STAPLE OF NEWS VII (July 2004)
Update on the Shakespeare Industry
Earlier this year, the editors of Folio received a copy of Life is but a Verse: Well-Rhymed and Bold, Selected Writings by Daniil Pashkoff and Friends, ed. Katherina Marshfield (Braunschweig: Writers Ink e.V., 2002). This curious collection of verse written by and to commemorate the dynamic and charismatic Russian student-poet Daniil Pashkoff (who died of diabetes at an early age in 1999), contains a poem that should be of interest also to Shakespeareans. It is “A Letter from Bottom the Weaver to His Wife, Mrs. Bottom,” here reproduced by kind permission of Lawrence Guntner of the TU Englisches Seminar at Braunschweig:
My dear wife, my heart’s attentive nurse,
Your humble husband never talked in verse,
My life was dull like badly-written prose,
But now it is blooming like a rose,
Lofty words are in my mouth now formed,
I am Bottom still, but have been transformed!
I was a weaver, a mechanical,
Just in this acid life a chemical,
I laboured hard to earn my brown bread:
Was I a fool? Had I a donkey’s head?
I planned on stage as Pyramus to come
But then, instead, a king did I become.
A fair queen, who is an elf, a sprite,
She fell in love just as she caught my sight.
She heard my ditty, yes, she heard me sing,
My dulcet voice made me her duke and king;
She heard me speak, she saw that I am wise,
My words made her for me blind love devise.
I went with her into a bower
And had with her a pleasant hour,
She fed me with green figs and dewberries,
With grapes, with apricots and mulberries.
She plucked the wings from butterflies
And fanned the moonbeams from my sleeping eyes.
And now I shall never feel a need
Because with me is Master Mustardseed,
With him is Cobweb and with them is Moth
And each of them the favours for me doth.
If I return, I’ll be an ass, a fool
It’s dank at home – here it’s cool.
Still I see you and hear your shrill cry:
Hard to forget, though hard I try.
But waste I time, it is high time to stop.
Your faithful Bottom, who has reached the top.
There is also a new, updated version (2003) of Norman Sanders’ 1983 Othello edition in the New Cambridge Shakespeare (ISBN 0-521-53517-4 PB at £ 7.99 and ISBN 0-521-82795-7 HB at £ 35.00). “Updated” here does not mean that the text and the apparatus have been adjusted in response to, say, Ernst Honigmann’s sly third Arden edition of 1997. There was no real need. Cambridge, of course, already has its own rejoinder to the issue in its Quarto series, with the 1622 version of Othello edited by Scott McMillin, and it is McMillin who has written a substantial chapter on the critical traditions and stage practice of Othello since the early nineteen-eighties, and updated the Reading List at the back of the volume.
In a smart chapter, McMillin traces the “political” readings of Othello that followed in the wake of Greenblatt’s seminal chapter on the play in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Dollimore and Sinfield’s Political Shakespeare, and Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice. It is worth noting that in the section on politicization, McMillin draws on examples from around the world, generally from one-time colonies. Rightly, Martin Orkin has pride of place with his radical use of Othello to question apartheid in South Africa, instead of perpetuating the timeless and universal readings of the play. To the same category of post-colonial Shakespeare belongs Orkin’s compatriot Janet Suzman, who, when she directed the tragedy, decided to cast the black actor John Kani in the title role. In an appropriate gesture to world Shakespeare, McMillin’s necessarily selective account further includes important Egyptian, Iraqi, and Indian examples.
Before moving on to the recent stage history of the play, McMillin illustrates how Greenblatt’s opening volley invited feminist criticism like Karen Newman’s Fashioning Femininity in Renaissance Drama, as well as Alan Sinfield’s cultural materialist rejoinder in Faultlines. He notes how postwar productions of Othello in Britain have generally been disappointing, regardless of whether the part of the tragic hero was played by Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, or by Anthony Hopkins in the BBC television series. The relevant discussion seems to have been whether Othello should be played by a black or a white actor – black because he would have the experience it takes to present on stage the victim of a racist ideology, or white because it would precisely be the acting challenge to intuit and convey the experience in Shakespeare. In his balanced discussion of this issue, McMillin devotes attention to two seminal productions: Terry Hands’ version with the opera singer Willard White as Othello, Ian McKellen as Iago, Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona and Zoe Wanamaker as Emilia (also given an eminent discussion in Virginia Mason Vaughan’s Othello: A Cultural History, Cambridge UP, 1994), and the so-called “photo-negative” production of 1997 with Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame) as a white Othello amidst an otherwise black cast. In the limited space allowed him, he also discusses Oliver Parker’s 1995 flawed film with Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago, as well as the lesser known American adaptation entitled O (no date given). In its smartly updated version, this Othello in the New Cambridge Shakespeare is bound to last for another twenty years.
