February 2010

Update on the Shakespeare Industry

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

For Shakespeareans, the year 2009 will mostly be memorable because of the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In addition to the anthology of trans­lations into some 50 languages edited by Jürgen Gutsch and Manfred Pfister, re­viewed elsewhere in the current issue of Folio, this event was com­memorated by conferences specially dedicated to the Sonnets. The one in the Ukraine, timed to coincide with Shakespeare’s birthday, which was already dis­cussed in the sum­mer issue of the Staple, seems set to produce some permanent off-spring, too, in the form of a new journal dedicated to Shakespeare, to be en­titled Shakespeare Discourse, edited by Nataliya Torkut. In the autumn, another conference wholly dedicated to the sonnets was held in Marburg, Germany, un­der the title “An Ever Fixed Mark: Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 400 Years of Literary and Cultural Contexts,” organised by Sonja Fielitz. The event opened with a double act by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, who, in a witty dialogue, ritu­ally assassi­nated the Fair Friend, the Dark Lady, and the Rival Poet: that is to say, they showed how these figures are not historical realities, or even characters that automatically spring from a reading of the sonnets, but rather eighteenth-century constructions imposed on a far more diverse reality. Instead of a single man and a single woman, they argued, the sonnets may originally have had a range of ad­dressees. Rather than a cycle, they went on, we should speak of the sonnets as a collection of individual poems, whose inner coherence, though plausible in some instances, is unproven for the whole. As one conference par­ticipant aptly re­marked, however, this deconstructionist approach may be as much a response to the ruling paradigms of the present as the construction of the Dark Lady and Fair Friend were of eighteenth-century fashions. Clearly the sonnets have not yet exhausted their potential for generating debate. The con­ference ended with an­other display of the diversity of the sonnets, when a num­ber of them were read out in translations into German dialects. The Bavarian turned out to be most in­comprehensible, closely followed by Schwitzerdütsch; the Berlin variants, by contrast, were relatively easy to understand and compare to the originals.

Readers interested in Bavarian takes on Shakespeare in particular might also find some useful information in Wolfgang Weiss’s book Shakespeare in Bayern – Und auf Bairisch (Passau: Stutz, 2008), which suggests that the interest in global/ local Shakespeare now also extends to the regional, as opposed to national, level. Weiss traces the earliest Shakespearean productions to English wandering play­ers, who, from Shakespeare’s lifetime onwards, would have performed versions of Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, as well as Pyramus and Thisbe, lifted from the Midsummer Night’s Dream. German troupes then took over this repertoire and gave it a local habitation and a name. What makes this book most interesting, however, is its social inclusiveness. Weiss shows that it was not just professional players who brought Shakespeare to life for elite audi­ences: the first ever production of Macbeth in 1771, for instance, was staged by amateur players in the slaughterhouse of the town of Biberach (71). The dramatis personae now in­cluded a farm girl, who, Weiss suggests, would have given a local colouring to the production, just like Shakespeare’s clowns are often recognizable as English no matter what the play’s setting may be. The regional approach, therefore, lends itself to a focus on the way Shakespeare’s work appealed to the lower or­ders abroad as well, to the kinds of simple people who, in his own time in his own country, would also have come to the Globe as groundlings.       

A query from one of our members: are you interested in LP-boxes, with 1960s recordings for the Argo label of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Troilus and Cressida?  For a modest sum plus postage, you can get them from Herman te Loo []. He wishes to dispose of the entire collection at once.

Some of our members helped out an intern at Shakespeare’s new Globe, Frederike Kwerreveld, with her research by filling in the questionnaire about in­terest in the New Globe that we sent with the summer Folio. Ms. Kwerreveld has asked us to convey her gratitude to all those respondents; the prize of a year’s membership of the Globe has gone to F. E. Oosterbroek.

As we wrote earlier, Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare lies buried, suffers from a chronic lack of money for badly needed repairs. In the summer it was reported (NRC, 25 September) that even the grave itself is under threat from a rotten wooden beam in the ceiling above it. The newspaper added that “nearly a million pounds has already been spent on the restoration of Shakespeare’s Burial Place since 2002,” but “according to the vicar of the church, Martin Gorick, more funds are urgently needed.” 

