Drama Shakespeare

Good Star Cast Keep “Tempest” Blowing Along

Good Star Cast Keep “Tempest” Blowing Along

A-SH-Tempest (Globe)I am of two minds with the Shakespeare Globe productions being released on the Kultur DVD label. Some are quite good, one was absolutely horrible, but all have enough good aspects to make them worth watching. One of the latest, a 2013 “The Tempest,” has some excellent points to recommend it.

Roger Allam, having done a superb Falstaff in the two “Henry IV” productions, is here an excellent Prospero. He shows the right balance of anger, humor, remorse, and finally forgiveness, making him dangerous and sympathetic at the same time. Jessie Buckley’s Miranda is costumed as a somewhat wild thing, which makes sense, and beautifully shows her wonder at the creatures who appear in her “brave new world.”

While the Ariel of Colin Morgan seems too solid—the role is often played by a small actress or a dancer—the Caliban of James Garnon is the best I have seen. Without any animal-like makeup or costuming, he looks like a dirty denizen of some bog and yet the actor has a face and delivery that elicits sympathy. An original and impressive interpretation of a problematic character.

Miranda and Ferdinand

Joshua James does not look like a romantic Ferdinand (well, Miranda does say that he is only the third man she has ever seen!) and the role is played for laughs. As usual at the Globe, the comic scenes are overdone; although the script does call for a lot of farcical doings between the clownish Stephano (Sam Cox) and Trinculo (Trevor Fox) and then between them and Caliban.

Clowns meet monster

The rest of the cast are good, although some of their lines are rushed and points are lost. Having decided to use a full script, the director failed an important test. In one scene, there is a series of jokes made about the “widow Dido,” none of which are comprehensible as spoken. Since we know that “widow Dido” was pronounced Wid-doh Did-doh in Shakespeare’s time, that alone would have gotten the laughs sorely needed in that sequence.

And as in every production of this play I have seen, the words of the spirits of Iris, Ceres, and Juno were rattled off with no attention to meaning. Worse, one of the actresses had a voice like a rusty hinge that detracted further from both the beauty of the verse and the meaning of the words. Directors, take heed!

But all in all, the Goods outweigh the Bads in this production, and I can recommend it to those interested in Shakespeare and especially to those local theatre groups who can learn much from these Kultur discs.

Drama Shakespeare

An Overblown Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Globe

A-SH-Midsummer (Globe)An Overdone “Midsummer Night’s Dream” from the Globe

There were four major DVDs of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: The 1935 Hollywood version with Dick Powell and James Cagney, the 1968 made-for-television version with Judi Dench and Diana Rigg, the 1981 entry in the BBC Shakespeare series, and the 1999 film version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Now there is a fifth DVD from Kultur of a 2013 production given at Shakespeare’s Globe that could have been the best. But for some reason Artistic and Stage Director Dominic Dromgoole has decided that beautiful poetry beautifully read is not what modern audiences want. For example, I want you, if possible, to listen to Oberon’s’ passage “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” read by Victor Jury (1935) and Ian Richardson (1968) and then compare them to the angry shouting of John Light, who was directed to make the lines sound as commonplace as possible.

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Oberon and Puck in the Globe production

Indeed, Michelle Terry, his Titania, is also angry throughout her scene with Light; and again much or all of the poetry is lost. Since these leads double as Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Terry is still defiant towards her mate, except that as Hippolyta, she seems to enjoy annoying Theseus. It is only in their closing lines as Oberon and Titania that they finally calm down and give a slow reading to describe the witching hour and bless the house.

The two sets of lovers—Sarah MacRae (Helena), Olivia Ross (Hermia), Joshua Silver (Demetrius), and Luke Thompson (Lysander)—know what they are about, when the Director lets them respect the script.

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Titania and temporary lover
Quigley, an interesting Bottom

The rude mechanicals are given far too much silly business and even more ad libs. Whenever possible, they break into a clog dance (once even on grass!). Probably having James Cagney’s over-the-top histrionics in mind, Pearce Quigley is directed to read Bottom’s lines in the most casual way. It is different and somehow it works. But during the actual performance of “Pyramus and Thisby,” he is allowed to utter an obscenity; Fergal McElherron as Peter Quince is given far too many extra lines, and indeed the whole sequence is twice as long as it should be.