Earlier this year, Thomson Learning published its pilot volume in the Arden Shakespeare companion series devoted specifically to the language of Shakespeare. The first volume in the series is Shakespeare and the Language of Translation, edited by Ton Hoenselaars, with a foreword by Inga-Stina Ewbank (London: Thomson Learning, 2004), 346 pp., ISBN 1-90427-145-6. The volume argues that Shakespeare’s international status as a literary icon is largely based on his masterful use of the English language, yet beyond Britain his plays and poems are read and performed mainly in translation. Shakespeare and the Language of Translation addresses this apparent contradiction and is the first major survey of its kind. Covering the many ways in which the translation of Shakespeare’s words is practised and studied from Bulgaria to Japan, South Africa to Germany, it also discusses the translation of Macbeth into Scots and of Romeo and Juliet into British Sign Language. The collection places renderings of Shakespeare’s works aimed at the page and the stage in their multiple cultural contexts, including gender, race and nation, as well as personal and postcolonial politics.
In early June, we were sad to hear of the death of Inga-Stina Ewbank. Stanley Wells announced the news on the Shaksper website as follows: “The many friends worldwide of Inga-Stina Ewbank, Emeritus Professor of the University of Leeds, will be saddened to hear of her death on 7 June 2004. She died peacefully at home after a short and painless illness. She was a fine scholar and critic, an inspiring, dedicated and greatly loved teacher, and the most generous and caring of friends.” Inga-Stina Ewbank was a dynamic, genuine and generous scholar whose vision of Shakespeare in translation as a primary mode of cultural exchange has over the years inspired many colleagues (see her seminal paper entitled “Shakespeare Translation as Cultural Exchange” [Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995), 1-12]; and the Foreword she wrote to Shakespeare and the Language of Translation ). Translating Life: Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics, edited by Shirley Chew and Alistair Stead (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999) remains a fitting tribute to Inga-Stina Ewbank, who, as Dirk Delabastita has noted, was one of the few established Shakespearean scholars to date to have included translation in her research agenda.
Just out is Jacqueline Cousin-Desjobert’s long-awaited study of the Elizabethan MP, author, pedagogue, and headmaster (St. Paul’s School and the Merchant Taylor’s School), Richard Mulcaster (c. 1531-1611). The book explores the way in which Mulcaster considered the sons of London merchants and craftsmen ought to be taught during the second half of the sixteenth century. This life of the English humanist is of interest because Mulcaster was opinionated, knew contemporaries like Richard Hakluyt, Thomas Tallis, Abraham Ortelius, Emmanuel van Meteren, and Janus Dousa senior. His pupils included Lancelot Andrewes, Matthew Gwynne, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Lodge, and Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare is not included in this impressive list of acquaintances, but Cousin’s survey of the educational climate in late-sixteenth-century London is compulsive reading for anyone who wishes to contextualize the playwright’s learning and his dramatisation of knowledge and ignorance in the plays. Richard Mulcaster: La théorie et la pratique d’un éducateur élisabéthain (Paris, 2004), ISBN 2-9516752-0-8 (520 pp.), € 77.
The German quarterly Die Horen: Zeitschrift für Literatur, Kunst und Kritik 49:1 (2004) is entirely devoted to Hamlet. Under the title Hamlet und kein Ende / Lese-Arten, Spiel-Räume & Kunst-Stücke, Jürgen Kratzer and Johann P. Tammen bring together nearly 50 contributions devoted to the Danish play, including essays, criticism, and cultural theory, selections of the play’s afterlives (Bertolt Brecht, Heiner Müller, Paul Celan and many many others), discussions of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy on the European stage and in the cinema. Separate issues of the journal (ISSN 0018-4942) come at € 9.50 and may be obtained from the editorial office of Edition die Horen, P. O. Box 101110, D-27511 Bremerhaven, Germany.
