I’ve read Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare. (And, yes, I can sing along with Cole Porter’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”) My M.A. and Ph.D. major was English Renaissance literature with an emphasis on the drama. That means Shakespeare and that bunch—his friends and rivals, like Ben Jonson and others. I’ve also read a lot of Elizabethan and Jacobean history and Shakespeare criticism. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed by living actors, and that’s why I prefer productions with actors on stage, either live in front of me or on DVD. I have, in fact, a whole shelf of DVDs of Shakespeare’s plays, plus the big box of all 37 plays as produced by the BBC in the early 1980s. I once spent a month watching them all and wrote a blog about it, which you can read below.
While I like generally enjoy the traditional productions in the BBC box, I usually have no objection to modernized versions, like Shakespeare Retold and Kenneth Branagh’s movies. I did not, however, like an As You Like It that opened in a modern office. When the two girls fled to the forest, the office furniture was flown up toward the grid above the stage. All those desks dangling above the actors’ heads made me crazy.
The first time I went to a Renaissance faire, I was a newly-hatched Ph.D. “Oh,” I kept saying, “this isn’t right. That’s not right.” I thought I knew everything about Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Hah! I’m a lot mellower now. Othello as a London policeman bothers me not at all, nor does Branagh’s As You Like It, which is set in Japan. I also like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. And Cymbeline as a criminal gang in the 2014 movie starring Ethan Hawke and Ed Harris works just fine for me.
I once saw an amazing live production—Fleetwood Macbeth. Yes, the Scottish play and music by Fleetwood Mac and Lady Macbeth singing Stevie Nicks’ songs. It was burlesque, standup comedy, and parody…but they also followed Shakespeare’s plot. At the end, when they chop off Macbeth’s head? In this production, they put the head on a platter on a table…and when they take the dome off the platter, the head launches into standup comedy. Very strange. And loud applause.
Once I watched all the history plays in a row. That took nearly a week. I had my Riverside Shakespeare open in my lap so I could read the footnotes and was thus reminded that Shakespeare was pretty much reinventing history for the propaganda machine of the Tudor police state. I also have Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, which is a sort of conflation of the Henry IV and V plays with Welles as Falstaff. (One of these days, I keep promising myself, I’ll buy The Hollow Crown. I’ve seen it. It’s really good.)
My all-time favorite modern production is the RSC’s 2014 Love’s Labour’s Lost set in 1914 and filled with music, including a tiny Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche at the end. I also love Joss Whedon’s 2013 Much Ado About Nothing, even though I’d never heard of any of the actors in his stock company. Three of my other favorites are The Winter’s Tale (the 1998 RSC production), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (especially the 1999 movie set in Tuscany), and Joseph Papp’s 1974 King Lear starring James Earl Jones as the king, Raul Julia as Edmund, and Rene Auberjonois as Edgar. I cry every time I watch it..
It should be fairly obvious that I’m a big fan of both RSCs—the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The latter is famous for its production of The Complete Works…done in about 97 minutes! They do Titus Andronicus as a cooking show. (I have Julie Taymor’s Titus, which is mind-blowing.) In The Complete Works, one of their gimmicks is to ask the audience for a show of hands as to who’s seen which plays. Here’s what happened the second time I saw this RSC. They use King John (which hardly anyone has even heard of—it’s not a good play) to get the third member of the troupe, who is planted in the audience, up on stage. So…..”Who’s read or seen King John?” I raised my hand. The actor’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. (I was sitting in the second row.) He ignored me and called on the actor sitting a few rows back. Hah!
Finally—well, it’s hard to stop writing about Shakespeare—I also have Slings & Arrows, the Canadian TV series (2003-06) about the New Burbage Festival. One character is a director’s ghost. They do Hamlet (starring a young American movie star) in season 1, “Mackers” (you know the superstition about saying Macbeth, right?) in season 2, and Lear in season 3 with an actor who was 86 years old.
When Is Too Much Shakespeare?
