Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Symbolism

Here's another idea that came out of the comments. In the latest Tempest movie by Julie Taymor, Caliban is black. What do you think that choice says about the Tempest as allegory for colonialism? (That's not a direct quote, so if Charlene wants to reword her original question, kindly do so). The larger question to me is, what do you look at when you see a Shakespeare production? Do you look for "meta" things like this that speak to the director's vision?


Here's my thoughts : As a general rule? I don't care about that stuff. At all. I go into every production (and really, a good movie as well) thinking of it as a parallel universe into which I get a front row seat. I assume that the people are real. I don't get to ask why Caliban is black in this one any more than I get to ask when I'm 5'7". I just am. Caliban is just black in this universe. No biggie.


Know what I mean? This was always one of the reasons I was concerned for teaching Shakespeare (back to that topic). I follow the homework boards and always cringe when I see questions about how Shakespeare sets the mood or what he uses to symbolize something or why he uses one literary device over another. I'm sure that these are important to understand, but I think that forever living in that space means that you never climb inside the universe he creates, either. It's impossible to do both, you cannot immerse yourself in the experience of two characters, you cannot simultaneously think "Ophelia said" and "Shakespeare had Ophelia say".


Apparently, in The Godfather movies (or maybe just the first one), there are oranges in every scene where somebody dies. That's certtainly one of these "meta" things we're talking about. I couldn't go through all the bad things in my life and say "Hey, wait a second, somebody was always wearing purple!" What I'm wondering is, does knowing this or not knowing this alter your understanding and/or appreciation of the movie? It has a certain degree of interest, sure. It shows up in the "Trivia" bits for the movie. But unless you are a student of film making, is it important for you to know this?



24 comments:

Charlene said...

I find it really hard to believe that when you see a white Helen Mirren call a black Djimon Hounsou "slave" you feel no cultural resonances. It's just impossible to divorce yourself from your life experiences in that way. And it's counter-productive to great art. Isn't what is great about Shakespeare demonstrated by the fact that 400 years later his plays still speak to us -- they speak to us in terms of race, class, politics, gender relations, religion, etc?

But the question about Caliban being black and the question about oranges in The Godfather are really two separate things. The latter is the director assigning significance to a symbol. The former is a director using existing cultural knowledge to effect the way something is seen.

And the former question also really extends beyond Shakespeare himself and into all theatre. It's part of the larger discussion in the theatrical world over the past few years of color blind casting versus color conscious casting.

Duane said...

Honestly no, it didn't. I mean, I spotted it because I've studied enough Tempest to know the colonialism issues, but it didn't alter my perceptions of the movie any more than if you'd asked why Miranda had red hair and freckles. I was more interested in how *big* Caliban was. It was "brains versus brawn" thing - and brains was winning.

I do think they could have done more with it. Should we be sympathetic to Caliban? Should we see Prospera as a mother figure to him? Do we understand at the end that she gives him the island, finally? It was a little all over the place.

Ian Thal said...

Colonialism would not have been seen as a problem to early 17th century Englishmen. We're able to read a parable of colonialism into the play because Shakespeare decided to give Caliban a large enough role in the play that we can feel some sympathy for him. He is represented, even by his own words, as an uncivilized brute who is only kept at bay with the threat of paralyzing cramps.

Remember that when Prospero gives Caliban the island it is not so the two of them could live together as equals, it is because Prospero is leaving to rule Milan.

As much as Shakespeare may be a lover of humanity we must be very wary of assigning our modern egalitarian view points to him. Prospero and the other Milanese (even Trinculo and Stephano) are always portrayed as Caliban's natural betters. Even Prospero's attempts to educate Caliban does not civilize him.

Mystic said...

Let me preface my post by saying I have not seen this movie version of The Tempest.

Does Prospero not say that Caliban's mother was an outcast from Algeria? Shakespeare gives us at least 1/2 of his genetic makeup. Casting someone with dark skin, hair, eyes seems to be not without cause.

I have seen a mere four productions of The Tempest, including one at The Globe a few years back. In all but one, the actor who played Caliban was a race other than Anglo. The version that I saw where the actor playing Caliban was white was a grade school production that I saw in a park in Stratford. To be honest, I enjoyed their production more than any of the professional productions.

