July 24, 2013

Shakespeare's Complaint

I'm (slowly) rereading Hamlet for the first time in decades. Something that's obvious this time through is that -- despite the popularity of theories that the Man from Stratford, the well-known theatrical impresario, couldn't have written Shakespeare's plays -- Hamlet was written by a man in the theater business.

A giveaway is not just Hamlet's lengthy warnings to the Player-King about how to avoid bad acting, but also Shakespeare's curious loathing for the then-current (c. 1599) audience fad in London for troupes of child actors. Even top playwrights like Ben Jonson were suddenly writing for companies of child actors. This sensation was taking business away from grown-up troupes like Shakespeare's, forcing them out on the road like the poor wandering Players in Hamlet.

This excerpt from Hamlet is a little like a Simpsons episode in 2000 complaining about the new reality TV fad:
Hamlet -- Do they [i.e., Globe players] hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? are they so followed?  
Rosencrantz -- No indeed they are not.  
Hamlet -- How comes it? do they grow rusty?  
Rosencrantz -- Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is sir, an aery [nest] of children, little eyases [eaglets], that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for't: these are now the fashion, and so berattle [i.e., abuse] the common stages - so they call them - that many wearing rapiers [i.e., gallants] are afraid of goose-quills [i.e., the satire of the boys' playwrights] and dare scarce come thither [i.e., to the public playhouses].  
Hamlet -- What, are they children? who maintains 'em? how are they escoted [i. e., paid]? Will they pursue the quality [i. e., the profession of acting] no longer than they can sing [i. e., before their voices change]? will they not say afterwards, if they should grow to common players - as it is most like, if their means are no better - their writers do them wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession [i.e., the profession of public actor, to which they must shortly succeed].

Hamlet is an extremely long play, and one of the pleasures of putting on a production is slashing big chunks of Shakespeare's dialogue. It has more great lines than anything else in the English language, but it's also kind of bloated, begging to be trimmed. For example, this eminently losable topical section above is in the same scene (II, ii) following Hamlet's declaration to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.  
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! 
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

It's kind of hard to top that, especially not with some facetiousness about a forgotten fad, so the child actors part is fun to cut. Shortening Hamlet helps theater people feel as if Shakespeare were less a dusty marble statue than their inspired but imperfect collaborator.

In general, the extraordinary cultural emphasis upon Shakespeare even now in the 21st Century is because actors find his work so actorly. There's something magical about how a player can take something so baffling on the page and make it at least vaguely comprehensible when spoken. Hamlet, with its play within a play and lengthy commentary about various matters pertaining to the stage, is the most meta-theatrical of Shakespeare's tragedies, and thus the most beloved by actors.

79 comments:

Lex Corvus said...

Without taking sides on the authorship question, it's worth noting in this context that proposed Shakespeare author Edward de Vere was most definitely in the theater business.

Thursday said...

I'll just recommend this classic recording of the play with John Gielgud:
http://www.amazon.com/Hamlet-Gielguds-Classic-Recording-Drama/dp/9626344172

Magnificent.

josh said...

Its almost as if that play was written by a playwright.

Anonymous said...

The best way to appreciate Hamlet is with commentary from the MST3k crew.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8rxZDB8LNw

-SonOfStrom

Anonymous said...

T.S. Eliot famously complained that *Hamlet* was, so to speak, too big for its britches. The somewhat tawdry plot just didn't seem like an adequate framework to support all the apocalyptic rhetoric, to say nothing of the agonizing length...

Possible explanation: *Hamlet* is an autobiographical play by a somewhat undisciplined genius who simply couldn't help putting his whole life into it and couldn't bring himself to blot many lines.

Apart from the Sonnets, it's by far the best piece of evidence the Oxfordians have going for them.

Vinteuil

Anonymous said...

Richard E. Grant doing that speech at the end of Withnail & I.

Its become more poignant over the years as Paul McGann walks away to a reasonable career while Withnail is stalled as is Richard E. Grant in reality yet he is the better actor. A play within a play indeed.

bjdubbs said...

This is OT, but what strikes you about this photo?

http://static01.mediaite.com/med/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Screen-Shot-2013-07-24-at-1.49.54-PM-650x337.png

Garland said...

Harold Bloom writes (possibly in his big Shakespeare book, but I think more so in his short book on Hamlet alone) about how weirdly experimental that second 1000 lines or so is, from around the time Ros&Guil arrive through the play to trap Claudius. It's not just that they are suddenly talking about contemporary London theatre politics and pretty much breaking the fourth wall, it's also the way the revenge tragedy of the first 1000 lines is aggressively abandoned and the subject of the story seems to become mimesis itself.

Or something--I think Bloom has a whole theory about Shakespeare wrestling with a character that got away from him or something. But in any case it's true that the Player scenes are not just some Simpsons-esque winks at the fourth wall, it's really a very different play for about a quarter of the length of the complete work itself.

Garland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jimeo said...

"Hamlet was written by a man in the theater business."

Yeah, Steve? And your point is? It therefore must have been Shakspere [sic] of Stratford who wrote it?

Or maybe you aren't trying to start another authorship debate.

Anonymous said...

