Talking About the Weather – Man vs. Wild… er, Nature?

Artwork - Leigh MacRae
Artwork – Leigh MacRae

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Welcome Brawlers, to a special episode of the Bard Brawl!

I promised you a post on the weather, astrology and nature in King Lear. However, we’ve done one better: Daniel and I got together yesterday for a short discussion of the play – and yes, we did talk about the weather.

There are a lot of different themes in Lear, a bunch of which we list and touch upon in this episode. However, King Lear is really a play about “Nature”.

Notice the scare quotes and the capital ‘N’? Yeah, there’s a good reason for that.

When we think of nature, we tend to think of birds, trees, hiking, national parks, Bear Grylls, whatever. And yes, nature could mean that to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, too. However, Shakespeare is much more interested in Nature, as in human nature.

The idea of Nature, what is it, and whether it is in fact good or bad, is very much up for grabs in this play. One of the (many) reasons Lear is still so popular is that even in the present, we haven’t managed to agree on the character of “Human Nature”. Is there even such a thing?

While this is grossly oversimplifying things, there tends to to be two models of Nature in the play.

On the one hand, we have the model which Lear and Gloucester subscribe to. In their view, daughters and sons are ‘by nature’ inclined to love their parents. That natural bond is supposed to ensure that children and parents get along and that children will take care of their parents when they are no longer able to care for themselves.

Also, Gloucester is very much interested in astrology and celestial events which he sees as portents of things to come in the realm of human affairs. It is entirely natural to him to see a comet streak across the sky and to associate that with some impending disaster in society. Why? because it suggests that some part of this well-oiled system is out of balance. When everything is working naturally, the natural world is sympathetic to and connected with humanity – and has humanity’s best interests at heart.

Another way of saying this is that Nature programs these behaviours into us in order to prevent society from crumbling into chaos. As a result, Lear and Gloucester place a tremendous amount of trust in this system.

What does Lear call Goneril and Regan after he is refused admittance with his knights: “You unnatural hags!” That is, their behaviour runs contrary to the natural model of the parent-child relationship.

And then there’s Edmond.

Clearly, he’s got no interest in his daily horoscope.

And why would he? According to his father’s model of the universe, he’s supposed to be the reject, the one left out, somehow less important or valued because of a simple accident of birth.

In his first speech, Edmond days; “Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound.” Clearly, he’s not talking about the same ‘Nature’ which Lear and Gloucester are referring to. His understanding of nature is the complete opposite of Lear and Gloucester’s.

Yet it is perhaps much closer to what we might think of when we consider human nature.

Lear and Gloucester live in a world where Nature runs everything, where your successes and failures are the result of the world working for or against you. However, Edmund sees human nature as self-directed and he’s pretty straight-forward with us: You think I’m ruthless and conniving because I was born out of wedlock?

My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.

Edmond admits that he chose to act this way. He wasn’t born this way, and the planets had nothing to do with it.

Can’t get enough of the Lear? Check out Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcast on the fated king.

Enjoy your holidays and we’ll be here again next week for act IV of King Lear.

Bonus sonnet 22 read by Hannah Dorozio.

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, Show notes by Eric Jean, music by Jack Konorska)

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The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1983), Jane Howell (Director)

I have finally understood why, at least for the last 30 years, Henry VI, part 1 is not taught or read: Jane Howell’s BBC production of The First part of Henry the Sixth took it out back and shot it. Repeatedly.

Where to begin?

The First Part of Henry the Sixth (Tv 1983) is not, strictly speaking, a movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. While it does make use of some cinematic techniques, it is essentially a filmed staging of a stage play without any of the energy or tension which accompanies the live theatre experience.

That, I think, may be exactly where the problems start for Howell: she doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether this is a movie or a play. The result is a schizophrenic blend of kitsch costumes, tired stage conventions and amateurish camera work. It’s a distracting hot mess that seems especially designed only to confirm the popular opinion, that Henry VI part 1 is a bad play.

The sets and costumes look like they were produced for and by a high school drama class. One possible reason cited for this choice is to showcase the often petty and childish nature of the infighting which characterises the War of the Roses. However, I feel that it backfires in The First part of Henry the Sixth: instead of showing us the petty nature of the War of the Roses (which seems plain enough in Shakespeare’s language anyway), it turns Henry VI part 1 into a bit of a joke by cheapening what are also the very serious consequences of these wars. Very unfortunate.

Jane’s First Part of Henry the Sixth is part of a larger collection of made-for-TV movies produced by the BBC in the late seventies and early eighties. The BBC television Shakespeare was an ambitious project not entirely unlike the Bard Brawl’s in scope: to produce a filmed version of each one of Shakespeare’s plays. And to their credit, they did manage to complete the project – you can order the complete 38 DVD set from the BBC or on Amazon and then you will own this gem forever! Or you can buy something you’ll actually watch. Whatever.

