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Friday, 30 April 2021

Shakespeare: 20 điều thú vị, và thuyết âm mưu

Đây là 2 bài tôi viết cho báo Trẻ nhân tháng 4, tháng sinh và tháng mất của William Shakespeare, nhưng không được đăng, nên để ở đây. 


20 CHI TIẾT THÚ VỊ VỀ WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Tháng 4 là tháng của William Shakespeare (1564-1616), nhà thơ và nhà viết kịch, nhà văn vỹ đại và có ảnh hưởng nhất của Anh quốc hoặc thậm chí, theo nhiều người, của thế giới nói chung. Sau đây là vài chi tiết thú vị về cuộc đời và tác phẩm của Shakespeare, có lẽ bạn chưa biết. 

1/ Shakespeare sinh ra ở Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, Anh, bởi vậy được gọi là the Bard (thi sỹ) of Stratford-upon-Avon. Những người không tin Shakespeare thực sự là Shakespeare được gọi là anti-Stratfordian, tuy nhiên đa phần các học giả đều xem đây là thuyết âm mưu và không tự gọi mình là Stratfordian để thành ngang hàng với đám dở hơi kia. 

2/ Không ai biết ngày sinh chính xác của Shakespeare, chỉ biết được làm lễ rửa tội ngày 26/4/1564. Tuy nhiên người ta thường mừng sinh nhật Shakespeare ngày 23/4, cũng là tưởng niệm ngày mất. 

3/ Cha của Shakespeare là John Shakespeare, thợ làm găng tay và ủy viên hội đồng địa phương. John Shakespeare sinh ở Snitterfield, cũng may là dọn sang sống ở Stratford-upon-Avon nên hậu thế không phải biết tới William Shakespeare là thi sỹ của Snitterfield. 

Mẹ là Mary Arden. 

4/ Trước William, John và Mary có vài người con trai khác nhưng chết lúc nhỏ, nên William trở thành con trai cả trong nhà. 

5/ Bằng chứng hiện nay không còn, nhưng các nhà nghiên cứu lâu nay đều đồng ý là William lúc nhỏ đi học ở trường văn phạm mới của nhà vua (King’s new grammar school) ở Stratford. Không học đại học. 

6/ Năm 18 tuổi, William Shakespeare kết hôn với Anne Hathaway, lớn hơn 8 tuổi và đang mang thai. Một chi tiết thú vị là, một ngày trước khi hai người bạn ký surety £40 để đảm bảo tài chính cho đám cưới của “William Shagspere và Anne Hathwey”, đăng ký giám mục ở Worcester có một giấy đăng ký kết hôn giữa Shakespeare và Anne Whateley của Temple Grafton. Đây là chi tiết gây tranh cãi bao lâu nay—Anne Whateley chính là Anne Hathaway nhưng viết sai trong hệ thống, hay là người hoàn toàn khác? Nếu cùng là một người, giải thích thế nào về câu Anne Whateley đến từ Temple Grafton trong khi Anne Hathaway đến từ Shottery, cùng thuộc Warwickshire nhưng là làng khác? Tuy nhiên, không có một giấy tờ hay dấu vết nào khác về sự tồn tại của Anne Whateley của Temple Grafton. 

7/ Tên của Shakespeare được đánh vần hàng tá cách khác nhau: Shakespere, Shackspeare, Shakespear, Shakspere, Shaxspere, Shaxper, Shakspeare, Shackespeare, Shackspere, Shackespere, v.v… 

Những người theo thuyết âm mưu thường bảo đấy là bằng chứng Shakespeare không phải là tác giả các vở kịch nổi tiếng mà chỉ là một thằng cha bá láp ở Stratford không biết chữ và không viết nổi tên mình, nhưng thật ra tiếng Anh thời này rất linh hoạt, mỗi chữ có thể được đánh vần nhiều cách khác nhau, chưa được chuẩn hóa, và các tác giả khác cùng thời cũng viết tên mình nhiều cách khác nhau như vậy. Chẳng hạn, Christopher Marlowe có khi viết là Cristofer Marley, Christopher Marlen, Morley, Marlin, v.v… 

8/ 6 tháng sau đám cưới, Shakespeare và Anne có một con gái là Susanna. 2 năm sau, có một cặp sinh đôi là Hamnet và Judith. Hamnet, con trai duy nhất của Shakespeare, chết khi mới 11 tuổi, không rõ lý do.  

9/ 1585-1592 được gọi là những năm mất tích (lost years) vì dấu vết không còn và chẳng ai biết Shakespeare làm gì trong những năm đó, trước khi trở thành nhà viết kịch ở London. Trong suốt sự nghiệp sau đó, Shakespeare chia thời gian giữa hai nơi là London và Stratford. 

10/ Người ta thường gọi Shakespeare là nhà văn thời Elizabethan, nhưng cũng thuộc thời Jacobean. Những tác phẩm lớn nhất của Shakespeare như “Macbeth”, “Othello”, “King Lear”, “The Tempest”…là viết dưới thời vua James (James VI của Scotland, James I của Anh). 

11/ Trong khi một số nhà viết kịch khác chuyển công ty, Shakespeare gần như cả đời gắn với một công ty kịch là The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, sau này đổi tên thành The King’s Men, do được vua James I bảo trợ. 

12/ Shakespeare có cộng tác với các nhà viết kịch khác trong những năm đầu và những năm cuối của sự nghiệp, nhưng đa phần viết một mình. 

13/ Shakespeare viết nhiều thể loại kịch khác nhau và thành công xuất sắc trong mọi thể loại: bi kịch (như “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth”, “Othello”, “King Lear”, “Hamlet”…), hài kịch (như “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Much Ado About Nothing”, “Twelfth Night”...), và lịch sử (Henriad, 2 nhóm kịch, mỗi nhóm 4 vở, làm về giai đoạn Richard II sang Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI). Đây là cách chia loại khi Shakespeare được xuất bản chính thức lần đầu tiên. Sau này các học giả xếp một số tác phẩm vào 2 thể loại khác là problem plays (không phải bi hay hài, như “Measure for Measure”, “Troilus and Cressida”…) và romances (“The Winter’s Tale”, “The Tempest”…). 

14/ Không chỉ viết kịch và diễn xuất, Shakespeare còn là nhà thơ, viết 154 bản sonnet, ba bản thơ tường thuật dài (narrative poem) là “Venus and Adonis”, “The Rape of Lucrece”, và “A Lover’s Complaint”, cùng vài bài thơ rải rác đây kia. 

15/ Sonnet là dạng thơ có từ Ý, có 14 dòng. Sonnet ở Ý (nổi nhất là Petrarch) có cấu trúc hai phần (octave và sestet) và theo vần ABBAABBA cho octave, CDECDE hoặc CDCDCD cho sestet. 

Tuy nhiên sang Anh, thể sonnet thay đổi, theo cấu trúc 3 khổ 4 câu (quatrain) với một đôi kết (couplet). Tiếng Anh cũng khó vần hơn tiếng Ý, nên sonnet ở Anh theo hệ vần ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. 

Sonnet của Shakespeare được chia thành hai nhóm: viết cho fair youth (một người đàn ông trẻ tuổi) và dark lady (vào thời Shakespeare, dark không nhất thiết có nghĩa gốc Phi mà có thể nói màu da nâu nói chung hoặc chỉ màu tóc đen).  

Đây là một trong những điều được tranh cãi bao lâu nay, về danh tính của fair youth và dark lady. Tuy nhiên, nhiều học giả cho rằng Shakespeare, cũng như nhiều nhà thơ khác cùng thời, không xem thơ là tự truyện mà chỉ chọn hình ảnh đàn ông và dark lady để đi ngược với quy ước của thể loại sonnet. 

