen Elizabeth: Judy Dench.

 

Dark Lady by Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Seen: 10 January 1999, Muziektheater Amsterdam. Text and Director: Gerardjan Rijnders. Music: Boudewijn Tarenskeen. Dramaturgy: Janine Brogt. Set Design: Paul Gallis. Costumes: Rien Bekkers. Light: Reinier Tweebeeke. Choreography: Bambi Uden. Actors: Poet: Romain Bischoff, Ramses Shaffy, Gijs de Lange. Dark Lady: Elena Vink, Kitty Courbois, Marieke Heebink, Marjon Brandsma, Roos Ouwehand. Youth: Sonja van Beek, Joop Admiraal, Mimoun Oaïssa, Jasper Boeke.

 

To most readers and theatre goers outside academe, and to many inside it, Shakespeare is first and foremost the poet of love: the author of Romeo and Juliet, the great love tragedy, and of its comic counterpart, A Midsummer Night's Dream. From the concept of Shakespeare as the poet of love, it is only a small step to seeing him as an ardent lover. Two recent productions illustrate this aspect of the modern icon of the Bard. Without altogether endorsing it, both Shakespeare in Love and Dark Lady toy with this myth and with its corollary: that it is on account of his exceptional personal experience in the field of love that Shakespeare was suited above all others to become its high priest.

Before discussing the American film and the Dutch theatre production, however, a few words on the link between art and autobiography are in order. It is a moot question whether personal experience is really necessary to write intelligently about any given topic. Few of us will ask whether Shakespeare was actively involved in politics, simply because he wrote so many history plays; whether the author of Henry V was a war veteran; or whether he had ever travelled to Italy, the setting of so many of his plays. Yet when it comes to love, a close connection between life and art is often assumed without question. It is true that the Sonnets tell the story of a triangular relationship, but it is by no means certain that they should be read as straight autobiography. In this light, the related assumption that Shakespeare's exceptional talent as a writer was largely due to his putative successes and frustrations in love becomes even more questionable.

Nevertheless these two suppositions are the stock in trade of an entire genre within the Shakespeare industry, that of representations of Shakespeare as a fictional character.[1] As Shakespeare himself has not obliged us with a more straightforward narrative of his own life than what is (possibly) contained in the Sonnets, playwrights and novelists have occasionally supplied us with their fantasies about his love-life and its connection to his emerging genius. The usual basis for such an exercise is a combination of the scarce available documentary data with an autobiographical reading of Shakespeare's works, the latter involving not just the Sonnets but sometimes also elements from the plots of his plays. There was a spate of such dramatized pseudo-biographies in the first few decades of the present century. Frank Harris's hagiographic Shakespeare and his Love (1910) and George Bernard Shaw's farcical parody of Harris's theories, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (1910) set a vogue which paved the way for Clemence Dane's ambitious Will Shakespeare (1922), as well as a host of other, justly forgotten plays in this genre.[2] In all these, the putative love affairs of the world's greatest author served as the starting point for meditations on the nature of love in general, and on the connection between love and poetic inspiration.

At first sight, the acclaimed Oscar-winning American movie Shakespeare in Love, a romantic comedy based on a screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, is no more than the latest incarnation of this genre of the author as character. Once again, Shakespeare is portrayed as a budding playwright who can only produce first-rate work once he is involved in a passionate love affair, and who rifles his own experience to find materials for his drama. However, in the way it handles this hackneyed theme, the film is recognizably a product of the postmodern era, as it seems to thrive on a deliberate paradox. On the one hand, it takes as its starting point the Romantic notion that, like all great authors, Shakespeare must have been inspired in his writing by his own life; in other words, great art is presented as the product of the confrontation between a great mind and life's experiences. On the other, the very form of this movie, which cleverly interweaves many levels of intertext, and, indeed, flaunts its own fictionality, seems to belie that very premise, and substitute the postmodern view that literature is mainly about an author's interaction with and reaction to other texts. At the risk of seeming to attach too great an intellectual weight to a simple romantic comedy, I would argue that it engages in the great postmodern debate, on whether art is about life or merely about art.

At the outset of the film, we are shown a young author, Shakespeare, who is suffering from writers' block. By the end, he has written one acclaimed masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet, and is envisaging a second, Twelfth Night. What has enabled him to transcend his problems is his love affair with a young girl from a wealthy family, named Viola, who has a passion for acting and therefore dresses up as a boy and joins the players. She gives Shakespeare the inspiration he so badly needs; what is more, she enables him to write a great play about love, presented by the film as the first true depiction of love on the theatre stage.

