THE STAPLE OF NEWS - XVII

 

August 2009

 

Update on the Shakespeare Industry

 

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

It is no understatement to say that for Shakespeareans the first six months of this year were dominated by the discussion about the new portrait of Shake­speare. On 9 March 2009, the uncontested doyen of Shakespeare Studies, Stanley Wells (The Shake­speare Centre, Stratford), unveiled a “new” Shake­speare portrait, the so-called Cobbe portrait (named after the family who now own the painting). Whereas estab­lished images of Shakespeare – like the Martin Droes­hout portrait (in the First Folio) and the Janssen portrait – are generally con­sidered to be posthumous copies of other images of Shake­speare, the Cobbe portrait, Wells argued, has the advantage of having been painted during Shakespeare’s own lifetime. Wells was not addressing a world of unanimous Shakespeareans. One of the first colleagues to respond rather criti­cally was Katherine Duncan-Jones, who argued that this was not a por­trait of Shakespeare but a contemporary copy of the Bodleian portrait of Sir Thomas Over­bury. In The Observer of 19 April, Roy Strong, the well-known expert on early modern art history, agreed with Duncan-Jones in cham­pi­oning Overbury. The discussion has not ended yet. On SHAKSPER – the demo­cratic internet discussion group chaired by Hardy Cook – the discussion has recently flared up again, with contestants including Stanley Wells himself. The debate continues. Readers who wish to make up their own minds may do so by going to the Channel 4 website, which has a gallery of “Shakespeare” por­traits: <www.channel4.com/news/watchlisten/gallery/>.

The visual arts also featured in an exhibition in Arnhem entitled Ophelia. Sehn­sucht, melancholie en doodsverlangen, which was reviewed in De Volkskrant of 23 February. Taking Millais’s well-known painting as a starting point, the col­lec­tion focused not on art history as such, but on “what she [= Ophelia] means to us, what she stands for and how she inspires others,” as the or­ganiser Flos Wildschut told journalist Irene de Zwaan. The answer to that question, according to Wildschut, is that, in these dreary times, people find con­solation in Ophelia: “The dead woman refers to the basis of our human existence, to dealing with our own mortality. In this way, we repress our own mortality.”

One piece of news overshadowed by the portrait controversy was a BBC News report of 9 March, saying that archaeologists had dug up the remains of the Theatre in Shoreditch, which in Shakespeare’s time was in the Northern suburbs of London. This forerunner of the Globe had been dismantled in late 1598, and from its wood the more famous Globe on the South Bank had been constructed. Apparently enough of the foundations of the Theatre re­mained to identify the Shoreditch building site.

On 14 March, the BBC reported that the local authorities of Verona had an­nounced that for those who are romantically inclined, there is now the pos­sibility to get married on the balcony of the Casa Di Giulietta in Verona. The Casa – rumour has it – was once the home of the Cappello family, and it may have been the home of the Capulets in Shakespeare’s tragedy. From April 2009, the balcony, which has been one of the city’s most popular tourist des­tin­ations since it was added to the construction in the 1930s, may be hired as a venue for wed­dings. The price for this location, and the pleasure of ex­changing the first wedding kiss on the balcony, would be approximately a thou­sand Euros. Romeo and Juliet is one of the most frequently taught, read, and performed of Shake­speare’s plays, but still not everyone seems to have under­stood that it all ends in tragedy. In this connection, one may also recall how – on the eve of the Dutch crown prince William Alexander’s marriage to Maxima Zorregieta – the Royal Concert­gebouw Orchestra of Amster­dam (un­der the baton of Ricardo Chailly) per­form­ed the concert suite from Sergei Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. And, of course, the notion that there might be a balcony in Shakespeare’s play has been created by generation upon gene­ration of theatre directors and critics. Shakespeare gets off scot-free, but the fake image of Shake­speare in popular culture remains.