Given that the purpose of the BBC’s project was to produce largely faithful to the text versions of these plays, Howell’s film works its way through Shakespeare’s play without any noticeable leaps, omissions or inventions on Howell’s part. The setting of the play is fifteenth century Europe and it opens with English nobility gathered for Henry V’s funeral. The language is Shakespeare’s and the movie ends where Shakespeare’s play ends.

One of the few differences: Howell chose to open the film with a dirge sung by Henry V’s son who was played by 40 year-old Peter Benson.

I guess they missed the part where Henry VI was nine months old when his father was killed, and about 12 years-old during the rest of the play.

I’ll spare you the plot synopsis seeing as we’ve already done one for each act and Howell’s film follows almost exactly Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1. (You can refer to our previous posts on Henry VI, part 1 if you need a quick plot reminder.)

After all of this, is The First Part of Henry VI a total wash? No. There are a few, precious – oh, so very rare and precious – pearls locked up within this clam.

Trevor Peacock manages to deliver a Talbot which is every bit the hardened, noble English warrior of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1. Brenda Blethyn plays a very energetic and active Joan who has the entire French court wrapped around her fingers. Too bad the stage fighting, a large part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 1, is so bad. It just turned Pucelle’s fight with Talbot – which is one of many great action scenes in this play – into a farce

As I watch this, I wonder why Howell insists on draining just about every one of the action sequences of its dramatic potential?

In my opinion, however, the strongest and most successful character is Richard Planatagent, Duke of York who is played by none other than the brilliant Bernard Hill. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it should. But maybe you know him by his other name, King Théoden of Rohan.

While the BBC’s project to adapt every one of Shakespeare’s plays to film verbatim was an excellent initiative from an archival perspective, it really failed to produce something that brings Shakespeare to a new audience in a way which is both easily accessible and engaging. In the end, Howell’s choices in The First Part of Henry the Sixth results in a finished product which is alienating and off-putting.

The First Part of Henry the Sixth remains an excellent study… in how NOT to bring Shakespeare’s works to life.

(Eric Jean is co-creator of the Bard Brawl.)

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The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Franco Zeffirelli (director)

Miki Laval

I’m certainly not the first to say it; for modern audiences the Taming of the Shrew is often a problem. Yes, there’s plenty of boisterous and bawdy slapstick comedy, and some hilarious and confusing role reversals, but how to accept a play that so thoroughly breaks the spirit of its lead female character? There’s no possible way to address the role of Katherine without touching on the play misogynistic elements, yet instead of a literary or feminist critique allow me to bring up two iconoclastic females: Cinderella and Elizabeth Taylor.

We all know the story of Cinderella, or Cendrillion. But shew tales, as they were called, were once as widely known as the story of maltreated daughter and her glass slipper. Different shrew versions mucked about with the details, but the basic plot stayed constant: a good husband, saddled with a surely wife, turns her obedient through intimidation and violence. The violence is always brutal, on par with the Brother’s Grimm’s or Charles Perrault. (In one version the wife is sewn up in the skin of a dead horse and beaten.) Yet shrew tales share another trait with the fairytale or fable; they function around a dependable and repetitive plot in order to convey a moral lesson. In allegory, plot takes precedent over individual character, the sine qua non of modern literature. Why exactly is Cinderella’s stepmother evil? Hard to say, really, because in most versions she’s devoid of any personal qualities. Why does Cinderella get the prince? As a moral lesson that the oppressed and long suffering will eventually be rewarded. (A witty feminist view on a similar fairytale Beauty and the Best can be found here.) For a Shakespearean audience to ask why the shrew is tamed would be akin to asking why Cinderella’s stepsisters are bitchy. The general fairytale plot dictates that stepsisters are jealous, and so they are a dependable nasty piece of work. Or, in other words, the shrew is tamed because the shrew is always tamed.

It’s fare to conclude that a play peopled with allegorical type characters isn’t concerned with individual behavior or personality. In Shrew, Shakespeare seems more interested in the comedic friction of common love tropes, intertwining two well-known love narratives, the shrew tale of Petruchio and Kate, with the courtly love story of Bianca and Lucentio. Still, Kate’s transition, or capitulation, from feisty broad to tamed submissive wench, has always left some audiences uncomfortable, and any director or actress taking on Kate does so fully aware of the sexual politics.

Franco Zeffirelli’s solution is to cast the all mighty Taylor as Katherine against Richard Burton as Petruchio. The couple, together in real life, poured millions into the production and took a salary cut, which probably edged them out over his original choice, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. (Pause for a moment to envisage that screen version.)