16/ Trong “Romeo and Juliet”, một đoạn đối thoại giữa Romeo và Juliet khi gặp lần đầu tiên có thể ghép lại thành một bài sonnet. 

17/ Kịch của Shakespeare không được xuất bản chính thức khi còn sống—bản First Folio được hai người bạn John Heminges và Henry Condell xuất bản năm 1623, 7 năm sau khi Shakespeare chết. Khi tác giả còn sống, các vở kịch cũng được in và bán dưới dạng quarto, không chính thức và thường không chính xác. Tuy nhiên, những người theo thuyết âm mưu thường tung tin là không có tác phẩm nào gắn tên Shakespeare khi còn sống, đó là sai—tên Shakespeare gắn với “Venus and Adonis” và “The Rape of Lucrece” và các bài thơ sonnet, dù các bản sonnet có vẻ được xuất bản không có sự đồng ý của tác giả. 

Thời Shakespeare chưa có khái niệm bản quyền như thời nay—kịch viết ra là thuộc quyền công ty, không phải của người viết. Chưa kể, kịch chỉ bị xem là chơi, là play—tới năm 1616 mới là lần đầu tiên được xuất bản như sách, như tác phẩm văn chương, và đó là kịch của Ben Jonson. 

18/ Trên mạng hay có nhiều người nói là trong thời của mình, Shakespeare không được đánh giá cao, chỉ bị coi là viết giải trí—điều này hoàn toàn sai. Tất nhiên tới tận thế kỷ 19, Shakespeare mới được nâng thành tác giả vỹ đại nhất của Anh, không ai sánh kịp, nhưng khi còn sống Shakespeare đã là một trong những tác giả được coi trọng nhất, cùng với Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, v.v… Ben Jonson thậm chí còn nói Shakespeare là nhà văn của mọi thời đại (“He was not of an age but for all time!”). 

19/ Chỉ có khoảng 230 vở kịch từ thời đó còn tồn tại tới ngày nay, bao gồm 37-39 vở của Shakespeare, tức là khoảng 16%. 

20/ Có 3 bức chân dung thường được gắn với Shakespeare: Droeshout, Chandos, và Cobbe. 2 bức được gọi là Chandos portrait và Cobbe portrait thường được sử dụng nhiều do đẹp, nhưng không có bằng chứng đó thực sự là Shakespeare. Bức khắc Droeshout xuất hiện trên First Folio, khi kịch của Shakespeare được xuất hiện lần đầu tiên, nhưng không rõ độ chính xác là bao nhiêu vì là di cảo. 


Hải Di Nguyễn 


Nguồn 

“Shakespeare: The World as Stage” của Bill Bryson. 

“Shakespeare” của Anthony Burgess. 

 


SHAKESPEARE CÓ PHẢI LÀ SHAKESPEARE? 

Tháng 4 là tháng tưởng niệm William Shakespeare (1564-1616), văn hào vỹ đại nhất của nước Anh, hoặc theo nhiều người là nhà văn quan trọng nhất của thế giới nói chung. Shakespeare là tác giả của “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth”, “Hamlet”, “Othello”, “Twelfth Night”, “As You Like It”, v.v… 

Một trong những chủ đề gây tranh cãi là về tác giả: Shakespeare liệu có phải là Shakespeare? Hay là người khác? 

Vì sao có cuộc tranh luận về danh tính tác giả? 

Vì William Shakespeare sinh ở Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, Anh quốc, những người cho rằng Shakespeare không phải là tác giả những vở kịch nổi tiếng được gọi là anti-Stratfordian. 

Phe anti-Stratfordian đưa ra nhiều lý do và lập luận để nói Shakespeare không phải là Shakespeare nhưng thật ra tất cả có thể chỉ tóm gọn lại một ý: Shakespeare, theo họ, không có đủ lai lịch và học vấn để viết những tác phẩm hay như vậy. Theo họ, một diễn viên kịch thuộc nhà loàng xoàng không phải quý tộc, có cha là thợ làm găng tay, bản thân lớn lên ở tỉnh lẻ, chỉ học trường văn phạm và không học đại học, không thể viết những tác phẩm bất hủ và trở thành nhà văn hào vỹ đại nhất của Anh như thế.  

Nguồn gốc câu hỏi về danh tính tác giả  

Một ý không phải ai cũng nhắc tới khi nói về cuộc tranh luận về danh tính tác giả (authorship debate) là nó có từ thế kỷ 19 (trong khi Shakespeare sống ở cuối thế kỷ 16, đầu thế kỷ 17) và bắt nguồn từ Ohio, Mỹ. 

Nói cách khác, không ai nghi ngờ danh tính tác giả khi Shakespeare còn sống, cũng không ai băn khoăn gì suốt vài thế kỷ sau đó—chỉ từ thế kỷ 19 mới có lần đầu tiên, một phụ nữ người Mỹ tên Delia Bacon cho rằng các vở kịch mang tên Shakespeare thật ra là của một nhóm cùng viết, đứng đầu là Francis Bacon. 

Theo “Contested Will” của James Shapiro, một cuốn sách đi sâu vào cuộc tranh cãi này, đây là giai đoạn dậy lên cái gọi là higher criticism hay historical criticism, đặt nghi vấn về tác giả của Kinh thánh hay về danh tính của Homer (nhà thơ Hy Lạp cổ đại, được xem là tác giả của “Iliad” và “Odyssey”), nên không có gì lạ Delia Bacon cũng đặt ra câu hỏi về danh tính thật sự của Shakespeare và nhiều người ở Mỹ lẫn Châu Âu đều bị cuốn vào đó, bao gồm những tên tuổi lớn như Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Helen Keller, v.v… 

Các ứng cử viên khác

Theo Wikipedia, cho đến nay đã có khoảng 80 cái tên khác nhau được đưa ra là “Shakespeare thật sự”. 

2 thuyết chính, với nhiều người theo nhất, là về Francis Bacon và Edward de Vere. 

Francis Bacon, Tử tước (Viscount) St Alban thứ nhất (1561-1626) là một nhà triết học, chính khách, và essayist người Anh, cha đẻ của chủ nghĩa duy nghiệm (empiricism) và một trong những gương mặt quan trọng nhất của cuộc cách mạng khoa học ở Châu Âu. Hiện nay có lẽ không có mấy người quan tâm tới Francis Bacon, nhưng vào thế kỷ 19, ông được xem là một những người hiểu biết uyên bác nhất của Anh, hoặc Châu Âu nói chung. Sự uyên bác của Francis Bacon gần như là lý do chính khiến một số người, bắt đầu từ Delia Bacon, cho rằng đây mới là tác giả những vở kịch của Shakespeare, nhưng phải giấu nhẹm đi và để ông diễn viên Stratford đứng tên để không ảnh hưởng sự nghiệp chính trị. 

Một số người nghĩ Francis Bacon để code trong các vở kịch về danh tính của mình, và thậm chí họ còn bỏ hàng năm tìm kiếm và giải mã code chứng minh Bacon mới là tác giả. 

