Category Archives: Shakespeare

‘THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH’ FROM JOEL COEN ·

(Odie Henderson’s article appeared on Roger Ebert.com 12/23; via Pam Green; photo: Roger Ebert.com)

My high school senior year English teacher, Mr. Kilinski would be proud that I remembered every single stanza and line from Macbeth he made his students memorize. As Denzel WashingtonFrances McDormand, and others worked through the Bard’s words as adapted by director Joel Coen, I felt myself lip-syncing under my mask. I covered the greatest hits, and lines I didn’t even realize I knew. Keep in mind that I learned these words 35 years ago, yet they were as fresh in my mind as if I’d committed them to memory that morning. The Scottish Play holds a special place in my heart, because it forced me to do a complete 180 on William Shakespeare. After my freshman year run-in with Romeo and Juliet and my sophomore year’s Julius Caesar, I was through with this dude and his fancy writing about topics that put my adolescent self to sleep.

Macbeth made me reconsider. Back then, I couldn’t put my finger on why it spoke to me so powerfully that it made me want to read more Shakespeare. But, as an adult, I understood. This play is like a film noir and I was a budding noirista as a teen. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” visually leans into my noirish interpretation. It’s shot in silvery, at times gothic black and white by Bruno Delbonnel, has a moody score by the great Carter Burwell, and takes place on incredible (and obviously fake) sets designed by Stefan Dechant. It also has more fog than San Francisco, the setting for so many great noirs. This makes sense, as Coen and his brother Ethan visited neo-noir’s genre neighborhood more traditionally in their 2001 film, “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” One might consider their debut, “Blood Simple” a neo-noir as well.

Like those films, this one also features McDormand as a shady lady, namely Lady Macbeth. She’s married to Washington’s Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis. As the casting indicates, this couple is older than the one the Bard envisioned, which changes one’s perception of their motivations. Youthful ambition has given way to something else; perhaps the couple is way too conscious of all those yesterdays that “lighted fools/The way to dusty death.” At the Q&A after the free IMAX screening of this film, McDormand mentioned that she wanted to portray the Macbeths as a couple who chose not to have children early on, and were fine with the choice. This detail makes the murder of Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) son all the more heartless and brutal, an act Coen treats with restraint but does not shy away from depicting.

Since The Scottish Play was first performed 415 years ago, all spoiler warnings have expired. Besides, you should know the plot already. Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and the Thane of Glamis meet three witches (all played by theater vet Kathryn Hunter) on his way back from battle. They prophesize that Macbeth will eventually be King of Scotland. But first, he’ll become the Thane of Cawdor. When that part of the prediction becomes true, Macbeth thinks these medieval Miss Cleos might be onto something. Though he believes chance will crown him without his stir, Lady Macbeth goads him to intervene. As is typical of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage will be littered with dead bodies by the final curtain, each of whom will have screamed out “I am slain!” or “I am dead!” before expiring. Coen leaves that feature out of the movie, as you can see quite graphically how dead the bodies get on the screen.

King Duncan’s murder is especially rough. Washington and Brendan Gleeson play it as a macabre dance, framed so tightly that we feel the intimacy of how close one must be to stab another. It’s almost sexual. Both actors give off a regal air in their other scenes, though Washington’s is buoyed by that patented Den-ZELLL swagger. He even does the Denzel vocal tic, that “huh” he’s famous for, in some of his speeches, making me giddy enough to jump out of my skin with joy. Gleeson brings the Old Vic to his brief performance; every line and every moment feels like he’s communing with the ghosts of the famous actors who graced that hallowed London stage.

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‘EXCEEDINGLY RARE’ FOLIO EDITION OF SHAKESPEARE’S HENRY IV FOR SALE ·

(Alison Flood’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/25; Photo:  William Shakespeare Photograph: Stock Montage/Getty Images.)

An original fragment from the first folio, estimated to be worth up to $100,000, will be auctioned this week

An “exceedingly rare” fragment from Shakespeare’s first folio, comprising the whole of the play Henry IV Part One, is to be auctioned this week.

The play has been authenticated as an original fragment from Shakespeare’s first folio by Shakespeare scholar Eric Rasmussen. The first folio was published in 1623 and is the earliest collected edition of Shakespeare’s works. When Shakespeare died, in 1616, only 17 of his plays had been printed. Without the first folio, which collects 36 plays, 18 of his works, including Macbeth and The Tempest, might never have survived. The works were collated and edited by John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s actors and friends, and approximately 750 first folios were printed. Two hundred and thirty-three are known to survive today.

The fragment has been valued at $50,000-$100,000 (£36,000-£73,000) by Holabird Western Americana Collections, which will auction it on 29 October. Officially titled The First Part of Henry the Fourth, with the Life and Death of Henry Sirnamed Hot-Spurre, it consists of 13 printed antique paper pages and is one complete play in the two-part production of Henry IV.