Taylor and Burton’s notorious love affair works perfectly for Shew. Much like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf the power struggle often seems snatched from the dynamics of Liz and Dick’s private off screen relationship, which was epic, scandalous, fiery, and loud. More importantly, in the Liz and Dick saga, everyone knew Elizabeth Taylor was no push over.

Liz was a powerful screen presence, with an off screen taste for excessive jewelry, for men, for furs, and for all round luxury. The woman had appetite. It’s hard to imagine, in our world of corporate produced starlets, such a fiery, fleshed out female allowed demi-goddess status, but in her prime, Liz was magnificent, and she brings all that hot loud beauty to Katherina Minola. She hurls furniture and ripostes at a world that allows no place for her enormous energy, or the largeness of her personality. Defenders of the play claim Petruchio and Kate are an equal match, and in Zeffirelli’s version the statement passes. When Burton, as Petruchio, comes swaggering into Kate’s life the films slows to a swoon as one pair of blue eyes size up the violet gaze staring straight back.

Watch Kate, or Liz as Kate. She moves from anger, to desire, to fear, then back to anger again usually in a single scene, skipping across the gauntlet of emotions as smoothly as a peddle skips across a lake. That’s Liz. Petruchio throws her a slew of humiliations and in return she takes control of his house, and wins over his servants. She  seethes. She schemes. She smirks. She quite likely has the hots for him. Their relationship falls into the angry passionate sexy category. We’ve all had those friends, the couple who bicker in public, and make everyone uncomfortable. At least in this version the dynamic plays out, building as a climax towards the famous final scene.

Endings, whether in plays, film, or novels, are usually read as the summation on whatever themes have been explored. When Kate declares obedience to Petruchio, offering to place her hand under his foot, Shakespeare stays faithful to the shrew tale formula.

The scene often falls flat, not only due to the sexual politics, but also because the comedic shenanigans drop completely, leaving not a pin prick of humor in Kate’s final speech. The debate is still ongoing over the how-to-be-a-good-wife lecture because who wants to believe the greatest writer in the English language was an all out misogynist?

The words alone, on paper, can make you wince.

Whatever Shakespeare’s true intentions, Zefferelli’s version makes Katherina’s speech work. Liz delivers it straight without knowing winks, or ironic smirks, yet she summons up a fury that hurls the definition of an obedient woman back at the society that came up with the classification in the first place.

And then she declares love to a man.

And then in the next instant she bests him.

Kate’s speech is delivered as a knock out punch to her family and society, as well as her husband, before she exits head up, triumphant. As for Petruchio, he’s left to stumble through a crowd after her.

Advice for young girls from a princess.

Miki Laval is a Bard Brawl first liner and finishing a masters in creative writing at Concordia University.

The Merchant of Venice (2004), Michael Radford (director)

Andre Simoneau

The Merchant of Venice is a tragicomic tale of hypocrisy, pride and revenge, and Michael Radford’s beautiful production is a subtle and faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s ambiguous and highly controversial play.

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Though ultimately it serves as a compelling case for mercy and the value of love, The Merchant of Venice has, over the centuries, come to be seen as one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, thanks in no small part to the cruel and complex depiction of the Jew Shylock, portrayed by Al Pacino.

While he acknowledges the inherent judeophobia of the time, Radford (1984, Il Postino) takes great care in bookending the piece with scenes that help impart a deeper context than may have been evident to modern audiences in the original text.

In a written prologue added by Radford, we are told of the pitiful conditions in which the Jewish community lived in 16th century Venice, confined to guarded ‘gettos’ and forbidden from owning land. Shylock himself describes in detail the pains which he has suffered at the hands – and feet – of the Christian bourgeoisie. In fact, there are several passages in the play which point to the hypocrisies of the ruling class and which highlight the humanity of the oppressed. All this only serves to amplify the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s villain and to further the case for Shylock as a tragic figure.

The infamous debt at the heart of the story involves Antonio, a nobleman who has agreed to take out a loan from Shylock on behalf of his bankrupt young friend Bassanio, to help him in the pursuit of the beautiful Portia. Though highly sought after, Portia may only select a suitor by means set out to her by her late father, and Bassanio wants to make a worthy impression. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs off with one of Bassanio’s men, never to return, and they all sail to Portia’s court. As Bassanio wins Portia’s hand in marriage, Shylock slips into a depression. When Antonio is unable to repay his debt, Shylock vows to avenge the injury dealt to him by exacting the horrific – though lawful – execution of his bond.

In his portrayal of Shylock, Pacino is at the top of his game, delivering the famous ‘hath not a jew eyes?’ speech with empathy and his trademark unrestrained passion. He is aptly matched by, the sexually ambiguous Jeremy Irons as frail Antonio, the title merchant who is sworn by bond to deliver a pound of flesh to his creditor. The cast is rounded out by the excellent Lynn Collins as Portia, who delivers an equally well-known speech on the ‘quality of mercy’, and Joseph Fiennes as her suitor Bassanio (Antonio’s lover?). There is also a number of highly skilled comic actors who step in to fill the play’s many clown parts.

