A Year in Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

IMG_0147After struggling through Love’s Labours Lost, it was a relief to put the heavy collected edition back on the shelf and borrow a pocket edition of The Merchant of Venice from the university library. It’s part of a Cambridge Shakespeare series from 1958, and it’s small, squarish, a rather pleasant faded blue colour, and blessedly lightweight. It’s not for every pocket – it would be hard to slip this inflexible hardback into the back pocket of my jeans, for example – but it turns out to slip very nicely into the large square pockets of my favourite denim jacket, where it swiftly found a place among the cycling gloves, notebooks and mint humbugs. As it was quick access, I read several scenes in the queue at the supermarket. The editor apparently has a quixotic fondness for preserving archaic spellings such as ‘piring’ for ‘peering’, ‘moe’ for ‘more’ and ‘roth’ for ‘ruth’, but this difficulty is easily solved by turning to the helpful glossary.

Aside from the edition, however, there’s little about this play that’s lightweight. Antonio, the merchant of Venice himself, begins the play in a state of apparently causeless melancholy. If we assume he is both gay and in love with his straight friend Bassanio, much about the play that was mysterious now becomes readily fathomable. But that’s just my theory.

Bassanio wants money in order to woo the beautiful Portia, and though Antonio’s assets are currently all invested in shipping, he agrees to borrow money on credit to give to Bassanio. However, this was the Renaissance, where Christians were forbidden from practicing the sin of usury (i.e. earning a profit on interest). So Antonio must borrow from Shylock the Jew, towards whose race he has the usual unedifying prejudices. Shylock, who looks on Antonio with equal dislike, agrees to lend him the money on no interest at all, provided he puts up a pound of his own flesh as forfeit upon non-payment – for what use would that be to anyone?

Once he has the money, Bassanio soon succeeds in wooing the beautiful, witty and brilliant Portia. That’s hardly surprising in a Shakespearean comedy. The real drama is when Shylock, incensed by the way Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo has seduced his daughter, demands his pound of flesh of the Doge of Venice after Antonio fails to make repayments.

IMG_0148Like Measure for Measure, it’s a problem play where the ending leaves us with questions still to be answered. The portrayal of anti-Semitism is unflinching – Shylock concludes the play forcibly converted to Christianity – and some scenes are certainly uncomfortable. Shakespeare gives Bassanio and the play’s heroes all the figures, rhetoric and fine language of courtly gentlemen, but no-one could accuse him of not giving Shylock a voice. The Jew’s finest speech begins with the kind of inspirational language familiar from nineteenth century abolitionist speeches, then doubles back down a dark path indeed:

Hath not  a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if we poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? if we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

The legal expert called in by the court to settle Shylock’s demand for his pound of flesh turns out to be Portia in disguise, and though she gets some of the most beautiful and eloquent language in the play:

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

Yet when Shylock will not show that mercy, she avails herself of a legal quibble that wouldn’t hold up a moment in any proper court of law, and has him harassed and taunted from the stage. Unlike its great predecessorChristopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, where the anti-hero Barabas is an entertainingly diabolical rogue capable of poisoning whole convents of nuns to get his own way, and who dies after accidentally falling into one of his own death-traps, The Merchant of Venice evokes a surprising and persistent sympathy with its sullen, stubborn and covetous adversary. Long after the final page is turned, or the curtain falls, one might find oneself pondering whether the characters with the fine, elaborate speeches, the fancy clothes, the riches and the sex appeal, might just be the villains of the piece after all.

A Year in Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

IMG_0118I’ve been a bookworm all my life. Over the years I’ve acquired a number of related qualifications: a degree in English Literature, an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies, and a doctorate I’m still working on. I’ve read and enjoyed some of the biggest heavy-weights in the canon: James Joyce’s Ulysses, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory, and others too numerous to mention. I’ve got a chuckle out of Chaucer, forgotten a year’s worth of Anglo Saxon, and I scoff at those who find Shakespeare hard to read.

Except – and this is hard for me to admit – Love’s Labour’s Lost defeated me.

My only excuse is that I made a poor choice of edition. I was doing a lot of travelling at the time and couldn’t find a good individual printing, so I eventually seized up a copy of the complete works thaIMG_0117t once belonged to my uncle Gerry. It’s a bare utilitarian edition, with no footnotes, gloss, or help for the reader aside from a slim glossary at the back and a bare paragraph of introduction, warning me that ‘numerous topical allusions in the play make many lines hardly intelligible to a modern reader.’

I would have paid more attention, but I had good memories of Love’s Labour’s Lost in the last film version I saw, the splendidly cheesy Kenneth Branagh movie which attempts to blend Renaissance comedy with 1930’s movie musicals. The film was a box-office flop, but as a lover of Fred Astaire, William Shakespeare and Ginger Rogers, I’m squarely in the centre of the film’s tiny target audience. Which makes me feel smart.

Lulled by this false sense of security, I opened Love’s Labours Lost to confront Shakespeare’s expectations of his actual target audience – the classically educated, rhetorically aware courtiers surrounding Queen Elizabeth, compared to whom I am just another humbled, baffled groundling.

