Monday, February 8, 2016

Great monologues from English stage

The Guardian has a short collection of 3-minute Shakespearean monologues: here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How He Did It: Titus Andronicus

Taking a step back and looking at this, it’s stunning how much big, kitschy motifs he stuffs into this thing. He doesn’t shy away from anything, never says, “Hey, you can’t have a rape and a murder and torture and patricide in one play.” He’s not interested at all in the little subtle everyday stories that are so fascinating in their details. Fuck that, he wants more blood.

In fact, it’s almost as if you could take his plays and write a catalog of “Big Things” – all the huge themes and motifs that go far beyond everyday life:

Family murder (here: father kills son, but also, in other plays, patricide and fratricide)
Loyalty and Betrayal
Honor and Betrayal of Honor
Sorrow and Suffering
Ranting against the gods / fate
Decadence and Hypocrisy
Incest (not here, in other lays – can’t believe he left out incest)
Evil (Aaron, others)
Young Love
Stealing of someone’s else’s love
Character / Courage / Honor
Youth and Old Age
Racism and Sexism
Bodily Mutilation
Gore and Imaginative Ways of Killing, Maiming and Torturing
Downfall of a nation / dynasty
Brotherly rivalry and family disintegration
Loss of children
Loss of / theft of fortune
Cannibalism (Cooking your enemies into a pie and making your other enemies eat it)

What else? There must be more here.

In fact, I am tempted to take the catalog and try to write a play and stuff all these things in it and see what happens. That must be how Shakespeare wrote this one.

The Movie: Titus

The definitive movie is Juilie Taymor’s “Titus” with Anthonly Hopkins and Jessica Lange (1999). It’s very mixed.

On the one hand, it’s probably the only good filming of the play. On the other, it’s often ridiculous.

Taymor wants to be Peter Greenaway and puts a lot of effort into the images, but it only works half of the time. A lot of it is too kitschy and overwrought to be charming, and she tries too hard. The acting could have been more subtle and here again is that old problem: The play is written to be declared, but the scenes are played for a kind of pseudo-realism, and it’s often not credible.

On the other hand, it almost works, and this is a play that could easily be grueling torture to watch.

One good thing she does:

She cuts the action enough to make almost everything motivated. Whereas in the play it is much more loopy and disjointed, here you can follow the reasoning of the characters as the plot progresses.

One bad thing she does:

Shakespeare had the bad habit of really playing up the tears. Titus and just about everyone is constantly complaining to the gods and moaning and groaning. Taymor cut out a lot of the play – well done – but she left in most of the bellyaching. It’s too much. Give these people a little dignity, turn your eyes away the five hundredth time they bewail their fate to the gods, please, it drags on you more than the constant bloodshed does.

(The popularity of moaning and groaning is not limited to Shakespeare’s time. Looking at image from earlier productions of the plays, most poster-makers and illustrators seem to concentrate on Lavinia, who does nothing but suffer – there are all kinds of images of her bleeding and being raped etc. She is the weakest character in the play and I can imagine that Shakespeare did all those horrible things to her because she was so annoying. But when putting on the play, directors tend to play her up big for the pity effect.)

Best lines: Titus Andronicus

The reason why no one seems to notice Tamora nowadays is that for pure evil, she is eclipsed by Aaron the Moor – “Moor” meaning “black guy.” He gets all the good lines, and it’s wonderful to see him not regret his evil deeds, but to regret not having done more of them:

LUCIUS. Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?

AARON. Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day- and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse-
Wherein I did not some notorious ill;

As kill a man, or else devise his death;
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it;
Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself;
Set deadly enmity between two friends;
Make poor men's cattle break their necks;

Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.

Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends' door
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters
'Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.'
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly;
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
What a guy! You gotta love him.

Titus Andronicus

Everyone hates, is fascinated by and is scared by Titus Andronicus.