Thuyết Baconian là thuyết phổ biến nhất một thời gian, rồi bị thay thế vị trí số một bởi thuyết Oxfordian, về Edward de Vere, Bá tước (Earl) thứ 17 của Oxford (1550-1604). Edward de Vere có xuất bản vài bài thơ và vở kịch làng xoàng, chẳng mấy người để ý tới, và ngày nay chủ yếu vẫn còn được nhắc đến không phải vì những tác phẩm ký tên Earl of Oxford mà chỉ vì một số người nghĩ đó là tác giả thật sự ẩn sau cái tên William Shakespeare. Thuyết Oxfordian bắt nguồn từ một giáo viên người Anh tên J. Thomas Looney, chỉ vì cuộc đời Edward de Vere có vài điểm khớp với chi tiết xuất hiện đây kia trong kịch Shakespeare; 13 trong số 37-39 vở kịch lấy bối cảnh ở Ý, Edward de Vere đã du lịch nhiều nơi và thậm chí từng sống ở Ý, trong khi không có vẻ gì Shakespeare từng qua Ý; và Looney cho rằng Shakespeare thật sự phải thuộc tầng lớp quý tộc. 

Trên thực tế, không ai tìm được bất kỳ bằng chứng nào liên hệ Bacon, Oxford, hay bất kỳ ai khác với các tác phẩm của Shakespeare. 

Bằng chứng cho Shakespeare 

Ngược lại, mọi bằng chứng còn sót lại, dù không nhiều, đều cho thấy Shakespeare chính là Shakespeare của Stratford-upon-Avon. Phe nghi ngờ thường quên rằng giới văn chương của London rất hạn hẹp, ai cũng biết ai—Ben Jonson, một trong những nhà văn quan trọng nhất thời đó, quen Shakespeare và từng viết một bài thơ ca ngợi; bản thân Shakespeare và công ty kịch The Lord Chamberlain’s Men từng xuất hiện trước mặt nữ hoàng Elizabeth lẫn vua James; John Heminges và Henry Condell, hai người giúp chính thức xuất bản các vở kịch lần đầu tiên là bạn của Shakespeare và thuộc cùng công ty. 

Nói về lai lịch hay học vấn, một số nhà văn quan trọng cùng thời cũng có nguồn gốc tương tự Shakespeare: Christopher Marlowe có cha là thợ đóng giày, Ben Jonson là con của thợ nề và cũng chẳng học đại học. Một số người khăng khăng là tác giả phải thuộc dòng dõi quý tộc mới viết được về giới thượng lưu, nhưng trong tác phẩm của Shakespeare cũng có tầng lớp thấp, nhà nghèo, đám tội phạm, gái điếm…—dùng cùng lập luận, làm sao các ông như Edward de Vere biết được tầng lớp này? Hơn nữa, kịch Shakespeare có nhiều hình ảnh hoặc ẩn dụ về đồng quê Warwickshire hoặc liên quan đến ngành làm găng tay da (như cha Shakespeare). 

Các dấu vết còn sót lại (chẳng hạn đôi khi Shakespeare viết nhân vật cho một diễn viên cụ thể nào đó nên viết lộn tên diễn viên thay cho tên nhân vật) cho thấy tác giả phải là người đang làm việc trong công ty kịch, biết bạn diễn gồm có ai, khả năng thế nào, diễn được loại vai nào, nếu viết một vai khó (như cần nói được tiếng Welsh hoặc biết chơi nhạc) thì có người để đóng không, v.v…, chứ không phải một ông quý tộc ngồi viết từ xa rồi tuồn ra. 

Quan trọng hơn hết, Edward de Vere chết năm 1604, sau đó vẫn xuất hiện nhiều tác phẩm khác của Shakespeare như “King Lear”, “Macbeth”, “Antony and Cleopatra”... và nhiều vở kịch cũng thay đổi phong cách sau khi công ty kịch của Shakespeare chuyển sang một nhà hát khác, với điều kiện hoàn toàn khác—một điều Edward de Vere không thể đoán trước. 

Nhiều lập luận chống Shakespeare cũng bắt nguồn từ thiếu hiểu biết hoặc hiểu sai về thời Elizabethan hay Jacobean. Chẳng hạn, nhiều người nói Shakespeare không nhắc gì tới sách vở hay bản thảo trong di chúc, nhưng di chúc thời đó chỉ nói sơ sơ vài thứ, không kể hết mọi của cải đồ đạc của người viết. 

Vậy tại sao một số người vẫn nghi ngờ danh tính của Shakespeare, và đi theo thuyết Baconian, Oxfordian, hay một thuyết khác? 

Có trời mới biết được. Người ta có thể theo thuyết âm mưu vì hàng ngàn lý do, không cần logic hay bằng chứng. Trong trường hợp này, một số người chỉ đơn giản không thể chấp nhận con trai một thợ làm găng từ tỉnh lẻ có thể trở thành đại văn hào vỹ đại nhất nước Anh và thay đổi cả Anh ngữ. 

Nhưng bằng chứng chẳng hướng tới ai khác, ngoài William Shakespeare của Stratford-upon-Avon.  


Hải Di Nguyễn 


Nguồn 

“Shakespeare: The World as Stage” của Bill Bryson

“Contested Will” của James Shapiro 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_authorship_question 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson

1/ This is the first Ben Jonson play I’ve read.

My first impression confirms what I have heard—that Ben Jonson, unlike Shakespeare, shows off his learning in his plays. Or to use Bill Bryson’s words, his learning “hangs like bunting on every word”. For example: 

“SUBTLE 

The thumb, in chiromanty, we give Venus;

The forefinger to Jove; the midst, to Saturn;

The ring to Sol; the least, to Mercury;

Who was the lord, sir, of his horoscope,

Is house of life being Libra, which foreshowed, 

He should be a merchant, and should trade with balance.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Subtle is the alchemist (well, a con artist), and he is talking to Abel Drugger, a tobacco-man that he’s trying to scam.   

Later:

“SUBTLE 

Make me your door, then, south; your broad side, west;

And on the east side of your shop, aloft,

Write Mathlai, Tarmiel, and Baraborat;

Upon the north part, Rael, Velel, Thiel.

They are the names of those mercurial spirits,

That do fright flies from boxes.” 

(ibid.) 

My New Mermaids edition says that the “Mathlai… Thiel” part is quoted from the Heptameron, seu Elementa magica Pietri Abano Philosophi. No idea what that is. 

Let’s look at another passage. A knight named Epicure Mammon thinks he’s about to get the philosopher’s stone from Subtle, and tries to convince his incredulous companion Surly, a gamester, that the philosopher’s stone is real and has been written about by Moses, Salomon, and Adam.

“MAMMON 

‘Tis like your Irish wood,

‘Gainst cobwebs. I have a piece of Jason’s fleece, too,

Which was no other, than a book of alchemy,

Writ in large sheepskin, a good fat ram-vellum.

Such was Pythagoras’s thigh, Pandora’s tub;

And, all that fable of Medea’s charms,

And manner of our work: the bulls, our furnace,

The breathing fire; our argent-vive, the dragon;

The dragon’s teeth, mercury sublimate,

That keeps the whiteness, hardness, and the biting; 

And they are gathered, into Jason’s helm,

(Th’ alembic) and then sowed in Mars his field,

And, thence, sublimed so often, till they are fixed.

Both this, th’ Hesperian garden, Cadmus’s story, 

Jove’s shower, the boon of Midas, Argus’ eyes, 

Boccace his Demogorgon, thousands more, 

All abstract riddles of our stone…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

I mean, take it easy there, Ben? 

As it turns out, there are a lot more names and concepts and archaic words and Latin in the scenes between Subtle, Mammon, and Surly. 

Compared to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson seems more interested in the London around him, setting the play in Blackfriars during a plague and mentioning places or people that his audience would probably have recognised. He also refers more to contemporary issues and events explicitly: in Act 1 scene 2 for example, there are references to figures such as Simon Read, Chiause, Clim o’ the Cloughs (Adam Bell), etc.; and he writes about contemporary ideas and practices such as alchemy, horoscope, palmistry, the humours, etc.  