In the film's reality, it is not just Viola's presence as a muse that inspires the poet; in their furtive encounters at night, a balcony scene, and Viola's comic nurse, every schoolchild will recognize the raw material for Romeo and Juliet, from plot elements down to dialogues. In a similar way, Viola's cross-dressing, and Shakespeare's consequent confusion about his feelings for this boy-girl, are an all-too-obvious blue-print for his Illyrian play. Slightly harder to detect are foreshadowings of later works. When Shakespeare, thought dead, makes a ghost-like appearance to the man supposed to have arranged for his killing, we may be reminded of the appearance of Banquo to Macbeth. Similarly, a sword fight turning on an exchange of weapons, one blunted, one sharp, prefigures the closing scene of Hamlet.

In all these cases, the script uses elements from Shakespeare's own works, familiar enough for us to recognize, and projects them back into Shakespeare's life. Thus the actual state of affairs is reversed: the fictional Shakespeare is shown to have been inspired by real-life events, which he has more or less faithfully copied in his plays. In reality, of course, the modern scriptwriters, Norman and Stoppard, were inspired by Shakespeare's works, and deftly wove elements from those into his fictional life. This trick is far from new; in embryonic form, it can be found as early as two hundred years ago, in another international hit also called Shakespeare in Love -- Alexandre Duval's Shakespeare amoureux (1804), which shows its hero, jealous of a rival for the love of his star actress (!), in counterpoint to Shakespeare's own play on jealousy, Othello. [3] From 1804 onwards, ever more complicated and sophisticated forms developed. Shaw invented the variant of having his hero pick up useful phrases from the street, which he then inserted in his plays. Even in providing Twelfth Night's Viola with a real-life model in a girl yearning to be an actress on the all-male stage, Stoppard and Norman had been prevented by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon in their wartime comic novel No Bed for Bacon.[4] The plot resemblances are such that the charges of plagiarism that have been voiced recently do not seem altogether unjustified. Admittedly, the script of Shakespeare in Love does all of this in a remarkably clever way, far surpassing the run-of-the-mill fantasy in this genre; yet it remains somewhat derivative.

In view of the script's extensive borrowing from earlier texts, it seems somewhat ironic that its main theme is the idea that great art must be based on experience, not on bookish knowledge. Stoppard and Norman's Shakespeare could not have written his greatest works without the inspiration of real-life events -- and a few hints from fellow-writer and rival Christopher Marlowe and actor Ned Alleyn. Before Shakespeare meets Viola, his thoughts run on a wildly implausible comic plot entitled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter; the sort of romance that, the film strongly suggests, is absolutely ridiculous because it bears no relation to real life. Shakespeare consults an apothecary, who is cast as the sixteenth-century equivalent of a shrink, and his proto-Freudian diagnosis is that the author's problems in handling his pen are due to an unsatisfactory sex life. The only way to write authentically is to write from one's own experience of life, therefore. Accordingly, when Shakespeare is in the middle of his love affair with Viola, bouts of love-making at night alternate with frantic fits of inspired writing during the day-time. Terence Hawkes clearly had a point when he commented:

What's wrong with Shakespeare in Love is that it rests on and fosters two deeply corrupting presuppositions: that writers write most powerfully about what they personally "feel," and that art's primary concern is to express the "personality" of the artist.

Hawkes went on to make a wry if accurate prediction, as early as 9 March of 1999: "It will be showered with Oscars."[5]

What makes Shakespeare in Love so interesting and complex, however, as well as different from its models, is that the film itself undermines these very "corrupting presuppositions" through its own form. To the sophisticated viewer, it is quite obvious that the film does not have a great deal to do with real life. One cannot, at this point, estimate the film's indebtedness to the lives of Stoppard and Norman, but I would presume that it is negligible. As for the portrayal of Shakespeare and his age, that may be infinitely better informed and researched than, say, Alexandre Duval's play, yet there are gross implausibilities in it. There is no hint, for instance, at Shakespeare's use of written sources for the plots of nearly all of his plays, including Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. Nor would the real Queen Elizabeth have been likely to visit a common playhouse incognito, as does her cinematic counterpart.

