August 2007

Update on the Shakespeare Industry

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

In the third part of Henry VI Edward of York responds to a vision in the sky with the words, “Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?” (2.2). It is then given a political reading by his brother Richard. The strange phenomenon that Edward and Richard witness is known as the “parhelion,” or mock sun, or sun dog. It is a meteorological phenomenon, which occurs when cirrus clouds reflect and refract the sun as bright patches or spots, and give the impression of multiple suns. It has been sighted and described since antiquity, and is generally associated with major events, like the death of Julius Caesar. In “‘Dazzle my Eyes’: The Parhelion in Art and History,” Robert Scheller provides a detailed survey of the phenomenon from antiquity through the early modern period. Despite its popularity in written sources, it had little impact on the visual arts. Only when the printing presses started to publish dailies, did illustrations of the parhelion become more common. Advancing scientific insight into the phenomenon did not seriously affect its portentous potential. No reader of Henry VI wants to miss this rich and useful contextualization of the parhelion, which appeared, in English, in Manuscripten en miniaturen, eds. Jos Biemans, Klaas van der Hoek, Kathryn M. Rudy and Ed van der Vlist (Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2007), 337-54.

Last season the RSC staged Shakespeare’s complete works; but apparently one can have too much of a good thing, too. On 12 December 2006, the Frank­furter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on RSC artistic director Michael Boyd’s plans for cutting back on Shakespeare in future. Instead, up to half the RSC pro­gram­me should consist of new drama, written by “embedded” playwrights working with the RSC troupes, just like Shakespeare himself had written with a certain cast in mind. 

Was Cleopatra really as beautiful as her reputation suggests? BBC 4 asked on Valentine’s day. Archaeologists at Newcastle University had studied a silver coin from 32 BC showing the Egyptian queen and her Roman lover Marc Antony. The portrait showed a woman with a long pointed nose and chin, a low brow, and thin lips; not at all a conventional beauty. Not that Marc Antony, depicted on the flip side, had been much to look at either, but somehow that came in for less commentary. Janet Suzman, the actress who had played Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with the RSC in the early seven­ties, was not at all surprised. Shakespeare never spoke of her beauty, either, she remarked, just of her allure. Her intelligence more than her looks is what made her irresistable. Just like Queen Elizabeth, who, according to Suzman, had been somewhat beautiful in her youth, but lost her looks in her maturity, and yet remained the focus of attention due to her power and her personality. That was the kind of woman Shakespeare must have had in mind, she suggested; what the French call a “jolie laide,” not pretty but attractive all the same.

The memory of Shakespeare’s Roman plays was hard to shake off, too, when watching the television series Rome, which covers much the same historical material as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. In particular the scenes sur­rounding the assassination of Caesar had clearly been shot with Shakespeare in mind, though often trying to avoid duplicating the famous forebear rather than slavishly following his example. When at the assassination itself Caesar recog­nizes Brutus among the killers, he pointedly fails to deliver the line we all expect, and remains silent – as also a later dialogue between witnesses calls to mind: “he said nothing.” Yet, when Brutus is beset by friends urging him to leave Rome, and his mother joins their chorus, he answers in a return of the repressed line: “you, too, mother?” The funeral orations by Brutus and Marc Antony, famous Shakespeare arias, were omitted as well; the moment the orators appear before the crowd, there is a cut to the consequences of Antony’s speech, a rowdy scene. Later on a number of commoners do review the orations and their conse­quences, however; one of them is full of admiration for Antony’s speech, and his gesture in throwing Caesar’s bloody toga into the crowd; another is shocked at the bad taste of such a gesture when a prominent Roman had to be buried. As through­out the series, the makers seemed to be concerned with presenting a some­what more positive view of the plebejans in their Rome than Shakespeare’s giddy, many-headed multitude.

The 2007 Holland Festival across the Netherlands included the staging of the three Roman plays. Jan Willem Mathijssen's review of this project will appear in the next issue of Folio.