I’m not saying that The Alchemist is no longer relevant or relatable today (whatever it means), but in some ways the play seems to be more rooted in its time and place, whereas Shakespeare transcends his time and country.  


2/ From earlier on, I’ve noticed that Epicure Mammon sounds like an overreacher, like Doctor Faustus. In his conversation with Surly, and later with Face (Subtle’s accomplice), he talks about all the powers he thinks the philosopher’s stone would give him, and all the stuff he would do with it. 

Something gets my attention however:  

“MAMMON 

[…] Where I spy

A wealthy citizen, or rich lawyer,

Have a sublimed pure wife, unto that fellow

I’ll send a thousand pound, to be my cuckold.” 

(Act 2 scene 2)  

Yikes. 

Compared to the 2 previous victims, Mammon isn’t very sympathetic—does anyone feel bad that such a man get scammed? 


3/ Unlike Shakespeare in most of his plays, Ben Jonson does obey the 3 unities of classical drama: unity of action (a single action of Subtle and Face scamming people, with no subplot), unity of place (everything takes place in or just outside Lovewit’s house), and unity of time (the action is more or less continuous and takes place within the course of a day).  

The comedy of The Alchemist is very different from Shakespeare’s comedy. Once in a while there’s a sexual innuendo, whereas Shakespeare’s plays, including the tragedies and histories, are filled with puns and sex jokes. Ben Jonson doesn’t seem to like puns much.

His comedy is more satirical: mocking the vices of humankind such as greed, lust, gullibility, and hypocrisy. 

Ben Jonson does play with language, but not in the same way as Shakespeare. 

The con-men, especially Subtle (but also Face), put on different roles and speak different kinds of language. When Subtle talks to Abel Drugger for example, he uses the jargon of metoposcopy (the art of reading character from physiognomy), chiromanty (palmistry), and horoscope. In front of Mammon, Subtle talks like some kind of priest or holy man, then he and Face use the jargon of alchemy. 

Now take this scene, when a deacon named Ananias comes and asks for them. 

“SUBTLE 

[…] Who are you?

ANANIAS 

A faithful Brother, if it please you. 

SUBTLE 

What’s that? 

A Lullianist? A Ripley? Filius artis? 

Can you sublime, and dulcify? Calcine?

Know you the sapor pontic? Sapor styptic? 

Or, what is homogene, or heterogene?

ANANIAS 

I understand no heathen language, truly.” 

(Act 2 scene 5)  

I get exhausted reading that. 

“ANANIAS 

All’s heathen, but the Hebrew. 

SUBTLE 

Sirrah, my varlet, stand you forth, and speak to him

Like a philosopher: answer, i’ the language. 

Name the vexations, and the martyrizations

Of metals, in the work.

FACE 

Sir, Putrefaction,

Solution, Ablution, Sublimation,

Cohobation, Calcination, Ceration, and

Fixation.

SUBTLE 

This is heathen Greek, to you, now? 

And when comes Vivification? 

FACE 

After Mortification. 

SUBTLE 

What’s Cohobation? 

FACE 

‘Tis the pouring on. 

Your Aqua Regis, and then drawing him off,

To the trine circle of the seven spheres. 

SUBTLE 

What’s the proper passion of metals? 

FACE 

Malleation.

SUBTLE

What’s your ultimum supplicium auri?

FACE 

Antimonium.” 

(ibid.) 

See what I mean? I put up a long quote so you get the idea that it goes on and on—the language is packed with Latin and archaic words and unfamiliar terms.

Perhaps the way to read it is to accept feeling lost sometimes—Subtle uses language to dazzle and confuse and dwindle others. 


4/ Mammon’s language is fun. Take this speech to Dol, a prostitute and partner-in-crime of Subtle and Face that Mammon thinks is a lady and a scholar. 

“MAMMON

It is a noble humour. But this form

Was not intended to so dark a use! 

Had you been crooked, foul, of some coarse mould, 

A cloister had done well; but such a feature 

That might stand up the glory of a kingdom,

To live recluse!—is a mere solecism,

Though in a nunnery. It must not be…” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

She’s too hot to be a recluse, he says. A short while later: 

“MAMMON 

I am pleased, the glory of her sex should know,

This nook, here of the Friars, is no climate

For her, to live obscurely in, to learn 

Physic, and surgery, for the Constable’s wife

Of some odd Hundred in Essex; but come forth,

And taste the air of places; eat, drink

The toils of emp’rics, and their boasted practice;

Tincture of pearl, and coral, gold, and amber; 

Be seen at feasts, and triumphs; have it asked,

What miracle she is? Set all the eyes 

Of court afire, like a burning glass,

And work ‘em in cinders; when the jewels

Of twenty states adorn thee; and the light

Strikes out the stars; that, when thy name is mentioned,

Queens may look pale; and, we but showing our love,

Nero’s Poppaea may be lost in story! 

Thus, will we have it!” 

(ibid.) 

Mammon is pompous and his language is bombastic. In The Alchemist, Ben Jonson satirises different types of people, Mammon is probably the one that stands out the most—at least to me. 

Sometime in the play, Surly calls him “the Faustus”. 


5/ One good thing about Ben Jonson putting his learning in the play is that I now know he knew Don Quixote. What a surprise. 

(Another unexpected thing is that the word “dildo” appears in the play, near the end). 


6/ The best part of The Alchemist, I reckon, is the tightly structured plot—it becomes denser and denser as the victims go in and out at the wrong time or new ones unexpectedly arrive and they clash with each other, forcing the con-men to improvise as they go along. 

The ending is good—unexpected. 

Thursday, 22 April 2021

All’s Well That Ends Well

1/ In Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode says All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are twins. 

Both are problem plays. Both have lots of scheming and deception. Both use the same plot device. 


2/ See this line about virginity: 

“PAROLLES […] ‘Tis a commodity will lose the gloss with lying; the longer kept, the less worth.” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

Earlier, also about virginity: 

“PAROLLES […] Keep it not; you cannot choose but lose by’t. Out with’t! Within ten years it will make itself ten, which is a goodly increase, and the principal itself not much the worse. Away with’t!” 

(ibid.) 

Now look at this exchange: 

“COUNTESS Tell me thy reason why thou wilt marry.

CLOWN My poor body, madam, requires it. I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

Hahaha I like the honesty. 


3/ Helena, in her hopeless and foolish love, reminds me of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My first impression was that there’s something pathetic about it.  

In her confession to the Countess, she says “I know I love in vain, strive against hope” (Act 1 scene 3). That reminds me of a line from Great Expectations

“I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.” 

In All’s Well That Ends Well, it is hopeless because Bertram is a count and Helena is the daughter of their family physician—after her father’s death, she’s been the Countess’s ward. He’s very much above her. 

“HELENA […] my imagination

Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s.

I am undone; there is no living, none, 

If Bertram be away; ‘twere all one

That I should love a bright particular star,

And think to wed it, he is so above me.

In his bright radiance and collateral light

Must I be comforted, not in his sphere….” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

But she is different from the Athenian Helena. In this same speech, an image rather stands out to me: 

“HELENA […] Th’ ambition in my love thus plagues itself: 

The hind that would be mated by the lion

Must die for love.” 

(ibid.) 

Note that: “mated”. She is horny.  