A Shakespeare production that was much in the news last summer was the production of The Tempest in Zeeland, the Dutch province that has more experi­ence with storms than any other. Nevertheless, these experiences are not the fo­cus of this production, whose director, Niek Kortekaas, explained that “Perhaps the play portrays Shakespeare himself, but in my view it is about the imagina­tion, the storm in Prospero’s head, a nightmare that slowly abates” (NRC 25 August). The production also featured homo-erotic tension between Trinculo and Stephano, and a sympathetic and good-looking Caliban with dreadlocks, played by the Rwandan-Belgian actor Mungu Cornelis. Kortekaas himself com­mented: “Really the entire island belongs to Caliban, he stands for ‘ur,’ eros and nature. This casting is not politically correct, there has been a lot of debate about Mungo’s being black. … When Caliban speaks, it is in perfect Flemish. He has learned the language from Prospero” (NRC). What attracted even more atten­tion, however, was the set. Kortekaas, “a former visual artist and scenographer” as NRC’s Kasper Jansen informs us, had designed a stunning open-air set fea­turing a gigantic bow of a wooden ship. Even more amazingly, it featured a laby­rinth of crop circles created by tractors sowing the grain under the supervision of airplanes, in accordance with patterns designed by Kortekaas and monitored by satellite technology! In De Volkskrant of 25 August, Kortekaas explained that he had simplified the plot to concentrate on Prospero’s process of resignation, contrasted with his daughter’s way to adulthood. The long road the characters need to travel to complete this process and find themselves again is symbolized by the labyrinth of circles, which forces the actors to walk long distances on the huge set. In addition, the set also illustrates the way man tries to impose his will on nature: “That, too, is an element of The Tempest. With all his bookish knowl­edge Prospero tries to control nature. But yet he has to bend to the natural course of life” (Volkskrant). And that, in the wider setting of a polder in Zee­land, does make this production quite topical after all.

On 11 December, De Volkskrant printed an interview with German director Thomas Ostermeier, whose Hamlet was to be produced in Amsterdam, headed by a quote from the director: “Every generation gets the Hamlet it deserves.” Popular with young audiences in Berlin, but less so with the German critics, Ostermeier portrays Hamlet as a kind of buffoon, “a mix between The Joker from Batman and a carnival figure,” as interviewer Hein Janssen puts it. The play has been cut considerably in order to concentrate on Hamlet’s madness: “My Hamlet consciously puts on the mask of madness, chooses to be an out­sider. That was the main reason for me to make this production: to tell the story of a man who tries to hide behind the mask of madness, and then loses himself in his own game. For me this show is also about making theatre, about acting.” At issue is modern indecisiveness: “The other day I read an article that said that Hamlet is really a very German play. Because it deals with an antihero, with a doubting, unstable character. Not to know what to do, not to act, always to re­flect—that is typical of the German soul. Yes, in this production I also criticize my own generation, for every generation gets the Hamlet it deserves. If you live in a time of enthusiastic, active political thinkers and movements, you get a pure, enthusiastic Hamlet. But if you have a generation like ours, which does not take action, which is almost lethargic, it will be an inactive ironic Hamlet. Irony is the characteristic of the current generation – irony used whether it is called for or not. This is a huge problem: we may recognize the great problems of our time, but in the mean time we destroy all our political ideals by being ironical about ourselves, and about everything that happens around us. Apparently that is our weapon against the fact that we do nothing, that we prefer to hide behind a big shield of pleasure and enjoyment. Hamlet also loses his identity behind his mask: towards the end he no longer knows who his friends are, and who his enemies.” Ostermeier objected to noble Hamlets: “I wanted a Hamlet who was just as decadent and spoiled as the world around him. Because he makes just as many mistakes as we all do, he is part of his world, of all the problems. That is why I portray him as a fat, spoiled child, the product of his environment.” Ostermeier would love to take the production to New York, but has been told that it is too much of an adaptation by American standards, and would have to be billed not as Shakespeare’s Hamlet but as “Hamlet X or Hamlet Reloaded.” As for playing in Amsterdam, Ostermeier regarded that as a challenge as the Dutch-language area has so many directors known for their progressive theatre, so he expected the audiences to be quite sophisticated.

On 25 December, the Volkskrant printed a review of Ostermeier’s production by Karin Veraart, which gave more details. Ostermeier had staged the funeral of Hamlet Sr. as slapstick, with Hamlet Jr. recording everything on video. One ac­tress doubled as Gertrude and Ophelia. In this visual feast, however, the “lan­guage was made subservient to the action,” Veraart noted, so that the tragic di­mension was lost.