Not what Elizabethans thought of when they heard “stones”

There is one dirty joke that only a Shakespeare scholar will get. When the Wall realizes there is no hole through which the separated lovers can kiss, he punches one right in front of his crotch. So when Thisby declaims, “My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones,” the original audience must have rolled in the aisles. (Oh, if you don’t get the joke, look up what “stones” meant in bawdy Elizabethan.)

So while this is certainly the liveliest of all the versions, it loses much of the poetry and adds too much “humor” to the script. Shakespeare does not need help.

The running time is 172 minutes and there are no subtitles.

Drama Shakespeare

“Henry IV” at the Globe

IMG_20150625_0001“Henry IV” at the Globe

   Performances of plays from Shakespeare’s Globe continue to appear on Kultur DVDs, with mixed results. The production of “Henry IV, Parts I and II” (in two separate jewel cases of two discs each) is extremely well done, except for moments of shtick designed to make Falstaff (Roger Allam) “funnier.” Falstaff is funny but never absurd. Here the director goes for cheap laughs from an audience that is assumed not to understand anything subtle.

For example, it is fitting that the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Jade Williams) should vomit. It is not that she should vomit again, this time over a member of the audience. But to spend a full minute of Falstaff’s (simulated) urinating into a small pot is more distasteful than funny. And the entire episode of Ancient Pistol (Sam Crane) disrupting the inn is so loud and slapstick that little of the shouted dialogue is understandable.

Roger Allam out of makeup

Oliver Cotton brings little characterization to Henry IV. When Falstaff reports that the king’s beard has turned white at some bad news, one has already seen his beard to be already white. Didn’t anyone in the make-up department catch this? In fact, Shakespeare uses old age as a theme in Part II, and most of the characters refer to themselves as considerably older than they were in Part I. In this production, no one seems to have aged.

Hal and Falstaff at Quickly’s inn

The story is that Shakespeare really did not wish to bring Falstaff into another play, but the public demanded it. And to tell the truth, that character begins to grow tedious as Part II goes on. Shakespeare is merely recycling the comic material from Part I by extending it. The director does not help by having Falstaff imitate a rock guitarist when playing a lute, and the pelvic thrusts grow tiresome. Since the costumes and setting are all Elizabethan, such anachronisms defeat the purpose of the enterprise at Shakespeare’s Globe.

On the other hand, Allam is an intelligent actor; and for the most part, his Falstaff is quite good. I blame only the director for the faults in his characterization.

Played by Jamie Parker, Prince Hal is forever barnstorming his lines, so that his lowlife Hal and his serious Prince Henry are hard to tell apart. Perhaps some of this is caused by the necessity to speak at full volume so the entire 180 degrees of audience can hear the lines if not see all of the action.

Thanks to a good supporting cast, this is a very satisfactory production of “Henry IV,” with Part I done better than Part II.

The text is fairly complete, which makes for some very long speeches. The actors, especially Oliver Cotton, should be drilled in breaking these speeches into beats, rather than pushing on through them and losing the strings of thoughts so carefully developed by the author.

Much is made of interpolated songs, mostly to cover scenery changes (which are done efficiently by the cast) and sometimes to set a mood. But the dances at the end use modern moves, which again destroys the illusion of “Shakespeare as it once was.”

Note: Try to read “Richard II,” at least the last two acts, or a good synopsis. Most viewers will understand little of the background of these plays without doing so.

The running time of Part I is 167 minutes, that of Part II is 171. The picture is in 16:9 widescreen and there are no subtitles (which are badly needed).

Drama Shakespeare

“Playing Shakespere”

IMG_20150623_0001“Playing Shakespeare”: an Indispensable Tool for Actors

Since 1984, English and Theatre Departments have been swapping original and dubbed tapes of a series called “Playing Shakespeare” that was shown on British and then American television. Well, they can all relax, because it has been for some time now available in a boxed set of 4 Athena DVDs—and what a joy it is.

For starters, just as a pop singer cannot take on a role in opera without a good deal of training in a new style of singing, not just any actor can take on a role in Shakespeare without the same kind of reorientation.

John Barton, head of Playing Shakespeare workshop

“Playing Shakespeare” is a filmed record of nine master classes conducted by Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton before a small studio audience. The topics discussed are “The Two Traditions,” “Using the Verse,” “Language and Character,” “Exploring a Character,” “Set Speeches and Soliloquies,” “Irony and Ambiguity,” “Passion and Coolness,” “Rehearsing the Text,” and “Poetry and Hidden Poetry.”