As the story unfolds, we see that she isn’t weak or pathetic as she initially seems—to an ignoramus like me, it comes as a surprise that in a Jacobean play, such a female character appears before the King, asserts herself, and makes a deal where, if she wins, she may be granted any husband she chooses. There is even a scene where the King has several lords standing in line for Helena to pick and she picks Bertram—he objects, but cannot disobey the King. I can’t help wondering what the audience in Shakespeare’s day thought about it. 

However, after the (forced) marriage, Helena refers to herself as his “most obedient servant” and Bertram right away goes to war to avoid his wife—something a woman under similar circumstances cannot do.   


4/ This is a great line: 

“FIRST LORD [Aside] Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

Parolles is a liar, braggart, and coward, but without the wit and charisma of Falstaff (from the Henry IV plays) and without the charm of Lucio (from Measure for Measure). Tony Tanner’s analysis of Parolles is particularly fascinating (I’m being deliberately vague so you have to check out the essay for yourself).  

It is significant that Bertram misjudges Parolles when everyone else can see through him—Bertram is not a good judge of character. I think it’s also meaningful that Helena can clearly see Parolles’s faults, so her love for Bertram may not be (entirely) foolish.  


5/ All’s Well That Ends Well cannot be dated with certainty—assuming that it’s from around the same time as Measure for Measure and Othello, All’s Well That Ends Well cannot compare in terms of poetry or dramatic power. But Shakespeare still does something interesting with the language. 

For example, look at these lines:

“KING Wherefore hast thou accused him all this while?

DIANA Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty;

He knows I am no maid, and he’ll swear to’t;

I’ll swear I am a maid and he knows not.

Great King, I am no strumpet; by my life

I am either maid or else this old man’s wife.”

(Act 5 scene 3) 

That reminds me of the equivocation in Macbeth, especially the language of the witches. 


6/ At first, Bertram seems sympathetic. He is a snob and may be rude, but he is a young man forced to marry a woman for whom he does not care. Helena is not like Angelo in Measure for Measure, but she does marry Bertram against his will and has not only the King but also Bertram’s mother on her side. She appears more sympathetic because everyone praises her virtue and Shakespeare gives us access to her private thoughts but not his, but we can still understand the way he feels. 

Later in Florence, he courts Diana and we may say it’s wrong, especially to Diana, but can we really say that he betrays Helena when he has never said he loved her and never chosen to marry her? Note too that at this point, he thinks Helena is dead. 

The complex, problematic part of Helena’s plot is her speech to the widow, Diana’s mother: 

“HELENA […] Let us assay our plot, which, if it speed,

Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,

And lawful meaning in a lawful act,

Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.

But let’s about it.” 

(Act 3 scene 7) 

For those of you who find the passage confusing, this is the explanation in my edition: “the point of this passage is that Bertram’s intention is wicked, though his deed—copulating with his wife—will be lawful; Helena’s intention and her act will be good, and the deed will not be a sin though in Bertram’s mind he will be sinning”.

Even if we don’t look at it through the lens of modern standards about consent, there is manipulation and deception, lawful or not. Morally, it seems more questionable than the bed trick in Measure for Measure.  

Now several questions must be raised: does Helena, for example, intend to follow Bertram to Florence from the start, or does she go to the monastery as she tells the Countess, and later wander to Florence? Note that she says she’s going to be a Saint Jacques’s pilgrim, which means going to the shrine in Compostela, and Florence is not on the way from Rousillon to Compostela—it’s in the other direction.   

In addition, at the beginning of the play, Helena says that she wants to go to court to treat the King’s health, but it’s clearly not about saving him as much as about striking a deal with him and getting him to arrange the marriage. Later, it is uncertain, but she must be the one spreading rumours about her own death, and she is the one that plans the bed trick with Diana. She pulls all the strings, like the Duke in Measure for Measure. Is she intelligent and resourceful, or scheming and manipulative? 

(Either way, that’s a lot of scheming just to get in bed with Bertram). 

In the final act, however, Bertram turns out to be contemptible—in his willingness to marry Lafew’s daughter and his despicable treatment of Diana. The final scene of All’s Well That Ends Well seems to mirror the final scene of Measure for Measure—the despicable men may easily get away with their bad deeds and get everything they want if not for the evidence Helena has in All’s Well That Ends Well and the Duke’s full knowledge in Measure for Measure.

This leads to other questions: why does Helena want Bertram, and how should we interpret his final line? 

Let’s look at it: 

“HELENA O, my good lord, when I was like this maid,

I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring,

And, look you, here’s your letter. This it says:

“When from my finger you can get this ring,

And is by me with child”, &c. This is done.

Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?

BERTRAM If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,

I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

Some readers have complained about Bertram’s sudden conversion in this scene, but I don’t think there’s a conversion as such. Perhaps it’s the psychological realism reader in me speaking, but firstly, there is an “if” in his sentence, and secondly, I don’t think he’s being truthful. If you look at it and consider how he has offended the King: he has objected to the arranged marriage, run away from his wife, flirted with another woman, chosen to sleep with her (the switch is beside the point), lied about her in front of the King and everyone else, lied about the ring… Now, in front of everyone and with them all on her side, Helena reads out loud the seemingly impossible challenge from Bertram that she has fulfilled, do you think he has any other option but return to her and obey the King? 

Whether they can be happy together is another question. Like Measure for Measure, it seems to be an ambiguous ending. But who knows, maybe they would be happy together—he seemed to enjoy the sex with her after all.  


7/ It is interesting, whenever I finish reading a Shakespeare play, to read Tony Tanner’s essay about it and learn about how Shakespeare uses his sources and always complicates and deepens the stories. 

One of the changes here is that in the original, Giletta (the Helena figure) arranges the bed trick several times and, when confronting her husband Beltramo, brings with her 2 sons who look just like him. In Shakespeare’s play, the bed trick is a one-time affair and at the confrontation, Helena is pregnant. 

“Without pushing the matter too pointlessly fair, there is surely a signal difference between confronting a man with two bouncing baby boys who are his spitting image, and standing, visibly pregnant, in front of him and asserting that you are carrying his child. Paternity is notoriously difficult to establish incontrovertibly, and this seemingly slight plot change is characteristic of the widespread introduction of uncertainty—or the draining or diffusing away of certainty—which marks this play. All you can feel at the end is that it is, indeed, a conclusion ‘pregnant’ with possibilities.” (Introduction) 


8/ As Tony Tanner points out, Helena herself says “All’s well that ends well” twice, in Act 4 scene 4 and Act 5 scene 1.

The King’s final speech however says: “All yet seems well…” (Act 5 scene 3). 

That “seems” is significant.   

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Measure for Measure

1/ Measure for Measure was published in the First Folio as a comedy, and it is in Comedies Volume 2 of the Everyman edition. It is now often classified as a problem play, together with All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida (though some scholars include some other plays such as The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, etc.), because of their shifting and ambiguous tone. 

As I’m quite ignorant, I don’t know what the differences are between problem plays and tragicomedies. 

I’d note that Measure for Measure is a Jacobean play and generally dated 1603-1604, so around the same time as Othello. Both plays deal with the idea of purity.  


2/ Measure for Measure begins with the Duke leaving Vienna for unknown reasons and making Lord Angelo his deputy. In power, Angelo becomes stricter and more authoritarian—soon we hear that a guy called Claudio is arrested for having premarital sex and making his beloved Juliet pregnant, and he is sentenced to death.

Geez. 

I should add here that our Will did have premarital sex—Anne Hathaway was pregnant at their wedding. 

