Shakespeare for the Modern Reader
by Henry I. Christ (Writer's Showcase, 2002)
(This column first appeared in the November 7, 2002 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
When my wife and I drive to Stratford to see Shakespeare's plays, we take along a copy of Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare to review the plots of the ones for which we have tickets. This is a quite different activity from studying crib-notes or Classic Comics instead of completing a reading assignment. The plays are not driven by surprise endings but rather by character so knowing the plot beforehand does not take away from the pleasure of our evening in the theatre.
Henry I. Christ's book, Shakespeare for the Modern Reader, provides similar brief plot summaries, but it does far more than that. It is, as his sub-title suggests, A User-Friendly Introduction to this superb dramatist. In fact the plot synopses constitute only the third of his three equal-in-length sections. The first two, "The Life and the Stage" and "Shakespeare's Unique Genius", I especially enjoyed. Never mind that I have seen most of Shakespeare's plays and studied still more in college; I found this book an excellent read.
Consider some of what he has to say:
About staging: "When faced with a Shakespearean play, directors and producers think, 'How can we make this somewhat different from the usual, yet remain true to the spirit of Shakespeare's plays?' Unfortunately, the staging sometimes overwhelms the play. Even in the memory of a single playgoer, there are a great variety of settings and times. Hamlet has been played traditionally in Elizabethan costumes, in rehearsal clothes, in modern dress, in a nineteenth‑century kingdom. Much Ado about Nothing has been set at the turn of the century. Constable Dogberry and his comical crew were dressed as the Keystone Cops of the early Mack Sennett movies. A Midsummer Night's Dream has been set in a lavish Hollywood 'forest,' a bare stage with gymnasium equipment, and a lovely Tuscan countryside. One production used a gauze at the front of the stage to give the mysterious feeling of fairyland. The fairies have been represented by beautiful women, mischievous children, and puppets."
About interpreting Shakespeare: "An actor's interpretation is partially determined by the temper of the age in which the play is performed. Just as the productions of Henry V by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh were influenced by external events, so the performance of every play carries the mark of its period. The Taming of the Shrew is a good example. In a male‑dominated age, it can be played for crude laughs at the expense of hapless Katharina, finally getting her just deserts. But a clever cast can give a different tone to the play. In a feminist age, the battle of the sexes can be seen with a more sympathetic eye toward Katharina. It is true that Petruchio has some domineering lines early on, but even the strongest lines can be delivered with affectionate humor. Petruchio always speaks with courtesy and restraint. This 'underlying delicacy' as it has been called, leaves Katharina some dignity and paves the way for the ultimate reconciliation. Sympathetic actors can suggest that the 'taming' involves two characters possibly in love from their first meeting.
"How can the final long speech of submission at the end of Act V satisfy a feminist age? Katharina has 44 lines in which to praise the man's role in a happy marriage and describe the woman's. She scolds her sister Bianca and the Widow for their lack of respect. This does indeed seem like complete capitulation to the demands of her husband, but a clever actress playing Katharina can suggest that the ideal marriage is one of mutual respect free of self‑indulgence. Bianca, initially the prize for marriage, is shown as spoiled, not an ideal mate. Petruchio shows that he has been completely 'tamed' also, when he says, 'Come on, and kiss me, Kate.'"
About Shakespeare denying our expectations: "When we enter the world of Shakespeare, we find some of our usual boxes and maps less than helpful.... In much popular fiction and the movies, characters do not turn on us and surprise us. James Bond, for example, is always gallant, reliable, strong, charming, on the side of the angels. When we see a James Bond movie, we know what to expect, like getting a fast‑food hamburger. Shakespeare scorns easy classifications....
"Hamlet can be at the same time bloody and restrained. He can be a tortured lover and a pitiless scorner almost simultaneously. He is many personalities at different times, sometimes almost at the same time. Though Hamlet is a pre‑eminent example of Shakespeare's character contradictions, they abound elsewhere in the plays.
