In recent months I've attended three, count em three Shakespearean plays. An orgy. An over-indulgence of the theatrical kind. One, the last, was an authorized excursion outside the gates of the Yoni School. The other two were clandestine, in which Suzy Homemaker and I were obliged to slip Nurse Ratchet and assorted attendants a mickey. Mickey Mouse for one. Mickey Finn for another. Mickey Dolenz for a third. Mickey Rooney held in abeyance until the moment that Judy Garland appears wanting to create summer theatre in a barn.
The first play was Othello. Someone asked me who played Othello. Can't remember his name. Some black guy. It had been some time since I'd seen one of those Shakespearean adventures in modern thespianism. I enjoyed it, yes, but was disappointed. Spoiled by the graphic nature of contemporary film. Towards the end, Othello throttles the life out of Desdemona. I wasn't at all convinced. She barely struggled. Not what I would call a realistic scene. She barely wrinkled Othello's shirt. But maybe I expect too much.
Furthermore, I'm not versed in the Shakespeare canon. Is Othello one of his more renowned plays? If so, I'm still not convinced. Shakespeare did not persuade me that Othello's jealousy was even remotely justified. Othello comes across as an utter fool, which seems impossible somehow, since he's a well-respected general who could not be a fool. As to the acting, there are moments when Othello appears quite authentic, but at crucial moments he seems to lack the necessary depth. Meanwhile, the gentleman who played Iago tended to play up the comic in many of his asides to the audience at the expense of the venom he acts out in the play against both Cassio and Othello and, indeed, expresses in his first speeches: "O, sir, content you" he says, "I follow him to serve my turn upon him..."
So, in the end, I inveigh against both the production and the playwright. Both come up short. I don't care what the Avonic scholars say. Shakespeare is having us on. He's pretending to profundity and we, poor under-employed potes that we are, slavishly follow the dictates of literary criticism and cast laurels at his feet. Nay, nay, I say! Prove your mettle, William!
Which he does, sort of, in the next play Suzy and I saw. King Lear. Brian Bedford played Lear, a role for which he has trained his whole life. And how does Lear start off? Talktalktalktalktalk. What else? But even here, the premise seems stretched. Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. No apparent reason why. OK, maybe he's getting a little old, maybe he's a little tired. But he seems to want to hold on to his power, exercising influence in the back rooms. And then, in spite of the evidence of his eyes and ears, he gets himself into a snit because Cordelia, plain-spoken girl that she is, will not flatter him with honeyed words like her two wicked step-sisters. (Sorry, I'm getting mixed up with Cinderella. Cinderella! Cordelia! Same story, different country.)
Let's face it. Lear is a loon. Cared for by a buffoon. Or rather a fool. And withal it would seem that the fool is the wisest of them. But we all know that fools may spout wisdom through the teeth of their impudence. Lear is lucky to have him. Lucky also that his fool is such a well-tempered actor, for fools may sometimes be required to act out roles which in their foolishness they see to be wiser than the fools they serve. And Shakespeare was wise enough to make Lear a king, so that he could name the play King Lear, rather than Lear the Lucky Loon!
The acting in this play was better than in Othello. Lucky, I guess. Well, no, not mere luck, because Brian Bedford is accomplished. Maybe he doesn't match Olivier. I don't know, I never saw Olivier. But he was pretty damn good. And Cordelia too. The wicked step-sisters would certainly have shone in any production of Cinderella.
But I'm still up in the air. What is it that drives Lear mad? The fact that two of his daughters turned out to be greedy, spiteful, bitchy, quarrelsome women? Or that he turned away the one who truly loved him? Is that enough to bring on madness? Melancholy, perhaps. Or depression. But raving lunacy? Or was it that he simply retired too early? Lost his main purpose in life...his occupation as king...and succumbed to what we would now call the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
Hmmm. Isn't there a play called Alzheimer and Rosenkavalier Are Dead?
Which brings us to the last play in our Shakespearean adventure. That Jewish play. The Merchant of Venice. It might interest you to know that this play begins not with talktalktalktalktalk, but with a masque...music and dancing. The staging, costumes and incidental music are a mixture of contemporary -- disco and hip--hop -- and renaissance Venice. Interesting but disorienting.
But the masque does not last long. And then what do you get? Talktalktalktalktalk.
Here's something I found in each of the plays. It takes a few minutes for us 21st century humanoids to cotton on to the florid speech of the 16th. In the case of Merchant, it took even longer because the actor playing Antonio, who is there throughout the first scene (after the disco masque) seemed to be talking to himself. I think the others told him to get off the pot, because he did improve both his diction and his volume later on.
Graham Greene, on the other hand, who plays Shylock, is pretty damn good. You all remember Graham Greene, right? First came to our notice in Dances With Wolves, no? A native Indian ( is that the current politically correct appellation? Probably not...). Who better to understand the rage and resentment, the hunger for revenge, of a medieval Jewish moneylender?
As for the play, what can I say? It falls on the comedy side of Shakespeare's ledger, but if so, it's dark comedy indeed. Supposedly one of his more famous plays. The climactic scene is the trial before the Duke of Venice, in which Shylock makes his case for Antonio's flesh. But along comes Portia, disguised as a young lawyer from Padua (as if...) who demolishes his case and in fact turns it right around on him. Shylock's contract says he can have his pound of flesh, but not that he can shed blood to get it. And by conspiring to cause the death of a Venetian citizen, his goods are therefore forfeit.
I don't quite buy it, although the Duke of Venice does, cuz, after all, better to save the life of a white Venetian than cave in to a Jew, even if the Jew is right. But the way I see it, Antonio owed Shylock the pound of flesh. It was Antonio's problem how to get it without shedding blood.
Merchant of Venice has caused some controversy in recent years. The official Jewish establishment seems to think it puts them in a bad light, that it's racist. And I suppose, in a certain way it is. Because it's a play of its time...Elizabethan racist England. But the sense of oppression Shylock feels, the rage, the humiliation, and the greed too. They're timeless. That's why Graham Greene can do it so well. Ultimately, I feel a kind of sympathy or, let's say, compassion, for the suffering of Shylock.
So Antonio wins. Portia wins. Bassanio wins. Graziano wins. Nerissa wins. Portia's butler steals the show several times although he hardly speaks a word throughout the play. All's Well That Ends Well. Except for Shylock. And his daughter.
Anyway...I think Suzy liked Lear best of all, but I kind of go for Merchant. Maybe that's because I understand rage better than dividing up your kingdom for no good reason and then losing your marbles over it because you didn't really want to give up the power.
Or am I just reading it all wrong?
Postscript: Several years ago I saw a production of that jinxed play, Macbeth. Now there is a play! I can't think of any flaws in that plot. No place where you might say, "Hey wait a minute, what about this?..." Even Duncan's twist, that he was born of Caesarean section, doesn't put me off. I can buy that. I can even swallow the Wyrd Sisters. They used to live downstairs.