Check out this speech from Claudio to his friend Lucio: 

“CLAUDIO […] Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,

Or whether that the body public be

A horse whereon the governor doth ride,

Who, newly in the seat, that it may know

He can command, lets it straight feel the spur; 

Whether the tyranny be in his place, 

Or in his eminence that fills it up,

I stagger in—but this new governor

Awakes me all the enrollèd penalties

Which have, like unscoured armor, hung by th’ wall

So long, that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,

And none of them been worn; and, for a name,

Now puts the drowsy and neglected act

Freshly on me. ‘Tis surely for a name.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Later Escalus, another Lord, tries to plead for Claudio. This is how the man replies. 

“ANGELO ‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,

Another thing to fall…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

How self-righteous. He even says: 

“ANGELO […] What’s open made to Justice,

That Justice seizes. What knows the laws 

That thieves do pass on thieves? ‘Tis very pregnant,

The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t

Because we see it; but what we do not see 

We tread upon, and never think of it.

You may not so extenuate his offense

For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,

When I, that censure him, do so offend, 

Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,

And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.” 

(ibid.) 

What a strange way to speak of people who violate the law: “the jewel that we find, we stoop and take”? 

On a side note, this is such a good time to read about a sanctimonious and authoritarian figure. It is no surprise that Angelo turns out to be a hypocrite, and he is much worse than Claudio—Claudio loves and wants to marry Juliet; Angelo propositions Isabella because of lust. 


3/ I love the speech from Claudio’s sister to Angelo: 

“ISABELLA Could great men thunder

As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,

For every pelting, petty officer

Would use his heaven for thunder.

Nothing but thunder. Merciful heaven,

Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt

Splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak

Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,

Dressed in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 

Such a fantastic speech. This must be one of the great speeches in Shakespeare. 

Watch it here, performed by Kate Nelligan for the 1979 TV film: 

https://youtu.be/paAYJUx9MfQ 

I knew about this passage from the Alastair Stewart thing (which was utter nonsense), but the speech is even greater in context. 

I like what Tony Tanner says about the first meeting between Isabella and Angelo: 

“When Isabella has left, Angelo does knock on his bosom to ask what’s there—and to his horror, he finds foulness.” (Introduction) 


4/ Here’s a great speech from the condemned man: 

“CLAUDIO Ay, but to die, and go we know not where, 

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot, 

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit 

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside 

In thrilling region of thick-ribbèd ice; 

To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about 

The pendent world; or to be worse than worst 

Of those that lawless and incertain thought 

Imagine howling—‘tis too horrible! 

The weariest and most loathèd worldly life 

That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment 

Can lay on nature is a paradise 

To what we fear of death.” 

(Act 3 scene 1)   

This is a magnificent and relatable passage about the fear of death. 

Measure for Measure has some difficult questions: what should Isabella do? What would you do? On the one hand, Angelo is undeniably despicable, a Harvey Weinstein (who says Shakespeare is not relevant?), and it’s understandable that she doesn’t want to accept his offer. On the other hand, her idea of purity doesn’t seem that different from the kind of thinking that motivates the law, and her strong reaction to her brother’s pleas in this scene appears shockingly cold and inhumane. 

Look at that: 

“ISABELLA […] Take my defiance,

Die, perish! Might but my bending down

Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.

I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,

No word to save thee.” 

(ibid.) 

And: 

“ISABELLA O, fie, fie, fie! 

Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade. 

Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd,

‘Tis best that thou diest quickly.” 

(ibid.) 

I understand that she feels strongly about it and wouldn’t want to trade her body, but it’s trading her body for her brother’s life, and aren’t those such terrible words to say to a brother who would soon get executed? Especially when he has just talked about his fear of death? She may be ready for death because of her faith, but he is not. He is human. 

Now go back to the previous scene, see her reaction to Angelo and his response—Angelo and Isabella are more similar than she thinks. 

At the beginning, I was wondering why Isabella was going to be a nun—how it’s significant for the story—but gradually I realised that it made perfect sense. In the introduction, Tony Tanner writes about the sources for Measure for Measure and the changes, and this is one of Shakespeare’s inventions. 


5/ The scene of the Duke (disguised as a Friar) talking to Lucio reminds me of the scene in Henry V of the disguised king with Bates and Williams. Lucio is hilarious though. 

I haven’t written about it, but part of Measure for Measure is very funny, when Lucio is present or when Shakespeare moves to the bawds and criminals. Compared to others, Claudio’s offence is very trivial. 


6/ A central theme that keeps appearing in all of Shakespeare’s plays, in one way or another, is the problem of “seeming”—that things or people are not as they seem. In some plays such as Measure for Measure and Othello, Shakespeare pushes it even further.


7/ One of the puzzles of Measure for Measure is the Duke’s motives. Why does he leave his position at the beginning and install Angelo in power, whom he must know to be a puritan? Why does he go about, pulling the strings, when the easier way is to return to power and fix everything? 

I’m going to pass off Himadri’s ideas as my own, because I agree, that the Duke acts like a God (though he shouldn’t be read as an incarnate figure of God). The religious viewpoint is that on the Day of Judgment, God will set everything right, but why does God, who is all-powerful, allow things to get to this stage? Why is he testing us? 

The Duke clearly puts everyone to test: Isabella, Mariana, Angelo, Escalus, the Provost, Lucio… and in a way, the people of Vienna as a whole when he is temporarily not in power. He is the only one in the play who knows everything and makes all the moves—he withholds information and plans and manipulates, and tests everyone to their very limit. In the process, everyone’s character is revealed. 

Tony Tanner doesn’t think so, and seems to think that the play is more about the questions of government, mercy, and justice, but that is probably why he loves the intense first part of the play but doesn’t seem as happy with the second part, when it moves into prose and the play focuses more on the Duke, “the mode changes, the mood changes, the atmosphere changes, the pace changes”, and everything becomes quieter. I think that if you think, as Tony Tanner seems to think, that the Duke’s intention is to sort everything and restore justice, the second part of the play may seem to drag and feel muddled up as the Duke can easily halt it all and return to power, but I don’t think that’s the intention. The intention is to test all the characters to their very limit, though why he wants to do so is of course another question.  


8/ Is it a happy ending? I don’t think so.

Lucio is ordered to marry a prostitute who has a child with him. Angelo is saved from death, but forced to marry a woman he doesn’t want; Mariana gets a husband, but he has humiliated her in the past and doesn’t want her now. Claudio is saved, but can the relationship between him and his sister Isabella be the same after what has passed, especially when Isabella does think Claudio is not guiltless? She wants to be a nun, but now the Duke wants her to himself and the play ends before we know her reaction.

I don’t think this is me looking at the play through the modern lens—I think Shakespeare intended the ending to be ambiguous and not truly happy.

Tony Tanner agrees: 

“… the arranged marriages have not been sought and pursued by the couples involved—there is no genuine love (as opposed to lust) in this play—but are imposed by the Duke (we get no sense of Claudio and Juliet as a happy couple); the knots don’t come across as very ‘well-tied’ (Isabella doesn’t even get to answer the Duke’s unprecedentedly peremptory proposal of marriage); there is certainly danger rather than death, but not much of a sense of delight or happiness comes off the resolving reversals.” (Introduction) 

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Mank

Mank is a film by David Fincher about Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the screenplay by Citizen Kane. It got 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Before talking about the film, I should mention the controversy over the authorship of the Citizen Kane screenplay. This is the summary on Wikipedia:

“In February 1940 Welles supplied Mankiewicz with 300 pages of notes and put him under contract to write the first draft screenplay under the supervision of John Houseman, Welles's former partner in the Mercury Theatre. Welles later explained, "I left him on his own finally, because we'd started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on storyline and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine." Taking these drafts, Welles drastically condensed and rearranged them, then added scenes of his own. The industry accused Welles of underplaying Mankiewicz's contribution to the script, but Welles countered the attacks by saying, "At the end, naturally, I was the one making the picture, after all—who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank's and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own."” 