"In Julius Caesar, Brutus is another example of a man conflicted beyond endurance. Though labeled by Mark Antony at the end of the play as the noblest Roman of them all,' Brutus is a flawed hero, like others in the Shakespeare plays. Though Brutus prides himself on living by reason, he is often moved by irrational elements within himself. He joins the conspiracy against Caesar as much because of Cassius's insinuations as for any rational reason of his own. On the other hand, after the assassination, he shows his great‑heartedness by allowing Mark Antony to live, a decision the conspirators come to regret.
"The conspirators begin to fall out when Octavian and Mark Antony threaten. In one scene, Brutus argues with Cassius over money, as though it were an argument between two adolescents. The noble Brutus is here revealed as both petty and great, all within half a dozen lines. Why does Shakespeare show us this Brutus, the noblest Roman, with feet of clay? This contradiction is Shakespeare's greatest strength: his depiction of real people, with all their virtues and faults presented simultaneously."
About the poet's contributions to our language: "Shakespeare, of all writers, seemed to understand the genius of English best. He converted the verbs embrace, glow, howl, resolve, and shudder to nouns. He combined marigold and bud to make maribud. He created colorful new words like bethumped....
"Shakespeare liked to create new adjectives by adding ed to nouns. In Cymbeline, the Roman general Lucius suggests that Cloten be buried honorably:
Pick out the prettiest daisied plot we can
And make him with our pikes and partisans
"Shakespeare has taken the noun daisy, added the suffix ed, and made a colorful adjective of it. He liked the suffix ment as well, creating words like amazement, bewitchment, excitement, and reinforcement. The ure suffix provided exposure. Occasionally Shakespeare would add a suffix to help the meter of the line: vasty, brisky, plumpy, steepy.
"Shakespeare created many new words with the prefix un ‑- for example, unchanging, unearthly, uneducated, unhappy, unhelpfid, unpolluted, unpremeditated, unreal, unrival, unsolicited, and unsullied. Very often, the negative proves especially effective, as in Julius Caesar. When Antony inflames the crowd by saying that Brutus's stab wound of Caesar was the final blow in Caesar's death, he doesn't call the blow 'the cruelest cut.' Instead, he uses the negative unkindest and combines it with another superlative, most.
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
Judge, 0 you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him.
That was the most unkindest cut of all.
"Unkind is an understatement, but in this context, it is powerful."
And finally, about those wonderful phrases: "'Shakespeare was very resourceful. He plagiarized so many common quotations.' This old joke overlooks the truth that Shakespeare created those quotations. The following brief list gives some indication of Shakespeare's presence in modern English.
"All the world's a stage (As You Like It); Bated breath (The Merchant of Venice); The better part of valor is discretion. (Henry I Part One); Breathe one's last (Henry VT, Part One); Brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet); Budge an inch (The Taming of the Shrew); Caviar to the general (Hamlet); He hath eaten me out of house and home (Henry IV Part Two); Fair play (King John); Flaming youth (Hamlet); For goodness' sake (Henry VIII); Foregone conclusion (Othello); Full circle (King Lear); Good riddance (Troilus and Cressida); The green‑eyed monster (Othello); In my heart of hearts (Hamlet); Household words (Henry V); An itching palm (Julius Caesar); Knock, knock: Who's there? (Macbeth); Master of their fates (Julius Caesar); The milk of human kindness (Macbeth); In my mind's eye (Hamlet); The play's the thing (Hamlet); A sorry sight (Macbeth); A spotless reputation (Richard II); Strange bedfellows (The Tempest); Sweets to the Sweet (Hamlet); Too much of a good thing (As You Like It); A tower of strength (Richard III); Vale of tears (Othello); What the Dickens (The Merry Wives of Windsor); Wild‑goose chase (Romeo and Juliet)."
No matter what your background, I promise you that, if you have any interest whatsoever in Shakespeare, you will enjoy this book. Highly recommended.-- Gerry Rising