Ferretbrain Presents: The Complete Works of Shakespeare Episode 0 - Introduction

by Wardog

We embark on another pointlessly epic project.
listen to podcast
(MP3, 40:24, 128 kbps, 36.91 MB)
In which we introduce a new and exciting project, and attempt to arrange the Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare into ascending order of famousness, by the very scientific method of making it up as we go along.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 16:36 on 2012-06-30
Agree with Hamlet being more famous. Nobody ever made a critically acclaimed play out of Romeo and Juliet fanfic. ;)
Wardog at 17:23 on 2012-06-30
On the other hand there is entire industry based on being crap at delivering letters ... *cheers Royal Mail*
Arthur B at 17:39 on 2012-06-30
Royal Mail deliver letters? I thought they build nests out of them to hibernate in through the winter.
http://murderershair.livejournal.com/ at 18:45 on 2012-06-30
It's fascinating to me to see Kyra and Dan's order of relative famous-ness of Shakespeare plays, since I'm so steeped in theater that I no longer have the foggiest clue what other people know about Shakespeare. I was always told that British people generally knew more about Richard III than Americans! (Gosh, I'm so surprised that my high school teachers had inaccurate generalizations) I did cackle at the low placement of As You Like It, because I've always generally despised that play for no real reason whatsoever.

The nerd in me feels I must point out that Kyra was right, and Henry VII *does* appear in Richard III, though.
Arthur B at 18:57 on 2012-06-30
I was always told that British people generally knew more about Richard III than Americans!

More about the king or more about the play? About all I know about him was that he was unpopular, is generally believed to have offed a couple of princes, and got pwned by the Tudors. Oh, and he was on the York side of the Wars of the Roses (thank you, ROYGBIV). My knowledge of the play is that it depicts Richard III as an evil hunchback who tends to misplace his horses.

The nerd in me feels I must point out that Kyra was right, and Henry VII *does* appear in Richard III, though.

Though Dan is correct in that Henry-7 pwns Richard-3 rather than the other way around.
Wardog at 19:34 on 2012-06-30
I am ... on the verge of being embarrassed, actually, at my own ignorance - and I say on the verge because I'm a big believer that there's nowt round wiv not knowing stuff as long as you're don't try to pass it off as a virtue i.e. it's better to admit than don't know than pretend you do. So flailing around in the bowels of English history was particularly revealing.

I think it's also incredibly easy to over-estimate how much you know about Shakespeare since a lot of it is cultural saturation with nothing particularly to underpin it. I mean I'm nominally supposed to have read all of these, and I have a bit of paper from a university to prove it, but ultimately plays are only truly memorable in performance and the same plays tend to get performed a lot, and by the same token you tend to prioritise seeing things you already know you like. So it's a sort of closed cycle.

I'm history avoidant (except for Richard 3) in general because I have a conception of all of them containing interchangeable side characters called Norfolk, Lancaster and Sussex. And that stresses me out.
Dan H at 19:36 on 2012-06-30
The nerd in me feels I must point out that Kyra was right, and Henry VII *does* appear in Richard III, though.

I put my confusion here down to (a) the fact that "second" and "seventh" sound similar when spoken and (b) the fact that my knowledge of this era of British history comes entirely from the first series of Blackadder
http://murderershair.livejournal.com/ at 19:48 on 2012-06-30
More about the king or more about the play?

The play- I think the teacher who stated that assumed nobody in general knew about the king besides there being a committee somewhere of people railing about how he Really Wasn't That Bad You Guys.

I think it's also incredibly easy to over-estimate how much you know about Shakespeare since a lot of it is cultural saturation with nothing particularly to underpin it.

Oh, absolutely. I went to a production of All's Well last year knowing only that it was A Problem Play and that there was a sorta good female monologue towards the beginning, and went out completely creeped out by all the stalking and rape, and wanting to hit the idiot that billed it as "An Adult Fairy Tale" (what the hell, Public Theater?)

because I have a conception of all of them containing interchangeable side characters called Norfolk, Lancaster and Sussex. And that stresses me out.

Well, if I've learned anything, it's that British history is overrun by Henry Percys from Northumberland who are all related to each other and have a tendency to die young and stupid.
So, the complete list of plays by order of descending fame, (opposite of the order in which they will be viewed) is:

1) Hamlet
2) Romeo and Juliet
3) Macbeth
4) King Lear
5) Midsummer Night's Dream
6) The Tempest
7) Othello
8) Henry V
9) Merchant of Venice
10) Julies Caesar
11) Anthony and Cleopatra
12) Much Ado About Nothing
13) Richard III
14) Twelfth Night
15) Taming of the Shrew
16) Titus Andronicus
17) Henry IV pt 1-2
18) The Winter's Tale
19) Measure for Measure
20) The Comedy of Errors
21) Love's Labours Lost
22) Henry VI pt 1-3
23) The Two Gentlemen of Verona
24) The Merry Wives of Windsor
25) Coriolanus
26) As You Like It
27) Richard II
28) The Life and Death of King John
29) Troilus and Cressida
30) Timon of Athens
31) All's Well That Ends Well
32) Henry VIII
33) Cymbeline
34) Pericles, Prince of Tyre

This rather raises the question (to my mind, at least): Where would you slot in Shakespeare's Sonnets on this otherwise complete list of his works? I am aware these aren't part of the BBC set of movies, (and I don't mean to broaden the scope of your already epic undertaking) but as a major part of his work I think it'd be interesting to rank them in there too. I personally would put them in at 4.5 - there's a ton of memorable stuff in there, more so than a large number of his plays, such as "Shall I Compare thee...", "Let me not to the marriage of true minds...", and "My mistress' eyes...", going from memory. They're also part of the inspiration of a huge amount of the speculation about Shakespeare's life, which helps to make them more famous.

If you're going to be making this a weekly podcast about each BBC play, I will probably follow along watching them... time to find and watch Pericles, Prince of Tyre, BBC Edition, I guess. Checking online, my local library system has ~400 different books/dvds/cds with the word "Hamlet" in their title, often with multiple copies of each book, many of which are analyses or film versions... and exactly two copies of the play Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Yeah, its not exactly one of Shakespeare's greatest hits.
Wardog at 20:01 on 2012-06-30
I would definitely say 4.5 is about right for sonnets - though, then again, some of them are massively better known than others so maybe there should be grouped up based on whether they are quoted in any well known movies ;) I mean I can't imagine 154 gets out and about very often...

Since we have, in fact, just finished Pericles (NO SPOILERS) to give us a bit of a bunker between starting the project and running out of steam in the middle as we inevitably will ... I can say I totally understand why your library stocks a mere 2 editions.

Enjoy :D
Michal at 21:31 on 2012-06-30
First off: this is a great project, and I look forward to it. I'd be jonesing to be in the podcast except that I haven't read/viewed very much Shakespeare since first year university English and certainly never studied the plays I did do in much detail. I played Stephano in and abridged version of The Tempest we did in high school but the whole part just involved me singing drunkenly every time I appeared, in a voice slurred enough that it wouldn't matter if I forgot the words.

RE: Pericles of Tyre-Lovecraft connection

Tyre was a Phoenician city (and, well, still exists) located in what's now Lebanon, which isn't too far north relatively speaking from the Philistine Pentapolis, and the Philistines worshiped...DAGON. So I'm looking forward to Esoteric Orders next episode.
It's fascinating to me to see Kyra and Dan's order of relative famous-ness of Shakespeare plays, since I'm so steeped in theater that I no longer have the foggiest clue what other people know about Shakespeare.

Me too, for the exact opposite reason. I only know The Winter's Tale exists because Rowling told me.
Dan H at 23:25 on 2012-06-30
Me too, for the exact opposite reason. I only know The Winter's Tale exists because Rowling told me.


Exit, pursued by a Death Eater?
Hermione Granger = Queen Hermione.
And, Rowlingly enough, not because she bears any resemblance at all to that character, but because Rowling wanted to mock people who think they're smart because they give their kids pretentious names.
http://murderershair.livejournal.com/ at 23:47 on 2012-06-30
Hermione Granger is more of a Portia than a Queen Hermione, come to think of it.
Wardog at 00:01 on 2012-07-01
Well, at least Rowling didn't call her Bianca or something. That's a random whore isn't it?

Or Lavinia.
Ibmiller at 02:47 on 2012-07-01
Alas, poor Lavvy. I knew her...

That being said, naming kids after favorite characters is awesome if done in such a way so the kids aren't your mortal enemies.

