Jamming with Shakespeare

This week at BCU we had a visit from the Sonnet Man, aka Devon Glover, a New York based rapper who performs Shakespeare in his own unique way. Sonnet Man’s approach is to perform some of Shakespeare’s sonnets as hip hop, with backing tracks, to demonstrate how amazingly flexible the sonnets are, and how well they work in performance; he uses Shakespeare’s own words, but follows this with a ‘breakdown’, which summarises the sonnet in his own words, perhaps picking up particular relevance – to emotions, to everyday lives – which might appeal to his audience. It’s fascinating: Sonnet Man’s performance really is Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him; the brilliance of the simple iambic pentameter, the punch of the alliteration and rhyme, really comes out in this approach. The way in which music, rhythm, poetry and emotions work in the sonnets is very clear. (I have to confess, though, that I’m probably not his target audience, and probably didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of our students!)

I was interested by the way Devon Glover weaves in his life story – from Brooklyn, looking for a way to better his life through education – as a way to tell the stories of the sonnets. Initially he struggled with Shakespeare, he says, until suddenly it all came to him – through rapping. (Apparently he also teaches maths this way). The way he meshes the apparently opposing cultures of hip hop and Shakespeare is inspiring, and I can see how this would appeal to a lot of people who might not ‘get’ Shakespeare otherwise (though I’m afraid it hasn’t really worked the other way round and converted me to rap), but the performance of Sonnet 17, for example, as a spur to believing in yourself and your own abilities, is bound to inspire. From unsuccessful love affairs to death to academic achievement, Sonnet Man covers it all, and very well; it feels real, somehow, not contrived (‘updated’ performances of Shakespeare can often be rather embarrassing), and I saw its appeal even if I didn’t really feel it myself. Devon Glover makes a great case for the universality of Shakespeare, ripping it away from its middle-class, middle-aged, white British, RP-speaking enclave, and I liked that.

One of my favourite pieces was Hip Hop Hamlet – watch it here:


The Tongue that Shakespeare Spoke

This week I was excited to attend a lecture by Professor David Crystal (the Justin Bieber of linguistics, according to some students), to hear about ‘original pronunciation’ or OP, of Shakespearean language. We usually hear Shakespeare’s plays performed in Received Pronunciation, carefully enunciated and projected, with plummy vowels and clipped consonants, but this, Professor Crystal explained, is not how they would once have been performed. There is a growing interest in authenticity in the theatre – not only the theatre itself, such as the Globe Theatre, but also in costumes, music, etc. Of course authenticity is impossible in any area, but a striving for origins, for something close to the experience of Shakespeare’s contemporaries when visiting the theatre, is something which clearly has a growing appeal. In the case of reconstructing original pronunciation, Professor Crystal aims for ‘plausibility’ but cannot, he says, hope for ‘authenticity’. Since the Globe began working on original pronunciation in 2004 it has sparked a wider interest, not just for Shakespeare’s works but for other plays too.

The lecture was entertainingly delivered, but thoroughly answered two questions: how can original pronunciation be reconstructed, and why is it important?  We were given a rendition of the prologue from Romeo and Juliet in both RP and OP, which was helpful: it accustomed the ear, and yet the sound of OP is somehow unaccountably familiar. We home in on what sounds recognisable depending on our own regional accents, apparently, which means it can sound equally familiar to someone from Yorkshire and someone from the East End. So, apparently the pronunciation can be established in four ways: through the rhymes (many of which don’t work in Modern English, such as love/remove – the latter rhyming with the former, apparently), and contemporary commentaries, such as those by Ben Jonson, which helpfully provide a clear guide and were popular at the time with a growing movement for spelling reform. Then there are the puns, like but less helpful than the rhymes: again, many don’t work in Modern English, and we were given some great and entertaining examples of this. Finally, there is the spelling – not much of a guide to pronunciation in Modern English but, with the idiosyncratic spelling of the sixteenth century, more helpful then.