The students are a cross section of British acting talent from stage, television, and film. Among them are Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Peggy Ashcroft, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and others who will be instantly recognized as “Oh-where-did-we-see-him/her-before?” personalities.

David Suchet, not as Poirot, who swaps Shylock with Patrick Stewart

One of the gems among the tasks Barton sets out for his cast concerns Stewart and Suchet alternating as Shylock and Tubal in the scene in which Shylock learns about his runaway daughter’s squandering the money she has stolen from him. It is remarkable how utterly different approaches can both seem exactly right.

Another exercise that stands out in my mind is having one of the actors play the dying Hotspur, first with all sorts of realistic sounds of pain (which overwhelm the meaning of the lines) and then with only a suggestion of pain while the lines are perfectly comprehensible. Many of our modern actors should learn this skill, once they learn to enunciate their words from the start!

Peggy Ashcroft

The most touching moment comes when Ms. Ashcroft hears on old recording and does not recognize her own voice!

There is also a small booklet with extra information of some use to serious students and teachers. The subtitles are a great help.

One does not have to be a theatre major to enjoy established stage artists honing their skills to endow Shakespearean performances with that extra more-than-life aura that the plays demand. This set is a winner from every point of view.

Our local Shakespeare groups should find this set most helpful–if not essential.

Essay Series Essays

Shakespeare on Broadway, 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

215px-West_Side_001Shakespeare on Broadway 3

Whenever I give a talk that includes the musicals of the 1950s, there is always a laugh when I mention that the original title of “West Side Story” was “East Side Story.” Well, it’s true. In 1949, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents were asked by Jerome Robbins to collaborate on a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet.” But instead of feuding families, there would be feuding religions as a Jewish boy falls in love with a Catholic girl despite the pressures put upon them by their peers.

The idea never came to fruition, but it stuck in Bernstein’s mind. However, for several reasons, he decided to change the religious slant to an ethnic one and moved the action from the East to the West Side of Manhattan. Bernstein explained that the Jewish-Catholic gang problems had died down somewhat, whereas the influx of Puerto Rican families and the culture clashes with the “older” inhabitants were in the news. I personally have always suspected that he made the change because Puerto Rican music provides much better dance sequences than does liturgical music.

Although the playbills and scores show that the lyrics are those of Stephen Sondheim, insiders have always said that some of the songs are entirely the work of Bernstein. But until some evidence is unearthed, one can never tell who wrote what.

On the whole, the Romeo and Juliet story is fairly faithfully handled, what with the rival gangs being the perfect updated version of the Montague and Capulet street brawlers. Even the bawdy humor of the servants that opens up the Shakespeare play is preserved in the mocking “Officer Krupke” sequence.

One of the major elements of the Bernstein creation is the emphasis on dance. So the Capulet ball becomes the dance at the gym; and the now graceful, now dynamic dance numbers nearly compensate for a good deal of the Shakespearean poetry that is lost in this transposition of the action to Manhattan of the 50s.

51Brb1j0CcL._AA160_Passing on to 1971, we have the Joseph Papp production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” This is certainly one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies and not a very well known one at that; so Papp felt he could stick with the plot as given, but set it in a sort of timeless zone in which costumes from all periods could be used. And, of course, set it all to rock music.

Two Gentlemen in Central Park, 1971

Now in my mind, this is a most serious departure from the “feel” of the original. The Shakespeare play is a spoof on the exaggerated importance of fine speaking and witty remarks. Any good production will positively drip with elegance as the young lovers—Valentine and Proteus (guess which one is the unreliable one from the names alone) and the much sought after Julia and her friend Silvia–go through all the superficialities that high society demanded back then. Somehow—and I might get arguments—rock music simply cannot by its very nature carry that essence.

But who can argue with success? The play ran for 627 performances, but never enjoyed a film version or continuing revivals as did “West Side Story.”

The same problems crop up with filming Shakespeare in updated surroundings. At the very least, “thee” and “thou” ring false when “Twelfth Night” (say) is presented in Victorian dress, not to mention the swords. I cannot bring myself to watch the “Titus” film which is set in a nightmare Rome that includes loud speakers and motorcycles and in which no one can create a credible character in this incredible world.

On the other hand, neither Rodgers nor Hart really expected an audience to believe that 1940s tunes were being sung by characters in the ancient world of Ephesus. Then again, “Comedy of Errors” is particularly devoid of beautifully poetic lines. That is why (for me) “The Boys from Syracuse” succeeds where Papp’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” fails. It is not because the score of “Two Gentlemen” is inferior to that of “The Boys”—which it most certainly is—but that it conflicts with the essence of the play whereas the Rodgers score does not.