On the occasion of Shakespeare’s birthday in April, The New York Times (25 April 2009) carried an intriguing article by Barry Edelstein – the author of Bardisms: Shake­speare for All Occasions (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) – about American pre­sidents and their knowledge of Shakespeare’s work. Abra­ham Lincoln was an avid reader of Shakespeare, and on occasion tended to see Macbeth as a kind of consolation for a real-life politician (like himself) who might be losing faith. Ronald Reagan refused to have the playwright generate such pessimism or cynicism, but in a more pensive vein it was Bill Clinton who said that the Scottish play taught him much about “the dangers of high ambition, the fleeting nature of fame,” and “the ultimate emptiness of power dis­connected from higher purpose.” Al­though Pre­sident Obama is aware of Lin­coln’s bond with the Bard, and his Facebook profile records Shakespeare’s trage­dies among his favourite books, he has not been heard to quote from any plays. For excerpts from Barry Edelstein’s amusing and timely book, see: <http://browseinside.harpercollins.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061493515.>

A while ago, Prince Charles admitted that he talked to his plants to further their well-being and growth. He was not taken very seriously at the time. Nor did he know that he was unwittingly doing Shakespeare a favour. As it hap­pens, this spring, the Royal Horticultural Society launched an initiative to test alle­gations about the impact of quality sound, like literature and music, on vege­table growth, and throughout the month of April, tomato plants at Wis­ley (Surrey) were made “to listen to voices through MP3 headphones attached to their pots.” The Times of 31 March 2009 quoted one of the organisers as saying: “We toyed with The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, but decided that we had to have some poetry. [...] Shakespeare had the edge on Wordsworth: whole books have been written about the flower and plants in the bard’s imagery. We plumped for Oberon’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that begins: ‘I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows, Where ox-lips and the nodding violet grows.’”

In a somewhat surprising juxtaposition, the cultural supplement of NRC, 15 May, illustrated the gap between high and low culture with two portraits on facing pages. One was the Janssen Portrait from the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washing­ton), supposedly showing Shakespeare; the other was a photo­graph of pop singer Frans Bauer. While Wilfred Takken asked in what ways Bauer might ultimately hope to join the canons of good taste, as typified by being reviewed in NRC itself, Abdelkader Benali explained how Shake­speare had saved him from a life as a cultural barbarian. His family had had no great respect for the arts, and it was only due to a television showing of a made-for-TV The Taming of the Shrew when he was about 12 years old, that he had begun to realize the difference between high and low culture. “If I had not seen that play that evening, I would definitely have got behind intel­lec­tually. … In one fell swoop I was offered a challenge, a world picture, enter­tain­ment, and a lesson in linguistic acrobatics, all in one. What made the play so attractive was that it managed to bring together human passions like desire, pride, and revulsion, in a most cunning fashion, in a clear, poetic lan­guage that felt in no way artificial … The victory [of love in the play] is not just achieved by overcoming one’s own prejudices towards the opposite sex, but in particular by breaking through assumptions about life as cynical and machi­a­vellistic, with cunning deeds and a ready tongue. The Taming of the Shrew also shows that harmonious love is a utopia created by oneself, in the middle of dis­appointments, deceit, and cold “realpolitik.” Language, I understood that night, is capable of commenting on the changed nature of man. Language is our comment on the world. The rest is silence. Only some years later did I find out that that Shakespeare had written more than one play.”  

In NRC of 29 May, Pieter Steinz reported on his visit to the locations of Macbeth. Apart from a few place names, little remained that might be linked to the historical king. The castle of Dingwall, which some chroniclers name as Mac­beth’s birthplace, has long been pulled down, whereas places mentioned by Shakespeare such as Cawdor and Glamis may boast castles that look ancient, but were nonetheless built centuries too late. (Steinz does not mention the blood stain on the floor in Cawdor, which the guide once ex­plained to tourists as having originated from King Duncan). Birnam Wood is now shrunk to a few very ancient oaks, and is over twenty kilometres from Dun­sinane Hill. Overall, the modern world has covered nearly all traces of the past that never existed to begin with: Steinz realizes, of course, that Shake­speare’s Macbeth is far removed from the historical figure, who, according to Steinz, had been a competent king, and “no more ruthless than the noblemen he associated with.” Duncan had fallen in open battle, and Mac­beth had ruled for 17 years before being defeated by Malcolm, beheaded and buried on the battlefield, but then dug up again and trans­ported to the Isle of Iona.