David Crystal suggests that we want to hear this original pronunciation as an antidote to the modern dress, fantasy set, imaginative takes  on Shakespeare which abound (parodied by him as ‘Hamlet in an ice-cream parlour’). In fact, OP brings the play much closer to the audience – we were given anecdotes about the range of playgoers who felt much more comfortable with this informal, rapidly spoken, colloquial approach that with the traditional actorly delivery. RP is, after all, spoken by relatively few, and is thus often unfamiliar and thus off-putting. Particularly for Americans, he suggests, OP allows them to feel closer to the text, to claim Shakespeare, in a way; American English is closer to OP than RP. Moreover, the use of this different pronunciation shifts the whole performance into a different register; actors move differently because they are speaking from the gut not the upper body; they use different intonation, and find that it brings new meaning to their lines. The lecture was fascinating from a linguistic point of view, but it also highlights a narrative about our relationship with Shakespeare’s work, both academic and as members of the theatre-going public. We want to relate, to feel that the characters are somehow one of us, that there is an immediate connection between us and the writer of these plays, and this relationship is mediated through the words of the actors on stage.

Othello – RSC Live Broadcast

Othello-2015-12-541x361Last night I went to the cinema to watch the live broadcast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Othello. I think these live broadcasts are wonderful: though it’s not the same as being in the theatre, you do get some of the feeling of excitement whilst waiting for the play to start, and it’s more accessible and cheaper than going to the theatre, too. I’d heard on Radio 4 about some of the ground-breaking things that this production does, and it didn’t disappoint. The acting is superb, convincing and emotionally sustained throughout; Hugh Quarshie and Joanna Vanderham as Othello and Desdemona are genuinely heartbreaking.

There are a number of ways in which this play is a very contemporary Othello, directed by Iqbal Khan; firstly, the thing for which it has been making headlines is that not only Othello, but also Iago, is played by a black actor, which makes it seem that Iago is not motivated by racism, as is so often assumed. This approach doesn’t do away with the race aspect of the play; the language is suffused with notions of ‘light’ and ‘dark’, and the relationship of Othello and Desdemona is unchanged, but it does make us look at the relationship between Othello and Iago in a very different way. Similarly, gender is also played around with here: the Duke is female (a great touch), commanding military men and women, and Desdemona is by no means a meek, obedient wife: chaste, yes, but not a doormat – this is certainly a production which plays up the Othello-2015-16-541x361strength of women (emphasised by really remarkable, unusual and often beautiful modern costumes).

I like Shakespeare in modern settings. If we think that Shakespeare’s work is timeless (which I do) then it seems wilful and pointless to be a “purist” and insist on it being played in doublet and hose when it offers such a wonderful range of opportunities to do something different. Here, the military context is played up: after all, Othello is a general, a military man, and as the interval discussions in the live broadcast suggest, the reason that Othello trusts Iago’s assertions about his wife is because of their background as men who have fought together and trusted each other with their lives. It goes further than that in this production, though: there are scenes reminiscent of Abu Ghraib, of prisonOthello-2015-10-541x361ers being tortured and of casual violence. Though we also see the camaraderie of the military, the high spirits when the fighting is over, we also see how everyone – even Desdemona and Emilia – has become blasé about the prevailing air of violence, and that, I think, makes us think differently
about the characters. This violent backdrop makes the murder of Desdemona less surprising, I think, though no less shocking.

The production brings out the contrast between light and dark which the play develops and returns to repeatedly. Not only in the obvious (skin colour) but in clothing, in lighting and staging, this contrast is emphasised. The dialogue does this too, of course, and ultimately brings out the idea that it is not dark or light in skin colour that matters, but the dark and light in human behaviour, in the mind, in human actions, that matters. This culminates in Othello’s tragic speech before the death of Desdemona:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.Othello-2015-18-541x361
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.

That ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’ was tear-jerking in this performance; Othello’s tragic flaw and the result of it, of loss, death, and darkness, is both cathartic and heart-breaking. Yet the play also moves between light and dark by contrasting moments of humour and scenes of joy with the darkness of the heart, and in that lies its greatest strength. Lucian Msamati as Iago embodies both light and dark; he is not only wicked, but also funny – and remains convincing in both throughout, which is no small feat.