Add to that an exquisite production design by the late Bruno Robeo and costume design by Sammy Sheldon to imbue the story with texture and atmosphere. Venice’s inimitable canals and unique architecture are on full display here, and lend an authenticity to the film which enhances the moral and historical undertones of the source material.

The Merchant of Venice is a problematic play for a variety of reasons, and poses many challenges to would-be performers. Little wonder then that it had never been filmed (with sound) before this. With his production, Radford and co. succeed in delivering a nuanced and intelligent reading of Shakespeare’s text, while managing to create a detailed visual palette to serve as its backdrop.

Andre Simoneau is a first line bard brawler and regularly reads for the Bard Brawl podcasts.

Andre Simoneau

Coriolanus (2011), Ralph Fiennes (director)

Jay Reid     

The tragedy of Coriolanus is that a brutish man, prone to burst of violence can be undone by an act of compassion towards those he loves.

Director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan make the choice to trim down Shakespeare’s text, conveying that tragedy visually, while creating a film adaptation of the play that is not restrained by absolute faithfulness to the source material.

Fiennes stars at Gaius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general, whose skills as a warrior makes him something of an anti-hero among the people whom he has open contempt for.  They love and hate him within the same scene at times. The scowl on Fiennes face makes his every word seem like it comes from pure rage.  His performance gives the film an intensity that would otherwise be lost on stage.  He doesn’t even need to spit out the Bard’s words or stab an enemy for the viewer to know that he is a man fueled by anger.  A simple glare conveys all we need to know about him.

Early in the film, Coriolanus, after brutally killing an enemy, emerges victorious, walking towards a group of soldiers, his face streaked with blood, almost like war paint.  There is no doubt that this is a man who will fight to his last breath, and that makes him a compelling character to watch.  Fiennes’ performance can evoke sympathy from the viewer, even when he is at his most monstrous.

His mother, Volumnia, played by Vanessa Redgrave and his wife Virgilia, played by Jessica Chastain, allow Fiennes tender moments in between his bursts of violence and anger.  They are his Achilles heel, and yet the only thing that really makes the character anything else than a single-minded warrior.

Redgrave steals most scenes. She gives a tender and powerful performance, showing the strength of a determined, politically minded woman and the compassion of a mother at the same time, while Chastain does her best, but is rarely captivating.  Chastain is usually a solid actress, but her performance seems underwhelming when compared to heavy hitters such as Fiennes, Redgrave and Brian Cox as the Roman Senator Menenius.  She seems to drop the ball on more than one occasion and often fades into the background.

Performances make or break any Shakespeare film and there can be very little room for weak links in the chain.

Although the film is set in some place called Rome, Coriolanus was shot in Belgrade, Serbia, and the location works well, especially after Coriolanus’ exile. He is shown walking through the cold, gray towns, conveying the harshness of his expulsion in a way only an Eastern European shooting location provides.

The film is transposed into modern day times, where swords become automatic weapons, and discussions between citizens in the play become television news panels.  This modernizing of the play gives the film modern day significance, especially when exploring the idea of a patriot exploited by politicians for their own gain, and what happens when they can no longer control that patriot.  Coriolanus is a wild guard dog that can never be made to behave, and it’s no wonder that as soon as he develops political aspirations, the politicians turn against him because they are afraid he is going to bite them.  They are soon faced with the choice of putting the dog to sleep or casting him out into the wilderness.

Coriolanus is especially strong when we see the titular character unleashed.  The film is bloody, as any Shakespearean tragedy should be, but not gratuitous.  The violence is never artsy, but brutal in a way that a dogfight can be.  The handheld shots of Fiennes stabbing enemies give the brutal scenes of violence a frenetic energy that conveys Fiennes rage.  The most effective fight scene is the first between Martius and Tullus Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler.  Close, tight shots of Martius and Aufidius, wrapped around each other, almost in a bear hug, are reminiscent of a UFC fight at its bloodiest, and if they were given knives.  With bombs going off in the background, the fight scene makes it seem like the entire war is being fought by two men.

Although Fiennes’ film takes certain liberties with the source material, it is loyal to Shakespeare’s vision, capturing the tragedy of a man that has become a killing machine, manipulated by the politicians, lauded as a hero and loved by his family, but lost in his own hate.

It is the Shakespeare film for the person who doesn’t usually like Shakespeare.  It’s a compelling piece of work that tries to stand apart from typical film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, and succeeds as a film by being quiet, relying on the performances of the actors rather than the words of the immortal Bard.

Jay Reid is a Bard Brawler, writer and director. 

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