Verse Speaking //

Photo by Christopher Mueller

Photo by Christoph Manuel Mueller

How should actors speak the verse in Shakespeare’s plays? Are there any reliable rules for doing so? Do the forms in which the plays were first printed offer guidelines in their use of punctuation, capital letters, line division, and layout on the page?  Should actors stress the ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum rhythm of the regular iambic pentameter?  Do modern editors pay too much attention in the way they present the texts to the needs of readers, too little to those of actors?

These are perennial topics of debate, just as complaints that today’s actors are not as good at speaking Shakespeare’s verse as those of previous generations recur with predictable, often tedious frequency from one generation to another. They are relevant to the work of theatre practitioners and academics as well as to audiences. Numerous books discuss the topic in both theoretical and practical terms. Eminent directors such as Peter Hall and John Barton along with voice trainers including Cicely Berry, who has worked mostly with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Patsy Rodenburg, associated especially with the National Theatre, are known to have strong, often divergent views on the subject, and some linguistic scholars have written about it too.

Globe Education, which admirably seeks to bridge gaps and build bridges between those who put on plays and those who go to see them, is running a series of five symposia on various aspects of the speaking of Shakespeare’s verse. The first took place at the Globe itself on 8 September. The others will be held over the next five months in Stratford-upon-Avon, Staunton (Virginia), New York, and Stratford (Ontario). It seems unlikely that many people will be able to attend all of them.

Both leaders of the opening session, chaired by the Globe’s dynamic Director of Education Patrick Spottiswoode, have published books on the topic. Abigail Rokison, actor turned academic, wrote Shakespearean Verse Speaking: Text and Theatre Practice, which won the Shakespeare Globe Book Award in 2010. Giles Block, actor turned director and voice trainer with the title of ‘Master of Words’ (or Verse) at the Globe, has recently published Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare.

Rokison spoke particularly about whether the layout on the page of shared or short lines of verse in early editions provides, as some practitioners have theorized, a set of clues to the actor as to how the lines should be delivered.  She convincingly demonstrated the fallacy of supposing that early printed texts of Shakespeare’s plays provide access to the author’s intentions by showing that actors in early performances would have had to work not from printed texts at all, but from manuscript scrolls which would have contained only the lines they themselves had to speak prefaced by a brief cue line which would have told them nothing about the verse structure of the speeches.

The matter of what text the modern actor is working from is both crucial and contentious. Giles Block spoke disparagingly and in blanket terms of modern editions, complaining of intrusive punctuation such as a plethora of exclamation marks which suggest that editors go too far in trying to indicate how speeches should be interpreted theatrically. For him, and for some of the teachers who spoke in question time, the Folio is paramount in authority even though half of its plays had already appeared in versions closer to Shakespeare’s manuscripts. But Rokison, projecting on screen a facsimile of the passage from the play of Sir Thomas More which is likely to offer us the closest we can get to the kind of manuscript from which the early quartos and some of the plays in the Folio were printed, had amply demonstrated that all printed texts of the period are likely to differ greatly in incidental features from their written sources, and so that there is no point in supposing that the punctuation, capitalization, and layout on the page of the plays’ early printing give us a hot line to the author’s intentions. The Folio is a mediated text just as modern editions are. It uses conventions of presentation that are of their time and so are liable to be misunderstood by readers who are not trained to understand them. It can mislead rather than help. When Charles Laughton was acting King Lear in Stratford in 1959 his wife, Elsa Lanchester, sat in the stalls with a Folio on her lap with instructions to tell him whenever a word was capitalized so that he could emphasize it. The result was not a success.

Personal taste must play its part in these matters. Giles Block appeared to seek methods of acting that stress psychological reality at the expense of artifice and rhetoric. He spoke disparagingly of actors who take long passages of verse within a single breath, going so far as to say that he found Laurence Olivier and John Wood ‘ridiculous’ when they did so. But to try to speak Shakespeare as if he were concerned primarily with psychological verisimilitude is to deny the range of his styles and the self conscious artifice of his writing in, especially, plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet. And actors must be allowed their own creativity. In Twelfth Night, the lines ‘I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too’ are, apart from a reversed opening foot, regular iambic verse. But Judi Dench, by lingering slightly before saying ‘brother’s’, most movingly took our minds back to her lost brother Sebastian. And Shakespeare himself sometimes demands to be spoken against the rules. Any actor who inflected Lear’s ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ with an iambic beat would make a fool of himself.

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Beyond Doubt For All Time //

See also

See also

Paul Edmondson and I were interested to read Diana Price’s courteous response to my blog about her book Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography. Here are some comments.

