May 16 2010

thoughts on Shakespeare’s King John

(After seeing the BBC production on DVD)

Oddly enough, King John is nearly the least interesting character in it. He doesn’t really come into his own until Acts IV and V, when things are going seriously downhill for him. But I suppose that’s par for the course in Shakespeare. It is our disintegrations that most interest the Bard.

IShakespeare's King John performed at Drury Lane Theatren the BBC production, the show was stolen by Mary Morris (Queen Elinor), Claire Bloom (Constance) and the guy who plays Philip Faulconbridge, also known as Richard, “the Bastard.”  In fact, in terms of roles he’s the most interesting guy in the play. He’s kind of a running jester/cynic/commentator on what’s going on, although his cynicism gradually gives way to actual sense of purpose. He’s the only person in the whole play who develops as a character.

Mary Morris did a great job as Elinor, coming across as self-possessed and ambitious, and a bit scary–not above using seduction if the occasion calls for it. (Some really strange scenes there between her and the Bastard, who becomes, in effect, her knight). Shakespeare has a knack for writing impressive older women.

So the play was fascinating and frustrating by turns. The best parts and best lines went to characters who just vanish between one Act and the next. Through all of Act III Elinor and Constance rail at each other (and its a thing of beauty), then suddenly, they’re gone. Died, off stage, erased from the story. And suddenly too, the Dauphin–when introduced one might think a wet blanket had more personality than he–suddenly he’s front and center, leading invasions into England, sneering at all and sundry.

I know alot of my complaints are based on a modern sense of narrative and character development, but really, the whole story is so fractured, it’s hard to think about it in its entirety. I keep focusing on small scenes and actions instead. Lovely little bits like Hubert’s description of the civil unrest–of a tailor, in such haste to tell the news to his friend the smith that he put his shoes on the wrong feet before he ran out into the street:

I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news;
Who, with his shears and measure in his hand,
Standing on slippers, which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet,
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and rank’d in Kent

I love stuff like that in Shakespeare. It makes you realize that he must have absorbed life like a sponge. Nothing seems too small to be unworthy of notice or comment.

King John, then, is a drama where the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. In this play, the men are mostly foolish, the women mostly wise, and the children all are sacrifices.

Jun 14 2009

A comedy of errors

comedyoferrorsSo at the beginning of this year I made a new year’s resolution to myself to see each of Shakespeare’s plays at least once during the course of the year–either live or on dvd.  It’s the kind of resolution that has been tons of fun to pursue, an exercise in self-indulgences, rather than self-restraint.

Some of the plays, however, are proving elusive. As it turns out, Pericles is not high up on anyone’s list of Shakespeare-that-must-be-performed. So to help keep my resolution, I procured for myself a copy of the Arkangel Shakespeare, a massive box of full audio productions of each play on CD.  And I’m going through them one by one, approximately in order of when they were written.

I’ve already written about some of them:

Henry VI, parts i, ii, and iii

Richard III

Richard III may well be my favorite Shakespeare play, my distressing introduction notwithstanding.

But now I am onto A Comedy of Errors, which after Richard seems positively fluffy.  And I made several discoveries:

First, in the Arkangel production David Tennant plays Antipholus of Syracuse, and even just listening to the performance, without actually seeing it, it was awfully hard not to think “That’s the Doctor!”  For a few scenes I amused myself with wondering where they would put the TARDIS in the set.

More importantly, though, was the discovery that Comedy of Errors relies heavily on visual cues and mistaken impressions and what my friend Lev calls “smart staging.”  I had already had trouble deciphering the fight scenes in the Henry VI plays, so you can imagine my confusion here.

Nevertheless, the play had its moments–the point where Dromio (of Syracuse) is describing to his master the “beauties” of a kitchen wench that is convinced they are to be married is pretty hilarious:


Then she bears some breadth?


No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.


In what part of her body stands Ireland?


Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

Antipholus finds this a great joke, and goes on to name all the countries, to which Dromio responds with some awful insult against the lady’s looks for each.  America, “…embellished with/ rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich/aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole/ armadoes of caracks to be ballast…” is to be found on the poor woman’s nose. I’m sure by the end of the bit Shakespeare’s audiences were howling.  (You can read the full exchange here)

I did get to see an actual production of the play, put on by our Youth Shakespeare Company for our local outdoor “Shakespeare on the Green” festival. Everyone in the company is under 18. The actors playing the two Dromios were around 12. This took some getting used to–especially since the actors playing the two Antipholus’ were closer to 16 or 17. (And the girl playing the ugly kitchen maid was at least this old). So the physical comedy was a little strange. And the play had been edited slightly to get rid of some of the more salacious inuendos (including the entire exchange above), which did little to alleviate the oddity of the scenes in any case. But perhaps it was in keeping. Certianly in Shakespeare’s time many of the parts–especially the female parts–would have been played by young pretty boys.

In any case, I was glad to actually see the performance, and to have a visual in my mind for when I listened, for the second time, to the audio.  After becoming so involved with Richard III, Comedy of Errors was perhaps doomed to pale. But the ready wit, and the clever, playful language was still very much in evidence. I was not moved, but I was certainly entertained.