Thursday, May 27, 2010

A gift for a phrase... And for feminism...?

Firstly, I promise that I am reading Comedy of Errors, and shall tell you about it, but, one small digression...

Hannah/West Wing Bandit left a comment the other day on "Doing Things in the Right Order" that I rudely forgot to reply to (sorry Han!). I had been referring to Billy's gift for phrases and the huge number of quotations credited to him. Hannah said:

"Interesting...but can it just be that his records are the FIRST to have written
those quotes down??? Is that why he's credited with 'coining the phrases'...
could it be possible they were already around,
or is that was 'coining the phrase' means?"

Basically, it's impossible to tell for certain (as are most things to do with Shakespeare!). However, from the surviving manuscripts of other playwrights at the time, such as Ben Jonson and Kit Marlowe, as well as other documents (thousands from that era of all types of documents), it would seem that if any of Shakespeare's quotes were common parlance at the time, no one else really bothered to write them down. Strange though it may seem, it is quite probable that with his fantastic gifts for drama and language, Billy just hit upon the perfect description, witticism or image more often than not.

For example, "to be, or not to be, that is the question" is a stand out quote not so much because the words are unusual, but because they burrow straight into the brain and stay there. And that's Billy's gift.

One of Billy's other gifts is his understanding of women and ability to write strong, interesting, vibrant and funny female characters (also a lot of fabulous female villains. Oh Lady Macbeth, how I love to loathe thee!).

Considering the fact that all female roles were played by young men and that most other playwrights just didn't bother even writing many lines for women, this is quite fantastic. What a mind-blowing exercise it would've been though for his original audiences to watch a young man playing a woman playing a man, such as with Viola in Twelfth Night - conFUsing!!

And in Comedy of Errors, probably among his first plays, Billy's gift for understanding women is right out on display.

Not just his understanding of our vulnerability in the area of fat jokes - yes, that's right, I found one of my favourite quotes again, "she is spherical... I could find out countries in her". Isn't that great?!!

But he also displays his understanding in, um, more important matters also...

Comedy of Errors is a farce (that's not a bad thing!). The action is all carried out in one day, where two identical twins with the same name, and their identical servants, also with the same name, are wandering around Ephesus, just generally getting into one huge scrape. So, it's hilarious, and bawdy, and would've been a very very funny play.

However, there is still such a depth there, and where it first hits me is in the dialogue given to the female characters. The first scene with Ephesian Antipholus' wife Adriana and her sister Luciana is fantastic!

But also a little scary...

The writing expresses so well the anxiety that can consume a housewife who is obviously an interesting and intelligent person, but who has not much to do except wait around for her husband to come home for lunch. It's Betty Freiden four centuries too early!

Adriana and Luciana have a fascinating back and forth about the wifely "duty" to be patient at the will (and whim) of her husband, to be obedient, with Luciana (unmarried) essentially telling her sister just to deal with it, and Adriana pointing out that she has no idea what it's like to wait around on a husband.

Actually Adriana is worried that the reason her husband is home late is because he's cheating on her. Why does she think this? Possibly he's pretty crap at expressing love for her. Possibly because in the society being portrayed, women were actually the property of their husbands, and therefore didn't have a strong sense of security that he wasn't going to do whatever his penis told him and would instead live up to the promises and comittments he's made to her.

Possibly she's just got bugger all else to think about because no one would educate her or allow her to do much other than cook dinner...

Whatever the reason, she's stressed out and freaked out, and Shakespeare does an excellent job of representing her anxiety sympathetically.

What it would've been like to watch two young guys playing that scene is a little beyond me, but I swear I've witnessed almost that exact conversation, and wondered the same things as Luciana wonders...

Isn't that amazing?

And it's not even the Bible!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Comedy of Errors

Seeing as the whole point of this blog is for me to actually read some Shakespeare, not just read about him, I figured I should stop procrastinating, get down and dirty and get into it.

So I "solved" the whole chronology problem by deciding to go with the table in the front of my Collins that was included in the introduction to the 1951 edition. I figure it'll stay with me as I cart the book around, and I can tick the plays, poems and sonnets off in pencil and feel very smug, which I look forward to.

The table said I should begin with the Comedy of Errors, so I have, and let me tell you, my brain took a while to clunk into gear at first.