Just what we need-more finger wagging at "Muggles"-they even give their kids snobby names! Aren't we glad we wizards are sensible and name thier kids after the famous plays?
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 06:31 on 2012-07-01
Possibly this was mentioned in the podcast, which I don't have time to listen to before going into work, but where's The Merchant of Venice on that list? I think you could argue that it's one of the more famous plays, albeit less because of its substance than because people are skeeved out by it, and because of the "can you stage The Merchant of Venice after the Holocaust" debate.
Bjoern at 09:33 on 2012-07-01
I still don't see the problem with The Merchant of Venice. Yes, it's antisemitic but there are enough ways to stage this one in an interesting manner. After all, the 'good' Christians are complete dicks towards Shylock and his 'if you prick us' speech is some powerful stuff. You can easily turn this into a tragedy if you just focus on Shylock.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to Titus Andronicus. It may not exactly be Shakespeare but I enjoy it nonetheless.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 10:04 on 2012-07-01
The problem with The Merchant of Venice isn't simply that it's anti-semitic, but that it's an anti-semitic comedy that ends with the Jewish villain being forcibly converted to Christianity. Yes, you can stage the play in a way that addresses its problems - for example, as you say, by turning it into a tragedy. But if you have to go that far to make the play palatable, then clearly it does have serious problems.
Bjoern at 10:30 on 2012-07-01
However, it's a period piece. Even played straight you can turn it into a discussion piece because - as I said - pretty much all of the good guys are unlikeable cardboards whereas Shylock at least is somewhat sympathetic and somewhat defined as a character. Even though he's still the bad guy. I think that modern audiences do pick up on this.

That elevates it above something like The Jew Among Thorns (which, to be fair, is a folk tale rather than a play) that does not even bother to humanise its 'villain'. Even more so than Marlowe's eponymous 'Jew of Malta' does, which probably 'inspired' Shakespeare when writing this.

My point being: Problematic aspects in classic literature, as unpalatable as they may seem to us, should not simply be quietly ignored but should rather be highlighted and engaged. Ideally in a way that helps us see our own prejudices in modern text (homophobia, sexism, anti-intellectualism, you name it).
Wardog at 11:39 on 2012-07-01
@Abigail, The Merchant of Venice came about 9th? Which I'd say puts within the 'most famous' of them. I think the noticeably racist plays tend to be well known - because of the national awkwardness surrounding them. We put it slightly lower than Othello because it's not a tragedy (in the traditional 'everybody's dead dave sense') and tragedies tend to carry more cultural heft.

I mean the system was pretty arbitrary... but I think England is in a sort of denial about how grim Merchant actually is. Both Dan and I were saying we did it for GCSE, and the "theme" we were supposed to take away was "being racist is bad" but that's obviously ludicrous in the context of the actual events of the play. I don't know if they're still teaching Merchant as part of their anti-racism discourse but it does highlight the problems of the approach in general and also of Shakespeare's position as a the best English person ever.

I've seen a handful of productions of Merchants, all of them played for 'this is not okayness' but to me that strains the structure of the play quite considerably. It's like attempts to play The Taming of the Shrew for feminism. Dealing with racism & etc. in texts that are clearly artefacts of their time is genuinely really complex. I think you're right that much can be done with staging but at the same time I kind of wonder that if you wanted to highlight and engage with issues of prejudice you'd be better off starting with a text that is not wildly anti-Semitic.

I mean, I think Merchant gets away with a lot simply because we bring our 21st century values to it - I would say it's pretty much impossible for a modern audience to read the ending as comedy (just as it's impossible for us to find locking puritans up in dungeons and torturing them 'til they think they've gone mad funny in Twelfth Night) which means we tend to read a criticism in it that wasn't remotely intended. Ditto the oft-quoted speech in which Shylock defends his humanity. The thing is, although we read this as evidence of him having a point, I kind of feel that such a reading isn't supported by the play as a whole. I mean, he launches into this speech when he's being told he can't *kill somebody for owing him money*. That is not a badly treated minority asserting his right to equal treatment; that's a psychotic evil Jew wanting to carve up good Christians for owing him money.

Equally the theme of the speech is NOT equality or humanity, it's vengeance:

If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge.

I think this is genuinely supposed to be further evidence that Shylock is an alien shit who doesn't understand Christianity and, moreover, is too base and venal to ever do so. I mean Jesus had some pretty significant things about revenge - I think "don't do it dude" being the major gist, and that's surely what a Christian audience has to take away from that speech.
Bjoern at 12:31 on 2012-07-01
I agree that this was not Shakespeare's intention at all. There are other scenes as well that show the traditional stereotypes of Jews ("My daughter! My ducats! My Christian ducats!"). But, as you said, I bring my 21st Century values and interpretation with me - resulting in Shylock being the only genuinely interesting character because he at least has got an actual agenda.

You can also go the other way and highlight the anti-semitic elements. Don't shy away from them. Show people that this is also the Bard, that he was not independent from the prevalent ideas and prejudices of his day and age. Make people uncomfortable. Sure, some will misunderstand the intention but that comes with the territory.

If Shakespeare remains the cultural icon that he is, his works have to be considered in their entirety. Warts and all. And I think that this can help us to better question our own values and morals in fiction. But maybe I'm just being too optimistic.

(Also: I'm talking as white European male who had to face rather few actual prejudices [there was some 'German = Nazi' talk during my year in England but none that was actually threatening or hateful], so I may be defending a text from my ivory tower that's seen as hateful and not acceptable in any context by those who are actually denigrated by it.)
Cammalot at 13:43 on 2012-07-01
If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge.

I think this is genuinely supposed to be further evidence that Shylock is an alien shit who doesn't understand Christianity and, moreover, is too base and venal to ever do so.

I've spent too much time cringing at throwaway lines to ever argue that Shakespeare was especially enlightened on these matters, or even what would pass for much of an antiracist of his time, but the line "If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that," has always read to me like Shakespeare pointing out Christian hypocrisy, based on observation -- "what is his humility? Revenge" is something that's actually passed and been seen; "what should his sufferance be" is then an "eye for an eye" type statement (although not with a very good understanding of what the original "eye for an eye" prescription was meant to accomplish, which was a limitation of revenge cycles to something equal and reasonable, rather than the norm of the day, which could spiral into generations-long vendettas. Vendetti? Vendettae? Feudin's!)

I read an intro to a novel one time, and this would serve me better if I could remember either the novel or the actual topic of the novel, sigh... Anyway, Shakespeare was a sympathetic character in it, and in the Afterword, the author tried to argue that "Venice" was meant to be sympathetic portrayal (I would not go quite that far) because Shakespeare had given Shylock valid grievances in stark opposition to Marlowe and such, and it was the best Will could do because there were no visible Jews in England for him to observe at the time he was writing, due to the expulsion.

(Randomly, a buddy of mine hates it, though, because Jessica converts and is "saved" from Judaism, unlike Rebecca from Ivanhoe, who stays true. My friend is Jewish and shares a name with the Shakespeare character, so it's... a sore point.)
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 13:51 on 2012-07-01
@Kyra: You're right, I'd missed that Merchant was on the list, and I agree that low top ten is about the right place for it, for just the reasons you cite. It is, as you say, a problematic play, in which Shakespeare's prejudices (which were in all likelihood reflexive rather than thought out) war with his skill with character and with our historical perspective.

As you'll imagine, the question of staging Merchant in Hebrew has been a tangled one. The first Hebrew production was staged in Tel Aviv in 1936, directed by Leopold Jessneer, one of the luminaries of Weimar-era German theater who had been forced to flee to Palestine by Nazi policies. The play caused such an uproar that a "literary trial" was staged to debate the rightness or wrongness of the Hebrew production. The play was acquitted, for the same reason that Hebrew theaters have continued to justify it over the years (including last year, when an Israeli production of Merchant participated in the Globe to Globe festival) - on the grounds that it argues for tolerance and makes a tragic figure out of Shylock. But like you, I'm not entirely convinced by that argument. I think you make a good point when you say that our modern sensibilities help to ameliorate a lot of the problems with Merchant, but they don't eliminate them.
Wardog at 14:33 on 2012-07-01
"If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that," has always read to me like Shakespeare pointing out Christian hypocrisy, based on observation

I'm sure it's readable either way - I just was trying to flag up that the speech is too complex both on its own terms and in context to easily support a straight forward "look, Shakespeare is saying we should be nice to non-Christians." I know there was a huge industry of revenge tragedies but I always thought they were the equivalent of Victorian redemption tales - moral liberty to enjoy people cutting each other's heads off and eating their own children and being duly punished for it later. So although I definitely think this could be read as a dig at Christian moral hypocrisy I also think it could be read as Shylock not 'getting' the fact that Christianity is more enlightened by the comparison he makes.