And what would HE think?

What do you think?


Essay Series Essays

Shakespeare on Broadway, 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

51gWPBUS10L._SY300_Shakespeare on Broadway 2

“Twelfth Night” is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular, delightful and charming of romantic comedies. Using the ancient devices of a woman dressed as man who becomes attractive to both another woman and a man and twins who think the other dead, the plot plunges us into the busy household of the Lady Olivia, who has forsworn marriage and the lugubrious household of the Duke Orsino who will not desist in proposing to her.

As a subplot, we have the revenge of Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, his friend and source of income Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the servant Maria, and the household fool Feste, along with an extra servant or two, on the puritanical Malvolio who thinks that because he is virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale.

Well, is this not all the stuff of musical comedy? In fact, there are just enough songs Shakespeare wrote into the script that nearly qualify “Twelfth Night” AS a musical comedy. So there little wonder that three musicals have used this play as the basis of their plots. Of them, let us consider the two that lasted more than just a few performances and found their way onto recordings.

“Your Own Thing” opened on January 13, 1968 and enjoyed 933 performances. The score by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar is best described as light-rock and the lyrics (by the same team) had nothing to offend the older generation, who were trying to cope with the “Do your own thing” philosophy of their children and grand-children. (Those who had danced the Charleston and Black Bottom to the dismay of THEIR parents might have been more tolerant, but I doubt it.)

Some of the dialogue is from Shakespeare, as are the lyrics to “Come away death” and “She never told her love.” Sebastian and Viola are a rock duo, separated by a sea wreck. Ilyria is New York. Orson manages a rock group. Olivia owns a discotheque. Viola disguised as Charlie gets a spot in Orson’s band. Sebastian, out of the hospital, runs into Orson, who mistakes him for Charlie. And so on. As you can see, it uses “Twelfth Night” as a starting point and then rocks along in its own direction.

Some credibility is given to these errors by the fact that young men’s hair was as longer if not longer than that of most women—as they were in Shakespeare’s time but not in late 19th-century settings that many productions have been given in the past decades.

The music is goofy and pleasant, as you can hear on the RCA Victor CD that is still available.

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The Duke himself

“Play On” did not open on Broadway but became a cult favorite very quickly. I saw it on Public Television and was lucky enough to tape it, because the video is simply not for sale as far as I know. Here the Harlem of the 1940s in the background and the only music heard is that of Duke Ellington.

So when young Vy comes to New York from Mississippi to become a songwriter, she is told by the chorus to “Take the A-Train” up to Harlem. But songwriting is a male profession, so her Uncle Jester suggests she disguises herself as a man and go to the Duke for a kick start. The Duke is in a depression from his breakup with Lady Liv, who sings at the Cotton Club. Add to this Rev, Liv’s secretary, who is in love with her and lets himself gets tricked into a wearing an absurd yellow suit and singing “I’m beginning to see the light”—and you have something very very close to what Shakespeare had in mind.

By the way, “Love and Let Love” is the name of the third musical based on “Twelfth Night” and I would love to hear from anyone who has seen it or has any information about it.

So far we have “Kiss Me Kate” which uses “The Taming of the Shrew” for both the framing device and the musical within the musical, “The Boys from Syracuse” that keeps in “The Comedy of Errors” in a sort of Aegean setting and “Oh, Brother!” that transposes it both in time and place, “Your Own Thing” that updates but does not faithfully follow the “Twelfth Night” sequence of events and “Play On” that more or less does.

This leaves us with two more successful treatments that do indeed stick to the plots of their originals but in different ways. Can you guess what they are?

Essay Series Essays

Shakespeare on Broadway, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

Shakespeare on Broadway – 1Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_Cover

I have lost count of how many operas are based on the plays of Shakespeare. I am also losing count of the Broadway shows that try to translate the plays, mostly the comedies, into contemporary terms. One of the most successful is the one I will start with.

Back in the late 1940s, Cole Porter was in deep trouble. His last few wartime musicals did not do very well while two others were outright disasters, and he was having the devil’s own time raising money for this next show. But the money came his way, and the show opened on December 30, 1948, the first of 1,077 performances; and it went on to garnish awards for best musical, best composer, best libretto (by Bella and Samuel Spewack), best producers, best scenic and costume designs, and even best leading man (Alfred Drake). The source: “The Taming of the Shrew.” The title: “Kiss Me Kate.”