This is not to say that the film should be faulted for falsifying history, or promulgating naive notions about the nature of poetic inspiration. In no way does it pretend to portray a historically accurate, or even possible, world; in fact, it goes out of its way to foreground its own fictionality. Shakespeare owns a drinking mug with the legend, "Souvenir from Stratford" on it, his main rival is called the Earl of Wessex, and his lover's full name is Viola de Lesseps. The script is full of such intentional comic anachronisms, from the behaviour of the barge-men who sound like taxi-drivers ("I had that Marlowe in the back of my boat once!") and the Freudian apothecary, to the presentation of show bizz in terms redolent of Hollywood and Broadway. We are not meant for one moment to take any of it seriously.

What remains, therefore, is neither more nor less than a clever intertextual game. That is where much of the delight of this production comes from: from the way in which the audience is invited to recognize the allusions to other texts and cultural icons, on various levels of sophistication. These range from the filmic quotations (the production of Romeo and Juliet at the Curtain seems to owe much to the opening scenes of Laurence Olivier's Henry the Fifth) to the world of Shakespeare (John Webster as a sadistic little boy who revels in theatrical bloodshed; the death of Kit Marlowe); from the allusions to Shakespeare's own plays, to the blatant anachronisms. What delights us in all this, I think, is not just the recognition, but also the clever way in which the script writers have woven all these diverse texts together into a plausible romantic comedy.

In this way, the film belies its ostensible message; the seven Oscars it has won demonstrate that, to write a successful work for the theatre or the cinema, deft handling of cultural conventions and canonical texts may be as indispensable as the observation of real life. This deliberate ambiguity, far from being a drawback, is in fact an asset that Shakespeare himself might have appreciated: for the groundlings, there is a simple plot of a genius achieving worldly success by a love affair; for the sophisticates, there is the intertextual game that ends up deconstructing the very premise which that simple plot is based on.

 

Apart from representations of Shakespeare's life in the form of a straightforward dramatic or cinematic narrative, there are also far more lyrical and stylized productions, usually based on the love triangle of the Sonnets. The three main characters, rather than being identified with historical figures, become universal archetypes in the perennial dance of attraction and betrayal that we call romantic love. This has the added advantage of avoiding the biographical fallacy. It is no longer Shakespeare's personal life that is supposed to be represented, but rather a stylization of what may already be a mediated account of that life in the Sonnets. We are not watching Shakespeare, but the platonic idea of the Artist confronted by Love. In 1994, the Volcano Theatre Company toured the Low Countries with L.O.V.E., a physical-theatre performance based on the Sonnets; [6] earlier this year, a pretentious Dutch performance entitled Dark Lady had its premiere in the Amsterdam Muziektheater. Like L.O.V.E. five years ago, Dark Lady was at its most impressive where it came to finding visual equivalents for the themes of the Sonnets; yet it was a production on a far larger scale, which somewhat detracted from its clarity of vision. A Shakespearean who goes to see a performance entitled Dark Lady expects to find characters representing the Poet/speaker, the Fair Friend, and the Dark Lady herself. And so s/he does; only, there are no fewer than three Poets, one dressed up much like the Shakespeare of the Droeshout portrait; four Fair Friends, one of them a dark-haired girl, one bald, and a third a dark-haired youth; and no fewer than five Dark Ladies, one of them wearing a red, another a blonde wig. All this may help to suggest the ubiquity of the triangle, and therefore the universality of the themes of the Sonnets, but, in the absence of any expository dialogue, it makes for chaos rather than clarity.

Chaos was, in fact, a keyword that resonated in reviews of this production, as well as in comments by the actors and even the director, Gerardjan Rijnders, himself. It must be granted that the chaos also had a thematic function in this play: Rijnders suggests that chaos is of the essence of the human condition. It is only the Artist that may rise above that chaos, for a limited space of time, and create a visionary work; but even he is inevitably doomed to fall back into the meaninglessness of life. Rijnders' main theme seems to be the predicament of the Artist, illustrated with the help of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

