Arts - Autumn 2011

Shakespeare in Bloom

By Wendy Smith | August 25, 2011


Here in New York, my family has seen a lot of classic theater in the past three years—Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg, with a dash of Molière on the side. Shakespeare, however, has been our most frequent date. Our foray into Elizabethan drama began when we tentatively took our 12-year-old son to see Patrick Stewart in Macbeth. Luca was reading the play in school, but my husband, Joe, and I weren’t entirely sure he was ready to endure several hours of Elizabethan verse in a theater. Actually, he seemed quite absorbed in it all and sat bolt upright in Act III when Banquo’s extremely bloody ghost arrived, via a clanking freight elevator, and leaped onto the banquet table with a thud to bring the first half to an electrifying close. It was an exciting introduction to Shakespeare onstage, and Luca soon got a lot more familiar with him on the page, reading Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest.

Watching my son discover those familiar stories and perennially astonishing language reignited my own love affair with Shakespeare, which began in 1971 when I saw Peter Brook’s revolutionary reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I can still be reduced to misty-eyed babbling when recalling the fantastical charms of Brook’s production. Since my other early exposure to the Bard was at Shakespeare in the Park, notable for its enthusiastic audiences and energetic if not always subtle acting, it never occurred to me to be intimidated by the verse. I learned to savor the shape and weight of it on my tongue thanks to an inventive English teacher at Brooklyn Friends School who had us read aloud large portions of Shakespeare’s plays in class.

And so Luca grew up with a mother who at the slightest provocation would grab a paperback copy of Henry V on the shelf and read him the St. Crispin’s Day speech, or flip through Antony and Cleopatra for Enobarbus’s description of Egypt’s queens ailing up the river Cydnus. (“‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, / Burn’d on the water’—Luca, isn’t that a cool image?”) I also regaled him with anecdotes about Shakespearean performances, like the famous story of Laurence Olivier confessing that he was so confident of his power over the audience when he played Richard III that he didn’t bother to limp consistently on the same leg from scene to scene. Luca heard a lot about A Midsummer Night’s Dream too. A green plastic tube hurled from the stage during the curtain call back in 1971 resides on my bookshelf; from time to time I would whirl it around and to the accompaniment of its sonorous hum tell Luca about fairies wielding dozens of these noisemakers to create the sound of enchantment as they prowled a magical all-white landscape.

All of which is to say Luca wasn’t unprepared to enjoy Shakespeare. Since he did, we began taking him along whenever Shakespeare, or Chekhov or Ibsen, came to town. Like many of my contemporaries, I am on the lookout for any nonvirtual entertainment that will pry my child loose from texting and the like, and I soon acquired subscriptions to several local repertory companies. As a result, we’ve had a full-scale immersion in the state of contemporary performance of the classics, at least as it’s available in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Inevitably, we saw a lot of British imports, as well as a memorable Russian-language Uncle Vanya; subsidized national theaters nourish their dramatic backlists more consistently than our scattershot commercial system does. But I was happy to find talented American actors and directors just as committed to classic drama, and often just as good as their overseas counterparts. Most of all, as I accompanied a young theatergoer on his first encounters with plays ranging from Measure for Measure to The Cherry Orchard, I was struck anew by the sheer pleasure of experiencing these works onstage: of hearing a pensive soliloquy or a piercing exchange of dialogue, of seeing a complicated character embodied by a flesh-and-blood actor. I love to read Shakespeare, or any great playwright, but drama lives in the theater.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that I responded with even more irritation than usual to Harold Bloom’s latest salvo on Shakespeare, which occupies a hundred aggravating pages in his new book, The Anatomy of Influence, reviewed in the Scholar’s Summer 2011 issue by Michael Dirda. (Bloom, of course, is the 81-year-old author and humanities professor at Yale University.) For years, I’ve cringed at the reverential attitude encapsulated in the portentous title of Bloom’s magnum opus, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which enshrines the Bard as some sort of supernatural being who created “new modes of consciousness.” But what really set me off in The Anatomy of Influence was Bloom’s repeated assertion that the only way to truly appreciate Shakespeare’s plays is to read them. The justification for this absurd statement is that “our theaters are in decline,” ruined by “high-concept directors, who should be shot at dawn.” I hate to think what Bloom would have made of Elizabethan theater, with people walking around, talking, and eating during the performances, not to mention the boisterous groundlings who stood just in front of the stage and felt free to throw rotten fruit and vegetables at characters they disliked. And Bloom should be wary of sniping at directors who impose their own ideas on Shakespeare; three times he tosses out the highly debatable proposition that Hamlet thinks Claudius may be his biological father. He offers no textual evidence, only the assertion that Hamlet “will not voice this perplexity, yet it must numb him.”