It’s so brutal and amateurish that it shouldn’t be from Shakespeare, but it is. No one wants to believe it, so they try to explain it away. Bloom thinks he was trying to out-Marlowe Marlowe, what with all the blood and the splashy unmotivated violence for effect, but he is underestimating his own hero.

This is my thinking:

Maybe he wasn’t quite Shakespeare yet. Maybe he was still fumbling around, looking for the way he wanted to write. Maybe someone said: “Will, you gotta have a shocker every five minutes. To keep these people watching.” Or: “Will, you’re holding back, you’re not going all the way. You’re too timid. Go to the limit and go one step beyond. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense, don’t wait for a logical opportunity within the story, just slap another rape on it, another murder, more blood, send another severed hand flying through the air: Go over the top.”
This is Shakespeare’s over-the-top play, and maybe that’s why I like it. It’s full of stuff that makes no sense and is clearly just there for effect.

Throughout the play Titus complains that everyone is unjust to him and his beloved family, yet in the very beginning he butchers his own son completely out of the blue (not quite, actually: Titus is demonstrating in a big flashy way his loyalty to the emperor and to Rome and his sense of honor after his son insults the emperor). Then, after getting revenge on the people who raped and mutilated his daughter, he butchers her, too. It’s like that the whole time. Surreal, like a serial killer’s drug dream of ancient Rome.

Hell, it works for me. By inserting some kind of bizarre, horrible blood-letting every five minutes or so, he sure does keep me awake. I had to think of the TV series 24, which pounds you with one twist after the other, most of them related to violence. It has a similar feel. I really liked “24”. I felt like someone was trying – successfully – to mess with my brain, and I let him do it. I also let Shakespeare do it. I’m not afraid of my inner voyeur, and there is something adventurous about being led down a road that takes such crazy turns.

But there is still method to his madness.

What's It All About # 1
One way of looking at it is that Titus is about the sacking of Rome by the barbarian tribes of Europe. The hordes of barbarians didn’t have to overrun the gates, the Romans let them in.

It starts out with Titus returning from conquering the Goths with Tamora the Goth queen as his prisoner. About five minutes later Tamora is Empress of Rome and all of a sudden everyone is playing her game.

The Romans did admire and fear the barbarians just as we today admire and fear the things that may eventually destroy us. How that is happening – a loss of liberal values, for example, or a loss of civil rights on the other hand – depends on your political view. No matter: now as then, faced with a strong enemy, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome ensues, and soon our enemy is controlling us, just when we think we have defeated him.

What makes it all possible is Rome's inner weakness. Outwardly powerful, as demonstrated by Titus' victories, it is inwardly corrupted by intrigues, egocentrism and decadence. Though you can’t see it yet from the outside, it is ripe for plunder. Everything that happens in Titus happens only because the Romans themselves encourage it.

You can also see it as a rape story: The Rape of Lucrece taken one step further. The rapist in this case is Titus and him victim is Tamora, whose country Titus rapes. When Titus's competitor Saturninus spots the proud, sexy Tamora in chains, he marries her, lusting perhaps after a piece of that great barbarian … freedom, strength, pride and vitality, which he as an over-civilized decadent Roman lacks. She sees her chance to take her revenge on Titus and basically rape Rome just as Rome raped her people.

The interesting thing is how she manages to go from victim to doer. She doesn’t do it by moaning and groaning all the time. He shows the Romans her strength, and Rome, which has no real strength, is turned on.

Lavinia, Titus's pure, virtuous, idealized and over-civilized daughter, is the opposite – she does nothing but suffer, and in the end dies at Titus's own hand. Why Titus murders her in the end in unclear, but you can figure it out yourself: Either he is a chauvinist creep who sees a violated daughter as a breach to his honor, or he is simply putting her out of her misery, or he is disgusted by her unwillingness to rise above her victimhood.
Once Tamora comes to power, Titus, the original conqueror/rapist, is put on the defensive. Now it’s his turn to be raped by Tamora in a similar way. He sees how it feels, and the challenge now is: Can he rise above it and prove to be Tamora’s worthy opponent?