Jews in the media dig up another incident from decades ago to make a point about THE WHITE DEVIL.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/07/24/205121429/How-The-Death-Of-A-12-Year-Old-Changed-The-City-Of-Dallas?utm_source=npr&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=20130724

So, never mind all the media abuses in the past yrs and black crime and the problems of immigration.
Looks like they found a brown Emmett Till or Emmeto Tillez!!

White devils kill children. Anne Frank, Emmet Till, and this brown boy. And poor poor Trayvon. A mere CHILD!!!

But no mention of all the Ukrainian and Palestinian children killed by Jewish communists and Zionists.

PS. Maybe the boy was a white hispanic, no?

Beefy Levinson said...

Does the White-ish Knight's evil know no bounds?

On Dec. 4, 2010, Justin Collison, the son of Sanford Police Department Lt. Chris Collison, was involved in a bar fight at The Wet Spot bar in Sanford. During the fight, which moved from indoors to outdoors, the younger Collison struck Ware.

Ware suffered a concussion, and paramedics took him to the hospital shortly after police arrived on the scene. Collison was not arrested or charged, even though an onlooker had video evidence of his actions.

...Every Sunday, according to his family, Zimmerman would stroll through Sanford’s black neighborhoods handing out the fliers demanding justice for Sherman Ware, and calling for the police to hold their own officials accountable. Zimmerman would also place the fliers on people’s cars outside churches.

“I challenge you to stand together and to have our voices heard, and to hold accountable all of those officers, and officials whom let this atrocious attack pass unpunished until the media revealed it,” one of the fliers reads in part. “This animal could have attacked anyone of us, our children or loved ones in his alcohol fueled rage.”


Ruthless vigilantism like this must be put down!

Anonymous said...

I prefer reading them.

lucretia said...

Yeah, actorly enthusiasm for metatheater-heavy "Hamlet" may partially explain its popularity relative to say, "Julius Caesar," a much tighter tragedy which also handles themes like rotting states and the burdens of conscience, but which generally lacks meta-theater (and strong female parts).

In Shakespeare studies there's an entertaining war between the lit scholars and the theater crowd about how "Hamlet" should be taught. The literary scholars, influenced by the Greenblatt-led New Historicism, generally resent the play's popularity, and use it to explore trendy gender/sexuality issues: Are Hamlet and Horatio gay? Does an oppressive patriarchal society drive Ophelia to suicide? By contrast, the theater people, still assuming Shakespeare is a genius, try to figure how what Shakespeare intended (a big no-no in pomo literary theory, which proclaimed the Death of the Author in the 60s) and how best to make it relevant to present audiences. Most undergraduate students tend to think like the theater people, which is really frustrating for lecturers wishing to focus on how queer Shakespeare was.

TontoBubbaGoldstein said...

Top-notch libertarianish commentary. Wonderfully pithy and memorable phrases ("Invade the world.Invite the world.", Occam's Butterknife etc.) Now a Shakespeare post.

Somewhere, Joe Sobran is smiling.

Glossy said...

I read Hamlet about a year ago. I don't know why it's considered so important.

I'm willing to entertain the idea that Shakespeare WAS good at what he did. This is impossible for a non-specialist to judge now. The grammar and pronunciation have changed so much that if there was any elegance in his writing, it is no longer detectable by an untrained modern eye.

The jokes didn't seem funny and the drama didn't seem interesting to me. Again, maybe the sensibilities have changed so much that nothing from that era would seem funny or moving to me. Or maybe not. One would have to read a lot of his contemporaries to judge.

His fame could have also been a fluke. At any particular time lots of bad writing is popular and lots of good writing is obscure.

By the way, many early authors included a critique of contemporary writing in their works. It was a tradition. I remember the ones in Don Quixote, Candide and Eugene Onegin.

For me the biggest head-scratcher in Hamlet was this:

It was stated there several times that one of Claudius's motives for killing Hamlet's father was lust for Hamlet's mom. Claudius is now king, he could have anybody he wants, and yet he marries the mother of a 30-year old man? And not for any political or financial reasons, but out of lust? What did I miss?

Anonymous said...

Riolympics is gonna be interesting.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/brazil/10197937/Fears-grow-for-Popes-safety-in-Brazil.html

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47_-pqoPDVQ

When will the madness ever end? Classic Japanese tale 47 Ronin gets 300 treatment.

Maybe that's what will be done to all the Shakespeare movies.

Hamlet as blockbuster hero.

Othello Unleashed.

Ultra King Lear.

Maximum Macbeth.

Lots of headbashing violence, wire fu fighting, CGI galore, etc.

Pop fascism takes over everything.

SFG said...

English no longer has a poetic dialect. You can't use larger-than-life language and baroque verbs anymore. Nobody is writing in that mode in the modern era.

biff said...

That Brit A-Levels thing grinds Hamlet's Mill too. Also, now that most high schools don't teach Latin like Hillary Clinton got Latin, some substitute's required.

Son of Brock Landers said...

Reading it again, do you give any credibility to the idea that the play is actually out of order in spots which is why Hamlet appears so indecisive? Reordering certain whole sections shows a more linear progression to Hamlet's thoughts and actions.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

This is impossible for a non-specialist to judge now.

What else do you read? I thought the excerpt in the main post was pretty illustrative.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

I think the dude (Matthew) was on to something the other day when he said you can put in almost anything for the numeric captcha, theorizing it was Google trying surreptitiously to learn address house numbers.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

Or maybe it's just totally broken... Here I'll try to eff up the word too

Luke Lea said...