Shakespeare’s ancestors and Christopher Wren

I’ve never given much thought to Shakespeare’s family, but I’m currently staying at Wroxall Abbey in Warwickshire (on a ‘writing retreat’ focusing on teaching), and have found an unexpected history to the place. I knew that the building the hotel occupies was a Victorian Gothic building (which is beautiful) which has a history as a residence and then a girls’ school before it became a hotel, but it turns out that the Abbey from which the building takes its name was founded in 1141 on the site, and ruins (and I do love ruins) of the medieval Lady Chapel are on the site. Relatives of Shakespeare (and after all, we’re not far from Stratford here) were involved in the running of the Abbey: in 1501 Isabella Shakespeare was Prioress, and in 1524 Joan Shakespeare was Sub-Prioress. Later, in the 1530s, Richard Shakespeare, grandfather of William, was Bailiff of the Church. We know that Shakespeare was born and raised in the Anglican Church (as was usual at the time) but I wonder what he knew about his family at Wroxall? It’s interesting to speculate if the Abbess in The Comedy of Errors might owe anything to his forebears.

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the house became a private estate, with an Elizabethan manor which was home to the High Sheriff of Warwickshire (and continued to be the home of Sheriffs, including Wren’s grandson).





 The estate later became the home of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, in 1713, and his family are buried in the churchyard. The church is now known as Wren’s Cathedral. However, the house in which Wren lived is no longer standing; when the Dugdale family bought the estate in 1861, they demolished it in favour of a more fashionable Victorian Gothic mansion. The grounds are amazing, though, and give a glimpse of what Wren might have enjoyed here in their green open spaces, as well as the picturesque ruins.

King Charles III: Future History

When (if) you tKing Charles IIIhink about the accession to the throne of the Prince of Wales, what do you imagine? A very different monarchy to that of his mother, I expect,  and one about which public opinion will differ, but unlike playwright Mike Bartlett, it’s unlikely you’d picture Charles challenging the constitutional roles of state and monarch before he’d even been crowned. It’s a somewhat implausible idea, but that really doesn’t matter; King Charles III uses a semi-Shakespearean plot to explore the role of monarchy and Parliament in the UK, as well as politics, the press, and our attitudes towards our current royal family. There’s also a good helping of identity crisis, and all this is done through the medium of a history play which is definitely ‘after Shakespeare’.

The play opens with a beautiful requiem for Elizabeth II, followed by the appearance of the heir, Charles (Tim Piggott-Smith), and his wife Camilla. It quickly becomes apparent that Charles has mixed feelings about inheriting the throne at this late stage in his life, and his principled uncertainty is contrasted with the likeable, media-friendly William and Kate, and the scampish Harry. In fact, all the royal family are portrayed as relatable, sympathetic characters placed in often untenable situations where they want to do their best for their country but are bound by law, public opinion, the press, and their own backgrounds.

Charles is quickly introduced to the world of politics when he is asked by the Labour Prime Minister to sign a new law restricting the freedom ofimages the press. Though he accepts that the press will rarely justify any faith placed in them, he sees it as a matter of principle that the government should not be able to decide what is and is not acceptable for publication, and refuses to sign. What ensues is a battle of wills, and law, between Charles and the politicians. These latter (from the two main political parties) are shown as weasel-like, with flexible principles and full of double-speak, while Charles himself becomes a King Lear figure, confused, miserable, attempting to do the best he can but beset with doubts and surrounded by enemies.

In fact, the play is suffused with echoes of Shakespeare; it’s written in blank verse, which makes it sound Shakespearean (whilst retaining a modern sense of language with contemporary references etc), and often it seems to stop just short of using Shakespearean phrases. I was almost expecting to hear ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’ at one point, and Kate does say ‘Nothing will come of nothing’ at one point (or something like it). There is certainly a feeling of ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’, and some of the humorous moments of the play king_charles_iii148.jpgcome from Diana’s ghost stalking the ramparts. There are even moments when Kate – a feminist princess who requires equal recognition with William – seems to be leaning towards the character of Lady Macbeth. In fact, Kate is a realist, who understands the media, the public and the modern requirements of the monarchy better than Charles or William; she also slyly alludes to Hilary Mantel’s comments by referring to herself as a ‘plastic doll’, and she plays the part of queen long before she gets there.

Harry, meanwhile, is a tragi-comic figure not unlike the Fool in Lear: sometimes he speaks the truth unwittingly, and injects moments of slightly uncomfortable humour, but he is also concerned with his own purpose and identity. He meets Jess, a republican art student from St Martin’s, and goes on a spree of learning not unlike Pulp’s Common Peoplelearning about supermarkets and takeaways. The plot relies on this to a certain extent, since the press publishes some unsavoury pictures of Jess, Harry’s girlfriend, which under the new laws might have been suppressed, so the refusal of Charles to sign becomes doubly potent within his family.