As the play begins, King Ferdinand of Navarre and his three courtiers are about to commit themselves to something that sounds distressingly like my PhD – a three year course of intensive study, augmented by fasting, enforced chastity, and sleep-deprivation. Their dedication is immediately put to the test by the arrival of the Princess of France and her three courtiers – and everyone rather conveniently falls in love with everyone else.

That’s the rudiments of a plot complicated with many misplaced letters and silly accents, obscene renaissance wordplay and obscure Latin puns. I sympathised most with Anthony Dull, a watchman, who certainly gets one of the best lines:
Holofernes: Via, goodman Dull! Thou hast not spoken no word all this while.
Dull: Nor understood one neither, sir.
Not that there isn’t a lot to enjoy about the play, but it would have been a lot better served in a better annotated edition, or in a luxurious illustrated copy to match the extravagant verbal artifice: the ‘taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical’ in which the play delights and abounds. The small print and tight margins of the edition might have lured me into the world of a bleaker, darker play, like Macbeth, but I found it insufficiently expansive for the comedies.

It was something of a relief to get to the ending of the play, which has puzzled critics for centuries. Just as it looks like everything is going to wrap up with multiple weddings, in the familiar manner, a messenger bursts on stage to tell the Princess of France her father has died, and she must come home at once. It’s an entrance that shocks the characters to their metatheatrical core: ‘Our wooing doth not end like an old play,’ as one complains to the other. ‘Jack hath not Jill.’ And then, thank goodness, the play closes with a musical number for a bit of light relief.

It would be remiss not to mention the missing sequel, the fabled Love’s Labour’s Won. Did Shakespeare actually write it? Or was it simply an alternative title for an entirely different play? Love’s Labour’s Won has been identified at various times as The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Troilus and Cressida and As You Like It. There’s still an infinitesimally small chance it may yet turn up in some dusty, abandoned and ill-catalogued archive by the end of my Year in Shakespeare project to put me even farther behind than I already am. To be blunt, the possibility doesn’t exactly fill my soul with rejoicing. The idea of reading of the further adventures of King Ferdinand and the Princess of France fails to give me the same breathless anticipation as, say, the trailer to the most recent Star Wars movie. Maybe I should stick to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!

A Year in Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

51rNEMHE2gLI had been secretly dreading this play. It’s not that I don’t like Much Ado About Nothing, it’s just that of all Shakespeare’s plays, I find it loses the most on the page. Without the live charisma and sexual tension that real performers can bring to Benedick and Beatrice, I get bogged down in footnotes explaining various obscure Renaissance puns – and while there’s some fun to be had in discovering how many lewd innuendos the learned Shakespearean scholar can discover, there’s nothing that kills humour quite so much as having it dissected, analysed and attributed, with references to various learned journals and scholarly works.

I began daydreaming instead of the last time I’d seen it in the cinema, with a beautiful French girl on a hot summer’s afternoon in York…

Ooh! I thought to myself suddenly. I wonder if there’s a screenplay available!

A quick search confirmed that there was a paperback edition of the screenplay of Much Ado About Nothing, a film by Joss Whedon, available for under a tenner. Not only that, but the film itself was available on Netflix. Score!

Much Ado is the tale of two romances, neither of which run smooth. Claudio and Hero have been making eyes at each other for a while, but Benedick and Beatrice cordially detest each other, and exchange verbal barbs each time they meet. Don Pedro organises Claudio’s marriage with Hero and her father, Leonato, and to while away the time until the wedding, composes a scheme to bring Benedick and Beatrice together by making each believe the other is madly in love with them. In the meantime, Pedro’s melancholy brother Don John hates to see a happy ending, and is making plans with his subordinates, Conrad and Borachio, to separate Claudio and Hero. His first plan is to allege to Claudio that Don Pedro is in love with Hero himself; after this fails, he comes up with a more ambitious plan. He arranges for Borachio to seduce Hero’s maid, Margaret, while Don Pedro and Claudio, looking on from a distance, are convinced it’s Hero they’re seeing.

This leads to one of the most gut-wrenching wedding scenes ever written, where Claudio basically walks her up the the altar and then calls her a prostitute. Hero, not unnaturally, faints dead away, and Leonato, Beatrice and Benedick come up with a plan to pretend she’s dead until after Don John’s minions have confessed their treachery and Claudio has shown himself properly repentant. By then, Benedick and Beatrice have discovered the nature of the trick that’s been played upon them – but so inseparable have they grown from one another in the meantime that they agree to marry also, and the whole thing concludes in one of those happy endings that make Don John spit.

Thus far in the project, this is the farthest I’ve wandered away from the actual text of Shakespeare. The director mentions in the introduction that he’s cut it down by about a third, though I’d be hard put to identify any particular scene or passage that got the chop. What’s most striking is the sudden change in texture. This is an example of Shakespeare’s usual terse scene setting, which is merely a scene number and a list of the characters onstage.

Actus primus, Scena prima.

Enter Leonato Gouernour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his Neece, with a messenger.

I learne in this Letter, that Don Peter of Arragon, comes this night to Messina.