That being said, I would have no problem with a blonde/blue Caliban or a red/green Caliban. I think Duane's point about performance making the role of Caliban more than the actor's skin color holds water.

Cheers!

Ian Thal said...

However, an Algerian would be a Berber, not a Beninois like Djimon Hounsou-- two entirely different ethnic groups.

My point is that even if there are textual reasons for casting someone of a particular complexion in the role of Caliban-- the post-colonial reading of The Tempest is a product of our egalitarian era reading our values into Shakespeare's work. The Tempest was a product of a culture that did not take egalitarianism very seriously (indeed such views may have been seen as a threat to the status quo.) The fact that we do read our own values into Shakespeare's work isn't because he shared our values, but either because he's aware of some of the ironies of his era-- or just as likely he realized that giving his villains some degree of character made for for better theatre.

Mystic said...

Ian~
I understand that Mr. Hounsou is not Algerian; I was simply stating that casting someone of dark complexion made sense.

I do not assign our modern egalitarian views to the play, and I am well aware that 17th century England was not a hotbed for racial equality. It simply was not a part of society at that time. I see The Tempest as a product of its time, and I have NO problem with the casting of the movie.

If I was incapable of separating my own values and beliefs from those of Shakespeare, I would have trouble watching ANY of his plays in which women appear. LOL! I suppose that is fodder for another discussion.

Cheers!

Alexi said...

Ian, not sure I can agree in good faith with you that readings of The Tempest or any other play that deals with race, gender, etc. have to conform strictly to 16th century mores. Shakespeare was a product of his time, but isn't he also "not of an age, but for all time"? There seems to be evidence to back up the idea that Shakespeare was a progressive for his day. Personally, I don't think you can, for example, read Merchant of Venice as straight-up anti-Semitic without ignoring a large chunk of text. The "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech has to mean something, coupled with the fact the majority of anti-semitism is put in the mouth's of the play's least interesting characters, the confusingly named Salarino and Salanio. Similarly with Tempest, I've always read Caliban as more sympathetic than Stephano and Trinculo, simply because he gets a speech or two with noble content, in contrast to the other clowns' unmitigated vulgarity. Reminds me slightly of the dynamic with Jim, the Duke, and the King in Huck Finn, where the later are gormless grifters taking advantage of the former's naivety. Our sympathies as readers lie with Jim.

I hope I'm not assigning my values to Shakespeare. There are things he and I would indubitably disagree on. However, I think we can give the Bard enough credit to say he was somewhat ahead of time, and was able to see the humanity in those different from him. How else did he craft them into well-rounded characters? (As a side note, I think Shakespeare's depiction of women and blacks matures and becomes more egalitarian with time. The chronologically earlier plays are more likely to have obviously Elizabethan sensibilities.)

Ian Thal said...

I have to disagree with you on both plays, Alexi;

On the matter of Caliban's relationship with Stephano and Trinculo: he is immediately agreeable to being subservient to them, he is easily deceived by them, and too foolish to realize they are mocking him. It's all right there in the text. Consequently, while I buy the argument that he is sympathetic, I don't buy the idea that he is accorded nobility in the play as Shakespeare wrote it-- I think that is us reading our values into it.

I also feel you seriously misread The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps it is because of today's liberalism it's hard to fathom the degree to which antisemitism permeates the play. First of all, almost every Christian character who encounters Shylock utters anti-Semitic slurs. Antonio and Launcelot both refer to Shylock as "The Devil"-- and note that this is not a figure of speech: European folklore well into the 17th century associated Jews with Satan and even regarded Jews as not being human. The "hath not a Jew eyes" speech is a prelude to a declaration of revenge as opposed to the grace and mercy that the Christian characters are all granted for their crimes (and note that Shylock can only receive mercy on the condition of his conversion.) Indeed Portia's whole legal argument in Act IV is a theological argument for the superiority of Christianity over an anti-Semitic caricature of Judaism based on church teachings that Jews at their best only understand laws and vengeance, but Christians know forgiveness. Shylock gets the best lines in the play, true, but the structure of the play is anti-Semitic.

Sorry, but I think that reading Shakespeare as philo-Semitic requires ignoring most of The Merchant of Venice and the entire historical context of the play. Sure, it's not as vicious as Martin Luther's "On The Jews And Their Lies" but there's very little that isn't.

Charlene said...