The play asks some big questions, about the (un)constitutional relationship between crown and state, about what we want or expect from a monarchy, and about the freedom of the press. It also emphasises the psychological and philosophical difficulties of those brought up to inherit a throne. There aren’t answers, and the ending is uncomfortable and thought-provoking – making audiences wonder if what the public wants is always the right thing. However, don’t think this is a humourless play; it’s full of knowing quips, contemporary allusions, puns, jokes and moments of laughter. The actors are so convincing that they don’t even need to resemble their real-life counterparts; avoiding caricature, they play them with conviction. I don’t often get to the theatre these days, so when I do I want to see something I really enjoy. King Charles III  definitely qualified as something I enjoyed. It’s thought-provoking, well-written and performed, so I’d definitely recommend it. I was encouraged to see it by some really interesting reviews (such as this one).

Not writing about Shakespeare

imageI have realised that I avoid Shakespeare. I read his plays, and watch them when I get the chance, and I’m not disputing his significance, but I feel somehow that I haven’t anything to say about his work, so I don’t tend to write about or teach him (apart from a few sonnets). This year marks 450 years since his birth, though, and I am reading a lot about him in the press and on the internet (and am looking forward to reading 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare after reading about it in the TLS). All this is making me ponder why I avoid him when I don’t subscribe to the old chestnut that ‘everything has been said’ about his work; after all, every reader and every theatregoer experiences a different Shakespeare, and every age reinvents him for their own ends, social, political and artistic. Anyway, it’s impossible to avoid Shakespeare; even if you’ve never read a word of his, our language is so saturated with expressions of his devising that he is inescapable (see here for a list!) It is Shakespeare’s language – resonant, evocative, witty, dramatic – for which he is so widely loved; his plots tend to come from other sources (I spent hours with Geoffrey of Monmouth reading up on the original ‘King Leir’ while I was doing my A-imagelevels), and the outline of the narrative would thus often have been familiar to theatre-goers of the time. Shakespeare’s genius, then, is to use language to construct characters and situations which have us by the throat even when we know what happens. I’ve seen numerous productions of King Lear, yet every time I am on the edge of my seat, illogically hoping that Cordelia will not die.

And there is still fresh research. The TLS has recently reviewed William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, ed. Bate and Rasmussen, which offers new ways of looking at plays that Shakespeare might have had something to do with, but which imagecannot be wholly attributed to him. We still don’t know everything about the man and his work, nor will we ever, but that is no reason to stop trying.

Another fruitful and fascinating aspect of Shakespeare studies is the reception studies approach. How did the Victorians read Shakespeare, for example? They saw some of his work as unsuitable for family reading, so an expurgated version was produced by Thomas Bowdler (hence the word ‘bowdlerised’). We know they responded to his plays and characters creatively, in poems and paintings, for example, such as Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana‘ (based on Measure for Measure), and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the same subject, particularly by Millais (this is probably my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting).

Tennyson takes the abandoned Mariana of Shakespeare’s play and rewrites her as a melancholy Englishwoman longing for her lover to return. I sometimes teach this poem as a way of looking at the trapped position of many women of the period, condemned to a monotonous, wistful existence in which life seems to happen away from them. The poem also aestheticises women’s sadness, making it a beautiful spectacle, and this is also what Millais’s painting does – but it does more than that: Millais’s Mariana is not just a spectacle of beautiful sadness, she is also a real woman, who stretches languorously as she stands up from her sewing. This was considered shocking by many of Millais’s contemporaries, who saw a sexual resonance in imageMariana’s pose.
These are small examples of how Shakespeare has been reinvented. And we continue to do this. I’ve seen some wonderful modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays; I don’t really like ones that attempt to change Shakespeare’s language, because I can’t really see the point of this, but the wonderful adaptability and ‘relevance’ (horrible word) of his work is all the more apparent in productions such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
(which I saw at 19 and loved), and the 1993 Royal Court Theatre’s production of King Lear set before and during the Great War (contrasting the power of the old with the gullibility or manipulation of the young). Read Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty First Century for more on this! I’m not an expert on how we reinvent Shakespeare, or even why, but am intrigued by how any one writer can have had such a far reaching influence. That is certainly something we should be celebrating, this and every year, and means that no-one with an interest in literature, popular culture, art, history or even social studies can afford to ignore him.