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CHICAGO REVIEW: ‘OTHELLO’ AT COURT THEATRE HAS ALL THE CHILL OF THE LAST YEAR, PACKED INTO A SHAKESPEARE TRAGEDY ·

(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 10/19. Photo: Kelvin Roston, Jr. and Amanda Drinkall in “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” at Court Theatre in Hyde Park. (Michael Brosilow photo / HANDOUT)

When theater historians seek to know the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts in Chicago, the wisest heads will pay some attention to Court Theatre’s 100-minute cutting of “The Tragedy of Othello.”

It won’t be because this production of the Shakespearean tragedy celebrates the pleasure of being back together, as we’ve all heard in curtain speeches in recent weeks elsewhere. There is nothing whatsoever joyous about this chilly, fractured take on “Othello,” a conception that has a dystopian sensibility running through its core.

The show was conceived when it seemed likely that capacity in theaters would remain limited, so just 81 seats are being sold for each performance. Much of the auditorium at the University of Chicago is unused and is covered in a cloth, even as people are seated, masked but without being socially distanced, in a section of the theater.

If this was not a conscious commentary on the shared experience of the last 18 months, then it sure was permeating the subconsciousness of the co-directors, Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent.

Some of the audience is seated on the stage in swivel chairs, isolated even from their most immediate companions, rocking and swaying like nervous competitors in a quiz show. Much the same could be said for the conceptions of the characters in what is typically William Shakespeare’s most intimate tragedy.

Most of the time here, they appear to be consumed by their inner thoughts and trapped by barriers of their own construction on John Culbert’s set, a design that wants to embrace not being a design at all. They watch each other as if at a sad and sculptured remove; the stylized movement makes it appear as if they are no longer alive, at least in the usual humanistic sense. The sensuality — this typically is Shakespeare’s most sensual play — is mechanical and cold.

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WEST SIDE STORY AT 60: THE DAZZLINGLY MODERN MUSICAL THAT’LL BE HARD TO BEAT ·

(Guy Lodge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/18; Photo:  West Side Story: never had bodies in motion been used to shape and dictate a film’s own rhythm quite like this. Photograph: United Artists/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock.)

With Steven Spielberg’s remake almost out, the 1961 original still feels thrillingly contemporary, a tough act to follow

It’s the opening credits that do it right away. Following three eerie whistles over a black screen, West Side Story explodes into a full screen of poster-paint colour – shifting from orange to red to magenta to royal blue – as Leonard Bernstein’s four-minute overture brassily clatters into action. Over the colour, a stark design flourish: seemingly random brigades of parallel vertical black lines, only coalescing at the overture’s end into the tip of Manhattan, viewed from the air, cuing a vertiginous bird’s-eye montage of New York City in motion. That chipper yet chillingly disembodied whistle returns; by the time we finally see a human face, six coolly riveting minutes has passed.

 

This whole title sequence – from the graphics to the aerial photography – was visualised by Saul Bass, the distinctive graphic designer then favoured by such aggressive stylists as Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. It still seems, perhaps even more than anything that follows in West Side Story, sleekly and breath-catchingly modern: a coup of expensive minimalism at the outset of a splashy Hollywood production. That was no accident: in 1961, United Artists set out for the film to be something bracing and new in the movie musical, an industry staple that was looking increasingly out of step with a youth culture turning toward rock’n’roll.

The previous two years had been rough ones for the genre. In 1958, South Pacific may have topped the annual box office while Gigi swept the Oscars, but since then, the only Hollywood song-and-dance films to prove even mild hits had been minor comedies, Disney cartoons or Elvis Presley vehicles. Hopes were high for West Side Story to put the gloss back on to the prestige musical – the 1957 Broadway musical had been a hit with critics and audiences alike – but the studio knew the usual style of overstuffed Technicolor spectacle wouldn’t cut it. The film had to be as propulsively dance-oriented as the stage show, yet expansive and kinetic as cinema. It had to honour the classically romantic roots of its source – this was a riff on Romeo and Juliet, after all – while Saying Something Significant about modern youth and urban society. It had to be family-friendly yet appealing to tearaway teens; it had to court Oscar voters and high-culture critics alike.

It was, in effect, strategised and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life, down to the unusual compromise made on the directorial front. Genius choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose work had been so integral to the stage show’s success, was hired to direct the musical sequences, despite having zero film experience. Industry journeyman Robert Wise was enlisted for the straight dramatic scenes, not despite his lack of musical experience but because of that: best known for stolid black-and-white dramas on stern subjects (he had recently been Oscar-nominated for the grim death-row biopic I Want to Live!), he was intended to bring some grownup gravitas to the exercise. Not that the producers were above naked populism when casting the leads: whether or not there’s any truth to the enduring rumour that Elvis Presley was approached to be the film’s Tony, teen-idol potential took precedence over musical ability: 23-year-olds Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer didn’t sing a note in the film, but couldn’t have lip-synched more prettily.