Tamer taming the tamee by turning their honeymoon meal into a nightmare

The critics went wild. Of the 9 major papers, 8 gave it raves while the other was merely very favorable. The Times called it a miracle and compared the score surprisingly with Puccini! The Post called it “a smash hit of epic proportions.” Everything worked right. Even Patricia Morrison, whose voice was predicted not to go further than the third row, was marvelous. And this was on Broadway, where Shakespeare was considered box office poison. The Spewacks were very careful to give the audience two plots, each mirroring the other: Petrucchio:Kate = Fred:Lilly. Not all that original, but very well handled.

This is one of those musicals in which the dialogue is as good as the lyrics. However, audiences went to musicals to hear songs (not to look at computer-driven stage effects as they do today); and great songs were what they got. Those sung as part of the framing plot include  “Too Darn Hot,” “True to You in my Fashion,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” “Wunderbar,” “Another Op’nin’Another Show,” and the very Gilbertian-trick-rhyme song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,”  which have been heard so often out of context. What is really unusual is that even the  songs from the play within the play are just as good: “We Open in Venice,” “I Hate Men,” “Were Thine That Special Face.”

51icpKKNZoL._AA160_Actually, Shakespeare did very well for himself earlier, in 1938, when Larry Hart wanted to write a part for his brother Teddy who looked so much like comedian Jimmy Savo that he could never get a role. Well, since they looked so much alike, Larry went to “The Comedy of Errors,” which involves two sets of twins, one of which is a pair of comic servants. Not surprisingly, Savo was cast as one twin and Teddy fell neatly into place. The result was “The Boys from Syracuse.”

It only ran for 235 performances–remember, the Depression was still with us–and is very seldom performed. Even the 1940 film with Alan Jones seems to have disappeared; and I dearly wish some television station would restore the it and some local group revive the show. There are at least three complete CD recordings of the score, and its absence from the stage is a genuine loss for us all.

Consider the two songs that became hits, “Falling in Love With Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” Among the less familiar numbers are “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” “Sing for Your Supper,” and “What Can You Do with a Man?” Finally, there is a comic duet titled “He and She” that should bring down the house.

Unlike “Kiss Me Kate,” the plot more or less sticks to the Shakespeare original but makes no attempt at period-sounding music. On the other hand, who knows what music sounded like in ancient Ephesus?

In 1981, something called “Oh, Brother!” also used “Comedy of Errors” as the basis for a musical, but it closed in two days. You see, the creators decided to reset the story in the Persian Gulf in modern times. Ken Mandelbaum in his fabulous history of Broadway flops, “Not Since Carrie” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), declares it deserved better. It suffered mainly from a small cast with too many lead roles in a single set. He suggests that with singers like Judy Kaye in the cast, they should have revived “The Boys from Syracuse.” In fact, there was a revival in 1963 that ran longer than did the original.

Now these are two very successful adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll bet anyone could name the blockbuster adaptation that outran even “Kiss Me Kate,” but very few could discuss a 1938 musical based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other flashes in the Broadway pan. Some of them will be discussed in the next issue.

Essays Music history

Shakespeare’s Use of Songs

downloadShakespeare’s Use of Songs

The authenticity of the songs in Shakespeare’s plays is a question for scholars, not for the casual playgoer. Some of their lyrics, most agree, were created by Shakespeare himself. Others might have already existed and were used, with or without permission, as part of the action. We know that inserting songs into plays had been traditional time out of mind before Shakespeare came along; but to what extent they were used dramatically is quite another story.

A quick glance through my memory reveals that some of his plays have no songs at all: “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Henry V,” and “Titus Andronicus,” for example. That does not mean there never were songs in those plays as performed by Shakespeare’s troupe, only that they did not survive in the texts. In “Henry IV, Part 1,” we see the stage direction “Here the lady sings a Welsh song,” creating something of a problem for directors ever since who had no access to a singer who could do so.

“Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It” come close to being musicals, given the frequency of the songs that pop up all through the text. But it certainly makes sense that the comedies should get several songs, while the histories and tragedies get none or just one or two. But it is the use to which the songs are put that makes an interesting study (I hope), so let us peruse a few examples.

First, songs that merely set a mood.

download“Henry VIII,” not entirely by Shakespeare, contains one lovely song, “Orpheus with his lute,” that is sung to Queen Catherine for (it seems to me) the sole purpose of having a song at that point. The lyrics are so impressive that even Arthur Sullivan set it to music; but they seem to have no reference to the situation at that point in the play, except that the Queen asks for a song to cheer her up.