A lot has been written about the subject, like this article in Variety:

https://variety.com/2020/film/columns/who-wrote-citizen-kane-orson-welles-herman-mankiewicz-pauline-kael-1234841438/

Or this article in the Smithsonian: 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-really-wrote-citizen-kane-180958782/ 

The latter mentions a book called Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey

“Analyzing two overlooked copies of a Kane “corrections script” unearthed in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the University of Michigan, the journalist-turned-historian Harlan Lebo found that Welles revised the script extensively, even crafting pivotal scenes from scratch—such as when the aging Kane muses, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Lebo also saw notes by Welles’ assistant, Kathryn Trosper Popper, who recorded the director’s and writer’s reactions to changes in the screenplay (“Welles: Loves it. Mank: It stinks!”).” 

In David Fincher’s film, not only does Orson Welles not write a single word but Mankiewicz is also the one to come up with the concept and the story, drawing on his own personal experience with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. The film also shows that Mankiewicz writes Citizen Kane based on Hearst because of his grudge over Hearst’s smear campaign against Upton Sinclair, but apparently there’s no evidence of the real Mankiewicz supporting Sinclair, and his politics were complicated but leaned conservative. It was Welles who was a leftist.   

Here’s an article fact-checking Mank

https://slate.com/culture/2020/11/mank-movie-accuracy-david-fincher-upton-sinclair-netflix.html 

Here’s a review about the problems with Mank:

https://thewire.in/film/mank-netflix-review 

You may say that this is a fiction film, not a documentary, and historical fact doesn’t matter, but can you say so about Anonymous, admittedly a more extreme case, a film about Edward de Vere being the true author of Shakespeare’s plays? There’s also a delicious irony when Mank is about fake news, the dishonesty of Hollywood, and the naïvete of the audience for believing that King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford is a virgin at 40 (a line said twice by Mank), but the film itself is full of untruths.

To leave all that aside, I don’t really share lots of critics’ enthusiasm for the film either. For example, Mank got an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Its B&W is better than the B&W of Roma, which is not a very high bar, but if you place Mank next to Citizen Kane, you’ll see that the cinematography of Citizen Kane is so much better, especially the lighting. 

Mank:

Citizen Kane


There is a huge gap between Erik Messerschmidt’s flat lighting in Mank and Gregg Toland’s expressive use of light and shadow and the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane. People who praise the B&W of Mank, like those enthusing about Roma a few years ago, probably have never seen a proper B&W film. 

I’m not going to talk about Tom Burke’s performance as Orson Welles—Welles has a strong, dominating presence that is hard to match. 

Gary Oldman is good in the role of Mankiewicz, as always. The film as a whole, however, isn’t as good as people say. It isn’t compelling. Some people say Citizen Kane is boring, which I’ve never understood—the only thing that may be dry about it is the newsreel at the beginning about the life of Charles Foster Kane, but after that point, the film becomes utterly captivating and often funny. Mank is the opposite, interesting at the beginning but soon tedious. 

I’m going to cheat and put up this passage from Eileen Jones’s review in The Wire: 

“The film’s lax flashback structure from Mankiewicz’s point-of-view seems to be in contrast to Citizen Kane’s dynamic flashback structure from multiple, contradictory points-of-view, just as Mank’s blah cinematography could be run alongside Citizen Kane to demonstrate what not to do with black-and-white film. Weird gimmicks like the “cigarette burns” in the upper right corner of the frame and soundtrack pops which characterised the movie projection process in 1941 are included in Mank to no real purpose other than to make you think momentarily that there’s been some mistake.

Both Mank and Citizen Kane feature legendary, tormented, contradictory men at the centre of the narrative. But Mank is so insistent that its hero was a total mensch maddened by the vile power politics of Hollywood that it undercuts the fascination of Mankiewicz’s obsessive drinking, gambling, and wisecracking.”

That’s another problem with Mank, the film seems to present Mankiewicz as the only mensch in Hollywood. There are some other nice characters such as the typist/secretary (played by Lily Collins) but she is outside Hollywood—everyone else in Hollywood is dishonest and selfish and corrupted in some way. 

Owen Gleiberman’s review says “Mank is a tale of Old Hollywood that's more steeped in Old Hollywood – its glamour and sleaze, its layer-cake hierarchies, its corruption and glory – than just about any movie you've seen, and the effect is to lend it a dizzying time-machine splendor.” (source

The poor man probably has never seen Sunset Boulevard

If you haven’t seen Mank, go ahead and watch it if you want to. Or you can (re)watch Citizen Kane, and Sunset Boulevard instead, and have a better time. 

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Shakespeare’s sonnets: debates and context

There are, as it turns out, lots of debates surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets:

a) Whether the publisher Thomas Thorpe used an authorised manuscript of Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy for the 1609 quarto.

b) Whether the sonnets are meant to be read in that order. 

c) When they were written. 

d) Whether “A Lover’s Complaint” was written by Shakespeare and how it fits in with the sonnets. 

e) Whether the speaker in the sonnets is a persona, a fictional character, or Shakespeare himself, whether the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady are real people, and who they are. Related: whether or not the sonnets are autobiographical and if they can reveal anything about the Bard. 

f) Who Mr W.H. in the dedication was. 

Regarding c), my copy is the Arden edition edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, and she believes that the sonnets must have been written over many years and revised a few times and possibly rearranged for publication. Shakespeare’s sonnets were first mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598 (“his sugred Sonnets among is private friends”), and in 1599, William Jaggard published a small octavo volume that was called The Passionate Pilgrim and credited to William Shakespeare. The volume contained 20 poems, only a handful could be confidently claimed as Shakespeare’s—3 sonnets were from Love’s Labour’s Lost, and there were 2 sonnets that later appeared in the 1609 quarto as sonnets 138 and 144. 

(On twitter I came across quite a few people “quoting Shakespeare” and putting up some poem from The Passionate Pilgrim that sounded nothing like him—these are clearly people who want to be seen as appreciating Shakespeare and therefore cultured but who know nothing). 

This proves that a few sonnets already existed in 1599. Internal and external evidence shows that the sonnets may reference or correspond to personal or public events, therefore they must have been written over a number of years. 

I like the suggestion that many of the sonnets may have been written during the plagues—after all, there was a London plague in 1592-1593, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis was published in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece was published the following year, so it would have been plausible for Shakespeare to turn to poetry when a plague broke out in 1603 and theatres were shut till 1604. 

In the introduction of my copy, Katherine Duncan-Jones also discusses question a) and believes that the publication of the 1609 quarto was authorised by Shakespeare. Generally the argument is that Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, is the signatory of the dedication instead of Shakespeare, but it’s possible that the poet himself was away. There was also a plague outbreak in 1609.

“… Perhaps something of a last-minute rush attended Shakespeare’s sale of the copy manuscript to Thorpe. He may well have been anxious to complete the transaction as quickly as possible before retreating from the plague-ridden London for the summer. The King’s Men are recorded as being at Ipswich on 9 May 1609. […] Shakespeare seems not to have been in Stratford since the death of his widowed mother the previous September. His considerable holdings in tithe income, land and commodities all needed to be seen to, and there was at least one outstanding piece of litigation in Warwickshire.” 