In 1609 Shakespeare’s sonnets first appeared in print. Much has been done to commemorate that event. Earlier this year, Kristine Steenbergh informs us, the Leiden branch of a lingerie chain store advertised its women’s underwear with an English quo­tation from Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Curiously, though, the shop’s designer seemed to have over­looked the fact that the sonnet selected – “A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted, hast thou” (20) – was really addressed to a fair young male.

 

 

In Ukraine, the 400th anniversary of the Sonnets was celebrated with an inter­national conference on that topic, in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, from 23-25 April. Plans were also unveiled to set up a national Shakespeare Association. The con­ference organizers, led by Prof. Nataliya Torkut, had also set up a nation-wide com­petition, calling for translations of Shakespeare sonnets into Ukrainian. The result was a staggering 1300 entries! Professional trans­lators in Eastern Europe, too, have produced new versions of the sonnets, in Ukrainian (Irina Chupis, 2008), and Russian (Aleksandr Sharakshane, 2009). Shakespeare’s popularity may also appear from a com­mercial shown on Ukrainian TV, for mobile phones. It featured Romeo and Juliet, dressed in Renaissance style, successfully using text messages on their cell phones to avoid the tragedy, which is, after all, largely due to mis­communication.

At the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, Peter Brook launched his theatre production based on the Sonnets, entitled Love is My Sin. Together, Na­tasha Parry and Bruce Myers recited 29 of the sonnets in English (with French surtitles), grouped by theme: Devouring Time (15, 19, 30, 64, 73, 12), Separation (57, 97, 50, 44, 27, 49, 87) Jealousy (149, 147, 120, 93, 92, 138, 61, 110, 129, 142, 90, 145), and Time Defeated (71, 146, 60, 116). In this presen­tation of what he calls Shakespeare’s “intimate journal,” Brook displayed remark­able sobriety. The delivery of the poetry and the interaction between the speakers riveted a full house to its seats for over an hour, though not be­cause there was anything spectacular to see in dramatic terms, but because the poetry delivered was ravishing – and perhaps even still too complex in style for even the trained ear. Presented during his farewell season as director of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, this production made Peter Brook more invisible than ever, as he ceded the floor to Shakespeare.

The Sonnets also played a major role in the production entitled Will’s Will of Amsterdam Chamber Theater. Based on the novellas of Russian dissident Yuri Dombrovsky, this musical and dramatic entertainment put Shakespeare’s own life on the stage, richly illustrated with fragments from his own work and with songs. Tatiana Lina of ACT, who is also a composer, is currently work­ing on a Shakespearean multimedia project comprising a CD, a song book, a play­back CD, and an interactive website, entitled Singing Shakespeare. The CD will contain 15 musical settings of Shakespearean songs; the song book will have the corresponding sheet music and texts, and the Playback CD the mu­sical accompaniment. The website will contain background information on the plays and the songs, musical fragments and an interactive forum. Apart from (amateur) musicians, the project is intended to help theatre companies and schools to stage Shakespeare plays with attractive musical interludes in a po­pular style. To get a foretaste, go to http://www.tatianalina.com/s.v. “composing.”

Jazz musician Ilja Reijngoud also spoke of his settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and some poetry by Oscar Wilde, in the Dutch daily NRC of 9 February 2009. The songs have now come out on CD as The Shakespeare Album (Aliud Records), sung by Fay Claassen and accompanied by the Ilja Reijn­goud Quartet. Reijngoud says that he had always found “Shakespeare’s Sonnets more modern and hipper than his other work. Hidden themes such as being in love with a black woman [sic], begin gay, despair, quarrels, glad­ness.” He sees his project as analogous to postmodern film versions of Romeo and Juliet, which “use the old texts in a contemporary narrative.” Likewise, “in the new lyrical frames [of his settings] the old poems work wonderfully well.” Com­pared to Cleo Laine’s venture of the nineteen-eighties, Reijn­goud says, his work is more like “singer/songwriting.”

Cambridge University Press has published Shakespeare Survey: A Sixty-Year Cumu­lative Index, edited by Peter Holland (ISBN-13: 9780521517010). Not many people might go into raptures at the publication of an index, but this is a different matter. This cumulative index of Shakespeare Survey – itself the size of a regular issue of the most authoritative European Shakespeare journal – is an absolute treat. Running the indexes of 60 volumes together in a single volume, it tells you, at a glance, where to turn for all that has been said on Shake­speare and Machiavelli, Sir Thomas More, the fellow playwrights, as well as the achievements of colleagues in the field. It is indispensable, and if you still think that the digital age has made such reference works redundant, con­sult an entry like “E. M. W. Tillyard” and you will find that no computer search engine to date is able to give you such a detailed account of the critic in question.