If you look at it this way, you have in Tamora the first of Shakespeare's great female characters – as strong, smart, powerful and bloody as the men. Tamora reminds me a lot of Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied. Ah, but what doesn't remind me of Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied?

What's It All About # 2

You can also see it as the education of Titus, who starts out a Great Man of Rome with all the virtues befitting such a station – loyalty, statesmanship, honor (he sacrifices/kills his own son when the boy insults the Emperor). But soon he must learn that the virtues of a society or merely a façade perpetrated by the ruling class to control their underlings; that Rome is really only selfishness and betrayal and greed and hatred.

He was duped, as we all are, into believing the propaganda of the ruling set and thus serving them. But when he sees that he is only and always will only be a dumb pawn in another violent game that he was never meant for him to win, he stumbles, almost falls, but finds the strength to get revenge. Which, by the way, is not a bad thing, but in fact the only valid move he can make in this game.

There is a point in the story where he says,

"Marcus, we are but shrubs, no cedars we,
no big-bon'd men fram'd of the Cyclops' size;
but metal, Marcus, steel to the very back… “ (Act 4, Scene 3)
It comes at a point when his suffering is so great and his madness coming on that you think he can't stand another blow. But now he crosses that point and discovers there is strength there, corrupted and bent by suffering, but the steel is still there, and he is strong enough to continue and toward revenge.

It’s all true, of course: Virtue is a tool used by those in power to control others, revenge is a language they understand, victimhood is neither the end to anything nor in any way admirable, and when you think you can’t take it anymore, quite possibly you can.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Passionate Pilgrim

None of the poems in “The Passionate Pilgrim” are good.

Most likely, Shakespeare wrote only five of them, though the publisher back then claimed he wrote all. There are 20 total, the authors of the others are sometimes known, other times not.

The best poem in the little collection is not Shakespeare’s and it’s not much of a poem. It’s very simple and straight-forward, more like song lyrics than poetry, but it really moves along in a simple and affecting way. That guy had potential. Too bad he never got famous. Oh, wait, he did: Apparently, it was Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great competitor:

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield…

But if you compare them the other poems (and assuming Shakespeare really only did write five of them), you see a difference. Shakespeare is more assured than the others and more importantly, his words carry more weight. The others are flouncing around, it’s all shepherds and Adonis and love and lying in the grass. Shakespeare gives you the feeling that he is going beyond that. In the best cases, he plays with logic in a paradoxical way.

Here’s a presumably non-Shakespeare beginning (Poem Nr. 4):

Sweet Cytherea, sitting by a brook
With young Adonis, lovely, fresh and green…

Here’s Shakespeare (Poem Nr. 1 / Sonnet 138):

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies…

It’s not just images or pretty scenes of love, immediately there’s intellectual connection.

Also, he nails the endings. He knows that it’s the end that more impresses the reader, and it’s strange that the other poets sometimes don’t seem to get that (oddly enough).

Here’s Nr. 4 again (the poem is about Cytherea trying to seduce the beautiful but inexperienced Adonis – he, being stupid, resists):

Then fell she on her back, fair queen, and toward:
He rose and ran way; ah fool too froward!

I like his foolishness, but it just end it with a little comment thrown at his back while he beats it is a let-down.

Here’s Sonnet 138:

Therefore I’ll lie with love, and love with me,
Since that our faults in love thus smother’d b e.

All of a sudden, everything is wrapped up and the thought is also somehow new – a conclusion that surprises and satisfies.

Shakespeare mastered 1) the art of challenging and surprising the reader and 2) the art of the ending.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Weirdest line

(in Lucrece, but maybe in Shakespeare so far):

For men have marble, women waxen, minds.

As the Shakespeares of today say: WTF?