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New Shakespeare Collaborations!

Jonathan Bate claims to have discovered Shakespeare’s “fingerprints” on three plays (two of which I’ve already read – feeling fancy!).  Interestingly, he’ll be including these plays in a new Shakespeare collection soon.

Not understanding even the slightest thing about Shakespeare computer analysis, I couldn’t possibly wade into the argument, but it certainly shows me two things:

Firstly, the pull Shakespeare continues to exert on our imagination – that we want to find ‘new’ material of his.

Secondly, that we must continue to revise our understanding of how Shakespeare wrote.  That revising, editing, re-writing and re-working, and collaborating is not simply a 21st Century ‘invention’ that has arrived with the advent of the Internet!


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Not Much Ado

I love Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”.  It’s probably my fave comedy.  I had been looking forward to seeing Joss Whedon’s take on the text, and was very excited to get tickets when it was being screened as part of the New Zealand Film Festival.

Quick disclaimer: the screening was interrupted by power surges which did mean the visuals kept cutting out.

Here’s what I did genuinely like about Whedon’s version: the soundtrack.  Great ensemble/party scenes.  (Note to self: that’s the kind of birthday party I’d like to have.)  The black and white was sophisticated and beautiful.  The physical comedy was funny, and not overdone in the slightest.  The editing of Shakespeare’s script was highly skillful (although I was fascinated that the ‘Ethiope’ line was in, and the ‘Jew’ line was out.  Says something about our modern sensibilities and what jokes we can tolerate, I think.)

One of my problems with this kind of ‘translation’ of Shakespeare is the jarring juxtaposition you can get between Shakespearean lines and a modern setting.  For me, this was something that Whedon just didn’t manage to overcome.  I couldn’t understand why Hero’s chastity was such an issue when the film was at pains to establish that Benedick and Beatrice had slept together.  I didn’t understand why Don Pedro and his men were even staying at the house in the first place.  The context was all off.

Ultimately, this was sufficiently disconnecting that, while I found the film visually (and aurally) very attractive, it just didn’t work for me.  I’m afraid my love still remains with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.


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Shakespeare: World Traveller

I was indulging an old love of mine – watching repeats of ER – when I spied a very promising documentary that was on the channel next.  It was entitled “Shakespeare, India and Me” and followed British actor Felicity Kendal as she returned to her childhood home of India and charted Shakespeare’s progress and influence in that massive country.

Shakespeare, India and Me

I was fascinated.  It focused on how Shakespeare’s plays first came to India, the first Indian actors in a Shakespeare play, the translation of Shakespeare into native Indian languages, and then the adoption and adaptation of Shakespeare in Indian drama and film (yes, Bollywood included!)

Something that particularly struck me was a comment Felicity Kendal made about her father.  I hadn’t known that her parents were actors, and in fact had had a troupe which toured around India performing plays – including to royalty!  She mentioned that her father didn’t want to be known as an actor, but rather as a “missionary”, spreading the word of Shakespeare.  Now that’s a job description I would love.

It also got me thinking about the role and place of Shakespeare in this former British colony of New Zealand, and makes me even more proud of an endeavour like this one:

Troilus and Cressida

which was an entirely Maori language version of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, performed as a part of the Globe to Globe multi-lingual productions of every Shakespeare play last year.

It goes to show, doesn’t it, that Shakespeare truly was “not of an age, but for all time”.

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The Art of the Soliloquy

I had the (ahem) privilege the other day to be marking student writing.  Included in the mix were some pieces from a colleague’s class.  They had chosen to write soliloquies in the voice of Gertrude or Claudius from Hamlet.  As a passing comment, I remarked to the teacher concerned that the soliloquies were uniformly ranty.  While freely acknowledging that her class isn’t all that capable, she said, “But that’s what soliloquies are.”

This gave me food for thought.  Is this what a soliloquy is?  My standard definition is that a soliloquy is a stage convention, akin in modern cinema to a voice-over, whereby a character speaks his or her thoughts aloud.  They always speak the truth of how they’re feeling and who they find themselves to be in that moment.  This does, indeed, I suppose, lead itself to ranting.

And yet.  What the students concerned have failed to grasp is how Shakespeare manages to heighten his characters’ soliloquies to more than mere angsty venting of trapped hot air.  The use of imagery is key to a solioquy; it graces the monologue with art and passion.

By way of example, let us examine the kind of soliloquy the students were (theoretically) attempting to emulate, one from Hamlet, let’s say, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”.  Even in the opening line can we see the imagery, the selection of diction Shakespeare chooses to illustrate how low Hamlet is feeling about himself – not a prince, but a “peasant slave”.