A Mid-Summer Night's Dream is my favorite nowadays. "What fools these mortals be!"

Anonymous said...

"And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"
Ah, just the kind of nihilistic stuff a guy having an existential crisis savors. I have to re-read it too!

Anonymous said...

"By the way, many early authors included a critique of contemporary writing in their works. It was a tradition. I remember the ones in Don Quixote, Candide and Eugene Onegin."

Hamlet predates all three of those works, even Don Quixote by two years. And in what respects are Voltaire and Pushkin early authors? When Candide was published the novel had been invented for more than a century.

Also, I'm still waiting for someone to prove by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.

Anonymous said...

"Pop fascism takes over everything."

Semi-mythical and already hyper-violent legends like Thermopylae and (probably) this 47 Ronin thing are actually pretty well suited to blockbuster treatment. Renaissance drama, however, is a touch too cerebral and specific to prosper under same (though it was tried in that DiCaprio Romeo and Juliet adaptation). A more likely tale from the Anglosphere canon would be something nice and vague and violent like Gawain and the Green Knight.

What I want to know is whether they couldn't find a more convincing halfie actor for Ronin than Keanu Reeves. Dude looks less multiracial than like he's perma-squinting.

Karen said...

You really should read Stephen Marche's "How Shakespeare Changed Everything."

agnostic said...

"Othello Unleashed"

LOL

Mark Plus said...

I find it interesting that it takes a higher IQ and college-level literacy to understand Shakespeare's language now, and even then we don't know if we've gotten it right because so much has changed in people's assumptions and world views since Elizabethan times. Yet Shakespeare, or whoever used that name to write the plays, marketed them to the people of average or lower intelligence of his time because they spoke the same vernacular.

Consider the sheer inaccessibility of Shakespeare's language to America's black underclass. Science fiction writers often postulate that we wouldn't understand the products of superhuman or alien intelligences, yet we have a real-world example of that when high school teachers try to teach Shakespeare in predominantly black high schools.

Dave Pinsen said...

There was a nice scene in ER where, after the rich kid character played by Noah Wylie does a stagey version of Hamlet's To Be or Not To Be soliloquy, the Croatian refugee character played by Goran Visnjic does it in Croatian. Does a nice job of showing the power of acting with Shakespeare, in that you don't need to know any Croatian to grok it.

middle aged vet said...

A theory you rarely run across is that Shakespeare loathed Montaigne, the French skeptic, having read too much of him, and decided to write a criticism of Hamlet as a Montaigne-like intellectual who is (in the alternate reality of cloudy Denmark) born a prince and has to deal with typical princely issues and who utterly fails - he ruins, ruins, ruins all the best things in life, one after another (Rosalind-like girlfriend -dead, Prospero-like potential grandfather of Hamlet's never-to-be-born children - dead, Falstaff-like drinking buddies - dead, Henry V-like best friend - dead). Thus Hamlet the play is like a 2 hour 1596 anti-Montaigne riff equivalent to a 1996 radio talk show host's 2 hour riff on what is wrong with Oprah or Hemingway or the early Jack Kerouac ...

Anonymous said...

Isn't it common knowledge that about half of Shakespeare's plays are based on previous well-known plays? That is, they were older, and sometimes very different plays, but extensively re-worked in Shakespeare's telling.

I think Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are both in that category. These were stories that had been told and previously made into plays for centuries. Wikipedia claims that Hamlet originates in the story of Amleth, first recorded in the 1200s.

To the complaint that Hamlet doesn't seem interesting, I've seen it said that sometimes one reason it can seem that way to some people is because so many phrases occur in Hamlet that have now become common English idioms.

Steve Sailer said...

"and yet he marries the mother of a 30-year old man?"

There is some evidence that Hamlet started out being 16 years old, then got switched to 30 to suit his company's leading man, Richard Burbage, who was around 33 at the time.

Veracitor said...

Don't forget the wonderful musical version of that passage, the "most excellent" song What A Piece Of Work Is Man from the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical "Hair" (1968).

agnostic said...

If you like the meta-theatrical commentary, you should read the Elizabethan and especially Jacobean playwrights other than Shakespeare and Jonson. Or at least the introductions in a scholarly edition.

Lots of them refer to the different acting companies, the child vs. adult actors, and so on.

Antonio's Revenge by Marston plays on the inappropriateness or out-of-place-ness of many of the lines or plot devices as performed by child actors. It's a lot like Hamlet, but more satirical than profound.

http://www.literaryramblings.com/1000-books-in-10-years-vol-217-antonios-revenge-by-john-marston

Webster wrote a meta Induction to begin Marston's The Malcontent, which also refers to the difference in how it would come off as performed by child actors (the earlier stagings) vs. adults (in the new staging).

In general, the Elizabethan and especially Jacobean periods have been largely forgotten because of the dominance of lit-crit types who aren't interested in anything specific to the medium itself.

Instead it has to be abstract -- what does the play say about the status of women, the theme of revenge and justice, etc.? Those are questions you could pursue no matter what medium you were looking at.

It's like film critics who never refer to any aspect of the craft of film-making (someone who never mentions racking focus). Abstraction must rule. It's a form of laziness and arrogance, as though you didn't need to know anything about dramaturgy to write essays about Shakespeare.