Oh, and there's also the fact that, in the context of the play, forcing Shylock to convert to Christianity is seen as an act of generosity not vengeance - I think basically they've received permission from the Prince to do whatever they like to Shylock and instead of killing him as he wanted to do to the guy who owed him money they demonstrate their superior virtues etc. by not taking the permitted vengeance upon him.

From a 17th century Christian (and even arguably a modern one) perspective, forcing someone to convert is an act of charity, not cruelty, as it saves them from going to hell. So essentially Shylock pursues vengeance (his pound of flesh) and the Christians display charity (saving his soul) which further emphasises that his speech about our similarities is "wrong."

Oh, God, I'd forgotten the whole Jessica plot. Grimness.

But like you, I'm not entirely convinced by that argument. I think you make a good point when you say that our modern sensibilities help to ameliorate a lot of the problems with Merchant, but they don't eliminate them.

Hmmm...this vaguely reminds me that I saw an exhibition on this subject in Vienna. It was something I'd wandered into quite randomly - and it was all about Shylocks through history. And it's really difficult to edge towards interpretations for tolerance when you see a fullscale time line of appalling portrayals.
Cammalot at 00:26 on 2012-07-02
I did something in my previous comment that I got (not unkindly) chewed out for by a tutor just last Thursday -- basically, rather than being direct about my own opinion, I kind of talked around it, with disjointed quotes from other people.

I think Shakespeare *was* probably consciously trying to be a bit more nuanced than his contemporaries, add some humanity to his Jewish characters, show kindness by having Jessica convert, and so on. However, being who he was, when he was, I don't think he tried incredibly *hard.* (Or that it was even possible for him to step very far outside his culture -- much of Shakespeare's work pretty much embodies the birth of the colonialist mindset.) I agree -- I doubt very seriously that he was trying to say that being a non-Christian was okay -- I don't know off the top of my head how much he would have overlapped with the Enlightenment, but I'm guessing such a thing would probably not have entered his mind.

Therefore his intent really isn't *enough* for us to just accept, uncommented-on, today, and staging these things is pretty problem-filled for contemporary companies. I'm not sure they should do it without some kind of disclaimers attached (which is conflicting a little with my stance on not censoring things). My jaw dropped just now on reading that they'd done a version of "Venice" in Hebrew -- did they alter it at all? Was it just a straight word-for-word production?

What I mean is: I remember a production of "Much Ado" that my college did (and yes, it was a college production and should probably be granted more of a learning curve) where they kept the line "I would wed her were she an Ethiop" -- this in a production where the actress portraying Hero was a dark-skinned South Asian and the only person of color among the named cast. I... did not enjoy that.

Around the same time, there was a film with Kate Beckinsale in the Hero role where Claudio just nods with a wibbly chin instead of answering with that line. I would support that sort of thing -- but in "Much Ado," it's a throwaway line. And Hollywood has the excuse of needing to cut everything down to two hours. In things like "Shrew" and "Merchant" I'm not sure how one makes that work.

I was informed in no uncertain terms in another forum that my animosity toward "Shrew" was wrong because Elizabeth Taylor was a "strong woman." (I was complaining about a scene in a recent "Doctor Who" that reminded me very uncomfortably of that whole "wife training" deal.) I haven't seen Taylor's version, but if anyone can tell me how any quantity of "strong" can make that final speech of Katherine's okay, I'd be keen to hear it.

Did that recent "Merchant" with Al Pacino do anything to address this? I should just rent these things...
http://murderershair.livejournal.com/ at 04:38 on 2012-07-02
Huh. I've seen both the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton Taming of the Shrew film and the Merchant of Venice production with Al Pacino (well, I saw it when it was a free thing in the Park, not the slightly edited version on Broadway) and I can't say I felt that either of them managed to eliminate the problematic elements.

Of course, I've always read Taming of the Shrew as a kind of proto-BDSM love story, and I've seen a few people deliver Katharine's last speech with more than a hint of sarcasm, but... I really think that you have to bend the text a bit to make it okay, it's absolutely not written as a feminist text and anyone that says otherwise is dreaming.

Pacino was quite a good Shylock, and they had a strikingly sad Jessica (who doubled as Perdita in the Winter's Tale that season, if I recall correctly) but what I remember most about that production was how shaken afterwards the friends I went with were. They hadn't been remotely familiar with the play, and were shocked and upset by Shylock's forced conversion, especially since that version played it so it was unclear whether he was alive afterwards. It ended on a sad note that was completely the director and not in the text (one of those sneaky without speaking deals that I shan't spoil because I can't figure out the HTML right now), but I don't know if it improved it.

Actually, the best production of Merchant of Venice I ever saw starred F Murray Abraham, and had gay overtones between the guy who's flesh he wanted to cut and the guy who wanted to marry Portia (I am totally blanking on their names, because mostly I remember their big makeout scene in front of a pissed off Portia).
Ibmiller at 07:03 on 2012-07-02
The film version of the Pacino version also had the gay overtones between Antonio (the Merchant - Jeremy Irons) and Bassanio (the Portia-suitor - Joseph Fiennes). Though in interviews they said (perhaps correctly) that using the lens of contemporary sexuality on Elizabethan relationships might be confusing. They also had dozens of topless prostitutes - for historicity, they claimed (which was to disguise the pedophilia which was the real sex trade in Venice at the time, apparently).

Other than the lovely score, and the melancholy tone, I don't recall a lot more from the film.
Cammalot at 14:29 on 2012-07-02
I wanted to see the Pacino "Merchant" when it was in theaters, but didn't get around to it or chickened out or something. I think I ought to check it out.

I saw a production of "Shrew" that tried to balance things about a bit by doing things like having Bianca deliver some of her lines while having a swordfighting lesson, but that last Katherine speech just makes *everything* unequivocal.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 15:07 on 2012-07-02
@Cammalot: I've never seen the Hebrew productions of Merchant (there have been about half a dozen since the one in 1936), but as far as I know they all take the "standard" approach of making Shylock a tragic figure and emphasizing the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech.

There's a line like the "Ethiop" one you mention in The Tempest as well. In a production I saw, the actor who spoke that line (playing Ferdinand) was black himself, and he played the line up and made it a sort of joke with the audience: "look how ridiculous this prejudice is." I thought it worked well, though now I'm wondering what the director would have done if the actor playing Ferdinand had been white.

@murderershair: According to a documentary I watched a few years ago about staging Merchant for modern audiences, it's become quite common to imply that Shylock kills himself at the end of the play, and that the mercy offered to him is nothing of the sort.
Enjoy :D

Having just tried the BBC's version of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, I now know why this play wasn't exactly one of Shakespeare's most renowned. The entire thing is a bit of a mess to be quite honest; even more so than most Shakespeare plays, a lot of the actors' actions seem to be less motivated by actual thought or motivations that a character may have, than by the desire to create the plot of the play, if that makes any sense, and the entire thing is resolved rather too quickly and neatly at the end for my taste.

*Spoilers (for a 500 year old play)*

As an example of "my motivation? to create the events of the play, of course," The King Antiochus makes a very, very badly chosen riddle, and then rather than just killing Pericles while he's at the centre of Antiochus's power, decides to give a courtier a vial of poison (that he just happened to have on him...?) to specifically kill Pericles with. Then, when he hears Pericles fled, he tells this courtier to chase Pericles down and murder him. Pericles meanwhile naturally does the sane and sensible thing and flees his court where he presumably has guards and protections and so forth to take to the high seas.

After making me think Antiochus might be a villain who's defeat will end the story, he then fairly quickly dies offstage in like a couple lines with very little explanation - apparantly the gods randomly struck him down for his misdoings. Then the rest of the story is basically a sequence of random events that is positively silly with people thought to be dead and living anyways, culminating in a plot where Shakespeare couldn't figure out a way to have Pericles figure out his wife is alive so he gets a vision about it - though to be quite honest the contrivances that lead him to finding his daughter again weren't a huge improvement over "magic vision" as an explanation.

That's not even a tenth of the problems with the play, however. I'm pretty sure that the positively surreal Marina scenes will be skewered by other reviewers in the coming podcast far better than I can, but in short it's badly messed up.

*End Spoilers*

Wikipedia suggests the first ~half of the play wasn't Shakespeare's, so I won't condemn the Bard too harshly for it's failings. Nevertheless, this is a play that really is best forgotten.