Joss Whedon’s screenplay takes a whole page to get to this point, in the course of which we’ve had a precredit sequence that completely alters our understanding of Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship by showing that they had a one night stand before the movie begins; then an establishing shot of black sedans rolling up the street towards Leonato’s estate. Then, only then, the opening scene, laid out in the clear, terse style of the shooting script.


The kitchen is abustle with people preparing food and elaborate punches, among the Beatrice (a few years older than we saw before) and HERO, her cousin, both working but neither clearly members of the household staff (who wear aprons). Beatrice wields a cutting knife, slicing oranges for a sangria.

LEONATO enters with Balthus, his ever-present AIDE. Leonato reads from an iphone…


I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this day to Messina.

And for viewers of the movie, there’s a second surprise. Leonato – Clark Gregg from all the Marvel movies – speaks with an American accent! For those used to the high theatrical English of the Royal Shakespeare Company it’s a very strange moment – but it’s a tribute to Amy Acker’s confident performance as Beatrice that by the end of the scene, it feels entirely natural.

Back to the screenplay. It’s very much a working document, rough around the edges but not without a certain charm. Whedon can’t seem to decide whether to print the rare blank verse sections of the play as verse or prose, resulting in some very odd typography. Sometimes he will let the dialogue continue for pages without an intervention, and when he’s describing the visually spectacular party scene, the result is hardly literary:


A bartender serves drinks. Claudio is surrounded by young men urging him to down a drink, frat-boy style…


People dive in, play about. Some with undies and shirts instead of suits, most with drinks.


On a trapeze, twin sisters perform an intricate, sensuous act…


A couple sneaks down past the back gate with amorous intent.

Excepting possibly the coy use of ‘amorous intent’, none of this language owes anything to Shakespeare – but there is something to admire in its terseness, its easy translation into the visual, and how unfazed it is by proximity to Shakespeare’s deathless verse and prose. There’s something also to be admired in the simplicity of Whedon’s solutions to complex plot problems – his notion that all the characters are simply roaring drunk the whole time certainly has something to say for itself. Another good notion is that Borachio’s behaviour – first scheming to slander Hero, then confessing and repenting all on markedly little provocation – is due to his being in love with Hero himself. This is very clear in the screenplay, but I hadn’t noticed it in the film – partly due to the fact that the actor playing Borachio appears to have only one facial expression.

This is far from the case with Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, who takes up a buffoonish role that offers very slender comic pickings indeed, and makes it genuinely funny. Douglas Adams, who remarks somewhere that there is nothing than seeing a certain type of old-school English actor trying valiantly to ham it up as Dogberry, would surely have approved.

Hard as it is to separate the screenplay and the movie – and I’ve barely tried – there’s a lot to love in both. After seeing so many English productions, it makes a pleasant change to watch one so thoroughly American – and not one whit ashamed about being so. Not to mention how pleasant it is to relieve that sunny afternoon in York, the entertaining few hours in the shade of the cinema, and the stroll through the cool evening streets thereafter…

A Year in Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives. Illustrations by John Austen

After reading Measure for Measure last week in a heavily annotated scholarly edition, I thought I’d take a new tack for The Comedy of Errors and read something designed for pleasure rather than education. It’s hard to get hold of the really, really nice editions on a student budget – neither the city nor the university libraries are likely to put them on loan, and my shelves run more to secondhand paperbacks than illustrated luxury hardback editions.

Fortunately Cardiff University has a handsome, modern and well-equipped Special Collections and Archives division – SCOLAR for short – in the basement of the Arts and Social Sciences Library. I turned up, surveyed the catalogues, ordered a few things and finally settled on a 1939 private press edition, published in New York by the Limited Editions Club.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.

According to the notes in the library catalogue, the book is ‘quarter bound in white buckram over decorative paper-covered boards displaying floral and fruit motifs on pink ground with an abbreviated half title set within decorative border on upper front cover.’ Dr Melanie Bigold, my PhD supervisor, gets very excited by bookbinding, and can use it to tell you where the book was first printed and sold and what the printer had for breakfast that morning – talk about judging a book by its cover! As a complete layman in that field, I couldn’t say much about it – but there’s no denying it’s a beautiful piece of work.

The rest of the book held up to the promise of the cover. I can’t say any of the accompanying illustrations by John Austen ever particularly gripped me, but they were a colourful art deco diversion, and the artist had made the best of it given The Comedy of Errors isn’t a visually spectacular play to begin with. The paper was thick and creamy, the margins generous, the typeface bold and eye-catching. After the Arden edition of Measure for Measure where the footnotes often swallowed up half the page, it was pleasant to be reading something with no critical apparatus whatsoever – the last time that had happened was reading The Merry Wives of Windsor in a Complete Works edition where the text was squeezed in to the very edge of the page with hardly any margin at all. Also – in a first for this project – this edition preserves the original first folio spelling, which adds a wonderful texture to even the less interesting lines of dialogue:

Why prat’st thou to thyselfe, and answer’st not?
Dromio, thou drone, thou snaile, thou slug, thou sot.