Katherine Duncan-Jones also argues that there’s a good reason to believe Shakespeare authorised the publication: “his repeated deployment of the theme of immortalization through verse”. 

“Though this traditional motif has precedents in Horace and in the French Pléiade poets, it is hard to see how a writer so aware of the practicalities as Shakespeare could claim to immortalize his friend in ‘black lines’ unless he either allowed the sequence to achieve wide circulation in manuscript, which he clearly did not, or ensured that it was printed.” 

She makes a rather good case, adding that Thomas Thorpe published other texts that we know to have been authorised. Another argument against it is that Shakespeare’s narrative poems were published by his Stratford school-fellow Richard Field, but the response is that it’s possible Shakespeare turned to Thorpe because of his theatrical associations, his work for Shakespeare’s fellow dramatists, such as Ben Jonson or George Chapman.

I personally don’t see how it matters a great deal whether or not the publication was authorised, after all we have the sonnets (does anyone debate Max Brod’s decision to ignore Kafka’s wish and publish all of his works, including the unfinished novels?). The more important questions are whether Shakespeare or Thorpe or someone else arranged the sonnets in this order, and whether the poems are autobiographical. 

Anthony Burgess, whose Shakespeare book I’ve just read recently, seems to think that they were, and imagines a hot affair between Shakespeare and a dark-skinned woman. James Shapiro warns against such readings, explaining in Contested Will that in Elizabethan times (and a while afterwards), autobiography wasn’t a thing and poems were literary exercises rather than expressions of personal feelings. 

Katherine Duncan-Jones doesn’t think they’re autobiographical either, noting that they are in many ways anti-Petrarchan and anti-Sidneian (Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella): 

“[Shakespeare] sought to appropriate and redefine the genre, rejecting the stale conceits of mistress-worship, and to create a sonnet sequence so different from all its predecessors that the form could never be the same again.” 

He completely changed the form, the style, the subject. The Fair Youth sonnets are unusual, addressing a young man instead of a woman, but the Dark Lady ones are also unconventional, offering “backhanded praise of a manifestly non-aristocratic woman who is neither young, beautiful, intelligent nor chaste” instead of “a chaste and high-born lady who can never be possessed physically” as in conventions. People who seek to know the real Shakespeare and find nothing personal in the plays may go to the sonnets for his private views and feelings, but there’s probably nothing of Shakespeare there and the poems are just dramatic monologues. 

However, Katherine Duncan-Jones also writes about the discomfort of many scholars and critics who focus on the Dark Lady and ignore the Fair Youth, or even change the pronouns and try to turn the poems heterosexual, which is amusing.

What do you think about these debates?

Othello (1990), ft. Ian McKellen

This is a Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn, who also directed the Macbeth production with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. The cast are Willard White as Othello, Ian McKellen as Iago, Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona, Zoë Wanamaker as Emilia, and so on. 

The success of the production lies chiefly in Ian McKellen’s performance as Iago. If we compare this one and the Stratford Festival (Canada) production that I saw 2 months ago, Gordon S. Miller plays Iago as jovial, outgoing and ends up appearing too loud, too pushy, not at all subtle, whereas Ian McKellen’s approach comes closer to my idea of the villain: he is quiet, soft-spoken, adopting a self-effacing persona; in front of others, he’s always cleaning up, fixing clothes for people, looking sympathetic and attentive and trustworthy; alone, his face darkens, he’s consumed with an immense and inexplicable hatred for Othello.

Let’s contrast 2 scenes. The first scene is when Desdemona asks Iago how he would praise her and he throws back some sexist jokes—Ian McKellen’s Iago is funny, he comes across as an entertainer and everyone laughs and gets away with it as a harmless joke; Gordon S. Miller’s Iago, on the other hand, has no charm that he comes across as hateful and misogynistic, especially when Laura Condlln as Emilia looks visibly upset, so it’s hard to see how others see him as likable or trustworthy. 

The other scene is when Iago asks about Desdemona and Cassio and starts poisoning Othello’s mind—Gordon S. Miller’s Iago is too loud, too pushy and aggressive in the way he approaches the subject and suggests the ideas to Othello; Ian McKellen’s Iago, in contrast, is to me more like Iago in Shakespeare’s text. Shakespeare’s psychological insight and power of characterisation can be seen here: Iago plays Othello by starting some insinuations then pretending to hesitate, hinting something then withholding it and making him curious, dropping an idea here and an image there without appearing pushy, attacking Othello’s weakest points whilst pretending to care about his marriage… Shakespeare’s Iago is subtle and manipulative, and so is Ian McKellen’s portrayal, unlike Gordon S. Miller’s.

I have regarded Ian McKellen as the perfect Macbeth, now I see him as the ultimate Iago.

Everyone else in the production is good and well-cast. Cassio can be approached in different ways, Sean Baker plays him as a ladies’ man who does like Desdemona, and it works. Roderigo is played by Michael Grandage, and whilst I’m not quite sure about the scene of him hitting and kicking on the floor, he does look pathetic and gullible. Zoë Wanamaker is good as Emilia, especially in the final scene. And I think Imogen Stubbs plays Desdemona perfectly—she is naïve and childlike, especially in the scene where Othello is busy with work and she keeps pestering him about when Cassio may come for a meal, like a child used to getting things her way and not understanding how the world works. This childlikeness is essential to Desdemona, I didn’t really see it in Amelia Sargisson’s performance in the Stratford Festival production.

To my surprise, however, the killing scene works better in the Stratford Festival production. 

Let’s look at Shakespeare’s text, the moment right before the murder: 

“DESDEMONA Alas, he is betrayed, and I undone!

OTHELLO Out, strumpet! Weep’st thou for him to my face? 

DESDEMONA O, banish me, my lord, but kill me not! 

OTHELLO Down, strumpet! 

DESDEMONA Kill me tomorrow; let me live tonight! 

OTHELLO Nay, if you strive—

DESDEMONA But half an hour! 

OTHELLO Being done, there is no pause. 

DESDEMONA But while I say one prayer! 

OTHELLO It is too late. 

Smothers her.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

This is an unbearable scene and there cannot be a pause or lingering of any kind—as Desdemona is struggling and begging, the scene becomes more and more intense and when it gets to the peak, he smothers her. Then Emilia knocks on the door and that knocks Othello out of the heat of the moment and he realises what he has done. 

In Trevor Nunn’s production, Desdemona runs around and tries to get away from Othello, which works perfectly fine, but the mistake is that she is on the floor begging for life and the intensity gets to the peak there, but she goes quiet, as though stunned, when he gives out his hand and she takes it, and there’s a gap between “But while I say one prayer!” and “It is too late”—the timing is wrong, and as Othello kills Desdemona afterwards, the emotion is lost, the impact is all gone. 

The peak of the play is in the final scene, after the killing: Emilia is the one element Iago hasn’t anticipated in his scheme. Whereas Desdemona is naïve and sees everyone in the best light, Iago sees everyone in the worst light—he is not the great psychologist many people say he is, he sees everyone’s weaknesses but no more, he doesn’t expect Othello’s strong reaction and doesn’t anticipate Emilia’s passion and courage. The scene works well in the production. I think it slightly drags on in the final bit, but Ian McKellen’s face, when Iago says to Othello “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.”, is chilling. 

Williard White is quite good as Othello, especially his voice, probably because he’s an opera singer. I think he is overshadowed by Ian McKellen, however, and Trevor Nunn also seems to focus more on Iago than Othello—Ian McKellen’s name comes first on the cover, there are more close-ups of him, and the production ends on his face, not Othello’s. 

Overall, it’s an excellent production, especially Ian McKellen.