The BBC production wasn't as bad as it could have been, given the source material. I think many scenes felt overacted, but I am not much of a theatre patron. Several scenes felt to me like they went on too long, particularly the dancing. Some of the choreography and set acting seemed particularly silly, such as the synchronized handshake square. I am not sure but I think they were too lazy to get people to paint more than one shield for the 'read shields' scene. Some of the chairs and furniture was very odd, especially in Tyre's court - is that period stuff I don't recognize because I'm not a great student of history, or just weird? Similarily, I think it's sort of odd that it seems to be a play set pretty far in the past (judging by e.g. the invocations and references to the roman/greek pantheon all the time, as well as character names) but one character randomly references having a pistol???

I look forward to the Ferretbrain review of this play. I think it'll be pretty epic.
Cammalot at 18:28 on 2012-07-02
"The Tempest" hits practically every beat of the colonialist mindset as if it were intentional (Tad Williams' book, "Caliban's Hour," is a pretty thorough postcolonialist answer to it).

In a staged version I saw, Ferdinand was played by a black actor, and Caliban by a white actor. And they just went full throttle and made it science fiction. They had Plexiglas swords and foil breastplates. I don't remember if that fixed everything but darn if it wasn't amusing.

I actually do enjoy Shakespeare. I don't know if that's coming across here.
I'm an irregular lurker, surfacing to beg you guys to watch Henry VI parts 1-3 and Richard III back to back in that order. I know you've got your viewing order all worked out, but...

The BBC productions of these plays were made all at once - same sets, actors, director, music - as an internal quasi-miniseries. You really need (IMO) to see them together, in order, to enjoy the productions properly. If they weren't brilliant it wouldn't matter so much. But they totally are. Personally, I think they're the best productions in the series.

Beyond that, I wanted to say that I loved this podcast because you sound just like me before I did essentially what you're about to do. A few years ago, I bought the same box set you've got (owing to a combination of panic about the level of my literary education and sheer consumerist lust for the gorgeous packaging) and watched the whole thing. It made me a Shakespeare nut.

The BBC productions are... umm... variable. They range from the wonderful (Henry VI 1-3 and Richard III, as noted) to the hilariously bad. 'The Tempest' is a particularly camp... and Dave Prowse's performance in 'As You Like It' has to be seen/heard to be believed.
Wardog at 10:06 on 2012-07-04
Anybody see The Hollow Crown with every English actor ever - currently on Iplayer?

http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 22:00 on 2012-07-04
I liked it, but I think I would have liked it better as a staged production than a proper film. The film aspects keep getting in the way of the text - ostentatious scene changes that serve no purpose, or over the top touches such as the sea erasing Richard's name written in the sand. And that's not even to mention the Jesus imagery, which is laid on with a trowel.
Dan H at 22:42 on 2012-07-04
It did seem like they spent a lot of time doing big lavish visual scenes and not a lot of time actually doing, well, Shakespeare.

It's tricky because I think it's easy to overemphasize the importance of "Shakespeare's Language" (which leads to all those awful student productions that sound like poetry recitals) but it sometimes felt like they'd cut a lot of dialogue to make way for a lot of fight scenes.

The name-in-the-sand bit is particularly gratuitious, and I confess I wound up being distracted by wondering how he managed to produce such perfect calligraphy with a scepter on wet sand.
Wardog at 09:30 on 2012-07-05
I'm rather shallow so I enjoyed the lavish; but I think the text lost a bit of structural integrity with the cuts they made. I mean Dan and I ended up having a bit of a fight about the 'point' of Bollingbroke, as he doesn't really so much oppose Richard in this version as stand around with a beard.

I think you're right that the Symbolic Hammer was applied a bit too vigorously - I got quite sick of the repeated visuals: Jesus, water, the camera peering through the hollow (oh d'you seeeee) crown & etc.

BUT I think what really worked for me was the fact the televisual medium gave a real intimacy to the text and the words. Avoiding going down the 'Shakespeare's Language' Wankery rabbit hole, I really did enjoy the naturalistic bent to the dialogue. I mean, obviously when you go to the theatre everything has to be louder and more exaggerated otherwise all you see are tiny ant people whispering - but it does mean sometimes that performing Shakespeare is akin to a career path on a Vogon Constructor Fleet (lots of shouting and stomping).

So I found Whishaw's performance absolutely mesmerising. I'm not sure they were particularly coherent in what they were trying to say about Richard II - I mean Jesus figure, sexually ambiguous performer with a martyr complex, or straight down the line with weak and vacillating king, or any or all of the above combined with "finds true majesty in adversity." But honestly I could watch and listen to that man all day and all night.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 12:19 on 2012-07-05
While watching the film I kept comparing it in my mind to the last Shakespeare adaptation I watched, the RSC's filmed stage play of Hamlet with David Tennant, which is pretty stagey (though taking advantage of the filmed medium with video diaries, CCTV footage and the like) but definitely avoids the trap of declaiming the text of the play and manages to make it quite conversational. So I don't think it's necessarily an either/or proposition.

In general I agree that one of the advantages of filming Shakespeare is that you can make it more intimate and work through our received associations with both playwright and play, and there were even some moments where I thought The Hollow Crown did this, such as the scene right after Richard trash-talks the besieging Bollingbroke and then steps away to freak out. It's just him and Aumerle in a small room, talking, and to my mind it works much better than the visual tricks of the previous scene. At some point, those tricks started to feel like unnecessary ornamentation, whose effect was very similar to the Shakespeare's Language trap you're talking about - drawing attention away from the play.

I do agree that Whishaw was excellent, though. He holds the film together even when it goes completely off the deep end with the Jesus crap (which, the more I think about, the more it annoys me, seeing as while the text leaves me room to feel - as Bollingbroke obviously does - that Richard comparing himself to Jesus is self-pitying, diva-ish behavior, the film seems to want me to take it seriously, and as I'm a lot more sympathetic towards Bollingbroke's political attitude than Richard's, I ended up feeling very alienated from the character). If you haven't watched it yet, I suggest seeking out Bright Star, in which he plays John Keats with a similar fey intensity.
Andy G at 18:57 on 2012-07-05
Did I miss "The Two Noble Kinsmen"? That is my go-to obscure Shakespeare play, though it's not entirely by him so maybe it doesn't count.

I agreed with the ordering, except I would have put Twelfth Night much higher. I have studied it twice, seen it performed at least five times, and been in it twice.

Incidentally, the Branagh version of Othello is a bit meh and has an incredibly unsubtle approach to the homosexual subtext of Iago.

Also, Macbeth wasn't fictional, though the Shakespeare play didn't bear much resemblance to the reality.
Alice at 19:33 on 2012-07-05
(Slightly late to the comment party, but:)

It's fascinating to me to see Kyra and Dan's order of relative famous-ness of Shakespeare plays

Same here, though for different reasons - I'm English but grew up mostly in Europe, so had near-zero exposure to Shakespeare at school. I say "near-zero", because in my last year of high school I played Hector in the school play, which was a translation/adaptation of... Troilus and Cressida.

(While this is definitely one of the more obscure Shakespeare plays, I went to a school that had a strong focus on Classics, so it made some sort of sense to choose a play set in that period. And I suspect they picked Troilus and Cressida over Julius Caesar or Anthony and Cleopatra because it's a comedy. Then again, the previous year's play had been The House of Bernarda Alba, which isn't exactly chirpy.)

But other than that, my exposure to Shakespeare growing up consisted of the Leon Garfield Shakespeare Stories (retellings of some of the plays), the game Playing Shakespeare (charades using quotes from the plays - as an aside, I suspect the photos on the game's board are from the 1978 BBC films), some of the Terry Deary books, and the odd performance when back in England for holidays.

So my knowledge of Shakespeare is essentially limited to "the plays that people consider the famous ones/ones it's important to know about". Which, at least according to whoever decided which stories Leon Garfield should retell, are:

(volume I)
Twelfth Night
King Lear
The Tempest
The Merchant of Venice
The Taming of the Shrew
King Richard the Second
King Henry IV. Part One
Romeo and Juliet
A Midsummer Night's Dream

(volume II)
Much Ado About Nothing
Julius Caesar
Antony and Cleopatra
Measure for Measure
As You Like It
King Richard the Third
The Comedy of Errors
The Winter's Tale

Which includes some (like As You Like It, Cymbeline, and Richard II) that are in the bottom ten of the Ferretbrain list. Not sure what - if anything! - that means, but I found it interesting, nonetheless. :-)

In terms of how you choose which plays are famous/important, as I was listening to the podcast, I was thinking that one measure of the fame of the plays might be the existence of a film adaptation. Either using the text/words more or less as-is (e.g. William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, any number of Hamlets, Much Ado About Nothing) or more or less loosely inspired by the original (e.g. 10 Things I Hate About You for The Taming of the Shrew or O for Othello - both of these being aimed at a teen audience and starring Julia Stiles, as it happens).