The speeches of some of Shakespeare’s characters have long been regarded as patterns of eloquence. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that they can also serve as rhetorical models in a book designed to teach public speaking. Ike Smits­kamp, Woorden Laten Spreken: De Fijne Kneepjes van het Presenteren (Amster­dam: Mediawerf, 2009), frequently refers to obvious rhetorical masterpieces such as the funeral speeches by Brutus and Marc Antony in Julius Caesar (3.2), as well as perhaps less obvious instances, such as Ophelia’s description of Hamlet “un­gartered” (2.1), and Hamlet’s “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy (2.2). Shake­speare’s brilliant ability to write speeches and soliloquies of superior structure and texture, Smitskamp says, has led to his work being studied and mined by statesmen such as Winston Churchill, whose “blood, toil, sweat, and tears” bears some kinship to Brutus’s speech (14). Accordingly, Shakespeare rubs shoulders in this book with Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and Winston Churchill himself, in providing examples of best practice in issues like scene setting, introducing the thesis, anaphora, rhetorical question, repetition of key phrases, and the mixing of short and long sentences. Hamlet’s advice to the players, to “[s]uit the action to the words, the word to the action, with this special observance that you over­step not the modesty of nature,” still proves relevant to today’s public speaker who, like an actor, must learn to control his gestures and body language (55). An ap­pendix to the volume includes fragments from Julius Caesar and Hamlet, from Churchill and Martin Luther King in translation, and from Tony Blair and Barack Obama in the original English.

NRC announced the death on 9 December 2009 of A.G.H. Bachrach. To the majority of Dutch students of English who were trained between the early 1950s and the late 1970s, Fred Bachrach was the suave Shake­spearean who taught a fascinating series of Friday afternoon lectures on the Bard. It is hard to imagine today that his use of the ARGO Shakespeare vinyl record­ings in class, or the use of a tape recorder with famous actors speaking Shake­speare could have been considered state of the art teaching, but Bachrach made many converts in this way. He lectured easily and well to large audiences, but would examine each stu­dent individually. The Bachrach oral Shakespeare exam (which could easily in­clude the question, “Do you know the dates of Mozart?”), was dreaded by many, and left those who passed it proud for life. The book by Bachrach that most of his students knew was Naar het hem geleek, a close reading, in the Scrutiny tradi­tion, of four Shakespeare plays. Another book, which many knew of but only few ever got to see, was the Shakespeare edition which Bach­rach had had with him as a prisoner of the Japanese during the War, and from which he had lec­tured to the other internees in secret. Bachrach was also a fine historian, with a profound interest in Anglo-Dutch relations, which he did much to promote at the Sir Thomas Browne Institute in Leiden. For a detailed biography of this remarkable man see Peter Brusse’s obituary of him in this issue of Folio.

In 2006, the Flemish playwright Xavier Tricot published his sequel to Mac­beth entitled Macduff, which was reviewed in Folio 14.1 (2007). Now Tricot has taken another Shakespearean play as the basis for an interesting sequel, once more pub­lished in a bilingual edition, the English version prepared by Alastair Weir and the Flemish original on facing pages. It is entitled Prospero (Koekelare: Devriendt, 2009) and recounts what hap­pens shortly after the ending of The Tempest. Prospero has decided to stay on his is­land after all, rather than returning to Milan with most of the rest of the party. Only Caliban and old Gonzalo are still on the island. Both Caliban and Prospero have undergone a transformation. Prospero is no longer so sure of his values or of his superiority: what he has learned most of all is that he knows very little. His mission of civilising Caliban or others now seems pointless to him, who, after his daughter has left for Italy, seems to have lost all purpose in life. Caliban, by contrast, has become eager to learn, and speaks in flowery language. He seems to long for all that Prospero once had, but has now abjured. The situation may remind one of Educating Rita, except that the setting of this play, as well as the critical history of Shakespeare’s original suggest a reading not in terms of class differences but of post-colonial self-doubt and cultural relativism: Prospero, the former colonial master, has lost his ground, psychologically, morally, and phi­losophically, while the aspiring young native aims to take over the torch of cul­ture from his former master. Then, another party of castaways arrives on the is­land, refugees from Tunis where a coup d’etat has killed Claribel’s husband and forced her to go into exile with some followers, much like Prospero was once forced to flee Milan. As in Macduff, history seems circular, and therefore beyond human control. Caliban falls in love with the young widow, who, like Dido, in­tends to stay chaste in memory of her late husband. In his attempts to win her over, Caliban forgets his own roots, and criticises the savagery of those North Africans who toppled the regime of Claribel’s husband. In all these ways, the aftermath of colonialism in civil war, displacement and emigration, and even the intellectual immigrant’s self-hatred and identity crisis seem to be projected on Shakespeare’s most clearly colonial play. The play’s texture is poetic, and the translation seems pleasantly accurate; on a few occasions, the translator actually clarifies a somewhat obscure phrasing in the original.