The Comedy of Errors itself is a piece of comic virtuosity, the story of a pair of identical twins with the same name, separated at birth and unaware of each others existence, and their identical twin servants, ditto. Naturally everyone keeps mistaking Antonio and Dromio for their opposite numbers – I confess that, without the aid of footnotes or an introduction, I didn’t entirely follow who was supposed to be on stage at once – but I think some confusion is part of the point. After various misunderstandings, during which each Antonio is respectively arrested and committed, the play concludes with the usual scene of recognition, and the family reunited.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives

In addition to having the most complex plot, it’s also the most elaborately poetic Shakespeare play I’ve read so far, even more so than Two Gentlemen of Verona, my previous benchmark. The play is written entirely in verse, and goes so far beyond the usual iambic pentameter that characters speak in rhyming couplets for entire pages – as in the quote above – and sometimes break into longer and more discursive hexameter or octameter lines. This elaborate formal invention matches well with the play’s complex, self-confident and symmetrical plotting. Reaching the final lines of Shakespeare’s shortest play, one feels its kinship to the short, controlled, rhetorically intricate forms the Renaissance revelled in, like the sonnet or the double-sestina. It will never have the popularity of one of the bawdier comedies or the bloodier tragedies – it sets itself out to be admired for its technical artistry rather than its drama or pathos – but as a work of self-conscious literary craftsmanship, it’s hard to think how it could have been done better. Reading it in an edition that was itself a work of high-end literary craftsmanship only deepened this insight.

A Year in Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

Book in one hand, placard in the other!
Book in one hand, placard in the other!

The Languages and Literature collection on the second floor of Cardiff Central Library was the dark secret of my undergrad. When the essay titles came out and the shelves of criticism on Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare emptied as if by magic, I’d abscond to the public library. They’ve a really good range of key texts, the Cambridge Companions and popular histories, and it saved me from having to beg coursemates for books on social media, or hand over an even larger chunk of my student loan to Blackwells in return for a book I was only going to use once.

Last Saturday, I nipped upstairs, located the Shakespeare section – which features an impressive range of DVDs to complement the books – and grabbed a copy of Measure for Measure, the fourth play in my attempt to read all the plays of Shakespeare in a year. It was in the Arden Shakespeare series, the rigorously edited, comprehensively annotated scholarly edition of choice. I was pleased to see no-one had skimped on out-of-date editions. Then I hurried back out the front, grabbed a placard protesting spending cuts and joined the crowd gathering in front of the building, clutching their favourite books in hand.

Cuts are biting hard in Cardiff, and the library service is taking the brunt. It’s usual for cuts to pinch hours and services, but Cardiff’s Central Library, one of the most handsome and best-stocked libraries in the world, has been decapitated. It’s entire top floor, with its local studies collection, has been closed off and mothballed. In addition, it’s lost the ability to open on Wednesdays, it may have to share space with social services, and staff have been warned not to discuss the cuts on social media. Bad enough, but it was the council’s decision to close and sell off seven of its local branch libraries that first mustered the people of Cardiff to gather in protest and make their voices heard. In a previous job as a bicycle courier, I got to know and visit many of those libraries, relishing the time to take a break, use the loo, and cast an appreciative eye over the fiction section. All of them were bright, busy and well-stocked, and all of them will be missed. And so I chose to celebrate an institution where I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours of my life by spending a few more rereading Measure for Measure, a classic story of hypocrisy and overbearing authority. Replace the Puritan zeal of Angelo, the ruler of Vienna, with the neo-liberal zeal of Cardiff’s city councillors, and the tale becomes very timely indeed.

It’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – and coincidentally enough, the first Shakespeare I ever saw in Cardiff, performed on an unusual square stage down at the Bay. I was so close to the action that the actors would come and sit in the chair beside me when they were offstage – which, given that it was a reduced company, wasn’t very often. Despite this, the nightclub staging, complete with whiskey bottles (actually cold tea – I tasted) well-reflected the play’s concerns with decadence and propriety. The way the vile hypocrisy of Angelo seeps out from behind his icy facade was aptly reflected by giving the actor the dual role of Mistress Quickly, the owner of a brothel. It was one of those performances that makes someone know and understand and like the play better as a text.

measureIt’s the kind of performance worth reliving in the mind as I make my way through the pages of the Arden edition of Measure for Measure, which was all too clearly designed for scholarly use rather than reading pleasure. The introduction runs to nearly a hundred pages, devoted variously to questions of authorship, dating and sources before finally condescending to offer a few critical notes on the play. Similarly, the footnotes appear in two columns of small print and even then can swamp as much as half the page, forever sending the reader hither and thither after renaissance plays, modern critics and classical manuals of rhetoric. If you’re reading Shakespeare in order to give yourself a cheap library education, however, it’s hard to think of a better edition you could choose. Long may it grace the shelves of Cardiff Library!