I know that for many of you, reading Billy the Bard is an experience equivalent to drowning. No expression, no description, no image, no plain dialogue makes any sense to you at all, and so after a page, you're asphixiating slowly in a flood of phrases, eyes sliding closed, brain blacking out, hand's grasping wildly at all persons near you to force them to explain. And then, you stop struggling, your face grows increasingly pale, and you slip down into your chair in the back of English class, succumbing to the sweet sweet relief of death. For in death, you think, you won't have to read any more Shakespeare!

Well surprisingly, for those who suspect my love of the Bard is based solely on a snooty capacity to understand what he's talking about, I too share that experience of drowning-whilst-reading-unassisted.

When I come back to the Bard after a long absence, it is a little like riding a bicycle. All the muscle memory does eventually kick back in, but at the beginning, it's all very wobbly. After a while, I can begin confidently to increase speed and difficulty, begin racing up hills and down again, swooping joyfully all over the place, but just like all of us, I couldn't ride a bike immediately, I needed lessons, and training wheels, and a helmet, and adult supervision.

And for some us, all that much needed preparation was done pretty poorly in school, partly because some of our teachers couldn't ride the bike themselves, leaving them and us nowhere, and partly because some of us hadn't really read much of anything at all by the time we needed to tackle Shakespeare, and that makes the whole enterprise difficult in itself. It's like an immensely fat kid going from no exercise a day to a 10k run instantaneously - it's going to hurt, a lot, and may end in cardiac arrest. There needs to be a warm up, and some training.

(P.S. I will note here and now and forevermore. I am allowed to make whatever gentle fat jokes I like, for I am fat myself, and have heard them all. We fat people (mostly) understand one another, but if a fat person would like to register a complaint, please do, and I shall consider toning it down. You skinny people can just shut it :-)

One of the things about Shakespeare that most confuses those who now have to struggle with him in the 21st Century is that his was the language of the common people of his time, and yet it seems so inscrutable to us now... Even my Collins edition comes with a 2,500 entry glossary, (which I only just discovered!) "explaining the meaning of obsolete words and phrases" for the dumbfounded reader. We obviously all need help!

And I think that's ok. It's fine. It's completely appropriate that with all the shifts in language and meaning, with all the new things we've needed words for, and all the old things we don't even know of any more, it's understandable that a person can't simply pick up Shakespeare and understand all.

But let the language wash over you a little. Not in dunking breakers, but in gentle slap-slap-slaps to your semi-submerged face, and you begin to understand a little. After a while, you find you're grasping aspects of the plot, and as the scene changes, all of a sudden, you think you've figured out basically what's going on!

What joy! What rapture!

Now all of a sudden there's two pages of dialogue you don't understand at all, oh no! The blackness begins to creep in at the edges again, and your egg-beaters are powering away under the surface to remain upright and floating...

But then that character from that scene you did basically understand comes staggering on into this one, and you see the action again and know what's going on!

It's fantastic! It's funny! It's all beginning to make sense!

It's Shakespeare.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Doing things in the right order.

Ok so here's the thing.

It turns out that when I'm interested in something and I'm not going to be marked on it, I am quite capable of becoming organised, researched and fully prepared. Though I prove almost incapable of actually doing the required amount of research for a lot of my college assignments, I have begun reading and researching for this blog like nothing else.

Having long ago read through the various prefaces and introductory chapters in my Collins Edition, (including a mini-bio by Ms Germaine Greer) I decided I needed more info. My first go-to was Bill Bryson's Shakespeare the Illustrated Edition (thank you super-cheap store under Central Station – hallelujah). And I've got one word to say to you. Faaasskinating.

Did you know that our William, Billy, ol' Billy Boy, is responsible for roughly one tenth of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations material (Bryson, pg 151)? He coined many phrases, a couple that I knew of (“one fell swoop” and “the milk of human kindness” for eg) and some that truly stunned me to know of their origin.

For example, a favourite amongst country folk to this day, Shakespeare created the description “blinking idiot”! Also “vanish into thin air”, “bag and baggage”, “flesh and blood” (!!), “foul play”, “be cruel to be kind”, “pomp and circumstance” and “foregone conclusion”. Wow!! What a wordsmith!

400 years after writing his plays, we still constantly quote Shakespeare, even when we don't realise it at all.

As I said, I don't think you have to be highly educated to read Shakespeare. You certainly don't have to be highly educated to call someone a blinking idiot! Quoting Shakespeare isn't an act of toffery, it's normal every day use of English!

