Monday, 29 May 2017

On the BBC's 1981 production of "All's Well That Ends Well" by William Shakespeare (1604/5)

Contention: All's Well That Ends Well is the best-kept secret of all of Shakespeare's plays.

It's neither esteemed as one of the classic favourites (such as Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night's Dream) nor mocked as one of the least popular works (e.g. Two Gentlemen of Verona). It's just sort of "there", an odd, largely unheard-of problem play that's assumed to be not funny enough to be one of the raucous comedies and not serious enough to merit much consideration alongside the tragedies. Its biggest claim to fame is probably giving us the phrase that forms its title, and like most such phrases, many probably don't consider that they're quoting Shakespeare when they use it. To overlook this play, however, is to overlook one of the most fascinating, elegant, and even radical works of the whole canon, a play which suddenly shot up in my estimation after watching the 1981 BBC version directed by Elijah Moshinsky.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Repeat After Me

Repeat after me:

The market is free 
(but its goods are not.)
The press is free
(but its readers are not.)
Enslavement is free
(but freedom is not.)
Language is free
(but speech is not.)
Death is free
(but life is not.)

Repeat after me --
            Once more --
                    Without feeling.

[REDACTED]

The following piece has been summarily edited.
How, where and why these edits took place
It does not behove Whitehall to say,
Save that as long as certain cells persist
In their delusional notions of truth
Word-bans will always be brought into force,
Word-disseminators always presented at court.
This in accordance with Clause 444.

Crimson Shoes

A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of nationalism:
Painted poltergeist prancing to a bombast's tune,
It's a mocked-up mockery, an am-dram totem.
If Satan showed up, it'd surely demote him.
For hours each day, the fools bow and pray -
In place of churches they constructed casinos
And shopping malls. Et in arcadès ego.
These establishments offer most peculiar prizes
In England's name, and all such names.
The slot machines rest upon axles and stilts
Which keep them amply raised above the tide
Of blood. Otherwise they'd need to keep glancing down,
These merrymaking gamesters, these jokers, these clowns,
And then where would they be? Down a few pounds.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

On the BBC's 1981 production of "The Winter's Tale" by William Shakespeare (c.1611)

The Winter's Tale is one of the oddest of all Shakespeare's plays, and in both its tragedy-turned-reconciliation narrative and its odd air of unreality one can detect a certain degree of similarity with Cymbeline; small wonder the two tend to be grouped together. I don't think The Winter's Tale is quite as messy as Cymbeline, but at points it's just as odd -- for four different reasons that I can tell: 

1) the mechanics of the plot depend on a sudden burst of jealousy on the part of Leontes, King of Sicilia, at the opening of the play; in brief, Leontes suspects his wife Hermione of sleeping with Polixenes, his childhood friend and monarch of neighbouring Bohemia (by now she's heavily pregnant, but Polixenes has been staying for nine months). This leads to all sorts of fun phrasings like 'it is a bawdy planet' and Leontes gets to confide his suspicions to the audience conspiratorially, which is rather enjoyable (Morgus from The Caves of Androzani, anyone?), but what doesn't seem to be remarked upon enough is that Leontes' entire motivation for suspecting Hermione of infidelity boils down to the fact that she asks Polixenes to stay on a little longer and he accepts, despite Leontes having tried to urge the same but to no avail. All well and good, except that Hermione only urges Polixenes to stay at Leontes' request, making his sudden fit of jealous pique when Hermione apparently does exactly what he asks and Polixenes does exactly as Leontes was hoping he'd do ... an utterly baffling reaction. More on this anon.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

On "King Charles III" by Mike Bartlett (2015)


I first heard about King Charles III in 2014, like everybody else, when it was suddenly the hottest play in London, but I was familiar with Mike Bartlett's work a little earlier than that, though only the scripts for 13 and Earthquakes in London. He's a good playwright, part of why I was so chuffed he was one of the writers to contribute to Doctor Who Season 36 (Series 10. The one airing in 2017*). But I never got round to actually seeing this play, so it was with much delight that I heard a 90-minute version would be airing on BBC One. The passing of Tim Pigott-Smith not long before the broadcast cast a certain pall over it, but public calls for a posthumous BAFTA are already making waves. And rightly so; Pigott-Smith is remarkable here. No dead-ringer for Charles (not that that matters to my eyes, anyway), he makes up for it with a polished performance that gets the occasional tone of voice, the mannerisms, just right - and more importantly, given that this is of course a fictional Charles, a performance that sells exactly what Bartlett's script is doing.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On "Von den Elben" by Heinrich von Morungen (early 13th century)


Customary in the twelfth- and thirteenth- century art of Minnesang is frequent reference to 'Hohe Minne', that is to say to an exalted love - often on a more hyperbolic or hyperreal plane than we may recognise. The fifth poem in Heinrich von Morungen's oeuvre, 'Von den Elben', leans heavily into this tendency towards the supernatural, specifically the ways in which a spell a woman can cast over the man who is besotted with her resembles a more magical reality than the everyday.

The lexis of the supernatural begins, of course, with the reference to 'elben' in the first line, and the popularly held fear that men could be seduced off paths by impish, mischievous elves; the poet doesn't fear such phenomena, however, but rather is seduced by the overwhelming love he feels towards his beloved lady. Typical of Minnesang is the extent of this love and its attendant high stakes; it is 'gróze[...] liebe' and his lady is '[die] besten, die ie dehein man ze friunt gewan'. We are very quickly plunged into the traditional format of the poet praising his lady above all others. Such hyperbole naturally leads into the adunaton with which the poet ends his first stanza: in asserting that the lady delights him so much that it may well end his life, which we may well see as impossible or illogical or contradictory, Morungen has already indicated just what kind of all-consuming passion it is with which we are dealing: Liebestod - dying for the sake of love - has already been invoked.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

On the phenomenon of "Minne" in Hartmann von Aue's "Erec" (c.1191-2)

Hartmann von Aue's early Arthurian romance Erec, thought to have been composed between 1191 and 1192, reflects in multiple ways the dichotomy of effects 'Minne' (the Middle High German word for courtly love) can have upon couples - effects both beneficial and deleterious. Ultimately Hartmann's work positions Minne as an opposing extreme to chivalry, portraying both essential aspects of courtly life as necessary and yet to some extent potentially destabilising.

The primary sphere upon which this dichotomy acts is the couple at the narrative centre, namely Erec and Enite. Upon their introduction we have a clear sense of these two figures as protagonist roles, not least because of the extent of description and hyperbole Hartmann invests in convincing us of their worth. In a number of respects they seem a perfect match; by the story's end the reader is convinced of the worth and value of their relationship. But such a point has only been reached through 'übele zite' - suffering and anguish which Enite, in particular, has had to undergo.