Sure, there are still specialists who pay attention to this period, but most English majors couldn't tell you about any of it other than some Shakespeare and Jonson. Marlowe and Kyd if they had a better curriculum / personal interest. But probably not Ford, Marston, or Middleton, or even Webster.

All of those songs, dumb shows, and masques, along with the pervasive meta-commentary and self-aware satire, make the period too uniquely theatrical for egghead types to be fascinated by. Their idea of stage drama is something like Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, that doesn't have any song, dance, or pantomime.

That way, it's easier to write about if your main focus is on novels. Your tool kit of abstract Big Questions can be applied willy-nilly to the play you just saw, as well as to the novel you're teaching.

agnostic said...

The dumb show and the masque from the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, the short silent film from the Jazz Age, and the music video from the New Wave Age.

The only period I'm missing is the incarnation during the Romantic-Gothic period. But there had to have been something like it then.

Anonymous said...

O/T

I think the dude (Matthew) was on to something the other day when he said you can put in almost anything for the numeric captcha, theorizing it was Google trying surreptitiously to learn address house numbers.

I've been doing the numbers wrong ever since I read that, comments still get accepted.

CJ said...

Forgive me if I've posted some of this before, but I listened to radio interview of the actor Christopher Plummer, who opined that Shakespeare plays are the work of multiple writers, and in particular that a specialist was brought in to do the comedy. He based this not on any scholarship, but on having played about fifty roles in about thirty of the plays, many of them for hundreds of performances, over more than 60 years as an actor. He of course also worked on a slew of movies where he saw writers at work.

Peter the Shark said...

"it is no longer detectable by an untrained modern eye. "

The uneducated eye, you mean.

Auntie Analogue said...


Shucks. You guys know your bard. You should go on 'Jeopardy!'.

Peter the Shark said...

" Yet Shakespeare, or whoever used that name to write the plays, marketed them to the people of average or lower intelligence of his time because they spoke the same vernacular."

I don't think that's true. Moderns like to talk about how "the common people" enjoyed Shakespeare back in the day, but I assume theater goers in Elizebethan times were probably above average IQ types - merchants, skilled craftsmen, city officials, etc. - with some disposable income. And most of Shakespeare's audience was probably literate - a distinct minority at the time. In IQ his fans were probably more like middle and middle upper class people today. There was plenty of other entertainment for lower IQ people - bear baiting, public executions, fighting, torturing stray dogs, etc. Even in the 1590s most Englishmen probably didn't enjoy Shakespeare that much,or just came for the spectacle, not the language. So even if Shakespeare was as intelligible to Elizebethans as, say, the Simpsons is to a modern audience (and even a lot of the Simpsons humor goes over the heads of lower IQ people), adding 400 years of language change and obscure references makes teaching Shakespeare to undereducated black students about as sensible as trying to teach them Algebra II.

Hunsdon said...

Anonydroid at 6:27 PM said: Hamlet as blockbuster hero.

Hunsdon said: Too late.

Anonymous said...

The writer Dan Simmons has a blog which has a number of excellent essays getting into the details of many of these debates. Having read Bloom and others, I find Simmons' speculations and conjectures an excellent antidote to more precious theorizing.

Anonymous said...

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/chase-once-considered-the-good-bank-is-about-to-pay-another-massive-settlement-20130718

FredR said...

"The somewhat tawdry plot just didn't seem like an adequate framework to support all the apocalyptic rhetoric, to say nothing of the agonizing length"

This is Hamlet's opinion as well. There are a couple points I think where he gets depressed at how dumb the story is he had to get stuck in.

In general, criticism about the play seems unduly influenced by Hamlet's own interpretation of his story. For instance, why do people obsess so much over his indecision/delay?

FredR said...

"So even if Shakespeare was as intelligible to Elizebethans as, say, the Simpsons is to a modern audience (and even a lot of the Simpsons humor goes over the heads of lower IQ people), adding 400 years of language change and obscure references makes teaching Shakespeare to undereducated black students about as sensible as trying to teach them Algebra II."

Fair enough, although as Lawrence Levine pointed out in "Highbrow Lowbrow", in the 19th century Shakespeare was very familiar to all classes of American society (although, I suppose, black slaves excepted).

Anonymous said...

http://www.mediaite.com/online/family-zimmerman-saved-wont-appear-with-him-in-public-dont-want-to-be-associated-with-george/

White people are such cowards.

Zimmerman has courage, so he is not white.

Observing from the Sidelines said...

CJ: "Shakespeare plays are the work of multiple writers"

That would make sense, and has the advantage of resolving the Authorship Question, heretofore based on the supposition that the Author was either Shakespeare or some other guy, but not a combination of authors.

Also I believe that a few of the plays (Henry VIII? don't remember precisely) are now considered to be collaborative efforts.

David said...

>It was stated there several times that one of Claudius's motives for killing Hamlet's father was lust for Hamlet's mom.<

Well, Hamlet thinks so. I don't think any other characters refer to this. And he doesn't say much about his uncle's lust, though he accuses his mother to her face of being sexually needy. This whole element of the play is part of his being upset, that's all.

See one of the movies. The plays are more comprehensible when acted out by a super-dupe cast. Branagh's kitchen-sink version is serviceable, though not as fun as the corny old Olivier.