Mariana by Prinsep, 1888

Act IV of “Measure for Measure” opens with the only song in the play, “Take, O, take those lips away.” They are sung by a “Boy” to his mistress Mariana, who is leading a depressed existence since she was abandoned by her lover. The song serves no dramatic purpose, but it beautifully sets the melancholy mood of the scene and of the character.

In the same way, Brutus’ slave sings a song, the lyrics to which are not provided. The fact that the boy falls asleep after it is a dramatic need and not the consequence of the song. But I am sure it was a melancholy one.

For all the formal gaiety of the nobles in “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” the single song comes at the end, comparing life in Spring with that in Winter. It might symbolize the happy plot that turns sad only in the last act. Whatever Shakespeare intended, it does seem (at least) to fit just where it is, bringing the play to a bittersweet end.

There are many other examples of songs that set a mood without serving any dramatic purpose. So let us take a look at some that do help the plot along.

The two gentlemen. one of which will betray the other

The one song, “Who is Sylvia?” in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is performed under these circumstances. The false Proteus has forsaken his beloved Julia and fallen for his best friend Valentine’s beloved Sylvia. He is also false to the clownish Thurio, who has come to serenade Sylvia. Proteus looks on unseen and Julia in disguise enters also unseen. The lovely lyrics of the song and the lovely music (now lost to us) creates an ironic counterpoint to the feelings of the three characters below the balcony. Dialogue simply would not have worked. In short, this is the first example of a song in Shakespeare’s plays that has a dramatic purpose. Julia is not the same after it as she was before.

Roddy McDowall as Ariel in a TV version of “The Tempest”

Then we have Ariel’s songs and Juno’s aria in the supernatural banquet in “The Tempest.” They certainly contribute to and enhance the magical atmosphere of the play as a whole. But only “While you here do snoring lie” serves the dramatic purpose of waking up Gonzalo and saving his life. Caliban’s hymn to his supposed freedom from Prospero is ironic; Ariel’s hymn to his freedom is part of the theme of forgiveness.

“The Merchant of Venice” has a strange bit of vocalizing that might or might not change events. As Bassanio considers which one of the three caskets to choose, some undesignated person or persons sing “Tell me, where is fancy bred.” It cannot be a coincidence that the last words of the first three lines all rhyme with “lead,” exactly the casket that will make the young man’s fortune.

As Shakespeare matured, he learned to make better use of songs in many of his plays—but not necessarily dramatic use. And that will be considered in the next article.

31BRzU6gUsL._AA160_ Up to this point, we have considered songs in Shakespeare’s plays that set a mood but add little or nothing to the plot. Even in the more song-filled plays, they serve merely an atmospheric purpose. Will the playwright ever put a song to DRAMATIC use?

“As You Like It” contains several songs. “Under the greenwood tree” (II, v) sets both the mood and the philosophy of the exiled lords, while Jacques’ parody of it shows his cynical character; and indeed the entire scene could be cut out without any feeling of discontinuity of plot, but much of the theme would be lost. In II, vii, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” merely gives Orlando a chance to give the Duke a synopsis of the events up to that point without the audience having to hear it all again.

Rosalin reading Orlando’s passionate poetry

Act IV, ii simply covers the time between the two meetings of Orlando and Rosalind and consists of ten lines of dialogue and a hunting song, “What shall he have that killed the deer?” It is often dropped from performances. At the very end of the play, the appearance of the god Hymen (or is it a mortal in disguise?) merely calls for a wedding song and a dance. And so Shakespeare’s happiest pastoral comedy makes no dramatic use of song!

There are plenty of songs sung by the woodland sprites in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” However, as lovely as they are as poetry, and one can wonder the melodies to which they were originally sung, they create, yet again, only atmosphere. Yes, one of them puts the besotted Bottom to sleep, but one can scarcely call that furthering the plot.

“Much Ado About Nothing” has only two songs. “Pardon, goddess of the night” (V, ii) is merely an expression of grief for one only thought to be dead. The scene in the garden (II, iii) includes “Sigh no more, ladies,” the sentiments of which are designed to trick Benedick into admitting his true feelings for Beatrice. It seems to work, especially when reinforced by the jokesters’ remarks about Beatrice loving him. But it is the dialogue, not the song, that really pushes Benedick into action.