When we study the impact of Shakespeare on a certain age, in a certain place, we usually turn to stage productions, translations, critics, and creative writers who have produced adaptations. What we rarely study is the audience, in the more limited definition of the people who turn up to see a particular pro­duction. A recent work that seeks to amend that is the special volume on Shake­speare Worldwide and the Idea of an Audience, edited by Tina Krontiris and Jyotsna Singh, Gramma 15 (2007). This volume brings together articles on Shake­speare audiences in all their diversity, from proletarian to upper-middle class, from England to India, from dissidents to secret police trying to dis­cover subversive subtexts, and from 1607 to 2006. We learn about socio­logical issues, such as the drive for modernity and globalization versus rooting Shake­speare in one’s own culture, and about the sheer love of Shakespeare that drives amateur companies and their audiences. Michael Dobson revises received ideas about British Shakespeare reception over the centuries by juxta­posing the familiar history of professional Shakespeare productions with the as yet largely unfamiliar story of amateur Shakespeare, concentrating on three dates: 1623, 1774, and 1932. Other papers concentrate on Central and Eastern Europe, India, Italy, and Greece. What is most striking is the great dis­parity of audiences that came to see Shakespeare’s plays. Whereas Irena Makaryk describes how productions of Shakespeare in 1920s Ukraine were forced to cater to Proletarian audiences on peril of death, Hana Worthen traces the history of a Macbeth adaptation by Pavel Kohout, as it was per­formed for dissident intellectual audiences in a private apartment in Prague, before being shown on Austrian television to western audiences as well as ordinary Czechs living in the border areas. An interesting volume, this, that forces the readers to revise their ideas about  the impact of Shakespeare on the European and world stages.

On a related topic, that of translation, a new book has also come out. Crossing Time and Space: Shakespearean Translations in Present-Day Europe, edited by Carla Dente and Sara Soncini (Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2008) brings together papers originally presented at a symposium on translating Shake­speare held in Pisa in 2006. In the Epilogue, Ton Hoenselaars pleads for a return to a more precise use of the term translation: if, as we saw in the pre­ceding paragraph, the term “audience” has come to be so inclusive that it can be synonymous with “reception,” so “translation” is now used of any transfer of contents to a different medium, even within the same language. This has of course allowed monolingual scholars to participate in the debate, but it has simul­taneously obscured the vital importance, in intercultural and inter­national re­lations, of engaging with linguistic differences between languages, as a source not just of problems and loss of meaning, but also of enriching new perspectives. Not that the rest of the volume is only concerned with trans­lation in the most narrowly defined sense of the word: we also read about a recent Italian film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in Palermo, in the world of Nigerian immigrant prostitutes and indigenous mobsters (Maria­cristina Cavecchi); and about appearances of Hamlet’s merry grave diggers in Italian Cinema, including spaghetti westerns (Mariangela Tempera). But most of the articles do focus on renderings of Shakespeare’s works in other Euro­pean languages: the sonnets in enormously free, or “radical,” translations into German (Manfred Pfister); the issue of how to render the names of Shake­speare’s kings and noblemen in Portuguese (Rui Carvalho Homem); and the use of old translations of Shakespeare on the stage in both Spain and Italy (Angel-Luis Pujante and Sara Soncini, respectively). All of these collectively suggest, as Cavecchi points out, that claims of Shakespeare’s demise (made by Gary Taylor and Richard Burt) are wildly exaggerated.