I find parts of this discussion deeply distressing. I'm not sure I can articulate why. I mean Shakespeare made great art -- that's what makes it possible for us to find lessons and values that apply to us today. To willfully refuse to connect great art to our own time would make Shaw, Miller, Brecht, Anouilh, and many others, despair.

It's deeply troubling to me if you see certain things and don't think of racial oppression, if you see a production of Antigone and didn't think of the Iraq war, if you see The Crucible and didn't think of the McCarthy era, or Bush and the whole "If you're not with us, you're against us" thing, if you see The Laramie Project or The Normal Heart and don't consider recent teen suicides. Because if you don't see these things, you are missing the point. If you are so disconnected from the world and the time around you, there is nothing Art can teach you. And then ... well, what's the point? You're basically invalidating my entire existence.


Again, the fact that we can talk about what Shakespeare intended versus what we read into it is another reason he is so great. I agree with things that both sides have said. Obviously Shakespeare had no knowledge of the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s. And the 'Hath not a Jew eyes' speech I too find to be about revenge and not humanity. But Shakespeare never wrote easy answers.

As much as the text makes Caliban out to be a monster, there is absolutely consideration for him written into the play. Shakespeare writes an entire exchange about the fact that the island used to be his. Prospero usurped the island from Caliban just as Antonio usurped the dukedom from Prospero. This parallel is not accidental and, I feel, is absolutely meant to make us question Prospero's treatment of Caliban.

And Merchant of Venice is another whole discussion. I don't think it's as kind as people want to portray it as. There is antisemitism, but I think the play is less about that and more about how people of all religions are shitty. No character is the play is redeemable, be he Christian or Jew, and I think it's supposed to leave us uncomfortable about the way we treat each other. Did any of you see Ed Hall's production of this with his all-male company Propeller? It really brought this element out. It's a nasty, nasty play on all accounts.

Duane said...

"It's deeply troubling to me if you see certain things and don't think of racial oppression, ... Because if you don't see these things, you are missing the point."

Well, no. I think you need to more clearly searate "Shakespeare's point" from "The point we modern actors are attempting to convey, using Shakespeare as the medium."

It may be painful to say, but any commentary Shakespeare made was on his time alone, not on "all time". He wasn't psychic. We can't look back at parallels in his work to today's problems and say "Wow, how did he know? Such a genius!" He didn't know. We all know that here, we're not blind bardolators.

Keep in mind, I am not actor. I'm not a theatre person at all, in fact. So my opinion comes from about as far different a world from yours as possible. From where I sit, namely "in the audience", I figure that the vision can take one of two forms. You can ask "How will I choose to interpret what I think Shakespeare meant?" or you can ask "How can I use what Shakespeare said to say what I want to say?"

Time and context make this a very tricky line to draw. If you want to make a commentary on war, then sure, Shakespeare could have been making commentary on war as well. We all know war. But when you want to make a commentary specifically about the Iraq war, at least in my opinion, you're getting pretty clearly over on the "This is my vision and I'm just using Shakespeare to express my point" side of things.

Maybe it's just that a black Caliban is a bad example. Just because slavery once existed, I do not forever look at every black person I see and choose my words carefully for fear of invoking some racial issue. Slave is a word, and had she said it to someone of Armenian descent I would not have cringed either.

Should we instead ponder whether Ms. Taymor was making a statement about Iraq occupation? After all, isn't that also a modern cultural issue? We came in to a society that had been running, poorly by our definition, for a few millennia, and said "Yeah, our way is better, we're going to make you a democracy. Lot of you are going to die in the process, but we think it's better, and you can't really do anything about it." Who knows, maybe when we eventually leave we'll do just like Prospero and basically say "I don't need to be here anymore, here, you can have it."

What you're talking about isn't Shakespeare, it's how we use Shakespeare. And yes, I stand by my original comment, that part's just not as interesting to me. I'm in it for the people, and the relationships between them. The other stuff is there, and I can't avoid it, but when I see Lear I see him as an aging father and his relationship to his daughters, not as a symbolic Ronald Reagan turning his back on the United States. (I just made that up, I have no idea what that means).

Charlene said...

"I think you need to more clearly searate "Shakespeare's point" from "The point we modern actors are attempting to convey, using Shakespeare as the medium.""

Actually I wasn't referring to Shakespeare's point or to a modern director's point, but to the point of art itself.