>you can put in almost anything for the numeric captcha, [maybe it's] Google trying surreptitiously to learn address house numbers<

Good catch. I no longer enter those numbers (it still works).

Anonymous said...

Really dig the literary criticism, Steve. I fondly remember the Lewis Carroll/Larry David thoughts.

BB753 said...

Shakespeare as a producer rather than as a playwright makes more sense in light of what we know about the man.
But I remain agnostic on the authorship debate.

Luke Lea said...

Incidentally, I am a direct descendant of Shakespeare's sister.

pat said...

The reason Hamlet seems so long is that in most modern productions it is spoken so slowly.

I saw a complete Hamlet in Stratford Ontario a few years back. The actors ran on stage spoke their lines as fast as possible and ran off.

It was odd at first but of course we were seated. The audience stood in Shakespeare's day. They wouldn't have appreciated Gielgud or Olivier mooning about while reciting the soliloquies. Their feet got tired. They wanted the actors to "keep it snappy".

The whole authorship kerfuffle is a failure of the public to appreciate genetics. If a scholar thinks that genius is environmental he will be befuddled by the sudden appearance of a Mozart or a Shakespeare. They are only explainable if you recognize that the random assortment of genes can give us an occasional surprise. If it were all just education and upbringing there would be fewer peaks and more plains.

If you want to appreciate Shakespeare read some of his contemporaries. If you want to appreciate Mozart listen to a Salieri opera.

Albertosaurus

Mark Plus said...

FredR writes:

>Fair enough, although as Lawrence Levine pointed out in "Highbrow Lowbrow", in the 19th century Shakespeare was very familiar to all classes of American society (although, I suppose, black slaves excepted).

All classes of white American society in the 19th century read the King James Version of the Bible as well, or at least heard it read from the pulpit. The men who did the translation grew up speaking the late Elizabethan dialect, so Americans living a couple centuries later had enough exposure to Elizabethan and Jacobean English that it remained intelligible.

I find it interesting that Christian publishers have felt the need to come up with newer, dumbed-down bible translations at least since the 1960's. I can remember when The Living Bible came out in the 1970's, and the experience of reading it just didn't seem much of a cognitive challenge compared with reading the KJV my grandmother had given me as a child. I'd rather read the challenging language of the KJV, much as I like reading Paradise Lost. Perhaps we should call these newer bibles the Idiocracy translations.

Anonymous said...

@ Albertosaurus:

No, the main reason *Hamlet* seems so long is because it *is* so long:

Kenneth Branagh's (sometimes brilliant, sometimes dumb) film of the complete text is pretty fast paced - but it still lasts as long as the average perfomance of *Die Walküre*.

Trouble is, any "complete text" of Hamlet is really a conflation of two or more different versions, each of them long in itself, and the whole inevitably involving some serious redundancy.

It's almost as bad as the situation with Mussorgsky's *Boris Godunov* - either the 1869 or the 1872 version is reasonably manageable, but try to combine them together into some sort of "definitive" version and you've got a helluva long evening on your hands.

Vinteuil

Anonymous said...

@ Glossy:

I'm glad that you're "willing to entertain the idea that Shakespeare WAS good at what he did." But I'm sorry that you think it's "impossible for a non-specialist to judge now."

Believe me - the "grammar and pronunciation" are not *that* different, and the training required by a "modern eye" to detect the "elegance in his writing" is pretty minimal. Just keep reading, and try some of the better movies. (E.g., the 1953 Julius Caesar, The 1967 Taming of the Shrew, The 1993 Much Ado About Nothing). You'll be hooked in no time.

"The jokes didn't seem funny" - well, admittedly, that's probably the hardest part. I taught I Henry IV at the University of Chicago some years ago, and found myself thoroughly stymied by most of my students' inability to appreciate the verbal wit of Falstaff - surely the greatest comic character in all literature in any language.

All I can say is: keep trying. You'll be glad you did.

Vinteuil

Anonymous said...

Science fiction writers often postulate that we wouldn't understand the products of superhuman or alien intelligences, yet we have a real-world example of that when high school teachers try to teach Shakespeare in predominantly black high schools.

I am sure India has its counterparts, with the lower castes unable to comprehend the Indian equivalent of Shakespeare.

Glossy said...

"Believe me - the "grammar and pronunciation" are not *that* different"

Yes they are. I'll just talk about the pronunciation here. Most of the verse in Hamlet is blank, but in the few short passages where it obviously isn't he rhymed words like moon and done, love and move, speak and break, propose and lose, try and enemy. This implies that we're horribly mispronouncing his stuff when we're reading it. We're getting the flow, the musicality (if there was any, if he cared about that kind of thing at all) wrong.

Were there any fresh, witty, unexpected turns of phrase there? How could a person who hasn't read a hundred volumes' worth of Elizabethan literature hope to honestly answer such a question? What were the contemporary expectations, cliches, tired tropes? Against what exactly would a witty, original mind of that time and place have been rebelling? If one doesn't know that, then one doesn't know if Shakespeare was the least bit original.

To someone who hasn't studied the literature of the period (i.e. to me) it's mostly just a bunch of archaic obscurity, like listening to a foreigner with horrible English telling a very long story.