The main incarnation of the Artist is baritone Romain Bischoff, who at the beginning of the performance seems to be caught in the whirlpool of modern life. While the other actors, in black, modern dress, hastily rush across the stage, rattling off incoherent inanities that seem to reflect the emptiness of the modern world -- one of Rijnders' specialties -- the Artist alone stands completely still, and tries to sing. Yet he seems to have been deprived of his voice, and can only stammer and gurgle; occasionally, one may recognize shreds of Shakespeare's sonnet 129, "The expense of spirit," that bitter meditation on lust. Obviously, this is the Artist vainly struggling to find his voice in the middle of a meaningless world, a callous and materialistic society. Rijnders' conception of the Artist as a hypersensitive outsider appears to be highly Romantic, and unsurprisingly Bishoff is set apart from the other actors by his blue scarf, a visual reminder of the blue flower of German Romanticism. But then something happens to attract his attention: a young woman (who, the programma tells us, represents the Fair Friend) passes over the stage in slow motion, and the Artist is enraptured by her/his appearance. Together, they form a point of rest in the maelstrom of movement around them. Later this Fair Friend returns, dressed in immaculate white and playing a violin; again the Artist is caught, and slowly his words begin to form coherent patterns, finally producing some of the more optimistic of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Through love, the Artist is inspired, and produces great art in despite of the chaos in the world at large. And even that world itself changes: the actors in modern dress gradually disappear, to be replaced by figures in stylized Elizabethan costumes reminiscent of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, the film in which some of the actors of this production (like Pierre Bokma) acted to the voice-over of John Gielgud. Along with their clothes, the actors have changed their movements; the frantic pace of the opening scene has slowed down to the dignified measure of a minuet. Along with the Artist, enraptured by his love, we are carried back to the past in which everything was better, and in which true love still existed.

One of the figures in Elizabethan dress is the Dark Lady (Elena Vink), symbolically apparelled in scarlet and wearing a bright red wig. She, too, catches the Artist's attention. Just like he had to be taught to speak or sing by the Fair Friend, so now he gives a voice to the Dark Lady. For a while it seems as if the world is a better place; all the actors appear on stage together and perform a stately dance, to music that is no longer ridden by dissonants or atonalities, but completely harmonious. Among the figures appearing at the ball, there are some that might remind us of Shakespeare's own creatures, such as a nearly naked man carrying a bundle of wood on his back -- Caliban?

Yet this nostalgic dream of love and of a better past cannot last. The Dark Lady seduces the Fair Friend, and the whole company falls into disharmony. The minuet disintegrates into individual dances that become wilder and wilder, music-stands are knocked over, and above the dissonant music we hear lustful groaning. The Poet loses his voice again, and reverts to shreds of "The expense of spirit." He even gives in to the promptings of lust himself, and rapes another incarnation of the Dark Lady. Thus we return to the emptiness of the present, robbed of any illusions that true love did once exist, in a better age, the age of Shakespeare, who, the modern public has been made to believe, wrote such charming sonnets and touching plays about love. Of course, the Shakespeare aficionado already knew that the image of love presented by the Bard is far less cosy than the cliched use of odd quotations out of context might suggest. To this extent, Rijnders presents us with a truer concept of Shakespeare than the sanitized icon that modern mass culture, as produced in Hollywood, has made of him.

Although Rijnders' ideas are not without interest, the chaotic style pursued for this production stood in the way of communication with the audience; without study of the programme, which gave some clues as to who was who, the analysis presented here would have been impossible. No wonder that most of the audience as well as many reviewers were left mystified by this production, which was visually brilliant but ever so obscure. Whereas Rijnders' conception in itself was perhaps more profound than that of Stoppard and Norman, the latter seems to appeal to a far broader audience, on diverse levels of sophistication. If I had to invent a fictional Shakespeare, he would be more pleased to see himself portrayed as the lover and the poet by Stoppard and Norman than by Rijnders' conception of him as ultimately a kind of lunatic.

Paul Franssen

NOTES

1. On historical authors (including Shakespeare) as fictional characters, see The Author as Character: Representing Historical Writers in Western Literature, edited by Paul Franssen and Ton Hoenselaars (Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999).

 2. See Frank Harris, Shakespeare and his Love (London: Palmer, 1910); The Complete Plays of Bernard Shaw (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1965), 644-51; and Clemence Dane [pseudonym of Winifred Ashton], Will Shakespeare: An Invention in Four Acts (New York: Macmillan, 1922).

3. Alexandre Duval, Shakespeare amoureux; ou, La Pièce à l'étude, in Oeuvres complètes d'Alexandre Duval (Brussels: Hayez, 1824-25), VIII, 305-48.

4. Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon (1941. Rpt. London: The Hogarth Press, 1986).

5. Hawkes made these remarks on SHAKSPER, the electronic Shakespeare Conference, SHK 10.0411.

6. For a review of L.O.V.E., see Folio 1.2 (1994): 25-29.

 

Terug naar de nederlandstalige overzichtspagina

Back to the English home page

Back to the Table of Contents of Folio