Charlene said...

And I feel I should clarify that I don't think a director has to make, say, the Iraq War the concept in order for you to see the parallels. I actually think this sort of specific conceptualization often flattens the power of a piece. I think you should see parallels simply as a human being connected to the world around him.

If someone was doing Brecht's Antigone, not even with modern staging -- in a Greek style of dress, say, and you heard the cast say,

" ' She wants to divide us!' cried the tyrant, 'and divided, our city will fall to the invaders.' Said Antigone: 'Always, the men in power make this threat, and we bring you sacrifices, and soon
the city, thus weakened and enslaved, falls to the invader.
He who bows down sees only the earth and the earth will get him.' "

That should still speak to you as a person living today in our current political climate. You shouldn't just think "oh look at these Greek people with problems. too bad for them, but this has nothing to do with my life."

Ian Thal said...

I recently attended a staged reading of a new translation of Trojan Women presented by Whistler in the Dark Theatre. During the talk back, there was an extensive conversation about staging: does one deliberately costume the actors to make allusions to a current or recent war?

There developed a consensus in the room that in many cases, audiences will make the contemporary allusions without any heavy-handed directorial, design or casting decisions.

The fashion of making the Prospero/Caliban relationship into an allegory for 18th or 19th century colonialism and its legacy began as an interesting take, but it's become so wide-spread a reading that it has come to obscure both the text as well as other possibilities for performance.

Naturally, anyone with a sensitivity to historical or contemporary injustice will recognize the resonances to racism and colonialism in the casting of Mr. Hounsou (who was terrific) but there's a lot more in the play that indicates to me that Shakespeare wasn't an anti-colonialist or anti-racist avant le lettre.

Note, I'm not talking about disconnecting Shakespeare from current political or social concerns, I'm talking about our reluctance at addressing the historical fact that Shakespeare probably didn't share many of our values with regards to "what makes for a just society" and I prefer to address that difference head-on.

Duane said...

"Actually I wasn't referring to Shakespeare's point or to a modern director's point, but to the point of art itself. "

There is no such thing as "the point of art itself" other than as a medium.

What is and is not art, and the point behind it, must entirely be in the eye of the creator and the beholder as two separate things, no? There is no universal here. You can't say "The Tempest means the following" to another person. You can say "Here's what it meant to me, what did you think?" but at the end of that discussion, neither of you will be wrong. Even when the creator says "I was trying to say the following" the audience is still free to say "Yeah, didn't get that at all. Sorry." Or vice versa when the audience says "I totally thought McKellen played Lear gay" and McKellen's all "What's this now? I was seriously trying to make him *not* gay, I guess that didn't work out too well." Although perhaps to your original argument, since most of the modern audience knows Sir Ian to be gay, we can't help but think of him and his characters as anything but that? Djimon Hounsou will forever be black, and you've essentially said that this fact *has* to be taken into consideration based on what we know. Well, modern culture has issues with gay marriage (and by extension, the "won't somebody please think of the children" argument). So why then can't we say that the casting of a gay man as the father of three girls (note, with no mother in sight, only loyal male followers) doesn't make a statement about that modern cultural issue?

I don't expect anybody to seriously debate either side of that argument, that's not my point (and it'll get pretty racist/homphobic pretty fast, I'm quite sure). I'm simply trying to say that there is no universal "point of art" other than the collection of individual points of view ("When I wrote it I thought X", "When I directed it I thought Y", "When I acted it I thought Z", "When I watched it I thought Q") that may or may not intersect at some points, and that we should encourage more of those intersection points so that we can all grow and learn from it. "I saw it as X, I can't believe you didn't see it as X, you're wrong not to see it that way, clearly X is the way it was supposed to be seen" is not really conducive to that.

Charlene said...

"There developed a consensus in the room that in many cases, audiences will make the contemporary allusions without any heavy-handed directorial, design or casting decisions."

I agree with this statement. Which is why I was so confused by and taken aback by Duane's original post, because he seemed to be saying that he never makes any contemporary allusions and isn't interested in them.