And/or how popular said film versions are/were: for instance, there was a really cracked-out-looking version* of Titus Andronicus (called Titus) back in 1999, but I don't know how well it was received or how many people remember it today.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the rest of these podcasts, and am somewhat seriously considering acquiring the box set so I can watch along at home. I will certainly at least try to read the play before listening to the relevant podcast: educational!


*even considering the source material, yes ;-)
Wardog at 23:06 on 2012-07-05
I saw that adaptation (I'm sure there's a gushy review of it knocking around somewhere) and I also loved it. It was definitely a superior piece - and I remember being very impressed at the time by how well they bridged theatre to television (although I did think the CCTV 'Big Claudius is watching you' was a bit gratuitous though I suppose it did contribute to an atmosphere of neo-future paranoia).

I've also seen directly filmed productions before and although they're okay for conveying the essence of what was attempted they can also be semi-excruciating because everyone seems to be yelling and over-acting, though of course they're not, it's just not designed for the intimacy of television. And of course older productions really do suffer horrendously - I've seen Olivier's Othello and it made me want to die.

But, yes, you're quite right - that particular production did a much better job of creating an intimate text without falling prey to televisual gimmicks and random acts of symbolism. One of the things that really marks out successful productions for me personally are the ones that make the text feel like a real text, not a Shakespeare play. If that makes sense. And the Tennant Hamlet really did that for me, although that was largely Patrick Steward's absolutely phenomenal Claudius.

He was so urbane and plausible, especially since Tennant's Hamlet was rather adolescent, that I can vividly remember Dan and I turning to each other about half way through and asking: "Is there any actual evidence in the play, that Claudius did it?" And of course there's the whole "whoops I did it, and I'd like to repent but I can't..." speech (which I like very much) but such was the absorbing and immediate nature of the production that we both forgot it - despite knowing the play quite well.

And I kind of feel that The Hollow Crown did that for me for Richard II. Except I'm semi-conscious it might just be through an overuse of lavish locations which is not the same thing at all. I think, perhaps, I could situate it largely in Whishaw's performance, as he was the stand out feature of the whole business for me, and splendid enough for me to be largely forgiving / oblivious to the other shortcomings.

Heh, interesting you should mention Bright Star as I have sitting in shrinkwrap on my desk as I'm writing this. I've seen him in a few things actually, and always really liked him, although I think his fey intensity, as you so aptly put it, has led to a certain degree of typecasting as The Beautiful and The Doomed. He was a slightly whiny Sebastian in a lacklustre Brideshead.
Wardog at 10:54 on 2012-07-06
Troilus and Cressida is a comedy?! *boggles* To be fair, I've only read the Chaucer version, which has, I suppose a hilarious panderer? And Troius is sort of wet and cries and faints a lot. And then Cressida wanders off and gets raped by Trojans so ... I guess ... that's ... funny? O.o

I spent the latter part of my education at an all girl's school (I know... hilarity) but apart from making me angst about sexuality it did mean you got to play all the good parts - which meant I got to be a very gay Viola and a very gay Iago (Very Gay seemed to be my 16 year old self's approach to any conceivable role).

But, yes, my Shakespeare knowledge growing up was restricted to The Ones We Did At School and then at university I was supposed to do All Of Them but, as this little exercise is providing, I clearly failed there.

And "is there a film" definitely played heavily into our awareness... I think when we were doing our "which ones can you remember" 10 Things was pretty much the only reason we remembered Taming. That and Kiss Me Kate, which I adore :)

And OMG that film looks AMAZING! We saw a really cracked out Titus in Edinburgh as well - it was about an hour and a half long, shown at 11pm at night, and the stage was literally swimming in fake by the end of the performance. We loved it. Bwhahaha :)
Wardog at 11:00 on 2012-07-06
Did I miss "The Two Noble Kinsmen"? That is my go-to obscure Shakespeare play, though it's not entirely by him so maybe it doesn't count.

Not in our box set so it doesn't count ;) I think that officially makes it the Shakespeare equivalent of the Alan Davies noise on QI.

I remember Twelfth Night quite vividly from school and I have seen far too many performances of it (Oxford summers, back when we had summer in this country, seemed to spawn Twelfth Nights) - but Dan was so blah I thought my experience exaggerated and therefore we compromised.

I think I did see the Branagh Othello but years and years ago - I enjoy a gay Iago but ... oh yes ... I seem to remember a loltastic scene in which he tries to doggy Emilia...
Sonia Mitchell at 13:24 on 2012-07-06
Ooh, I've seen Titus. It didn't quite work for me, but it's certainly worth having a look at. Henry Lennix is particularly brilliant as Aaron.
Ibmiller at 17:44 on 2012-07-06
Oh, my. Just watched the trailer for The Hollow Crown...how can lowly Yanks watch this?
Wardog at 18:09 on 2012-07-06
Well ... uh ... legally and/or free I'm not entirely sure.

Iplayer is unfortunately ruthlessly restricted to the UK. It comes with horrendous DRM that means that things are not only protected but only available for a limited for a few days when you download them so it's semi-difficult but not impossible to, ah, take things from it.

Not that I'm even remotely suggesting I would countenance doing something like that. Nor that I would send it to you if I found of way of making it work.

Otherwise I suppose hypothetically one could use a VPN to replace your IP address with a UK one - but I think most of the reliable services that do that charge a monthly fee.

God, I am the worst pirate ever.
Wardog at 18:11 on 2012-07-06
Wait ... do you have some kind organisation called PBS which gets you British things?
Ibmiller at 18:24 on 2012-07-06
PBS and BBC America sometimes get us stuff...but usually 1-2 years later...and then nobody talks about it, because PBS gets completely garbage ratings.

That being said, if there's ever a Jane Austen flick on Masterpiece, I watch the heck out of it to try to get the ratings up. I'm pathetic, I know. (Also: Little Dorrit)
Alice at 21:34 on 2012-07-06

Troilus and Cressida is a comedy?! *boggles*

Ah, well, I just looked it up, and it is in fact a tragedy... *embarrassed*
(Well, or possibly a history, but definitely not a comedy.)

I suspect there was some pretty heavy editing involved in our staging, because I mostly remember lots of silliness/rowdiness/rude jokes involving Pandarus and/or Thersites. Oh, and the production design supposedly being based on American football, which somehow meant we were all dressed in 1970s zip-up turtleneck long-sleeved T-shirts (white with a red T or blue with a yellow G), which was clearly an attractive look. Oh, and the Trojans wore a lot of (faux) fur and the Greeks a lot of (p)leather. Aw yeah.

And since it was a school production (I definitely remember that the kids playing Thersites and Patroclus - disappointingly gender-swapped to "Patrocla" - were both 12) I'm reasonably certain they removed any rape references/content.

Still, my character *died at the end*, and you'd think I'd remember being stabbed on stage & take that as a bit of a clue as to the nature of the play... Clearly not one of Shakespeare's more memorable ones, and thoroughly deserving of its low Ferretbrain fame ranking, I say! :-)

Cammalot at 14:15 on 2012-07-07
Curmudgeonly post is curmudgeonly:

PBS is a blanket name for local Public Broadcasting Stations, formerly mostly-tax-funded and now funded through periodic marathon fundraising sessions where if you send in money you get various items and good feelings about yourself ($100 = a mug or some such). And stealth commercials. ("This show is brought to you by Exxon! *cute graphical interlude that is totally not a commercial, really*)

It is fairly dominated by British television (all the costume dramas play on a show called "Masterpiece Theatre" and all the Wallanders and Midsomer Murders and Hetty Wainwrights and cozy Marples and Poirots play on a segment called "Mystery," which is promo-ed with Edward Gorey cartoons and was introduced with a short Diana Rigg monologue, which is AWESOME). Saturday nights used to be dominated by British sitcoms on several PBS stations that have been bought out and are now sports channels or FX (Fox's drama/entertainment cable arm) in my area.

It's also the bastion of arty things, ballets and operas and such, educational children's programming, local social justice things, science and nature shows.

And it USED to be commercial-free before the budget was gutted in the '80s and early '90s.

A lot of what it used to provide has been taken over by specialized cable channels.