Men are sheep. If you tell them something's great, they'll think that it's great regardless of whether or not it even exists. In the modern world the relationship between quality and popularity in the arts is very weak. It might have been a little stronger in the past, but how much stronger?

One of the reasons I read Hamlet was curiosity about the question of whether or not Shakespeare's fame was deserved. The answer I came away with: it's impossible to tell without devoting many years to the study of his period. The gap is too large for a modern non-specialist to bridge.

"and the training required by a "modern eye" to detect the "elegance in his writing" is pretty minimal."

This is false. There is an Emperor's-new-clothes effect in all received wisdom. And again, I'm not saying that the received wisdom on Mr. S is necessarily wrong. I'm an agnostic on him.

Anonymous said...

@Glossy

Nope. There's nothing overly archaic or difficult to read about Shakespeare if you plow through it for long enough ("long enough" being like a couple of acts or plays, maybe?).

And if you're struggling to get Early Modern English puns or whatever (it happens) there are plenty of annotated editions available where experts do the hard work for you.

Anonymous said...

"Andersen's tale is based on a story from the Libro de los ejemplos (or El Conde Lucanor, 1335),[2] a medieval Spanish collection of fifty-one cautionary tales with various sources such as Aesop and other classical writers and Persian folktales, by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (1282–1348). Andersen did not know the Spanish original but read the tale in a German translation titled "So ist der Lauf der Welt".[3] In the source tale, a king is hoodwinked by weavers who claim to make a suit of clothes invisible to any man not the son of his presumed father; whereas Andersen altered the source tale to direct the focus on courtly pride and intellectual vanity rather than adulterous paternity." - Wikipedia.

Andersen's version of the tale is adulterated and plagiarized. Handmade clothing and emperors are archaic and irrelevant in the modern era. The idea of anyone being naive enough to accept NOTHING as being clothing is beyond unimaginable, even for the era it was written in.

I always thought Andersen was the real deal, little did I realize that the emperor...I mean he was a man who I presumed to be deserving of esteem, but really I was misguided by the popular consensus.

Reg Cæsar said...

f a scholar thinks that genius is environmental he will be befuddled by the sudden appearance of a Mozart or a Shakespeare. They are only explainable if you recognize that the random assortment of genes can give us an occasional surprise. --Albertosaurus/Pat


Don't know about Shakespeare, but W. A. Mozart has got to be the worst single example to use to illustrate genetic or HBD claims for genius. To do so for anyone, you'd have to remove as much environmental interference as possible. And no one comes with more such interference than little Wolfi. Haven't you heard of Leopold?

Wolfgang was the Tiger Woods of his day. Both were born with the same two genetic advantages: obsessive fathers, and a go-along personality that allowed those fathers to work their wicked magic. (Not without some passive-aggressive rebellion in either case!) Geoff Colvin describes both men's training in the same chapter of Talent is Overrated, and while he never connects the two, the parallels are striking.

Yet nobody claims Woods is a 'born genius' at golf; we know he's manufactured. (Name a single extreme advantage in his physique.) Why is it so hard to see Mozart the same way? What, beyond being male, Austrian and a Mozart, did he have?

Another way to look at it is, the odds of his one-in-a-million training being given to a one-in-a-billion genius are, well... one in a quadrillion. That's not the way to bet!

We rightly complain about environmentalists dismissing any trace of genetic influence. Let's not do the same in the other direction. Otherwise you'll be wondering why that little girl you adopted from Korea isn't helping you read hanggul.

David said...

>I [...] found myself thoroughly stymied by most of my students' inability to appreciate the verbal wit of Falstaff<

and

>we're horribly mispronouncing his stuff when we're reading it.[...] Were there any fresh, witty, unexpected turns of phrase there?<

Here's a Falstaff pun lost through modern pronunciation. When Hal and Poins confront Falstaff over one of his typically shameful actions, they demand his reason. "Give you a reason upon compulsion?" roars Falstaff. "If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I!"

In modern pronunciation, that's blah. But in Original Pronunciation, "reason" and "raisin" are pronounced the same. The cuteness of that passage is just one example of what's gone today. What's left is like a slurpee with the syrup sucked out.

Gems:

Orson Welles as Falstaff in his own mashup of the Henry IV plays (Gielgud as Henry IV).

Ian McKellen as King Lear (the production is somewhat > the performances).

Olivier as Othello in the murder scene (short).

Reg Cæsar said...

Random notes:

I've seen Hamlet five or six times, but have yet to see Macbeth or King Lear once on stage. That's because every time the latter two come around, they're radically modernized. I don't mean the language, I mean the setting. They're moved to Versailles or Pennsylvania Avenue or the Rings of Saturn or wherever. I think this is mostly the director's ego at work. But Hamlet was always played straight. Does this mean adventurous directors show it more respect, or do they just leave it to the traditionalists?

In the ''90s I read a short text about staging or production by a theater man named Ball or something similar. He used Hamlet as a running example to illustrate his suggestions. But I think it was just an excuse to push his unorthodox reading of the play. He believed that Hamlet's notorious indecision was nothing but a ruse to manipulate Claudius. The guy knew esactly what he was doing. When read that way, it does read more like a spy novel than the medieval Bergman film it's usually presentd as.