"you've essentially said that this fact *has* to be taken into consideration based on what we know"

Not really. Not in every role. That is what color conscious casting versus color blind casting is about - recognizing that in some roles skin color will not matter but in some roles it will and being aware of this. Every time I see Djimon Hounsou act, I'm not going to think, "what does him having black skin have to do with this" but when he is playing a role where he gets called a slave, yes, it should resonate in some way. But when I saw Chuk Iwuji play Henry VI, for example, I didn’t feel Michael Boyd was making any significant racial statement.

Skin color is not always significant, just as sexuality is not always significant. But to say it is never significant is naive. Ian McKellan being gay has nothing to do with King Lear. BUT - when John Waters had Divine, a known drag queen homosexual, play the mother in Hairspray it was significant, and gave the piece a level of meaning that was lost when John Travolta played the role in the film of the musical.



"There is no such thing as "the point of art itself" other than as a medium."

This is an entirely different debate. But I think I just heard George Bernard Shaw roll over in his grave.

Duane said...

"Duane's original post, because he seemed to be saying that he never makes any contemporary allusions and isn't interested in them."

Though the absolute maybe isn't accurate, I can't deny the statement. It's just what I go to Shakespeare for. I'm in it for the human stuff, whatever the appropriate name is for that "school of thought". I'll talk about the mother/child relationship between Prospera and Caliban (and Ariel, and Miranda) all day. Those things infinitely fascinate me, I will never tire of them. But to extend that to the black/white thing, or the colonialism thing in general? It's just not as interesting, because while it may be happening in the world around me, its not happening to me in as direct a way. I'm interested in things that will make me a better parent. Am I also, by nature of being white, always supposed to be on the lookout for opportunities to learn how to be a better white person, too?

"Every time I see Djimon Hounsou act, I'm not going to think, "what does him having black skin have to do with this" but when he is playing a role where he gets called a slave, yes, it should resonate in some way."

So for you, personally, it's the association of the word and the skin color. Fine. But that's arbitrary. Somebody else, even without the word slave, might see the carrying of firewood and general threat of physical punishment as enough of an association. Others may skip over the white/black thing completely and focus instead on what we did to the native Americans, just showing up in a land that they already figured they owned, and just took it from them. My point remains that it's nothing but discussion points, there's no definite answer. For me, personally, my original answer is still the same - I have no sensitivity to the word slave, and whether it's said to a black guy or an Asian guy or a gay Jew really doesn't make me think "Oh, dang, I can't believe he said *that* to *him*!"

Hey, here's a challenge that can tie back in to our "improvising" thread. Let's say that instead of "slave", the director and actor agreed to throw in some other word of their own choosing. Something that is more clearly identified as a racial slur, to our ears. The dreaded "N word", if you prefer (so proud of my modern culture that we're in the process of trying to remove words from it, btw).

What's your opinion on that? That, I think, would clearly make my ears perk up and say "Whoa - that was certainly a sledgehammer. I guess the director's trying to make a point."

Charlene said...

Well my flippant answer would be that you absolutely cannot replace the word 'slave' with the n word because it doesn't scan properly.

Alexi said...

Ian, I could write boatloads (and in fact I have, if you count my program notes from directing the show and my college app essays) about Merchant of Venice. Suffice it to say, I don't by the "Jews are the Devil" interpretation. Nor, Charlene, the "Man's Inhumanity to Man" reading. There are beautiful passages in the play, and fascinatingly drawn characters. Reducing the whole thing to either a distasteful exercise in bigotry OR an utterly nihilistic work does a major disservice to the Bard. The point is not that "no one is redeemable." The point is that everyone, while flawed, IS potentially redeemable. What's most poignant about the play is seeing characters who have amply demonstrated their own humanity deny humanity to others. It's a rebuttal of dehumanization. I don't think the audience is supposed to stomach Shylock's brutal humiliation and forced conversion (something against actual Christian teaching, by the way) any more than we're supposed to agree with Shylock's reductionist commodification of Antonio's flesh. My favorite lines are Lorenzo's talk of the music of the spheres, concluding "such harmony is in immortal souls, but whilst this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it." Think about that. The sublime melody of the stars is within each person, but we, so bound up in materiality, cannot perceive it. It's a haunting but beautiful encapsulation of the play. I don't think I'm wearing rose-tinted spectacles. There's enough text to support this more bittersweet, nuanced view, so why would you ever pick the flattened out, unmitigatedly depressing options of either "unconditionally anti-Semitic" or "unconditionally anti-everybody"?

Ian Thal said...