BBC America is better at getting Yanks things in a more timely way (about three weeks delay? We were getting some simultaneous Doctor Who for a while there, but abridged to fit commercials in). You have to pay a higher-tier cable/satellite price to get it, though, and recently it's turned full of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek Next Generation reruns, both of which... contain some British people, I guess? But makes it hard to justify the higher price tier to oneself.

And 'SyFy'/The Sci-Fi Channel gets "Merlin" and such.

(And all bottoms are pixellated.)

But... um... everybody is very nice and civic-minded and doesn't mind truncated versions at all and would never think of torrenting!!!!

*dances the dance of having-BBC-iPlayer-now joy*
Jamie Johnston at 19:47 on 2012-07-07
I was tickled by the idea of putting the plays in chronological order of their contents so I thought I'd try it. Here's my attempt:

A midsummer night's dream (before the Trojan war!)
Troilus and Cressida (possibly some time between about 1300 and 1100 BC)
King Lear (ninth century BC?)
Coriolanus (494 to 491 BC )
Timon of Athens (late fifth century BC)
Pericles, Prince of Tyre (setting vaguely resembles the Hellenistic period, i.e. third or second century BC)
The comedy of errors (third or second century BC)
Julius Caesar (44 to 42 BC)
Antony and Cleopatra (41 or 40 to 30 BC)
Cymbeline (around 1 AD)
Titus Andronicus (setting is basically a mash-up of Roman history from the second to sixth centuries AD)
Hamlet (seventh / eighth / ninth century AD?)
Macbeth (about 1040 to 1057)
The life and death of King John (1199 to 1216)
The winter's tale (thirteenth century??)
Romeo and Juliet (fourteenth / fifteenth century?)
Richard II (1398 to 1400)
Henry IVpt 1-2 (1402 to 1413)
The merry wives of Windsor (presumably some time between 1400 and 1415)
Henry V (1415)
Much ado about nothing (between 1409 and 1479)
Henry VI pt 1-3 (about 1422 to 1471)
Richard III (about 1471 to 1485)
The two gentlemen of Verona (any time between 1395 and about 1535)
Measure for measure (fifteenth century??)
The taming of the shrew (fifteenth century?)
Love's labour's lost (fifteenth or sixteenth century?)
Henry VIII (about 1520 to 1533)
All's well that ends well (sixteenth century?)
Othello (1573)
The tempest (fourteenth to seventeenth century??)
The merchant of Venice (contemporary?)
As you like it (contemporary?)
Twelfth Night (contemporary?)

Which actually seems to give a reasonably good mix of comedies and tragedies, good plays and rubbish plays. I wouldn't mind watching them in that order. And you get some interesting clumps (like the 'I hate everybody' trilogy (Lear, Coriolanus, Timon) and the 'colonialism and racism' trilogy (Othello, Tempest, Merchant)) as well as some weird juxtapositions (Measure for measure and Shrew, Titus Andronicus and Hamlet).
Sunnyskywalker at 00:12 on 2012-07-08
I actually saw a college production of Cymbeline once. It was described to me as the "Shakespeare's greatest hits" compilation play, and that really is kind of true. There's a don't-lose-this-ring fidelity plot, a girl running away and cross-dressing, some lost princes raised as woodsmen or shepherds or something, royals scheming to kill each other, a poison which actually isn't a poison but makes you look dead temporarily, identity mix-ups and thinking someone is dead who isn't, identity confusion due to switching clothes, a secret marriage, a battle, some background political stuff no one cares about... I don't remember major details like what the characters' names were, but it doesn't really matter. Just enjoy the glorious mash-up.

Also, the July Taymore movie version of Titus is loads of fun, and raises the question of what is it with Anthony Hopkins and movies with cannibalism and whacking off his own hand.
Ibmiller at 05:27 on 2012-07-10
Wow, this really does have every British actor ever. David Morrissey! Also, apparently, French actresses.
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 03:04 on 2012-07-16
I am perpetually behind on my podcast-listening, but this is very exciting to me, because I spent the winter quarter doing a course on "The Other Shakespeare" which the professor said upfront was largely his excuse to teach plays he almost never gets to otherwise, and for us all to, er, academically wank on how we determine what is "lesser" Shakespeare. (He was very fond of dismissing the idea that it all comes down to Shakespeare's immaturity at the bottom of the heap.) So the bottom of your list is mostly what's freshest in my mind, and I in fact wrote Serious Papers with Academically-Sanctioned Opinions on Pericles and All's Well That Ends Well. (I have to say I'm specially looking forward to what you two do with the latter--I saw it performed, oddly enough, when I was in high school and LOATHED it, although it's grown on me a bit since.)

Dan H at 00:36 on 2012-07-17
I have to say I'm specially looking forward to what you two do with the latter--I saw it performed, oddly enough, when I was in high school and LOATHED it, although it's grown on me a bit since.

We've just recorded All's Well (we have a bit of a buffer between recording and publication for obvious reasons), I don't want to say too much until the podcast is out but I was actually really impressed with both the play as a whole and the specific production.
From a 17th century Christian (and even arguably a modern one) perspective, forcing someone to convert is an act of charity, not cruelty, as it saves them from going to hell.

That's a really good point which I had not considered before. The forced conversion at the end is so obviously horrible that I just assumed it was supposed to be horrible, something they did for spite and revenge. They (uh, the main Christian characters) seemed to be fairly awful people overall, but it does seem unfortunately likely that Shakespeare didn't intend that reading.
Ibmiller at 06:13 on 2012-07-23
Erm, well, as a modern Christian, I think anyone who reads the Bible and accumulated theology of orthodoxy should understand that a forced conversion has no effect on the state or destination of one's soul. I'm not quite familiar with the theology of Shakespeare's time, but I think the more clear-sighted Christians of the day acknowledged this fact as well - which didn't, of course, prevent the atrocities like that portrayed in Merchant of Venice from happening with some frequency. Just wanted to clarify - not arguing that the forced conversion or most of the characters in Merchant aren't horrible.
Arthur B at 09:56 on 2012-07-23
I guess the question is whether the audience in Shakey's time would have recognised the conversion as being forced. (Not seen the play yet so I'm not going to make the call at this point. Though I'm sufficiently hooked on this stuff now to get my own copy of the box set...)
Dan H at 11:35 on 2012-07-23
I'm *pretty sure* it's supposed to be merciful in the original text (like Ibmiller I don't know enough about the theology of the time, but religious freedom wasn't exactly a big deal in the seventeenth century as far as I know).

As a brief summary of the end of Act IV Scene I, blah blah court, blah blah pound of flesh, blah blah crossdressing lawyer. Shylock is sentenced to death and the confiscation of all of his property (one half to go to Antonio, one half to the state). The Duke then announces that he will spare Shylock's life, and Shylock says that he'd rather be executed than have all of his money taken away. At which point Gratiano calls for him to be executed (or given the means by which to kill himself - "a halter gratis; nothing else, for God's sake") but Antonio specifically lets him off the fine:

So please my lord the Duke and all the court
To quit the fine for one half of his goods;
I am content, so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it
Upon his death unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter -
Two things provided more: that, for this favour,
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in this court, of all he dies possess'd
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.

While to a modern audience "and you have to give up your religion" stands out as ragingly psychotic, it occurs here in the context of an extraordinarily generous amelioration of his sentence. Unless I'm reading it wrong, apart from the forced conversion, the rest of Shylock's sentence is "don't disinherit your daughter". And Shylock, who loudly protested the confiscation of his wealth, professes himself content at Antonio's judgement.

There's also the fact that Antonio's mercy is fairly explicitly contrasted with Gratiano, who just wants Shylock executed:

In christ'ning thous shouldst have two god-fathers;
Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not to the font

I do take the point that a coerced baptism won't necessarily save Shylock from Hell, but it strikes me that to a period audience that would be seen as his fault for converting insincerely, not Antonio's fault for giving him the opportunity to convert (I should note that I am basing this on no evidence other than my own preconceptions about the period).

I'd also point out that if this sequence was intended to play as tragedy, it's bizarre to follow it up with the scene where everybody congratulates Portia for being awesome and she trolls her husband by asking for his ring.
Wardog at 11:45 on 2012-07-23
Yeah, I also wanted to clarify that I wasn't making (or rather trying to make ::) arbitrary and generalised judgements about Christianity in the modern world.

