Hamlet (Deleted Scenes)

ASC HamletRecently saw a semi-competent performance of Hamlet, shortened to approximately 2.25 hours running time by extensive cutting of lines. And something dawned on me…

With each passing year, I relish all the more the two unabridged Hamlets that I possess: The Arkangel Shakespeare audio, on three CDs. And my most-prized worldly possession, my DVD of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996.

I listen/watch to both at least once a year, religiously. It takes a number of sessions to get through these unabridged renditions, to be sure. Four or five late evenings to watch, six to ten drives hither and yon to listen.

Now, I do of course recognize that actually performing Hamlet on stage poses the enormous challenge: So many friggin lines. And people don’t like to sit for four hours.

But I would like to go on record officially; I would like to proclaim to the world: If you are going to mount a Hamlet; if you are going to perform Hamlet, but Marcellus (after the crowing of the cock, and the fleeing of the ghost, in Act I, scene i) –if, in your Hamlet, Marcellus is not going to say:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

…If these lines are going to be skipped, in the interest of time, then I would prefer to go for a walk. Thank you very much; all the best; good luck with your production. But I had rather go for a walk than sit for a Hamlet with a lot of missing lines.

jacobi branagh christieHamlet contains two marvelous ‘mysteries,’ in the religious sense of the term.

1. None of the truly important events of the drama actually occur on-stage. And the most important plot element (the history of the genuine love between Hamlet and Ophelia) never even gets mentioned explicitly. To understand just how much they truly loved each other, one must read between the lines of their respective ravings.

2. The plot of Hamlet does not particularly matter. The plot does not satisfy, in and of itself. The plot serves as the trunk of the tree, on which hang the fruits of people saying incredibly interesting things.

At the Hamlet I recently saw, all the appropriate people lay dead on the stage at the end of the play. And we, as the audience, more or less understood why. But it was as if we had just eaten a BLT with no mayonaise. A McMuffin with no egg.

I present here a brief laundry list of lines culled in the production I saw. Tragedy of tragedies, to leave such lines unsaid!

Continue reading Hamlet (Deleted Scenes)”


Sean Connery Macbeth

I never knew a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth could so thoroughly enrapture a person, until the American Shakespeare Center (in Staunton, Va.) players did it to me.

They managed to produce the Platonic forms of all the characters. Macbeth: Martial, fraternal, and desperately in love with the only true confidante a man in such desperate, violent times can have, his wife. Banquo: The nobler of the two soldier-friends, but just barely. Duncan: magnanimous, not simpering. Macduff: tortured, but manly. Lady Macbeth: ravishing, graceful, and just imaginative enough to come untethered from reality.

To be honest, until I saw this ASC production, I did not adequately understand how seamless a masterpiece the play really is. Even the comic relief–the drunken porter muttering jokes to himself about souls arriving in the bad place, as he makes his way to the castle gate–serves the dramatic effect.

Continue reading Macbeth

Not Last in my Book

ASC Timon of AthensThe worthy American-Shakespeare-Center players made history in the Shenandoah Valley this past Friday evening (3:30 in the resolution recitation below).

The good Lord gave me the privilege of witnessing it, on opening night.

Over the course of the past 25 years, all of Shakespeare’s plays, on stage. Continue reading “Not Last in my Book”

You’re Going to Have to Forgive Me

for missing The Decemberists until now. Check out one of the most interesting songs I have heard in many moons.



“Her bed of chaparral.” Wow.

They covered this song, in their inimitably charming fashion, at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, to set up the climactic bed-switch scenes of All’s Well that Ends Well.

But the question about the play is: Is all well that ends this way?

The lying “knight” Paroles has been reduced to pathetic beggary, punished perhaps overmuch for all his false bravado. And Helena finally has her husband–by having substituted herself for the Italian woman he thought he was shamelessly seducing in the midnight darkness.

All well? The most comical scene of the play involves Paroles’ blindfolded interrogation by his disguised confederates, who masquerade as the enemy in order to “take him prisoner” and make a fool of him. But the interrogation goes in a nonsensical direction. Why would an enemy general want to know about the moral character of Paroles’ friends? That, however, is what they ask him about, and he blithely supplies the information: They are all lying, cheating, cowardly rogues. Is he slandering them? Perhaps. More likely: they really are.