A Year in Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Scan 7This is an odd play to come upon at this point, only three texts into my grand project to read all the works of Shakespeare in a year. In truth, it’s the closest Shakespeare ever came to writing the Renaissance equivalent of a spin-off TV show. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, that when he stomped off the stage at the close of Henry IV Part 2, she demanded the playwright write a sequel, bringing the fat knight to England in the modern day and giving him a love story. In some accounts, she was so impatient she only gave him a fortnight to write the play. Wisely, Shakespeare did as the Queen bid him, but – perhaps wary of the possibility of having to write new episodes of The Falstaff Show until Kingdom Come – promptly killed Falstaff off at the beginning of Henry V. But all of that is a long way in the future – somewhere in June, when I’m out of the comedies and midway through the histories.

In search of an interesting edition to read the play in, I turned to the bookshelves in the postgraduate office, ever an interesting guide to people’s interests and research topics. My colleague Calum Gardner thoughtfully allowed me to borrow a thoroughly charming early twentieth-century edition, printed in New York and previously belonging to one A. Napier. There was no date on it anywhere I could spot, but it’s dedicated to Sir Henry Irving, a famous Shakespearean actor who also employed an Irish scribbler of penny dreadfuls with the unlikely name of Bram Stoker. Irving also provides part of the introduction to the edition, in a short and a wittily sarcastic essay on the Baconian controversy. His suggestion is that Francis Bacon wrote the entire output of the Elizabethan stage, including Shakespeare, but notes that who actually wrote Bacon’s work for him remains forever a mystery. It seems as likely as any of the other conspiracy theories!

Among the other treasures in the old book are a scattering of early photographs of Shakespearean actors and actresses. The Merry Wives of Windsor is represented by a studio portrait of Ellen Terry as Mistress Ford; Terry was one of the most famous actresses of her day, now sadly only known for having been Dickens’s mistress. In a delightful period feature, a collection of tabs recessed into the sides of the pages make it easier to flick from play to play.

Turning to The Merry Wives, I am struck once again by the comparison to what went before – the language of Two Gentlemen of Verona was elaborate, beautiful and almost constantly in blank verse; Merry Wives is written mostly in prose, and the language is heavily spiced with Welsh and Spanish malapropisms from the two comic rivals in love, Sir Hugh Evans and Doctor Caius.

Scan 5But it’s not their play. It’s not even Falstaff’s play, though he steals every scene in which he appears. Uniquely, the heroes are two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, to each of whom Falstaff sends exactly the same letter, pledging his whole heart and undying affection, and not realising that these two best friends might just get together and uncover his ruse. Together, they foster a scheme not only to humiliate Falstaff for his impudence, but to teach Mistress Ford’s needlessly suspicious husband a lesson in trust, climaxing in a night of fairytale revels that looks forward to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My favourite line in the production belongs to Mistress Page, in conversation with the jealous Mister Ford:

Ford: Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?

Mrs Page: Truly sir, to see your wife. Is she at home? 

Ford: Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company; I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.

Mrs Page: Be sure of that, – two other husbands.

Actually, my favourite Merry Wives joke belongs not to any of the characters in the play, but to that well-known master of mirth and merriment, Kaiser Wilhelm II. It’s his only recorded joke. Due to wartime anti-German feeling, King George V issued a proclamation changing the Royal Family Name from ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to the more English sounding ‘Windsor’. Kaiser Bill shrugged this off this snub by saying he looked forward to seeing a performance of The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Heh. I fancy Shakespeare would have groaned as loudly as the rest of us.

A Year in Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

I’ve always loved reading on trains. The views are great, you can do what you like, and the romance of travel always stirs something in me. This Saturday’s trip to London proved particularly pleasant, going from the grey predawn drizzle of Cardiff into the Newport sunrise, to snow on the fields of England and ever-changing January skies – very beautiful to look at while sheltered from the constant alternation of sunshine, rain and hail. It was a perfect time for the second part of my project to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare in a year.

IMG_0845After reading The Tempest in the RSC’s modern edition of the First Folio, I decided to do something different with Two Gentlemen of Verona and read it in the oldest edition Cardiff University Library still kept on loan. After a few minutes browsing the dustiest and least regarded avenues of Shakespeare Criticism, I found myself holding a 122 year-old edition published in 1893 as part of the original Cambridge Shakespeare series. A tall book printed on handmade paper with generous margins, it was clearly something of a prestige object, and the bookplates in the endpapers revealed a long working life. Originally part of the City of Cardiff Libraries Collection, it was withdrawn as duplicate stock and presented to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, as it was then, in 1939. Now broken in the spine and largely held together by sticky tape, it still proves a pleasure to read – thScan 6e thick luxurious paper feels good under the fingers, and the whole volume exudes a strange sweet smell, like aged honey. It feels strange to be bereft of the usual cribs and glosses with which modern editors fill the margins, and to find in its place a variorum commentary in the page footer referring to the long-superseded eighteenth-century editions of Pope, Theobald, Rowe and Johnson (of which, more later in the blog) but it adds to the interest of the reading experience.

And so to Two Gentlemen of Verona, regarded by critics as being one of Shakespeare’s very first plays – an interesting comparison with The Tempest, one of his latest and finest. If you’ve heard any of it at all, it will probably be these fine lines, which Tom Stoppard borrowed for Shakespeare in Love:

What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me look upon.