A L Rowse knew more about queers than any other Shakesperean scholar (he was one), and more about Shakespeare than any other queer. He was convinced that the Bard was not only straight, but rather virile to boot. That's something to keep in mind during modern arguments. (On the other hand, maybe he just preferred he-men.)

Finally, the Claremont Shakespeare project put almost the whole of Elizabethan drama through the digital data wringer and found that not only did all the traditional non-traditional candidates fall far short of matching the true author, but Oxford was near the bottom. Below even Elizabeth, I think. Seems Woody Allen was right: the plays weren't written by William Shakespeare but by someone else with the same name. Claremont ended up strongly backing up traditional scholarship, including affirming some long-suspected collaborations.

Dave Pinsen said...

Mary Zimmerman apparently has staged a couple of minor Shakespeare plays. I'd be interested in seeing how she handles Shakespeare. I saw her production of Ovid's Metamorphosis off-Broadway in '01 or '02 and it was great. Its themes about loss also resonated in the wake of 9/11.

That said, I also saw her production of The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci a couple of years later and that was not as compelling. Then again, I'm not sure anyone could have made that work on stage.

guildenstern said...

"Consider the sheer inaccessibility of Shakespeare's language to America's black underclass"

I went to a small, Catholic high school. During the late 60s, they made sure there a few (maybe 10 out 150) were black. Now they weren't exactly "underclass", but they would fit in well with any lower middle class to middle class government worker. One black girl, very large, rather friendly, was browsing the little bookcase of a library we had in the homeroom and found a Shakespear play, can't recall which. She said she'd alway loved the guy, or something to that effect, and she was not joking. She really liked Shakespear. It's surprising how many black performers of the old school (anybody born before 1960 maybe) were raised on reading and reciting some pretty high-toned literature. It was not unusual--those were the standards. While most know of the actor Paul Robeson playing Othello, I was especially shocked to find that one very black, as in blackest black African-American, who specialized in extremely dirty comic tales, grew up on Pilgrim's Promise and similar English literature, and credited that with his recitory skills. I'm not sure whether thats a good thing, but this man also claimed he wasn't playing the field but was a married man who went home after performances.
Methinks they don't make them like that anymore.

musical airs said...

"Don't know about Shakespeare, but W. A. Mozart has got to be the worst single example to use to illustrate genetic or HBD claims for genius. To do so for anyone, you'd have to remove as much environmental interference as possible. And no one comes with more such interference than little Wolfi. Haven't you heard of Leopold?
"

That's one of those conundrums that flow through history. Countries seem to have their national art forms and for the English it's acting and literature (until recently anyway.) For the French it's cuisine.
Certain cultures/peoples become known for something and then they fade. Many factor converge to bring out the genius, but there is no particular reason why the German speaking people should have excelled so at producing great music. And it was great. There is actually something in the structure of the compositions that promotes higher cognitive function, and it's not just Mozart. I know people have said this is not true, but according to the research in Superlearning 2000, there are certain musical pieces that do indeed promote clear and concentrated mental functioning when listened to regularly. So something was going on.
I used to wonder why Germans would give such weight to music until I remembered that music is mathematical. Pachelbel's Canon is a prime example.
It's easy to understand why Italians sing. The language, the climate, the art, etc. But the ancient Romans weren't known for it, were they? Vivaldi seems a natural result of centuries of honing. The German example is stranger.

Anonymous said...

My nephew knew at 15 that he wanted to be an English teacher and he was a Shakespear affciando. I think he believes that DeVere wrote them, and offers convincing reasons. My nephew's father, who does carpentry, made a wooden plaque large enough to hold the entire play of Midsummer's Nigh Dream, for his son's graduation. My nephew was born in 1981, so he's pretty recent.

RS said...

> Were there any fresh, witty, unexpected turns of phrase there? How could a person who hasn't read a hundred volumes' worth of Elizabethan literature hope to honestly answer such a question? What were the contemporary expectations, cliches, tired tropes? Against what exactly would a witty, original mind of that time and place have been rebelling? If one doesn't know that, then one doesn't know if Shakespeare was the least bit original.

All that is a bit recherche. How about grabbing whatever texts can get you high as a kite right now? 90% of the time, I think, their author will be the most original of his time and district, but what of it ; sheer originality is one facet of art.

I don't have much impression of Hamlet myself, though I was immature at the time. I sure love lyric verse, and I find the Shakespeare sonnets a comprehensive bore.

But there's really no doubt of his greatness. Hit up some other plays.

In my youth, I believed every last work would be more or less a manifest gnostic spark of the artist's greatness, provided only that he had attained his development and had not reached age 75, gone to drink, or something of the sort. Even if he switched genres or art forms. If a work was unexplainedly weak I thought I must be misperceiving. Well I learned to believe almost the opposite ; I quite believe in the grace of the muse.

I also assign more credit to craft vs pure spiritual development than I did in youth -- who doesn't? But mostly, I give more credit to the muse. Take Tarkovskij: you've got ZERKALO, to me the most beautiful object of the 20C . . . and then you have a bunch of garbage basically. Dunno, maybe there's something to Rublev. Ctalker sure starts out fantastically. It don't last. De gustibus of course.

RS said...

> Yet nobody claims Woods is a 'born genius' at golf; we know he's manufactured. (Name a single extreme advantage in his physique.)