AW1Every time Bertram has the opportunity to turn away from selfish immaturity and towards noble responsibility, he neglects to do so. He keeps dovetailing into extended adolescence. Even after Helena has proven not only her devotion but also her uncanny ingenuity and resourcefulness, he demands an account of the facts from someone else, because he can’t quite bring himself to trust her.

And even noble Helena herself admits that her motives in doing good are not pure. She acknowledges that she only thought of trying to cure the king (which she miraculously does) only because it gave her an excuse to go to Paris in search of Bertram.

In other words, All’s Well that Ends Well largely covers: how bad people are. We lie. We sneak off and break our commitments. We present ourselves to be what we are not. The king starts the play with a mortal corruption of body, beyond all hope of cure. The play ends with a healthy king, but a clear picture of humanity before our eyes: Man is morally corrupt, beyond all hope of cure.

The perennial “problem” in this play: Is Helena’s devotion to Bertram at all believable? Can we really believe that she ends the play happy–when she finally gets her louse of a husband to submit?

Two points to raise in answer to this perennial question:

1. Exactly how much of a louse is Bertram really? Granted: he carries on like an enormous blockhead of a young count. He breaks his own mother’s heart, which is about a low as you can get. And his designs on Diana reek of the basest cravenness.

But: Bertram’s trusting affection for hapless Paroles actually argues in favor of the young man’s character: He is innocent enough to believe the old fraud’s lies. And Paroles’ companionability gives the play its lightest touch, a little Falstaff in nuce. Bertram’s attracting Paroles as a companion suggests that he’s not such a bad young gentleman. Also, in the war, Bertram receives quick promotions. He clearly enjoys high regard as a brave and competent leader. So we could conclude that this louse actually does have a hidden good side that only Helena can see.

The second point: What really does it take to be happy in love anyway?

I don’t know whose idea it was to throw this wild Decemberists’ song into the final act, or why–but I think it was a particularly inspired thing to do. The song presents a vision of happiness and peace beyond reason, beyond deliberation, beyond reflection, beyond the events of time. Time moves; people experience expectation and dissatisfaction. But the Infanta rests in bliss at the summit of all royalty, the destination of the grandest of all processions.

I think we could say that Helena pursues her man with a similarly indomitable serenity. He may not be the most virtuous young count in the kingdom. But he is hers. She will indeed be happy when everything settles down and they can be together like they are supposed to be. All will be well when the fuss and bother ends–and marital cohabitation begins.

So maybe All is Well in the end because: The sovereign power of womanly commitment to marriage stabilizes this world, which otherwise would be a cesspool of immature selfishness.

Merchant of Venice: Excellent Exegesis

What if the triune God never revealed Himself? Who would I worship?

Probably Virginia. Even if Virginia only included Augusta, Rockbridge, and Botetourt Counties, I would worship it. But it includes all the other counties, too! Especially Franklin and Henry.

Godlike in splendor. Idolizable if anything ever was.

…Had the opportunity to see a performance of Merchant of Venice at the American Shakespeare Center. The company executed the task with the usual aplomb. If they camped it up a bit, or indulged in tasteless physical comedy, they only did it to try to convey the humor of the text to their predominantly high-school-age audience.

The company also over-indulged, I think, in actually spitting on Shylock and Tubal. Does Shakespeare direct the actors to spit? No. The on-stage spittle only distracted us audience peoples. (Overheard in the bathroom: “Do they get paid extra since they spit on them?”)

The words, my friends! The words have more than enough bitterness of their own. The imprecations savor with plenty of verbal venom. Frinstance:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!


Let me say ‘amen’ betimes, lest the devil cross my
prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.

The key to the play? The fact that it explains the Parable of the Unforgiving Steward. (It explains the whole New Testament pretty well.) And Shylock’s humanity.

The usurer’s avarice, his malice against Antonio, his stubbornness: none of these are literally monstrous. His daughter breaks his heart by eloping–and taking the family jewels with her. He rails against the monetary loss with a lump in his throat. What really pains him? Jessica’s betrayal. And the fact that none of the other Venetian fathers can be bothered to give him the tiniest doit of commiseration. They think nothing of treating the Jew with hard-hearted contempt.

Of course, Shylock’s heart hardens to stone. His maniacal craze for vindication—for justice! my bond!—paints the perfect caricature of blinkered, zealous man: Absolutely dead to rights, within the point-of-view of the rifle-sight. Shylock’s bond has all the force of law, and who could really gainsay his legal reasoning?