(c) University of Bristol Theatre Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Artist’s concept of Feste the jester in “Twelfth Night,” who gets some great songs to sing

“Twelfth Night” has Feste singing mood-setting songs at someone’s request. However, the snatches of song bellowed by the drunken Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Feste does incur the wrath of the Puritan Malvolio, which leads to him being gulled into thinking his ladyship loves him—and so on—and here at last is a song  that gets things moving!

Later in his career, Shakespeare began to experiment with songs that show the state of mind of the character who sings the song. And, interestingly enough, they are found in the tragedies.

For example, utterly confused concerning her husband’s hostility toward her, Desdemona is getting ready for bed and recalls that her mother once had a maid named Barbary, who had gone mad when her lover forsook her. She then sings the maid’s song of “Willow.” The words are a perfect reflection of her mood and filled with unintentional irony. By now Shakespeare has learned how to use a song to enhance the complexity of a character.

Ophelia in the famous Millais painting

Even more revealing are the songs sung by the mad Ophelia in “Hamlet” (IV, v). “And will he not come again” is both a lament for her dead father, Polonius, and possibly for her lost love, Hamlet. More to the point is her singing the bawdy “To-morrow is Saint Valentine‘s Day,” expressing ideas that “good girls” of her time were never supposed either to feel or even to know about. In Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s death, it is significant that “she chanted snatches of old tunes” as her garments grew heavy with water.

So it is not the dramatic use of songs in his later plays that makes Shakespeare the wonder that he is but his psychological use of songs to reveal the hidden thoughts of characters. I feel it a shame that there are so few examples to draw upon.

download (4)For those interested in hearing the lyrics as they might have been heard in Shakespeare’s theater, I can recommend Ross W. Duffin’s “Shakespeare’s Songbook” (Norton, 2004). It includes two CDs with the first stanza of every song in the book and should prove valuable to scholars as well as theatre groups who wish to stage the plays with the earliest settings of the songs that have survived over the centuries.

Essays Literary sources

The Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

220px-Poster_TurandotThe Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

The plot of Puccini’s last opera “Turandot” hinges on the nameless suitor answering three riddles. Readers familiar with myth and folklore will instantly recognize this as an element common to many tales.

The suitor in “Turandot” is faced with having to answer three abstract riddles, the answers to which are “Hope,” “Blood,” and “Turandot.” (One wonders if each suitor got the same three, considering that they are read out loud and word must have gotten around if they were unchanged through the years!) If he wins, he gets the Princess; if he loses, he loses his head. Since Turandot herself is the cause of many deaths in the past, one should keep her association with Death in mind as we proceed in this essay.

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Careful of whom you ask questions!

In Wagner’s “Siegfried,” Wotan in his guise as The Wanderer, plays (as Anna Russell puts it in her spoof of the Ring Cycle) 20 Questions with Mime. The dwarf wages his head (cf. the wager in “Turandot”) that he can ask his guest three questions and then answer whatever three the guest proposes. Mime’s questions are easily answered by Wotan, and Wotan’s first two questions are easily answered by Mime. The last question, however, “Who will forge the sword?”, puts Mime in great jeopardy. Again, the last answer concerns an instrument of death—and again the contestant’s head is at stake.

Gold, silver, lead?

In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Bassanio is confronted with three caskets: gold, silver, lead. A portrait of his beloved Portia is in one. The audience knows which casket is the right one, because it has seen two other suitors choose the wrong ones. What is at stake here is Bassanio’s love and his need for money, both of which Portia is willing to satisfy—and indeed she has a song sung to Bassanio before he chooses in which most of the end words rhyme with “lead.”

Consider, now. Lead is associated with bullets and coffins, and is found deep in the earth. Again, Death lies in the third riddle.

In the folk tale, Goldilocks enters the house of the Three Bears. From the best bowl of porridge to the best bed, the first and second choices are too extreme while the third is always “just right.” When the anthropomorphic family returns, the little human barely escapes with her life—and a record of breaking and entering, I suppose.

1024px-Page_69_illustration_in_English_Fairy_TalesAnd what about the Three Little Pigs? The third survived the Big Bad Wolf, so perhaps death is not always the reward. Symbolism is not required to be consistent.


ts141207In myth, the shepherd Paris (or in some versions, Alexander) is suddenly faced with three naked goddesses, each of whom bribes him to award her the Golden Apple. Hera offers him the rule of Europe and Asia, Athena offers him the power to lead Troy to victory against the Greeks, Aphrodite offers him the fairest woman in the world. Since the latter is Helen of Sparta and her departure to Troy with Paris leads to the death of countless soldiers and citizens, that third choice seems yet again one of certain death.