Rather the notion, as Dan articulates above, if you live in a non-secular society in which not believing the right things is a one way ticket to an eternity in a fiery pit ... then 'encouraging' people to join your religion is super nice :)
Shim at 08:00 on 2012-08-06
Possibly relevant link: BBC "My Own Shakespeare" podcast snap-interviews people about what Shakespeare most inspired them. Haven't tried it, just stumbled onto it now.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 11:21 on 2012-09-05
Well, it took me sometime to get with the times with this particular thing and I hope nobody minds me commenting on this earlier podcast this late as the plays have not yet progressed to plays which I have any opinions on.

So, on the Merchant of Venice. This has always been one of my least favourite Shakespeare play of those which I've seen or read. For much the reasons already mentioned here, but also, because the play seems like such a mess of two different plays. On the one hand it has those comedic elements, with all that nonsense with the wooing and chests and whatnot and then the whole thing with the debt, which gives the dramatic tension. From a contemporary view, these seem to be at odds, since the wooing plot manages to completely undermine anything approaching a point in the debt thing. It is said that Shylock is influenced by Marlowe's Barabas from the Jew of Malta and if so, it seems it is a deliberate attempt to depict Shylock as something more than just a villain; the whole 'if you prick us, do we not bleed?' thing is a powerful monologue and probably the main reason for the play's longevity. But the whole thing is trivialized with the ending, when the whole debt situation is resolved much too easily with legalistic nonsense and Shylock is neatly categorized as a single note villain to be baptized.

It may be that in Elizabethan terms the whole baptism is seen as basically a good thing, but it still feels like the ending is just rushed through to get the thing over with and the double-entendre's in. As far as I'm concerned, there is a debt of one pound christian meat still unresolved and I would hope that instead of suicide, Shylock brought the case to court again, dipped his hands in some indebted blood and relocated his business to Alexandria.

I would recommend reading Marlowe's the Jew of Malta for comparison, because if Shakespeare was riffing on that, the whole baptism thing can be understood to be a comment on that play's end. Perhaps Shakespeare wanted to be more magnanimous with his resolution, but he comes through more of a hypocrite this way. Marlowe's play can be seen as horribly anti-semite as the Merchant of Venice, but in my opinion the play goes for such dark humour and places so much more emphasis on the hypocricy and the vileness of everybody, that the subtext is much more obvious. And of course there is the delightful opening speech by 'Machevil':

" I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Birds of the air will tell of murders past!
I am asham'd to hear such fooleries.
Many will talk of title to a crown:
What right had Caesar to the empery?
Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When, like the Draco's, they were writ in blood."

Even if Machevil is presented as evil, it seems by the play that Marlowe agrees more with Machevil and Barabas than with anyone else in the play. Which is a pretty brave sentiment for his time. But then, Shakespeare did not end up stabbed in the eye by people closely connected to the Elizabethan spying-world. That play is insane though.

This is getting a bit long but some thoughts on Othello. It is a matter of some discussion on whether Othello is meant to have the melanin levels of Sub-Saharan Africa or North African/Near-East. The terms blackamoor and black ram could in renaissance terms refer to either and I guess from a historical point of view a person of North African ethnicity would be a more likely military commander in Venice. On the other hand, Ol' Shakes grasp of ethnic geography was probably not so strong and who knows what in this case would have been meant. On the other hand surely the language used in that scene is racist whether Othello is mediterranean or not. And on the other hand the racism angle is played by Iago and is ultimately unsuccessful as the Venetians don't go for it. I guess the racism comes more strongly to the foreground, if one asks what is the narrative purpose for Othello's moorness in the text and does the play think that Othello's tragedy is the attribute of being a moor and thus he is more violent or something? Iago does manage to fool everybody else too, so Othello is not alone in this. It is a disturbing play though, so at least it achieves that purpose of a tragedy.

Now I'll stop.
Dan H at 19:40 on 2012-09-05
Even if Machevil is presented as evil, it seems by the play that Marlowe agrees more with Machevil and Barabas than with anyone else in the play. Which is a pretty brave sentiment for his time

Kit Marlowe: Gay Atheist Spy.
Wardog at 21:49 on 2012-09-05
Not at all, we are all necromancers here :)

I guess MoV is vaguely interesting because of Portia. If she wasn't such so annoying she's quite an assertive, go-getting heroine - against which the dudes are all surprisingly limp and passive. This could theoretically be quite engaging and subversive.

But, yes, I think you're right that the reason it has retained its place near the forefront of the canon is because we can pretend it's not grotesquely racist when it totally is. It's rather more difficult to pretend, say, Shrew isn't grotesquely sexist. And although you can be all "aaaahhhh another time, different values aaaaahhh" about it it's hard to actually get away from the fact sitting through grotesquely racist and sexist texts is, y'know, simply unfun.

I don't know why Othello feels 'less' racist, because black guy flips out and kills his white wife is hardly a sensitive portrayal of racial difference in Renaissance Venetian society, but perhaps it's because it's just a better play overall.

We saw, err, we saw a rap remix of Othello in Ediburgh expecting it to be terrible but it was actually awesome - and although Othello was played by a black actor they'd basically excised any race references from the text whatsoever except some subtextual hints from Iago (he has a song referencing the white ewe line for example) and Desdemona's Dad being basically a big ol' racist. The ultimate effect of this was that it made it a play about jealousy rather than about race, and the only people trying to make it about race were racists. It actually worked surprisingly well in many ways. Yo.

I think there are several, errr, critical canon possibilities about Othello's non-whiteness:

1. He was a barbarian who killed a nice white woman (this isn't interesting to me as an interpretation because although it's supportable it essentially makes the play a pretty banal domestic tragedy about how women should only marry who their fathers tell them to otherwise they'll get murdered)

2. He was a good man but his violent / jealous / less uncivilised instincts were played upon by more sophisticated white dudes (this doesn't stand up for me either - there are plenty of white fellows who go nuts and try to murder their loved ones in Shakespeare, admittedly they don't succeed but as Arthur would say: this is a competency issue, it is not due to superior moral virtue)

3. He is a genuinely good man who happens to be in a Shakespearean tragedy - he does have fatal flaws (jealousy, insecurity) as is required by the tragic hero but I don't necessarily think these are related to race. Of course this still leaves the question of why he's a black dude.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 07:41 on 2012-09-06
I just read that Shakespeare based the play on an older italian story, so it might be that the third option is the most acceptable. Othello is the protagonist and is portarayed as heroic, if tragically flawed and the ethnicity is straight from the source and mostly incidental. Of course this sort of reductionism doesn't really take away the different interpretations and uses for the text through the centuries, but I guess it is the baseline of what can be known through historical considerations.

As a sidenote and a bit of trivia, the limits of knowledge in renaissance england would have been huge. Shakespeare's or anyone's grasp of what it means that someone is a moor is probably limited to it being mostly something exotic, which is even emphasized by Othello's tales of his experiences, how he has met anthropophages and such fun stuff. And in those times, there was no jewish community in all of England, so Shakes wouldn't have had any knowledge of them either. Shylock is just a threatening strange thing that people would be expected to hate by definition.
Melanie at 00:46 on 2012-09-07
And although you can be all "aaaahhhh another time, different values aaaaahhh" about it it's hard to actually get away from the fact sitting through grotesquely racist and sexist texts is, y'know, simply unfun.

It's a weird excuse, isn't it? Because we're always going to be watching/reading/listening to something in the present. We can't actually turn ourselves into [insert intended audience here] and watch it as people of that time and place would have, no matter how much they liked it.

It's sort of funny though, because in your earlier comment where you're saying how forced conversion would have been viewed... differently... it's like the opposite of that. Considering the context doesn't "excuse" it so much as it actually makes it even worse! Because it is much worse if it's supposed to be a, a, a happy or uplifting or whatever part of the play and not those characters being vicious. Otherwise I think there's more room to view Shylock's arc as tragic--especially at the end--and the thing with the rings right afterward as being a shift in tone, comic relief.

The ultimate effect of this was that it made it a play about jealousy rather than about race, and the only people trying to make it about race were racists. It actually worked surprisingly well in many ways. Yo.

I've heard so much about how originally the plays wouldn't have been done the same way every time, they might have used different scripts from one performance to the next, etc.--so isn't stuff like that basically just continuing that tradition? I mean, as opposed to being necessarily an alternative, non-canon, interpretation.
Wardog at 16:41 on 2012-09-09
Sorry, I've expressed myself really badly. When I said "three canonical criticisms of Othello" I was being slightly glib - I don't mean these are the ONLY possible, plausible or supportable interpretations of Othello. It's just they tend to be the starting point for a lot of more complex and subtle readings. But then I guess you can boil anything down to being one of three arbitrary things if you look hard enough ;)

I've heard so much about how originally the plays wouldn't have been done the same way every time, they might have used different scripts from one performance to the next, etc.--so isn't stuff like that basically just continuing that tradition? I mean, as opposed to being necessarily an alternative, non-canon, interpretation.