His central nervous system? Isn't golf mostly about precision -- does Roger Federer have some kind of 'extreme' physique other than neurons? I know a hard serve matters a lot, but it's not the bulk of tennis -- or not for most champions.

I've always wondered if Greco-roman/Persian soldiers pumped iron ; why don't you hear about them using barbells? Somewhere in Plutarch is mentioned the idea that agility matters more in combat. Still, it seems far less agile a matter than golf or tennis. I've fenced a larger, stronger man with sabers, and it was not much fun.

RS said...

Also Glossy why do you assume Shakespeare wasn't going for slant rhyme? I find straight rhyme unbearable myself, and pretty much just won't read it. The ancients never or virtually never rhymed at all.

For all I know a whole battery of scholars may univocally believe slant rhyme absolutely wasn't done at the time. Even if so, what does that prove? William F. Shakespeare is not incapable of just doing new things.

Dave Pinsen said...

RS,

Why do you add spaces before your semicolons? Should be no space before, and one space after.

Anonymous said...

@glossy:

ah, so you're not the naïf you pretended to be.

My mistake. Please do carry on.

btw - would you assume the same stance when it comes to Wagner's *Tristan* or (ahem) Verdi's *Falstaff*?

Are you *that* evil?

Vinteuil

Glossy said...

"...would you assume the same stance when it comes to Wagner's *Tristan* or (ahem) Verdi's *Falstaff*?"

No. I've never liked any opera, regardless of when it was written. That's a completely different stance. I love a great quantity of instrumental classical music, but can't stand any of the singing. Before the invention of the microphone singers had to shout to reach large audiences. That severely limited (and in opera still limits) the range and the resolution (i.e. the subtlety) of the emotions that could be expressed. There's also a great deal of melodrama in opera. I hate that too. These comments are general. Not being a masochist, I haven't subjected myself either to all the operas that have been written or to the specific ones you've mentioned. Just to enough of them to become sure that I hate the art form.

"Are you *that* evil?"

I see two possible reasons for people to claim to like opera:

1) Their brains are wired differently from mine. 2) They're more pretentious than I am.

Your earlier claim that a modern person who has not studied early modern English literature in depth can ENJOY Hamlet seems preposterous to me, so I lean towards 2) in your case.

Dave Pinsen said...

"W. A. Mozart has got to be the worst single example to use to illustrate genetic or HBD claims for genius. To do so for anyone, you'd have to remove as much environmental interference as possible."

Doesn't the persistence of environmental cultivation imply some inherent aptitude? Wouldn't the parents or child bail at some point if the child had no aptitude for the training?

Vinteuil said...

@Glossy: "Before the invention of the microphone singers had to shout to reach large audiences. That severely limited (and in opera still limits) the range and the resolution (i.e. the subtlety) of the emotions that could be expressed."

OK, so I pegged you right. Lotsa theories, strong will to self-assertion, hardly any experience.

My friend: I'm not sure why you prefer to believe that I don't really love the stuff that I tell you I love - that's it's all just a pretense.

All I can say is that, strangely enough, I do love the stuff that I tell you I love. And that I am more strongly motivated by a desire to share my love for this stuff that I love than by pretty much anything else in this strange, misbegotten life of mine.

Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Only 76 comments for Hamlet, I guess the Bard is waning in popularity.

How did such an anti-life piece of entertainment become so popular in the first place?

middle aged vet mentioned Montaigne being an object of parody, but is Hamlet's view really being ridiculed? Thomas a' Kempis' 'Imitation of Christ' had permeated the Christian culture by that time and I'm not aware of a more pessimistic book in western culture. The old world had a meme of life being a burden to be endured, and if you opted out, expect an eternity in hell.

I found this piece to be very interesting:
'As the Augustinian monk, theologian, and “first Protestant” Martin Luther viewed his world in the second decade of the 16th Century, he saw a Christianity in conflict with family life and fertility. Church tradition held that the taking of vows of chastity—as a priest, monk, or cloistered sister—was spiritually superior to the wedded life. In consequence, about one-third of adult European Christians were in Holy Orders.' - from http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/how-protestants-learned-to-love-the-pill

I was unaware that clergy was such a huge portion of the population. I'm going to make a big presumption and assume that if having children is indicative of optimism, opting for a clerical life pretty much equals pessimism. I thought it was the Catholics that were dysgenic. Was it Luther who started the breeding-for-all mentality? Strange how this has reversed.

I picture that back then, someone, not really cut out for life (think Sylvia Plath), could retreat into a monastery or a convent and not suffer any stigma and not lose any status.

So, is today's population so different? Have we stopped asking "to be or not to be?" I doubt it. So where are the mopey masses hiding away now? graduate schools? Williamsburg? gay or childless marriage?

The paradox of the play is that Hamlet desires his story to be told, despite his feeling that life is utterly futile. That inconsistency bugs me.

Reg Cæsar said...

…bail if the child had no aptitude for the training?

Yes. But as a Mozart, it is highly unlikely that he'd have no musical aptitude. Mensans do produce morons, but not often. Wolfgang no doubt had above-average innate skills, just not extremely above-average. His secret was close study and hard work, a fact which annoys the lazy.

There's a field of study known as 'deliberate practise' which can help us milk the environment given for all it's worth. (Or "all its worth", whatever…) Problem is, anti-HBDers abuse it (e.g. Gladwell) and HBDers dismiss it.