Alexi-

The association of Jews with the diabolic (in the literal sense) is is common parlance in the folklore, popular song, church sermons, sculpture, and printed literature of medieval and early modern Europe. The constant likening of both Shylock and even his inoffensive friend, Tubal, to the devil would have strong associations for Shakespeare's audience.

To pretend that these were throwaway lines that in no way affirmed the rankest anti-Semitic sentiments (which we moderns would call "superstitions") of late 16th century Christendom, is to ignore history.

"The point is that everyone, while flawed, IS potentially redeemable."

Yes, but the point is that Shylock is redeemed only when he abandons his Judaism under threat of death ("accept God's grace or be executed") at the end of Act IV, much as Jessica is redeemed only when she abandons her Judaism in Act II. The criminality of the Christian characters is unpunished because they already receive mercy. In fact Antonio only comes close to being punished for his part at the hands of the vengeful Jew.

How is that not theological antisemitism? How is that not a claim that Judaism is an inferior religion?

Sure, there's some beautiful poetry in the play, but let's not pretend that it is not one of the ur-texts of modern antisemitism.

Charlene said...

Wow. So much to respond to. I love a good Shakespeare discussion.

Ian says, “Yes, but the point is that Shylock is redeemed only when he abandons his Judaism under threat of death ("accept God's grace or be executed") at the end of Act IV, much as Jessica is redeemed only when she abandons her Judaism in Act II. … How is that not theological antisemitism? How is that not a claim that Judaism is an inferior religion?”

I would argue it’s not such a claim because we don’t actually feel that these moments “redeem” the characters.

This is one of those things that I have real issues with in the discussion of some of Shakespeare’s plays. We find things about MOV troubling, we find things about Shrew troubling, we find parts of Measure for Measure troubling. Why do we think that magically, 400 years ago these very same plays ended and no one found anything troubling about them? I just find that reasoning hard to swallow. Sure, there are differences in our cultures that have to be accepted. And we can find these differences in Shakespeare’s plays, such as the fact that ‘jew’ and ‘ethiope’ are used as commonplace insults. But when we can trace disagreeing critical response on these plays back a couple hundred years, why do we not think that these thoughts would have occurred to audiences in the Early Modern era? This is my whole point about Shakespeare not writing easy answers.

Alexi, I buy your reading, mostly. I agree particularly with “What's most poignant about the play is seeing characters who have amply demonstrated their own humanity deny humanity to others.” Shakespeare doesn’t make us hate the characters (compared the people in this play to the characters in Jew of Malta). They are supposed to be charming, and they were in the Propeller production that I referenced, despite the violence and nastiness. I think them being charming and likable is what makes the play so uncomfortable to us. Because we like these people, we recognize them, we connect to them, and then we see them do and say terrible things. I think it’s supposed to make us question what we ourselves are capable of, and whether we are really as good as we think we are.

Charlene said...

Back to Duane’s question about what my opinion would be on a director replacing the word slave with an even uglier word –

It is hard to judge a choice like this given in isolation with no other facts. Initially my response would be that it is too much (and I really am offended when scansion gets destroyed). But an intelligent director could make this choice work. Clearly bringing the n word into The Tempest would make Prospero an uglier character that we are less likely to sympathize with. So is the director going to work harder at the end of the production to redeem Prospero? Or is she or he creating a production in which Prospero is not redeemable and the audience sees him as a tyrant? Either choice could succeed or fail regardless of whether or not I agree with them.

And even if I didn’t agree with the choice, I could still appreciate it. I disagreed with practically everything Robert Falls did with his production of King Lear starring Stacey Keach. But I found it a tremendous show, definitely worth seeing. The choices, though I may have found them wrong, gave me something to think about, something to respond to, made me consider the way King Lear works as a play. These choices taught me about that text.

Again, just giving a choice in isolation makes it hard to judge. What if I asked you how you would feel if a director decided to have Shylock gouge out the eyes of Salarino during the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech? You initially may find this appalling. Well this is exactly what happened in the Propeller production I keep bringing up (sorry to do this, but it’s the best and most visceral production of that play I’ve ever seen). And in the world that director Ed Hall and his cast created, this choice was justifiable.

I’d rather see a play where the director makes choices I disagree with than a play where no choices are being made at all.

catkins said...