One of the most interesting dilemmas my research has raised for me thus far is the issue of chronology. Almost no one can actually agree on the order in which Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, and there simply is not enough historical data to go on! Personally I would prefer, I think, to read them as close to original birth order as possible, in order to gain a sense of Billy's development as an author, and scry out the development of particular themes. However, there are several major disputes to overcome in making that decision (not least of which my request for votes on where to start!).

The intro in the Collins lists Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew and the Three Parts of Henry VI as his earliest works... And unfortunately the Tempest among the very last! (Why include it first I ask you?!!)

So I'm still pondering... What do you think? Is chronology important? Should I read them in order or not?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

It's nice and fat.

Despite being at least four inches thick, it's surprisingly lightweight.

Bearing a facsimile of the Chandos portrait, allegedly but uncertainly of the man himself, my Collins Complete Works of William Shakespeare won't cause too much strain to the shoulder muscles as I haul it around town for the next year or so.

Nor did it cause too much strain to the hip pocket nerve. As I recall, it was a sweet 16 bucks, and I talked my mum into buying it for me in a post-Christmas, A&R sale at Orana Mall before I moved out of home in Dubbo to Sydney for further study. It was a good purchase.

I know this will sound anachronistically 'high-brow', but is it possible to do "futher study", or more particularly a Journalism Diploma and an Arts Degree, without occasionally dipping into The Bard as a source of all that is golden and good in our language? I don't think so. Which is why I have reasonably frequently thumbed the delightfully parchment coloured pages of this tome to refresh my memory of one of the great speeches or sonnets, or to check if I have recalled a phrase correctly, or just to re-rehearse the passage in Twelfth Night wherein my middle name is hallooed to the reverberate hills (ever since learning that particular scene for Shakespeare Festival in Year Nine, it has given me great joy to quote it when people ask what the O stands for... Mostly people never know what I'm rabbiting on about...).

Of the many many silly things I've had to read in my 19 years of school (and counting), there have been many which have caused me to raise my eyebrows in perturbation, roll my eyes in exasperation and grit my teeth in condemnation. Never ever has Shakespeare made me do this.

I emphasise the 19 and counting not so much to talk up my educational qualifications for approaching this project, (who should need to be highly educated to read Shakespeare?! And I'm not sure that I am highly educated anyway...) but to draw attention to the endlessly satisfying fount of interest and delight that has remained without peer amongst all the literature I've chosen or been required to read.

Not because there are no other excellent authors who have surprised, challenged and inspired me, educated and filled me with joy. It's not really a comparison of depth. Shakespeare does have much that deeply satisfies, but Shakespeare, for me, has remained unparalleled mostly because he has much. He wins in the muchness stakes. There are just so many plays and poems and possibilities that ol' Bill's pretty hard to beat for pouring out buckets of the good stuff (as Bertie W might say).

Just $16 for buckets and buckets of the most startling, fascinating, hilarious, vile, disgusting, awe-ful, wise, vainglorious, meaningless, piercing, rhythmic literature to feast on feels... Well, I was going to say like robbery... But it doesn't. It feels liberating. It feels exciting! So many wonderful wonderful words, and sentences, and verses, and plays, available so cheaply for EVERYBODY to read!!!

But we don't.

We hardly do.

My housemate was surprised when I knew not just which play but which author she was quoting from - Shakespeare!

I think if pressed, most of my friends could recall the plot of Romeo and Juliet correctly, but ask them to take a stab at Lear, Hamlet, Henry V, Much Ado or even Julius Caesar and they'd be stumped. There's been no movie out for ages (or at least, not one with Leonardo DiCaprio in, and therefore, not one that they'd have seen), and even if they'd worried their way through one or more of those in highschool English classes, the plots and dialogue have long fallen down the back of their memory-couches, next to the basic rules of algebra and how to thread a bobbin.

And that makes me sad...

I'm happy to leave algebra there, gathering dust and cockroach eggs, and I can remember how to thread a bobbin sometimes, so I don't much mind about that.

But I'd like to pull Billy out from under the couch, dust him off and have a look. I'd like to plumb the depths of his dating advice, get his best strategies for taking revenge on sworn enemies and glean his wisdom on cross-cultural relationships. You know, all the stuff that is so relevant to modern life.

Please vote (via commenting) on whether I should start with tragedy or comedy. The first play in the book is The Tempest (Oh Prospero!), but I'm happy to start wherever.