It would be shocking enough if Bloom merely professed that the 21st-century theater was unworthy of Shakespeare’s genius. But he doesn’t think theatrical performance can do justice to the plays under any circumstances. Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth are “roles too large to be realized,” Bloom asserts. Indeed, “every King Lear I have tried to attend has been lamentable. The great king is too sublime for stage representation.” This is only slightly less ridiculous than his contention that “Hamlet’s soliloquies [are] now shunned by many directors and actors.” I’ve never seen a Hamlet without the soliloquies, and in my latest one, an intelligent modern-dress rendering Bloom likely would have disdained, the soliloquies were the most striking thing about the production. Christian Camargo, an accomplished American classical actor, delivered them with a quiet lucidity that made even the most famous speeches sound as though spoken for the first time. I’ve seen King Lear twice in recent years. Ian McKellen stripped naked as he cried “O, o you lendings!” bravely revealing the “poor, bare forked animal” that cowers at the play’s ravaged heart. Derek Jacobi was a coddled old man unprepared to be cast adrift in a corrupt world where everyone strives viciously for advantage and advancement. Did either actor or production realize every aspect of Shakespeare’s fathomless tragedy? Of course not. But I learned something new about King Lear each time by seeing its agonizing contradictions alive onstage and thinking about what those particular performers had found in it.

Bloom has no interest in that kind of exchange. Shakespeare is “best read in solitude,” he writes. The only theater that can comprehend the Bard’s profundities is “the theater of mind.” Yet he is obliged to acknowledge that “Shakespeare writes to engross a live audience.” And as Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright point out in their theater history Changing Stages, it was “a not wholly literate audience who must have understood [the plays] at the time.” They refer to the well-documented fact that Shakespeare was a crowd pleaser in his lifetime, when most people knew his work from seeing it onstage. (Only half his plays were published before his death.) Moreover, Garry Wills reminds us in his forthcoming study, Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater, Shakespeare was not just a playwright, he was an actor and a manager immersed in the day-to-day grind of getting a show onstage. He did not write for “the theater of mind”; he wrote for an actual company that, as Wills notes, “was mounting plays with bewildering rapidity, studying, memorizing, and rehearsing in the morning and evening while performing in the afternoon.”

In Playing Shakespeare, a series of nine workshops recorded for television in the early 1980s and now available on DVD, director John Barton led a group of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company through various scenes and soliloquies. The company was investigating how it could best make Shakespeare’s heightened language accessible to modern audiences while remaining faithful to the texts. In one workshop on “Using the Verse,” Barton, formerly a professor at Cambridge University, pointed out that iambic pentameter echoes the natural rhythms of English speech and that Shakespeare employed it for that reason. Medieval mystery plays and revenge tragedies sound corny to the modern ear because the language of those earlier dramas has little relation to the way people actually talk. Our vocabulary is not entirely the same as the Elizabethans’, but if you read aloud a passage from an English-language novel, you can hear that our speech patterns remain much the same.

When Shakespeare breaks the conventional pattern of iambic pentameter, Barton pointed out, it’s to tell us something about the character or the situation. A single line in King John is divided into five separate exchanges between two characters because they are plotting an unspeakable act: the murder of a child. Shakespeare’s meanings unfold not just in what the characters say but in how they say it. Suddenly, I understood why a sentence of Lear’s in Act IV hits like a hammer blow. “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools” contains only words of one syllable, the normal iambic pattern of weak and strong stresses altered—“we cry” and “great stage” are metrical feet in which both syllables are stressed—to emphasize the power and heartbreak of the king’s words. The idea itself is chilling, but the sound amplifies the sense; that’s the essence of Shakespeare’s greatness as an artist of the spoken language. His words are beautiful and powerful on the page, but their “verbal relish” (Barton’s phrase for an important element of Shakespeare’s creativity) can be experienced only in performance.

The discussions among Barton and the actors were specific and practical. They avoided the word genius and eschewed the kind of generalizations that cloud Bloom’s analysis. His lofty proclamations culminate in The Anatomy of Influence with this glib head-scratcher: “Confusing Shakespeare with God is ultimately legitimate.” Shakespeare is not God, he didn’t “invent the human,” and exploring his infinite variety is more fruitful than making pronouncements on it.