Charlene, you keep anticipating me. I will also defend Alexi to some extent, especially in noting how differently we respond to MOV compared with Jew of Malta. And I also agree, Alexi, that it is significant that Caliban has some noble lines. Regardless of whatever else goes on in Tempest, those lines ennoble Caliban and do make him an object of our sympathy, just as the "hath not a Jew" speech directs some of our sympathy toward Shylock (at least for some of us--let us not forget that MOV was Hitler's favorite play).

An astute Shakespearean commentator and editor, Alfred Harbage, wrote a book called "As They Liked It." In it he suggests that Shakespeare's major focus in the plays is to excite moral interest. He notes: : “The pathos of Shylock, the inertia of Hamlet, the genius of Falstaff, may seem more emphatic to later ages than to Elizabethans; however, they are not created by these later ages but are in the plays to begin with. It is of the nature of art that it be variously received, and of great art that it mean many things to many men. All criticism that has had a respectful hearing resides safely within the limits of Shakespeare’s meaning.” I especially like his comment: “Only a seer can deduce Shakespeare’s intention unless that intention be defined as providing stimulus in order to get a response.” Seems to have gotten a response on this blog! I think a director that allows our moral interest to be excited, without moralizing or blocking individual interpretation is doing a good job. When the director insists on a single view, particular to him or herself, it is no better than an actor being a ham.

What I read in MOV is a society filled with antisemitism, yet in which everyone is portrayed as a person. And I agree with Charlene, the Christians don't look so good in the end.

For me, the weakest part of MOV is Shylock's acceptance of his conversion to Christianity in exchange for his life. It does not ring true. I think a Jew would have rather accepted execution. I chalk it up to one of the few examples of Shakespeare's lack of adequate research of his topic (add it to the shipwreck in Bohemia).

Just to put things in perspective, I also like this quote from W. H. Auden:
“In the early minor sonnets he [WS] talks about his works outlasting time. But increasingly he suggests, as Theseus does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that ‘The best in this kind are but shadows’ (V.i.214), that art is rather a bore. He spends his life at it, but he doesn’t think it’s very important.…I find Shakespeare particularly appealing in his attitude towards his work. There’s something a little irritating in the determination of the very greatest artists, like Dante, Joyce, Milton, to create masterpieces and to think themselves important. To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously. When art takes itself too seriously, it tries to do more than it can.”
---Carl

catkins said...

I will also defend Alexi to some extent, especially in noting how differently we respond to MOV compared with Jew of Malta. And I also agree, Alexi, that it is significant that Caliban has some noble lines. Regardless of whatever else goes on in Tempest, those lines ennoble Caliban and do make him an object of our sympathy, just as the "hath not a Jew" speech directs some of our sympathy toward Shylock (at least for some of us--let us not forget that MOV was Hitler's favorite play).

In a book called "As They Liked It," Alfred Harbage suggests that Shakespeare's major focus in the plays is to incite moral interest. He notes: “The pathos of Shylock, the inertia of Hamlet, the genius of Falstaff, may seem more emphatic to later ages than to Elizabethans; however, they are not created by these later ages but are in the plays to begin with. It is of the nature of art that it be variously received, and of great art that it mean many things to many men.” I especially like his comment: “Only a seer can deduce Shakespeare’s intention unless that intention be defined as providing stimulus in order to get a response.” Seems to have gotten a response on this blog!

I agree that MOV shows an antisemitic society, but I agree with Charlene that the Christians don't look so good in the end. For me, the weakest part is Shylock's acceptance of his conversion to Christianity in exchange for his life. I think a Jew would have rather accepted execution. I chalk it up to one of the few examples of Shakespeare's lack of adequate research of his topic (add it to the shipwreck in Bohemia).

Just to put things in perspective, I also like this quote from W. H. Auden:"... increasingly he [WS] suggests, as Theseus does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that ‘The best in this kind are but shadows’ (V.i.214), that art is rather a bore. He spends his life at it, but he doesn’t think it’s very important.…I find Shakespeare particularly appealing in his attitude towards his work. There’s something a little irritating in the determination of the very greatest artists, like Dante, Joyce, Milton, to create masterpieces and to think themselves important. To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously. When art takes itself too seriously, it tries to do more than it can.”
--Carl

catkins said...

Sorry about the double post, your server is killing me, Duane!