All of which makes West Side Story sound like a desperately over-calculated, even cynical exercise. Yet as it plays out, from that Saul Bass aesthetic masterstroke onwards, the film remains a blinder: somehow checking off each of those aforementioned, contradictory boxes, it’s formally electric, musically alive and emotionally pummelling, even as its dubbed leads trade in borrowed feeling. West Side Story isn’t unflawed, in ways the show wasn’t either: its overwriting of Shakespeare to lend proceedings at least half a happy ending, with Maria alive and distraught, can’t quite touch the frenzied melodrama of Romeo and Juliet’s dual-death fiasco, and there’s no getting round the fact that its sweet, doe-eyed leads are given a lesson in musical magnetism every time their older counterparts Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are allowed to burn up the frame. (That West Side Story won 10 Oscars, including two for Moreno and Chakiris, while Wood and Beymer weren’t nominated was a harsh way to stress the point.)

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HERODOTUS (ON BBC RADIO 4) ·

(from BBC 4)

HERODOTUS

In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Greek writer known as the father of histories, dubbed by his detractors as the father of lies. Herodotus (c484 to 425 BC or later) was raised in Halicarnassus in modern Turkey when it was part of the Persian empire and, in the years after the Persian Wars, set about an inquiry into the deep background to those wars. He also aimed to preserve what he called the great and marvellous deeds of Greeks and non-Greeks, seeking out the best evidence for past events and presenting the range of evidence for readers to assess. Plutarch was to criticise Herodotus for using this to promote the least flattering accounts of his fellow Greeks, hence the ‘father of lies’, but the depth and breadth of his Histories have secured his reputation from his lifetime down to the present day.

With

Tom Harrison
Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews

Esther Eidinow
Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol

And

Paul Cartledge
A. G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge

Producer: Simon Tillotson

(view on BBC 4)

SHAKESPEARE CUISINE:  THE THREE MOST POPULAR RECIPES FROM BEFORE ‘FARM TO TABLE’ ·

(From Shakespeare & Beyond; Photo: Savory Cogs Biscuits. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.)

With the Folger’s four-year Before ‘Farm to Table’ project drawing to a close, we’re revisiting three of the most popular early modern recipes adapted by the project team and shared on the Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, the inaugural project of the Mellon initiative in collaborative research, used the pervasiveness of food in everyday life as a window into early modern culture. Recipes played a central role in this exploration of food-related topics, given that the Folger is home to the world’s largest collection of early modern English manuscript recipe books.

new website, launched July 27, documents the multi-faceted work of Before ‘Farm to Table’, which included research, lectures, exhibitions, and theater collaborations at the Folger.

Enjoy the recipes shared below and read more blog posts from the Before ‘Farm to Table’ team.

A pirate botanist’s hot chocolate

Our most popular recipe was for William Hughes’s hot chocolate. Marissa Nicosia adapted this early modern recipe for the 2019 Folger exhibition First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas:

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THE HISTORY BEHIND SHAKESPEARE’S HENRIAD SERIES ·

Mollie Murk and Tony Reimonenq III play soldiers in Henry V. | Photo by Jon Cherry

(Marty Rosen’s article appeared in Leo Weekly, 7/14.)

In 1398, King Richard II of England did something that astonished the cutthroat, blood-soaked world of medieval England: he stopped two noblemen from killing one another.

The incident is recounted in great detail in Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland” and in another chronicle by Edward Hall — and should you ever find yourself wishing desperately for another season of “Game of Thrones,” just download Holinshed from Project Gutenberg — you’ll soon wonder how anyone at all survived the Middle Ages.

These chronicles, published in the 1500s, had an enormous influence on the course of English culture and history. They became source material for a slew of Shakespeare’s plays (not only the histories, but “Macbeth “and “King Lear”), as well as a number of his contemporaries.  

What happened in 1398 is that two noblemen, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, came to Richard’s court and accused one another of treason. Richard tried to talk them down, but failed: They threw their gages (armored gloves) upon the ground and in the custom of the day the challenged one another to trial by combat as part of a code of honor.

According to both chronicles, the day of their battle was a grand affair, with some 10,000 knights on hand to keep the peace in case a fight broke out between the men’s factions.

But, at the last possible minute, Richard halted the affair and sentenced both men to exile. This moment leads inexorably to Richard being deposed and Bolingbroke eventually becoming King Henry IV.

For hundreds of years, trial by combat was a fixture of European law, and though King Richard II had the power to stop the duel, his doing so must have felt as disruptive as, say, a U.S. President deciding to suspend the Supreme Court.

It was such a fraught moment that 200 years later, in 1595, Shakespeare used the incident to kick of his play “Richard II” and the epic four play cycle that contemporary critics call The Henriad: “Richard II,” “Henry IV” (parts 1 and 2), and “Henry V.”  

These four plays cover a quarter century that ushers in a new world order. By the end of “Henry V,” the romanticized old world order — represented in “Richard II” by John of Gaunt, who famously laments Richard’s degradation of his beloved “sceptered isle” — has given way to a world where “honor” can first be mocked by the smart, cynical Falstaff — and then comically satirized as Shakespeare depicts people in the scruffy lower classes start to mimic the language and behavior of the gentry.

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