The plot bears many familiar Shakespearean comic motifs, later to be honed and finessed  in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It – girls dress up as boys, letters miscarry, and love affairs are pleaded by proxies with their own agendas. The eponymous Veronese gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who have been friends since the nursery. Proteus has long been in love with Julia, who grows to respond to his passion, but Valentine’s heart remains unencumbered until he is sent to Milan, and falls in love with Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. (What, if any, relation this Duke of Milan bears to the lineage we see in The Tempest is pure speculation – but he seems more than tyrannical enough to be Antonio, Prospero’s usurper. I know, I’ll be writing fan fiction next.)

This is the cue for a lot of charmingly silly romantic games that wouldn’t be far out of place in your average playground – Julia rips Proteus’s love letter in pieces, and then has a change of heart and goes to great lengths gathering up the fragments. She stamps on and scatters all those that bear her name, tucks all that bear his name in her bosom and, where the fragment bears both, folds them over so they kiss. Silvia, the more resourceful of the two, saves a lot of labour and invention by getting Valentine to write a love letter for her, to ‘a secret unknown friend’ and then pointedly delivering it back to him – something that has to be explained to the clueless Valentine by his valet, Launce, in the usual ‘cheeky servant’ role. His wilful misunderstandings and laboured wordplay quickly become tiresome, but his selfless devotion to his dog, Crab, is equally touching and hilarious.

A darker element to the plot emerges when Proteus’s peremptory father decides to send his son to Milan after Valentine. Proteus duly says his heartfelt goodbyes to Julia, exchanging rings and pledging eternal affection, and no sooner arrives in Milan than he forgets all about her and falls wildly in love with Silvia. His machinations cause the Duke of Milan to discover Valentine’s plot to elope with Silvia, and to banish him from the realm, while Proteus, pretending to forward the suit of the Duke’s preferred husband, the foppish and cowardly Thurio, pleads his own case to Silvia in the form of a series of very Shakespearean songs and sonnets. Unknown to him, his infidelity is witnessed by Julia, who has come to Milan disguised as a male page, and found a position in Proteus’s employ.

At this point the plot, which until this point has held up pretty well, begins to unravel. The exiled Valentine is captured in the forest by a bunch of soft-hearted outlaws, the elder brothers of the Pirates of Penzance, who elect him their King with comical haste. Back in Milan, meanwhile, Silvia enlists the aid of the honest widower Sir Plot-Device in order to escape her enforced captivity in her father’s house. Sir Plot-Device, the most thankless role in the production, duly rescues her, accompanies to the forest, and then vanishes from the play without a word. The reader is left to guess whether he was secretly murdered by Proteus or if he merely knocked himself out on a low-hanging branch. His absence gives space for the disgracefully rushes final scene, a confrontation between Proteus and Silvia in the forest, while Julia wrings her hands on the sidelines in disguise and Valentine, unknown to any of them, watches from afar. Maddened by lust, Proteus resolves to rape Silvia – at which point Valentine intervenes to avert tragedy. Proteus goes down on his knees and begs forgiveness, and in a worryingly short space of time – about 20 blank verse lines – Valentine forgives him, and seems to offer him Silvia as pledge of their renewed friendship. At this point Julia faints, and her disguise is penetrated by means of the rings she and Proteus exchanged earlier; Proteus is allowed to revert to his former love with hardly a word of blame. The Duke of Milan is dragged on stage by the outlaws just in time to give Valentine’s marriage his blessing and issue a general pardon, and the play concludes in the least convincing happy ending until I get round to Measure for Measure.

It would be no exaggeration to call the resolution problematic. I caught the cinema version of last year’s RSC production, which at least attempts to inflect Valentine’s forgiveness with some doubt and consideration by filling it with very long, awkward silences. Julia’s silence in this scene irritates me in the extreme. It would surely be a good moment to tiptoe up behind Proteus with a blackjack in hand, or at the very least, make a moving speech of dissuasion – but she remains voiceless and passive, and it’s only Valentine’s appearance that saves the day. Surely, having witnessed Proteus’s behaviour in the play, her opinion of him has changed? Just a trifle? Often with Shakespeare, I find myself wondering whether the problematic bits are really that bigoted, or just there to make you think. This time, it just feels like he was writing in a hurry, and produced a rushed and ill thought out conclusion to a play that, despite its flaws, remains broadly enjoyable, and shadows forward the greater dramaturgy and the more triumphant poetry of Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Sonnets.

A Year in Shakespeare: The Tempest

There’s something appropriate in the circularity of the fact that Shakespeare’s first play is his last: that when you open the Collected Works, the first play to meet your eye is The Tempest, traditionally and critically regarded as his final independently authored play. Whether this was a conscious artistic decision by the compilers of the First Folio, or whether they simply decided to set it first because they had a legible manuscript to hand, remains anyone’s guess. But like I say, appropriate.

Appropriately enough, it’s also the first Shakespeare play to really make an impression on me. I have vague memories of looking at Romeo and Juliet in Primary School, and perhaps Othello, long before I really understood the language or was fully capable of being moved by it. But I can remember the some of the kids from secondary school putting on The Tempest for us in a class assembly, (they seemed like adults, back then, huge and unknowable) and I have a vivid memory of one of them playing Caliban as Freddy Krueger in green face paint. I think they’d had one of those horrible knife-hand props lying around, and decided to throw it in to the costume mix. Less scarringly, I can remember trying out tunes for the songs under my breath in English class during my first year at Henry Beaufort, when I was well on the way to becoming one of those giants myself. So it’s a good place for me to start too.