But, outside what the scope takes in: an agent of justice stands with an axe, an axe that will fall on me, and his claim on me has much more to it than my claim does.

Where did the Venetian hard-heartedness begin? Did Shylock wrong a Christian first, or did a Christian wrong him first? The profoundest truth of the play rests on the fact that it has no interest whatsoever in answering this question.

In the end, the ladies turned lawyers, Portia and Nerissa, manage to turn the central theme of the tragedy—just retribution—into comedy. Their men, who protest their honor too much, wind up reduced to unimpressive and unconvincing stammerings to explain their own untruth.

Justice? Please. For man it is impossible. Better to try to make friends. With unassuming gentleness. Maybe even love.

Prospero’s Books

Now that I am growing old, I was thinking of changing my motto to “33 until I die.” But then the band played Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and I changed my mind back again to 18…

John Geilgud starred in a weird movie-version of The Tempest called “Prospero’s Books” in 1991. But that is not our subject matter here. Our subject is Prospero’s actual books.

Ironically enough, Prospero suffered miserable misfortune.

Prospero reigned as Duke of Milan, exercising his power with a philosopher’s detachment. But his ambitious brother conspired to set Prospero adrift on the sea.

The King of Naples, too, had betrayed Prospero.

But his old friend Gonzalo saved Prospero’s books and devised a means to get them to him on the deserted island upon which the exiled Duke made his home.

Like the Bard himself, Propsero grew, by reading, to godlike power. The spirits served him. The one enemy he had on his island was Caliban, the son of a witch.

When a boatload of Italians were shipwrecked on the island, Caliban tried to convince some of them to murder Prospero.

Why, as I told thee, ’tis a custom with him,
I’ th’ afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books, or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.

Our godlike power comes from books. And, of those books, the best teach us about the sweet pity of God.

Prospero’s old enemies are among the shipwrecked. He visits mild chastisement upon his brother and the King. But then he forgives.

Prospero’s reading has filled him with the greatest of all powers: perspective.

He invokes the spirits to bless the betrothal of his daughter to a prince.

But then he admonishes the young man with this speech from the “We-Love-Weddings-But…” sub-folder of the Sister Death file:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

At the end of the play, Prospero reliquishes all his magic powers.

This is as close as we get to Shakespeare the man. He was bidding farewell to the stage. He never wrote another play after “The Tempest.”

Prospero hopes that he has pleased his audience. We have seen him use his frightening power with kindness and mercy.

Then he begs for our prayers and exits.

Miscellaneous Fantasias

Did you know that Mily Balakirev composed brief fantasias to precede each of the five acts of King Lear?

Never heard of Mily Balakirev? Me neither, until yesterday. He was a mentor to Tchaichovsky, a partisan of the Russian nation, a hard-working nineteenth-century musician.

A music lover can download the King Lear suite on iTunes. (They refer to him as “Balakirew.” These pieces are on the same CD as some works of a 20th-century Armenian composer, but iTunes amazingly allows you to download just the Balakirew material for $4.95.) The music was performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, I believe in the 1990’s.

Listening provokes many reflections…

Was Balakirev just mailing this in, or does the largely sanguine aura of the music express a profound insight into the play? Yes, King Lear is a bitter tragedy, an enormously ugly exploration of the worst that “whoremaster man” can display of his “goatish disposition.”

But beauty emerges: the divine loveliness of pity. The King and Gloucester teach us how to look at human weakness without judgment or contempt. Maybe Balakirev intended his music to bring this aspect of the play to the fore.

The first fantasia, to precede the play’s opening scene, reminded me of just how stupendous that scene is. Don’t quote me, but I believe it is the Bard’s longest. As I think I once mentioned before, more happens in the opening scene of King Lear than has happened in many of the centuries of human history.

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…Speaking of all things Shakespeare: I am sure you know that the obscure Henry VI trilogy recounts the “War of the Roses.” These plays are rarely performed; the intricate history is even more rarely grasped.

If you were a Shakespeare troupe undertaking to perform Henry VI, Part 3, would you open the action by slowly unfurling a long banner which is emblazoned with a summary of the first two plays, while playing the Darth Vader theme in the background? Would you title the summary “Rose Wars, Episode III”?

If so, you would have done what the American Shakespeare Center did last night at the opening performance of their short-running rendition of this obscure play. It was the beginning of an enchanting two hours. These players do better with a shoestring budget than the so-called big boys in downtown Washington do with their wasted millions. Long live the American Shakespeare Center!