Again, I really do apologise for my use of 'canon' above. I meant it frivolously, I wasn't trying to suggest that readings that deviate from one of those three interpretations were 'non-canon'. I think this was a perfectly legitimate and a perfectly sensible thing to do with Othello. By 'surprisingly well' I wasn't being dubious about the adaptation, so much as the rapping :)

Melanie at 18:12 on 2012-09-09
Again, I really do apologise for my use of 'canon' above. I meant it frivolously, I wasn't trying to suggest that readings that deviate from one of those three interpretations were 'non-canon'.

Oh! I didn't think you were, actually--I didn't even notice your use of "canon" (honestly, I'm so used to the word--from fandom--that the only thing it usually even registers to me as, is "in the original"/"in the official version"). It was more that your description of the play triggered some thoughts about the base material vs. the actual performance. I was going somewhere with it (about how much it matters if it's based on something racist, if said racism is carefully removed from the actual performance; if when you're talking about the play in general terms it matters more what's in the script written by Shakespeare, or whether it matters more how the play is most commonly staged, if those are different and there is a usual way it's performed; and probably a tangent about how far you can get from aforesaid script* before it's basically a different play and no longer Othello) but couldn't seem to get my thoughts together in a coherent way.

*And I keep having to stop myself from saying "the original", because it sounds completely silly, what with the not-being-the-same-every-time thing, even if everybody would know what I meant.

...So how much dialog did they change and how much did they use as-is, did you notice? I'm sort of wondering if Shakespeare's plays are easier or harder to make rapping versions of, because of already being in meter.
Robinson L at 18:30 on 2012-09-12
Kyra: we are all necromancers here :)


~9:30 Kyra: [describing the DVD box] … And it smells delicious … you know that lovely BBC smell …?

I listened to this podcast on a four-hour car drive with my mother and three sisters, and at this point I literally cracked up. I was chuckling all the way through this and a previous peacast, but something about “you know that lovely BBC smell,” was just too much. I laughed so hard I was air-kicking my feet just above the floor, and had actual tears coming to my eyes..

… Naturally, this provoked some askance looks from my fellow passengers, but it was so worth it.

I, in fact, did not study Shakespeare in high school/US GCSE-equivalent, on account of being homeschooled and opting out of pursuing that area of study. As a matter of fact, I was burned at around age 13/14 by my father's well-meaning attempts to inject me with “cult-chah” (“culture”) by forcing me to watch televised versions of at least half a dozen of the Bard's plays*. As a result I was turned off of straight Shakespeare for the better part of a decade, and still haven't read any of the plays, viewed any of them staged, or even watched another televised version. (Neither have I returned to any sort of mathematics since I managed to escape it some six years or so ago.)

*We didn't take a systematic approach, opting for whatever was available through our library system, so the versions we watched were very eclectic. One of our earliest outings (maybe the first) was Richard II, which we followed with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and eventually Henry V. (I seem to remember my dad asking me to order King John at one point, too, but I either couldn't find a video version or I dug in my heels on that point.) Anyway, I believe the Richard II and Henry IV Part 2 we watched were from this very same 1978 BBC series.

So apart from that fairly random collection of movies, and a bunch of even more random cultural artifacts, my most comprehensive knowledge of Shakespeare's opus comes from the Reduced Shakespeare Company (and specifically the six-part radio show they produced back in the 90s), and a book called Shakespearian Whodunits: Murders and Mysteries Based on Shakespeare's Plays which I picked up on a whim around the same time my father got me watching a bunch of the movies. (I found some of the stories kind of interesting, but largely forgettable apart from the gimmick, and definitely subpar as mystery stories in their own right.) As a consequence of the latter especially, I know a fair amount about, e.g. “Cymbeline” (may talk more about that when I get to the podcast in question) because the stories in Whodunits each give a synopsis of the play they're based on, and since the “Cymbeline” mystery is one of the ones I most vividly remember, I also recall most of the plot. (Coincidentally, my aunt's current e-mail signature is a quote from “Cymbeline”: “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.”)

It's also thanks to this that, when I was going through the Mel Brooks film oeuvre, I spotted “Life Stinks” as a retelling of “Timon of Athens” (though with a happier ending).

I can think of one other monarch besides Henry VIII who's known for something other than that Shakespeare wrote a play about him: King John, famous for having signed the Magna Carta, and (as Dan pointed out) for being the main villain in the Robin Hood legend. And as with Henry VIII, the fact that Shakespeare wrote a play about him is probably the least well-known thing about him (indeed, although it's too late to change the order now, I'd argue that his play is even more obscure than Henry VIII, because wasn't there something about the latter not even being staged until after Shakespeare's death?; also I read a book once where several of the characters were staging a production of Henry VIII; also-also, King John is the go-to obscure Shakespeare play in the Reduced Shakespeare Company stage show).

Arthur: Agree with Hamlet being more famous. Nobody ever made a critically acclaimed play out of Romeo and Juliet fanfic. ;)

Maybe not, but they did create a wildly successful musical retelling; come to that, I think Romeo and Juliet has probably inspired a greater number of retellings than Hamlet. I'd still concur that Hamlet is the more famous play, though.

I, too, was wondering what happened to Two Noble Kinsmen during the podcast (thank you again, Reduced Shakespeare Company). Too bad it's not included; I've always kind of wondered what it's like.
Sonia Mitchell at 19:53 on 2013-02-06
Yesterday I was chatting to one of the chaps behind What On Earth Books, who make rather excellent wallchart-books of timelines.

Apparently they're working with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to put together one on the plays, and they started with the plan to do the plays as suggested in the podcast - in chronological order of the events in the plays.

They had to give up (and resort to order of plays being written) because even the SBT couldn't agree on what happens when :-)
Andy G at 15:13 on 2013-04-10
On the quiz show Pointless today, they gave 100 people 100 seconds to name as many of the 14 "non-eponymous" Shakespeare plays as they could (i.e. ones that don't include any names of characters in the title). They didn't give the full results of how many people remembered each play, but here's what they did give:

At the top:

1) Midsummer Night's Dream (about 40/100)
2) Merchant of Venice (about 30/100)
3) Taming of the Shrew (about 20/100)

At the bottom:

12) Love's Labours Lost (4/100)
13) Comedy of Errors (3/100)
14) Measure for Measure (1/100)

Inbetween: Twelfth Night scored around 20, Much Ado About Nothing 12, Merry Wives of Windsor around 10, All's Well That Ends Well 7, Two Gentlemen of Verona 6

By comparison, the Ferretbrain equivalent list:

1) Midsummer Night's Dream
2) The Tempest
3) Merchant of Venice
4) Much Ado About Nothing
5) Twelfth Night
6) Taming of the Shrew
7) The Winter's Tale
8) Measure for Measure
9) The Comedy of Errors
10) Love's Labours Lost
11) The Two Gentlemen of Verona
12) The Merry Wives of Windsor
13) As You Like It
14) All's Well That Ends Well

Pretty close, I think!
Andy G at 15:31 on 2013-04-10
Also, while I remember, apparently Two Gentlemen of Verona (up next?) features the only dog in any Shakespeare play.
Arthur B at 16:28 on 2013-04-10
Also, while I remember, apparently Two Gentlemen of Verona (up next?) features the only dog in any Shakespeare play.

Robinson L at 20:00 on 2013-06-15
It seems to me that one of the themes in this series (and also the discussion of "Anonymous") has been not so much "is Shakespeare relevant today?" so much as "How is Shakespeare relevant today?" the answer to which has implications for how we think about Shakespeare whenever we are confronted with him as a literary figure and/or his work, and also for how to go about staging a production of Shakespeare for a modern audience or an adaptation.

I bring this up because a classmate of mine recently put me onto the BBC's In Our Time podcast, and I found this episode on Shakespeare's work highly relevant to this discussion and broadly in concurrence with Kyra's and Dan's take on what Shakespeare is and is not. Plus, it's just really funny to hear Germaine Greer snarking over the dialogue in "Romeo and Juliet," too bad the episode hits that high point so early on.

The panelists seem broadly in consensus that updating the plays may be useful to help more casual audiences appreciate the crucial aspects of the texts and not trip up over details of setting. While this sounds sensible enough to me, unfortunately, they don't go into the dangers of going overboard with this updating stuff, and, oh, I dunno, putting Alcibiades' army in hoodies and "99%" placards, or something.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in June 2012