Hamlet continues the speech by comparing himself grossly unfavourably to an actor who is able to counterfeit life-like emotions in response to a fiction, whereas Hamlet himself is undergoing true horrific events and can seem to do nothing.  The famous line “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba” encapsulates this idea beautifully.  Not only this, but the alliteration and inversion of the words further illustrates Hamlet’s frustration, his feelings of things being topsy-turvy.

And while the extensive listing that follows in the soliloquy, such as “cleave the general ear with horrid speech, / Make mad the guilty and appal the free”, and “Am I a coward? / Who calls me villain?” does give the ‘ranting’ tone the teenage writers could reproduce, the choice of language, the use of techniques such as the rhetorical questions, and the fact that there is an argumentative purpose to the listing, as it builds to a point of climax and decision, is far more skillful than just venting one’s spleen.

The way Shakespeare uses simile and metaphor gives weight and substance to his soliloquies.  Hamlet sees himself like a “whore”, “unpack[ing his] heart with words”, and murder “though it have no tongue, will speak…”.  The image of the disingenuous prostitute using meaningless words to ply her trade, or of dumb murder whose crime will find a way to be heard, is powerful and more than Hamlet just speaking his feelings aloud.

There is also logic and argument – rhetoric – to a soliloquy.  There is shape to it that a good old moan does not have.  This particular soliloquy of Hamlet’s moves from him, yes, ranting about how useless he is, to a cry for vengeance for his “dear father” against the “remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless” villain Claudius (note how the sibilance allows an actor to rave but also to suggest ClaudIUS without having to speak his name – pure genius), to figuring out a course of action with its own justification.  Hamlet recalls that just as the actor he has seen portraying Hecuba has so moved him, that murderers, when confronted by their own actions in dramatic form, may be similarly moved.  He reasons that he must have some kind of proof against Claudius in order to kill him, that the words of a spirit are not enough as it could have been sent from the Devil to tempt him into sin.  The final lines of the soliloquy, the rhyming couplet, ends the speech on a note of triumphant decision: “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The diction, the imagery, the rhetorical shape to a soliloquy, these are the key aspects that means that Shakespeare’s characters do more than rant.  They are the art of a soliloquy.

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The Zombie Argument

Love this metaphor – the zombie argument that refuses to die.  Shakespeare did write his plays.  That is all.

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July 24, 2013 · 10:24 pm

Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays

Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays.

via Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays.

I threw the link up to this blog quickly without having sufficient time to digest myself.  Now that I’ve read it, I’d like to add some of my own thoughts to the list of ‘underrated’ Shakespeare plays.

Firstly, I wholeheartedly concur with the calls for CymbelineTimon of Athens and All’s Well that Ends Well.  All’s Well is one of three plays I wrote on for my MA thesis looking at folktale motifs in Shakespeare, and I still find it a deeply fascinating yet troubling play (ditto one of the other plays I examined: Taming of the Shrew – a year wrapping my head around that one, and I still don’t know whether it’s farcical or misogynistic…). At the end of the day, Bertram is such an unsatisfactory hero that it’s hard to see past his flaws to genuinely embrace or endorse the ending.  However this deeply puzzling nature is part of what draws me back to Shakespeare again and again, so it’s a double thumbs up for me.

Timon of Athens is a fantastic companion piece to something like The Merchant of Venice (the third of the three plays I wrote on for said thesis).  I think it’s an important read in this era of ‘post’ Global Financial Recession, with its commentary on money and friendship and gifts.

I love Cymbeline.  It’s a fairy tale wrapped in a history, with a twist of the Roman plays alongside.  I’ve never seen it live, but would love to.  It’s a definite must-read, in my opinion.

However, two plays that didn’t make it onto the above blogger’s list, but I think are worthy mentions are The Winter’s Tale and Titus Andronicus.  The former also makes a wonderful companion piece to the likes of Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, with the family reunions of PericlesComedy of Errors and Twelfth Night too.  I saw a version of this last year as part of an arts festival.  Although I had crap seats and didn’t totally love the version, the sheep-shearing festival, complete with rock’n’roll sheep, were pretty amusing.

And as for Titus…Quentin Tarantino eat your heart out.  You think you’re doing something original by staging violence? Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare were wayyyy ahead of you.


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Mal Peet’s “Exposure”

This is what the author himself has to say about his own book.

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July 17, 2013 · 10:35 pm