My project for this year is to read all 38 of Shakespeare’s canonical plays, which works out roughly as reading and posting about a play every 9 days. To make things interesting, I’m going to read each play in a different edition, ranging from Renaissance quartos (or, more likely, their facsimiles) to ornate private press editions to modern critical texts. If you’d like to recommend an edition for a particular play – or still more generously, to send me one – get in touch in the comments section below.

One goal is to be able to tick off the Complete Works of Shakespeare when it makes its inevitable appearance in the list of 100 books to read before you die, instead of mumbling caveats about how I only got halfway through Richard III, and never bothered with Timon of Athens. Another is to find some pleasure in writing about great literature in an easy and relaxed manner, while I’m labouring over the stiff and formal pages of my doctoral thesis. Another is to read some unique editions in a series of unique places, and get a few good stories of my own from it.

IMG_0819For the first session though, I’ve made it easier on myself. I’m plonked down in my living room, in a rocking chair that used to belong to my grandfather, and reading The Tempest in my RSC First Folio edition. It follows the arrangement and print composition of the First Folio, the very first collected edition of Shakespeare’s work, while correcting obvious misreadings, modernising the spelling, and throwing in marginal glosses for the aid of the confused reader. It’s a student text, bought for a university course (well, strictly speaking, we were supposed to buy the Norton Edition, but I was irritated by the patronising footnotes and sans-serif font, and went my own way.) Even so, it doesn’t do much to defuse the strangeness of the opening scene. The prize for the most baffling opening speech in Renaissance Drama still goes to ‘Not marching now in fields of Thrasymene, Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens’ from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but for the reader at least, the first scene is a confusion of minor characters shouting things like ‘Fall to’t yarely! Yare, yare! Tend to th’master’s whistle. Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough.’

On stage, it’s exciting and thrilling – a heavy storm, a ship in danger and about to be wrecked, a confusion of orders and oaths amid ‘a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning’. On the page, it’s just a bit confusing.

This is one thing about The Tempest that marks it out as a late play – in the earlier plays, Shakespeare’s linguistic inventiveness was used to cloak a stage bare of most effects and engines. Here his stagecraft has reached its peak, and the plot progresses through a series of masques and dances, feasts and bogs for which you really need a stage, or an exceptional imagination, to bring to life. I saw it last in The Globe, standing in the yard with my father, who’d printed out a plot summary and brought it with him to make sure he knew what was going on. The plot summary was even more confusing than the play. It made it sound worse than opera. Sure, the nuances take a little sorting out, but the basic march of the plot is fairly simple.

Before the play begins, Prospero, the Duke of Milan and a formidable magician, was deposed by his brother Antonio, with the aid of Adrian, King of Naples, and set adrift with his daughter Miranda in a boat to die. They washed up on the island where the play takes place, and found two creatures to serve them – the etherial spirit Ariel, and the monstrous yet pitiable Caliban. The play begins when Prospero magics up a storm, which seems to cause the ship in which Antonio and Adrian are travelling back from a wedding to sink, and it’s passengers to be cast ashore onto the island. There are three plots to be reckoned with: a love story between Prince Ferdinand of Naples and Prospero’s daughter Miranda; a story of usurpation to mirror Prospero’s own, wherein Antonio and Sebastian, Adrian’s brother, plot to kill the King of Naples and take his crown; and finally Caliban’s doomed alliance with two drunkards, Stephano and Trinculo, in an attempt to depose Prospero and take control of the island. In the end Ferdinand is married to Miranda, all the plots against authority are foiled, and Prospero leaves the island in control of Ariel and Caliban.

It’s whose examination of the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, the coloniser and the colonised, anticipate a vast swathe of post-colonial literature, while the variety and inventiveness of the staging anticipate the capabilities of the modern theatre. Yet even after the greatest spectacles and triumphs of stagecraft, there comes a reminder from Prospero, the stage master, that life, like all great fictions, is transitory.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Such wistful notes lend emotional force to the reading that identifies Prospero with Shakespeare, and reads the play as Shakespeare’s farewell to his dramatic art.

But I’m talking like an academic again, hedging around the most important points. I knew it was a bad sign when, after a seminar laying out opposing critical points of view on Paradise Lost, one of my students asked me ‘What do you think?’ and I floundered. Academic reading – keeping critical arguments in mind, adducing this point or that from the text – is a very different thing to the way I’m trying to read The Tempest. I’m sitting in a rocking chair with a cup of tea at hand, running an eye across the page and allowing myself to be caught up in the interaction of the characters and the music of the verse, only pausing to read some particularly choice passage aloud and savour its feeling on the tongue. Reading this way, you sense the mood and the emotions of the play rather than deconstruct them analytically – and it’s true that I can feel, amid Shakespeare’s constant delight in language and enthusiasm for the possibilities of the staging, a wistfulness and sense of ending that creeps beneath, and gives the play a not-unpleasant bittersweetness. It’s a fine place to end, and a fine place to begin again.