As the major Shakespeare editions like Arden, Oxford, and Cambridge have been churning out play after play – including revised versions of earlier editions – also a series like The New Kittredge Shakespeare has been seeking hard to make available a user-friendly and financially attractive version of the indi­vidual plays. Some of these are worth a mention, such as Annalisa Cas­taldo’s edition of Henry V (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, MA, 2007). Like all the other plays in the series, the text is based on G. L. Kittredge’s pre-World War II edition, including the notes, but it has been updated by Cas­taldo with additional notes (always brief and lucid), and with a keen eye for the performance history of the play. It would have been useful to give the sources for the statements that she makes, but this edition is nevertheless a use­ful and affordable first introduction to the play and will be welcomed by any college student, who may also be interested in the standard “How to Read ...” section, and in a comparative discussion of the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh screen versions of Henry V. Screen adaptations of Shake­speare’s work, it seems, are taken up here as the most direct and reliable means of communicating with a young and new audience. The same proce­dure is followed for the other editions that we have received, including Julius Caesar, edited and introduced by the French film specialist Sarah Hatchuel (2008), and Hamlet, edited by Bernice W. Kliman together with series editor James H. Lake (2008). For further information about this attractive series, with seven plays in print and another eight in the pipeline, see also <http://www.pullins.com>.

Those Shakespeareans who still have not decided what to read during the summer recess, might try Jonathan Bate’s recent new book, Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare (London: Penguin/Viking, 2008). In recent years, new Shakespeare biographies have flooded the market. As his­torical con­text­ual­ization increasingly came to be used as a means of filling in the gaps in our under­standing of the text and the biography, the balance between fact and fiction, evidence and conjecture grew ever more upset. We may all remember how Stephen Greenblatt in Will in the World (2004) de­scribed what Shakespeare might have seen had he decided to walk across London Bridge at a particular moment in history and how he would have felt or what he might have thought; or how Greenblatt assumed that Shakespeare, subtly drama­tising the problems of marriage, must have been involved in an un­happy union himself. Jonathan Bate takes another, altogether more con­vincing approach. He argues that the work of Shakespeare is of a richness and com­plexity that can only be called unique for the period. Bate then goes on to demonstrate this complexity and gets near to proving (if this is at all possible) Shake­speare’s singular excellence. Bate picks a herb from a Shakespeare play, and via a detour through botanical and medical treatises, returns to the play illustrating not only that the Renais­sance experiences captured in manuals and treatises may inform our understanding of the work, but also that the texts of Shake­speare unusually trans­form such everyday data into art that still lives, and captures what Shakespeare’s great­est rival, Ben Jonson, called the “Soul of the Age.”

One’s reading pleasure of a book like Bate’s may occasionally be spoiled by news­paper headlines – as in the Daily Express of 20 February 2009 – to the effect that “Muslim schools ban our [= traditional British] culture” and that “Shakespeare, Harry Potter, cricket, music, Ludo, Monopoly and chess are all forbidden.” It is difficult to tell if the report was really “misleading, intolerant and divisive” (as one reporter put it), but one cannot help thinking that to watch and to discuss Shakespeare’s plays might be a way to help prevent such hardly nuanced scare-mongering in the future.

In an interesting contrast, NRC of 6 March reported on a breakthrough in colour-blind casting for the stage: Marwan Kenzari, of Tunisian descent, was to play Romeo, but without his ethnicity playing a role: in this production of Romeo and Juliet “there is no ethnic conflict between an Arab and a Dutch family.” Wilfred Takken points out that this is, as yet, an exception in a world where most actors with ethnic roots can only get jobs playing clichéd roles about crime and the repression of women in Moroccan or Turkish families. Turkish-descended actress Dunya Khayame quotes her colleague Illias Ojja as saying: “Every Moroccan boy wants to play Tony Montana,” but she adds: “But there are also Moroccans who wish to play Hamlet.”

On Thursday 23 July, as we were preparing the copy for this issue of Folio, the news broke that a vandal had applied copious amounts of brown paint to the front of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Stanley Wells, chairman of the Birth­place Trust, commented on this curious act of vandalism: “It’s most re­gret­table that anyone should feel an urge to deface an important historical land­mark.” It is not the first time a Shakespeare house has been vandalized. A com­plex tale with a more disastrous outcome surrounds the history of Shake­speare’s New Place in Stratford. It was razed to the ground in 1759, exactly 250 years ago, when the already increasing number of tourists visiting the mulberry tree there – Shakespeare was supposed to have planted it him­self – aroused irritation among local resi­dents. The current vandal need not have been an inhabitant of Stratford fed up with this summer’s tourists, of course. Some internet forums speculate that the deed was done by school­children who were disgruntled at having to read Mac­beth.