At one point in Playing Shakespeare, Barton said, “There are no absolute rules about Shakespeare, but many possibilities.” I remembered that remark when I saw The Merchant of Venice in March, not long after hearing Patrick Stewart and David Suchet discuss their interpretations of Shylock in Playing Shakespeare. Abraham was cool and menacing, a formidable financial wheeler-dealer on a gleaming contemporary set designed to recall the 2008 economic meltdown. Suchet viewed Shylock as a Jew whose thirst for revenge betrayed his religion’s ethical teachings. Stewart thought Shylock’s ethnicity was less important than his status as a social-climbing outsider whom the insiders were determined to put in his place. The text permits all those versions because Shakespeare doesn’t tell us what to think. His attractive heroine is matter-of-factly anti-Semitic, and his Jewish villain utters one of the most cogent rebuttals of racism ever written.

“Shakespeare hands the choice to you and avoids judgment,” notes Bloom, who is a superb close analyst when resisting bombast. It’s puzzling that he denies performers and directors the latitude he grants to readers. Making choices is what playing Shakespeare is all about. Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth was a calculating second-in-command who seizes the chance to grab the top spot, then grimly accepts the consequences of his murderous actions. John Douglas Thompson, who followed up an acclaimed 2009 Othello with Macbeth this spring, was a fairly ordinary guy led astray by his adored wife (the brilliant Annika Boras), who goads him with a toxic combination of “think how great it will be to be king” and “you’re not man enough to do it.” One of the principal pleasures of my three-year orgy of classic theater has been the opportunity to sample many different approaches to Shakespeare—and Chekhov, Ibsen, and Molière, for that matter. They support multiple interpretations.

In the Maly Theatre’s sensuous Uncle Vanya, the actors stretched like cats against the scenery; I expected them at any moment to dash out and fling themselves into the rain heard beating against the French doors upstage. Their tactile delight in the physical world, palpable in the Russian dialogue they rolled around in their mouths like a tasty meal, comically counterpointed their characters’ frustrated emotional lives. The Classic Stage Company’s Three Sisters this winter, by contrast, emphasized Chekhov’s pathos. Both productions were excellent; there’s no right way to do Chekhov, any more than there’s a right way to do Shakespeare. To paraphrase John Barton, there are only possibilities.

The Classic Stage Company’s more somber take, I think, arose partly from performing Chekhov in translation. A good play transcends nationality, but it changes as it crosses borders. I’m grateful that I can hear Shakespeare in his native tongue. I know that foreign audiences are missing the interplay of meaning and language that I miss when I see Chekhov in English. It’s still wonderful, but it’s different.

Actor Alan Howard made an insightful distinction in Playing Shakespeare. “You need to comprehend, obviously, as well as you can, what the lines mean,” he said. But there’s another aspect, he continued, “which is the word apprehension as opposed to comprehension. I think apprehension to the Elizabethans was a very palpable form of being sensually highly aware of rhythm, sounds, texture as a way of combining with comprehension to

I recently saw a production of Cymbeline alive with the physical immediacy that Howard’s remarks spotlight. The nimble young actors of the Fiasco Theater embraced the theatricality of a wildly implausible plot married to some of Shakespeare’s most intricate, viscerally pleasurable language. Like the other late romances, Cymbeline resists critics’ efforts to tell you what it means and directs you back to what it says, in tightly packed, sometimes enigmatic imagery that resonates with the force of fairy tale. Meaning is enfolded in the particulars of speech in all Shakespeare’s plays, and he speaks to us, always, through his characters.

When I read Shakespeare, I hear voices. I hear Derek Jacobi advising his Cordelia, “Mend your speech a little, / Lest you mar your fortunes,” in the indulgent tones of a parent chiding a recalcitrant toddler, though Lear himself is the spoiled child who has never before been thwarted. I hear Patrick Stewart wearily saying, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” the conjunctions conveying Macbeth’s bleak knowledge that all that remains for him is to stoically endure until “dusty death” soaks up the blood on his hands. I hear Christian Camargo declaring of death, “ ’Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished,” his unconventional emphasis wryly echoing the opening line of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy to pinpoint Hamlet’s antic humor even as he contemplates suicide. I close my eyes and see people on a stage, sharing with the people in the audience words about the human experience so aptly shaped, so richly revealing of our shared longings and perplexities, that explanation or explication seems superfluous. All you need to do is listen.

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