The latest issue of the Poor Yorick Shakespeare Multimedia Newsletter (May 2004) is now available. This issue reports on a number of DVD versions of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, soon to be released, including Grigori Kosintsev’s King Lear; Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (still delayed); and Alex Cox’s remarkable new version of The Revengers Tragedy, based on Thomas Middleton’s play about love, sex, murder, incest and revenge, now set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Liverpool (starring Derek Jacobi, Christopher Eccleston and Eddie Izzard). But there is also Shakespeare Wallah (1965), the classic story about the clash between modernity and traditionalism under British colonial rule, seen through the eyes of a civil servant and his travelling Shakespeare troupe (dir. James Ivory, with Geoffrey and Felicity Kendal, Shashi Kapoor, Laura Liddell, and Madhur Jaffrey). The 2004 Catalogue is printed and ready for mailing. Write to Poor Yorick Shakespeare Multimedia, P.O. Box 21146, Stratford, Ontario, Canada N5A 7V4. Alternatively, write to <email@example.com> or visit the company site at <http://www.bardcentral.com>.
NRC/Handelsblad (19 Sept. 2003) reported a most original way of using Shakespeare for marketing purposes: the RSC took the staging of Titus Andronicus as an occasion to launch a campaign for recruiting blood donors. The idea behind the campaign was that people who go to see this bloodiest of Shakespeare’s tragedies (or even act in it) would not be likely to faint when called upon to donate some real blood of their own. Not, the paper hastens to add, that the RSC itself is in need of any blood for its production: the stage blood is all synthetic, made out of sugar water, syrup, and dye from red fruits, just like the sound of Lavinia’s neck snapping is produced by breaking balsa wood. By analogy, the editors of Folio suggest, it might be a good idea to use King Lear to recruit staff for homes for the elderly, Richard III to raise funds for a campaign against child abuse, and Hamlet for a teetotallers’ organization.
In Shakespeare’s own time, the Lord of the Revels made a selection from the best productions of the year for the Christmas celebrations at court; in a modern equivalent, journalist Martin Schouten has drawn up a longlist for the Dutch-Flemish Theatre Festival to be held in Amsterdam and Ghent, from 26 August to 8 September. Among the fifteen productions on the longlist we find no fewer than three Shakespearean ones: Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Romeo en Julia, Richard III by Zuidelijk Toneel Hollandia, and Tim van Athene by Zuidelijk Toneel Hollandia and Het Toneelhuis. Of these, only the last was included in the final selection.
On 26 May, NRC/Handelsblad reported on the RSC’s decision to end their contract with the Dutch architect Eric van Egeraat. Van Egeraat had been working on plans to rebuild the venerable Royal Shakespeare Theatre of 1932. The ambitious scheme of former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble to demolish the old theatre and replace it by an entire theatre village had led to a wave of protests, which may have contributed to Noble’s decision to leave the company. Under his successor, Michael Boyd, it now looks increasingly likely that the building plans will be scrapped altogether.
But let us end on an optimistic note. It was certainly good to learn that on 8 June, the Dutch Shakespearean actor Gijs Scholten van Aschat received the Albert van Dalsum Ring for his acting achievement. As Wilfred Takken put it in NRC/Handelsblad of 11 June 2004, “Of the classics, Shakespeare has always been his great, eternal love. In 1984, he already played the lead in Romeo and Juliet. Later he was to appear in Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Timon of Athens. And in 1999 he played Hamlet, directed by Johan Doesburg, perhaps the most beautiful part he ever played. His was not a young Hamlet; Scholten van Aschat was 39 at the time. It prefigured an idea which he is still thinking of staging some day: Hamlet as Prince Charles, the eternal crown prince who will never be king.”
Wilfred Takken also quotes the actor on Hamlet.
Hamlet is certainly a milestone, and the leading role was an exceptional challenge for me. Moreover, you keep going over the text because it contains profound reflection in abundance. To play Shakespeare is to enhance your life. Many of Shakespeare’s lines I remember, and they often serve me as a guide. Richard the Second, for example, says: “But whate’er I be, / Nor I, nor any man that but man is, / With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d / With being nothing” (5.5.38-41). It is a difficult sentence that seems to contain a surprisingly modern, almost Buddhist truth: you will never be satisfied unless you accept you are nothing. If you wish to become anything at all, you must first have the courage to be nothing.
A worthy statement, surely, to come from a newly invested laureate.