2014 Blog Statistics!

My addiction to webcomics is crippling my ability to study, and I’m struggling to keep the Facebook habit under control, but my blog statistics page usually makes me feel good about myself. It’s wonderful to see how many people, and from how far away, have been led to my blog. I’m astonished that when you google a major Shakespearean character, I’m now on the first page of Google (albeit at the bottom). I have had a lot of unusual search terms, thanks mostly to my post about the York Naked Bike Ride. As the stats page also breaks down views by country, I noticed that one of the lewdest search strings coincided with my first view from Vatican City. Coincidence? I think not.

It’s hard to pick a favourite among this year’s entries, but The Drunk Samaritan was the most interesting to write, while Waterlog 7: Laugharne and Pendine Sands didn’t quite get the attention I was hoping for.

Thank you all for dropping by, subscribing, and showing your willingness to read what I write!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Desk Angst

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? —Albert Einstein

Writer’s desks, along with their original manuscripts and signed copies of their novels, are now part of the cult of the author, and some that are appropriately old and famous can go for fabulous prices at auction, or – if the author is really, really famous – are preserved in museums of the author’s home or birthplace. They are all singularly lifeless, soulless lumps of wood.

Take Leo Tolstoy’s desk, preserved under glass at the Tolstoy museum, with everything precisely in order – a half-finished letter laid out square to the surface – a pair of polished candlesticks and new candles, three pots of ink arranged in a marble stand – everything immaculate and in its proper place. How dull. It could be the desk of a nineteenth century bank manager. Now, by contrast, look at the recreation of his desk in The Last Station, a film about the final days of Tolstoy’s life. It looks like a pigeon’s nest, more wild and untamed even than Christopher Plummer’s impressively tangled beard. Words spill out of notebooks and letters, spilling out of pigeonholes and drawers in a cascade of ink and paper. It’s a desk you can believe was used by the author of several doorstop novels of more than a million words, embracing every aspect of Russian life. It’s a beautifully ordered mind finding its expression in a glorious chaos.

Ever since, I’ve been worrying – is my desk untidy enough? Is it untidy in the right ways?

I wrote my MA thesis on a series of tiny, rickety plywood desks with barely room enough for a keyboard and monitor. The first thing I did when I had a PhD and a decent wodge of funding to do it with, was to spend far too much money on an impressively solid, leather topped corner desk that provides an impressive amount of workspace to sprawl into, as well as a footwell large enough to contain a printer/scanner, ten volumes of diaries stretching back to 2008, an electric heater and various plugs and adaptors.

Let’s take a quick census, a map of the terrain at this moment in time. I’m writing this longhand, even though I know I’ll have to type it up later, because writing longhand relaxes me. My desk is essentially an equilateral triangle, with the point rounded or truncated. Directly ahead of me is my laptop, sitting slightly lopsidedly on its powercord and showing me a screensaver of unusual words: it’s just come up with ‘connatural’ meaning ‘belonging naturally, or innate.’ Behind it is a selected volume of Coleridge’s Notebooks, lightly annotated; behind that is a desk lamp which I never use, but keep there because it’s the sort of old-fashioned brass lamp that should sit on desks of this sort.

Along the right hand edge of the desk marches a regiment of paperbacks that have overspilled my bookshelves and begun to annex windowsills and tabletops all over the flat. One day, I will rearrange my shelves so that all the impressive, writerly things are stacked here in easy reach – the OED, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Rhyming Dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style. For the moment it’s the usual mix of Genre Fiction, Poetry, Ancient History and Teach Yourself German in 20 Easy Lessons. Stacked up on top of the books are a mixture of notebooks, DVDs, post-its, maps and programmes; underneath them a tape measure, an orphaned Christmas card, a lump of quartz from the mountainside above Delphi, an AA battery, a pair of bicycle clips, a labyrinth of computer cables and – the oasis in this desert – a mug of earl grey and lemon on a Doctor Who coaster!

The left hand side of the desk appears at first glance to be possessed by an indiscriminate mountain of paper, but which, under closer inspection, resolves itself into a copy of Christine Gerrard’s The Patriot Opposition to Walpole, open at page 72 – a bound copy of the Cardiff bus timetables – the latest copy of The Week – an A4 notepad filled with German prepositions – notes for a seminar I taught on Thomas Gray’s An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church-Yard – a postcard I bought in Florence and never sent – and a letter of complaint to Cardiff Council about the loud and intrusive ‘security announcement’ they insist on playing in the Central Library. On the far edge of my desk, a small heap of letters from my mother, my uncle Michael and my friend Suzannah, currently convalescing from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Dresden, form the foothills to these mountains. Other notable geographical features are a pair of obsolete hearing aids (mine) in a black felt pouch, the Penguin selected essays of George Orwell and a fearfully leaky collapsible travel cup that once belonged to my grandfather.

All in all, it’s not a bad showing – but if I’m honest with myself, I know my desk could be much more untidy with only a little more effort.