Here, revised, is the blog I wrote in August 2014.
Like nearly every high school sophomore in the 1950s, I read Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet…and didn’t understand most of either play. (Why should high school sophomores read tragedies, anyway?) In college, I took several classes taught by the head of the English Department, who led us through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, and half a dozen other plays. That’s when I really began to start to get what Shakespeare was doing. I was working primarily on an intellectual level, however, so when I took beginning acting and did my Shakespeare scene (from Two Gentlemen of Verona), the teacher (College Theatre’s director) had only one comment: “Barbara, you have personally set the art of Shakespearean acting back a hundred years!” Yeah. I was that bad. I have no acting talent at all, but I’m a very good audience because I pay attention.
A couple years ago, when I received a nice big check from one of my authors, I spent some of it on the BBC Shakespeare. All thirty-seven plays in a big, black box. I already owned DVDs of many of the plays, but I still lusted after that box. I had five Hamlets [in 2014; now I have nine], including the French opera in which Hamlet gets drunk with the players and pours wine over his head. Three Much Ado About Nothings. Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando as Marc Antony (with crisp diction!). Othello with Lawrence Olivier, who painted his whole body black and walked around with his tunic open—Lord Larry was gorgeous when he was young. A newer RSC Othello with actors from South Africa. Al Pacino rehearsing Richard III. A 1936 Romeo and Juliet with Norma Shearer (age 34) as Juliet (age 13), Leslie Howard (age 43) as Romeo (age 18), and John Barrymore (age 54) as Mercutio (ditto). Actors’ ages aside, the acting is wonderful. Beyond those, I also have a DVD called Silent Shakespeare (silent movies with bits of blank verse on the intertitle cards). Shakespeare Behind Bars (murderers in prison doing The Tempest and talking to the camera, like reality TV, about their crimes). Shakespeare Retold (four modernized plays without the blank verse), A bunch of documentaries, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love, and the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
When the BBC box arrived. I figured it would take me about six weeks—which is basically one long play (2 ½ to 3+ hours) nearly every night—to watch the whole canon. The producers and sponsors of the BBC Shakespeare (filmed between 1979 and 1982) prescribed a traditional, conservative, Elizabethan/Jacobean approach in setting and costuming. This apparently meant Romans with beards (but look at almost any statue—Roman men were clean shaven). For some reason, it apparently also meant lots of bare-chested men, (Yummy!) There are exceptions. Othello is costumed and set to look like the paintings of El Greco, All’s Well That Ends Well looks like Vermeer, The Comedy of Errors is vaguely commedia dell arte (with Roger Daltrey as both Dromios), and Love’s Labour’s Lost is set in the 18th century.
As I watched the plays, I began to recognize members of what I came to think of as the BBC repertory company: Michael Hordern, Claire Bloom, Ron Cook, and Trevor Peacock (five plays each), Helen Mirren (three plays), Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud (two each), and many others. I was especially impressed by Paul Jesson (eight plays) and the range that all the actors show. But I disagree with some casting choices. Though he’s not nearly as operatic as Richard Burton (the first modern-dress Hamlet, 1964), .Jacobi played the prince as a hysteric. He was so melodramatic, in fact, that I kept yelling, “Hamlet, shut up! Get on with it!” And Nicol Williamson played Macbeth like he played Merlin in Excalibur: he practically sang his lines. Plus, the BBC’s Wyrd Sisters looked like Muppets and there was no dumb show. I once saw a production of Macbeth at Stratford that left me speechless. The BBC version did not.
So when is too much Shakespeare? Probably the Sunday I started at noon and watched (1) the second half of Richard II (Jacobi was a splendid Richard), then (2) Othello (Anthony Hopkins in suntan makeup and a fright wig and Bob Hoskins as a convincing, conniving Iago), then (3) King John, then (4) half of The Merry Wives of Windsor (such a stupid play), then (5) Troilus and Cressida…by which time it was nearly midnight and I was prostrate on the couch.