One step back again to very early myth. The Moon appears in three phases. When full, it is Selina, Queen of Heaven. When it is in the shape of a bow, it is Artemis, the Huntress Queen of the Earth. When it is the New Moon (that is, no moon at all), it is black Hecate, Queen of the Underworld. And there we are again!

Beware that third wish, according to Dr. Freud

Freud considered this theme and concluded that humans will forever harbor a Death Wish, making choices that lead thereto. I see it from a different point of view. The very essence of three-ness is that three points form a triangle. Consider that nearly every comic opera plot concerns two characters of one sex in love with a third party of the other. In “Marriage of Figaro” there is the Figaro-Susanna-Count triangle; in “Oklahoma!” there is the Curly-Laurey-Judd triangle; in “The Mikado” we have Nanki Poo-Yum Yum-Ko Ko!

If we consider one of the males to be Thesis and the other Antithesis, there can be no Synthesis (i.e., a Happy Ending) unless the undesirable suitor bows out willingly or otherwise. This is the one of the great elements of comedy.

In tragic operas, however, that Synthesis can be brought about only in Death. So Aida and Radames can be united only in the tomb while Amneris curses the priests from above. Violetta and Mimi must both die of consumption because Life with the Beloved has proven impossible. Both Tannhauser and his Elizabeth must die to be united (one supposes) in a better world.

And of course the greatest example of love-in-death is that of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner tells it. But more about that in some other essay.

Going full cycle, then, back to “Turandot,” her first kiss from a man suddenly brings her over to his way of looking at things and the opera ends happily (if one ignores the death of little Liu, the only really sympathetic character in this tale). And yet, a recent production of this opera (available on a DVD) takes a chance and has Turandot stab herself at the last moment, even as the chorus is singing about how wonderful life will be in Peking. Personally, I think the tenor doesn’t know how lucky he is!

Drama Shakespeare

A Shrew is Tamed at Shakespeare’s Globe


A-SH-Taming [Globe]A Shrew is Tamed at Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” might be done as a comedy rather than as a farce; but that would be very hard to pull off. After all, Petruchio is sadistic in his taming techniques. And if we consider Katherina as a sentient human being, this play can be painful. Also a modern audience’s attitude toward the husband-is-master axiom is not that of the 1590s. So farce is the way to go.

And that is the course taken at Shakespeare’s Globe production in London in 2012, now available on a Kultur 2-DVD set. Here Simon Paisley Day plays a tall, unsexy shrew-tamer to Samantha Spiro’s unwilling bride. Using an unabridged script, they decided to introduce a drunk “from the audience” to play Christopher Sly, who is gulled into thinking he is a noble lord. This gimmick doesn’t work, because the drunk wakes up to speak Elizabethan English for no discernible reason.

As I found Spiro to be the worst professional Lady Macbeth ever in the Globe production—or parody—of that play, I find her Katherina to be too one-dimensional up to the scene in which she realizes what Petruchio is up to. Then she gets some non-shouting comedy into her characterization. The famous/infamous speech at the end about women being wholly subservient to their husbands is done straight without any winks to the audience or any other suggestion of irony. The audience is deadly silent during the lines and applauds her reading, if not the sentiments.

Sarah Macrae shows Bianca to be the real shrew early in the play and a really nasty piece of goods at the end when the three newlywed husbands bet on their wives’ obedience. (You do know the plot, don’t’ you?)

Quigley, a very good Grumio

I really like how Pearce Quigley plays Petruchio’s much abused servant Grumio. He reminds me of Baldrick in the “Black Adder” series, and is given that horse-hoof clapping gimmick from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to make up for lack of that animal on stage. It is not, however, necessary for Day to show his bare bottom to cast and audience when he shows up for the wedding. (The idea is stolen, I think, from a live Monty Python performance in which the entire male cast moons the audience. Very funny.)

The costumes are colorful, the pacing fast but with little loss of comprehensibility. And if it is too much to expect Kultur to include the subtitles that are on the British DVDs (on the OpusArte label), one can always keep an open text on one’s lap. I do so enjoy the productions’ keeping the Shakespearean tradition of a dance before and during the final bows.

The running time is 167 minutes and there is no cast or tracking lists provided.