Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shakespeare as Robert DeNiro

All this recent talk of Double Falshood / Cardenio as Shakespeare’s legendary “lost” play brings up a very different question.  Not whether it is or not, but what if it is?  How would that change our opinion of Shakespeare’s canon of work if we really and truly knew, for sure, that there was a new play to add to the mix?  One that, by most accounts, isn’t very good?

I wanted to put it in terms that the modern reader can understand.  It’s so easy to speak of Shakespeare as perfect, Shakespeare as god, that it’s easy to escape Shakespeare as working man. 

So instead I want you to think about Robert DeNiro.  Know the name?  You probably do, at least if you’re in the US.  Now, can you quote something from the Godfather II?  I’m willing to bet that you can.  Or how about Goodfellas? Casino?  Maybe Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, for the purists.  You like his comedy better? How about Midnight Run, or Meet the Parents?

Now what about Analyze That? Or how about The Good Shepherd?  Oh, didn’t see them?  Maybe something from his earlier work, could you tell me a little bit about Bloody Mama, or Jennifer on my Mind?  What about Stardust?  Surely I have to mention Stardust, I mean come on, the man played a character named Captain Shakespeare.

(There may indeed be some DeNiro Geeks in the crowd who can, indeed, speak at length on all the movies I mentioned.  But bear with me here, people, I’m trying to make a point!)

Any large body of work will naturally fray at the edges.  It takes time to hone one’s craft, and then eventually time dulls the edge of even the sharpest talent.  Robert DeNiro is quite arguably one of the best actors of modern times.  He’s certainly been a part of some of the best movies.  But does that mean that all of his work was genius?  Not hardly.

I think people often forget that with Shakespeare.  We’ve likened the name Shakespeare to the work as a whole when really it’s probably more like a bell curve – we’ll all put Hamlet and Lear and Dream and such up at the top, surround them with Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar and so on…until down at the edges we have the Measure for Measures and Pericleseses….however you say it.

So, would a proven Cardenio jump to the top of that pile?  Almost certainly not.  Masterpieces don’t tend to disappear.  Junk is what tends to be forgotten.  Maybe Shakespeare was phoning it in during his elder years.  Maybe he collaborated loosely just to pick up the pay check.  Who knows, maybe he never wanted the burden we place upon him, and his heart just wasn’t in it anymore.  People tend to forget this.  People think we’re going to find the next Hamlet.  We’re not.


Kyle said...
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Kyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

…until down at the edges we have the Measure for Measures

Oh, no you didn't...

Duane said...

Ok, Bill, enlighten us? I appreciate that some people might like a nice debate over whether Taxi Driver or Raging Bull was DeNiro's best work, but Measure for Measure, comparable to Lear? (I see your other comment over on "Shakespearean"). I don't get it. I'm not basing that on my own understanding of the play, which is admittedly limited, but on simple experience - in all my tracking of "top 10" lists and other sorts of favorites, M/M rarely shows up at all, much less among the top of the pile. Why such a favorite for you?

JM said...

I think I know what Bill might be thinking. Top ten lists do not Shakespeare make...necessarily. The more intricate and facile poetic construction of Measure can technically make it more "Shakespearean" than Romeo and Juliet. By the time of Measure, Will's chops were definitely improved, shall we say? Will's "quality" as a dramatic poet (in terms of writing in the "iambic pentameter" dramatic form) has reached new levels. He's become firmly entrenched in his position as an Icon-oclast among Elizabethan dramatic poets. In being something of a cheeky rebel form-wise, we could say he now defines what is known as "Shakespearean".

Having said ALL of that, it could be that Bill is talking about your slip-up/typo in adding an "S" to
Measure for Measure(s) :)

JM said...

I realize in re-reading what you wrote that you were speaking in the pluralistic sense, "THE Measure for Measures and Pericleseses"--it's actually quite funny. MY BAD :)

Bill said...

You may remember that Measure for Measure was in my top ten. But JM is right; aggregated top ten lists don't really give you a full picture. What percentage of these lists, in your experience, list The Taming of the Shrew in the top ten?

A lot of the plays that make the top ten lists are plays that people read in school. Among the comedies, this will most likely be Shrew and Midsummer, but maybe Twelfth Night or As You Like It.

Most teachers wouldn't teach Measure for Measure because of all the sex. And because it isn't taught, it isn't well known, so teachers are even less likely to choose it.

Seriously, we're talking about one of the Bard's masterpiece works in Measure for Measure. Don't worry about studying the play more closely. Just keep an eye out for a high quality production of the play in a theatre near you. That's how to experience Measure for Measure.

You trusted me on Playing Shakespeare. Trust me on this. Find a good live production of this play and rediscover what you love about Shakespeare.

(Forgive my effusiveness - I just saw two different productions of the play in the last two weeks and I've been listening to an audio production of it in the after-buzz. A blog post (similar to this one) comparing the two productions is to come if I can get my act together. If I do, maybe I'll link to you hating on the play.)

As for the Lear comment in the other post, yeah, it was basically to underscore my comment in this post. But I have often joked to my Shakespeare reading group that I want to start a second reading group that only alternates between Lear and Measure for Measure. So there is some truth to the comment as well.

Duane said...

I will keep an open mind about it, Bill. Why is it among the "problem" plays, if you consider it among the masterpiece works? Titus set the bar for over-the-top violence and I think I've seen more people who are familiar with that one than with Measure.

Regarding top ten lists, I think popularity does count for something, especially in the context given (the comparison to the lifetime of a movie actor). Measure for Measure might well be one of those limited release arthouse films that that Academy just goes nuts for, but never does any box office? That particular argument - whether popularity has any relationship to quality - is bigger than just Mr. Shakespeare.

My original point in making the post was brought on by the potential 'discovery' of Cardenio, and the logical assumption that some may leap to that "all Shakespeare is Shakespearean", hence my other post about defining Shakespearean. I think that the world at large thinks Shakespeare and they think Hamlet, Romeo, Lear, and such. Just like when somebody mentions De Niro they think of Martin Scorcese movies, for the most part. I was simply trying to point out that in a large enough body of work, there is a wide variety. I suppose I did imply something about the quality of Measure for Measure, but I was really going more for "obscurity" than quality, although they obviously ended up tied together.

JM said...

Sorry Bill; don't mean to keep answering for you, but "popular notions" stick sideways in my craw.
It's a "problem play" because the powers that be have always had a "problem" defining exactly what it is. It's THEIR "problem", not Shakespeare's. In every way, structurally and otherwise, it is a masterpiece-- more so particularly since it CAN'T be so easily pigeon-holed by the category police.