She writes that I do not ‘directly confront’ what she calls her ‘single strongest argument … the comparative analysis of documentary evidence supporting the biographies of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.’ My reason for not commenting on this impressively researched section is that I find it irrelevant to the discussion of the case that Shakespeare’s works were written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Of course writers (and others) leave only partial records of their activities. The fact that some leave fuller records than others does not invalidate the records of those with a lower score.

Price claims that ‘none of the evidence that survives for Shakespeare can support the statement that he was a writer by vocation.’ On the contrary, this statement is supported by numerous records whose validity Professor Price denies, fallaciously in my view. Some of these do not link Shakespeare with Stratford, some, such as the Stratford monument and epitaphs, along with Dugdale’s identification of the monument as a memorial to ‘Shakespeare the poet’, Jonson’s elegy, and others, do offer this support.

I do not agree (whatever ‘historians and critics’ may say) that posthumous evidence ‘does not carry the same weight as contemporaneous evidence.’ If we took that to its logical extreme we should not believe that anyone had ever died. Most relevant here perhaps are the records of Marlowe’s death and burial. To deny, or even to question the validity of such documents is to fly in the face of the documented historical record.

Professor Price gives several reasons for downplaying the Basse elegy. One is that its authorship has been questioned. This is true but irrelevant. Someone unquestionably wrote it, and in time for Jonson to cite it in his Folio verses. Price says ‘the poem contains no evidence that the author was personally acquainted with Shakespeare.’ Again, true but irrelevant. It seems likely that many of the poets who mourned the death of Prince Henry in 1612 were not personally acquainted with him but that fact does not cause me to suspect that he was not the man the authors said he was. And whether one manuscript title ‘represents the original’ is irrelevant to the content of these titles.

Price writes that ‘Shakespeare is the only alleged writer of consequence from the time period for whom he [we?] must rely on posthumous evidence’ to prove that Shakespeare the writer was the man from Stratford.’ So far as documentary evidence goes this is true, but as I have said I see no justification for discounting posthumous evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The question of the literacy of Shakespeare’s household is a red herring. Just as ‘good wombs have borne bad sons’ (The Tempest, 1.2.119), so great writers may have illiterate offspring. In any case I reiterate that Price ignores the evidence that Susanna, married to a distinguished physician, was ‘witty above her sex’ and irrelevantly claims that she had bad handwriting. I also have bad handwriting. Price defends her attitude by saying ‘one cannot prove a negative case.’ Why not? It is surely possible to prove that for example Queen Elizabeth 1 was not alive in 1604 or that Sir Philip Sidney did not write King Lear or that Professor Price does not believe that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote Shakespeare.

Professor Price, like many of Shakespeare’s more orthodox biographers, relies far too much on what seems to her to be the evidence of common sense – because she finds it difficult to imagine something it cannot be true; something must be true because the writer cannot imagine otherwise. Such an attitude results in the distortion of historical facts to suit the preconceptions of the writer.

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An Unorthodox and Non-definitive Biography //

Shakespeare's Monument in Holy Trinity ChurchPublication of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, the volume of essays attempting to lay to rest doubts about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works which I co-edited with Paul Edmondson, has involved me in a number of open discussions, some of them along with people who take the opposite point of view.

At the Stratford Literary Festival, and subsequently in a Shakespeare Birthplace Trust webinar, ‘Proving Shakespeare‘, I locked horns with Ros Barber who has published a novel called The Marlowe Papers. Made up of a series of poems written, in a conservatively modern idiom, in verse based on the iambic pentameter, it ingeniously proposes that the amply documented death in 1593 of Christopher Marlowe was (to quote the book description on Amazon) ‘an elaborate ruse to avoid being convicted of heresy; that he was spirited across the Channel to live on in lonely exile; that he continued to write plays and poetry, hiding behind the name of a colourless man from Stratford – one William Shakespeare.’ As a work of fiction the novel belongs to a genre of which numerous examples are discussed in a chapter of our book, ‘Fictional Treatments of Shakespeare’s Authorship’, by Paul Franssen, and as a novel in verse I admired and enjoyed it. But it was disconcerting to find that its author believes her own thesis, summarily denying the evidence of the report of the coroner’s inquest on Marlowe along with the record of his burial discovered and published in 1925 by Leslie Hotson. Marlowe, she writes in a note, ‘is supposed to have been buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds of St Nicholas Church Deptford.’ It would have been fairer to say that the church records provide documentary evidence of his burial rather than representing it as mere supposition.

During our discussion she referred me to Diana Price’s book Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (2001; reprinted and revised 2012) as an authoritative statement of the anti-Shakespearian case. It aims (to quote Amazon again) to prove ‘that William Shakespeare of Stratford was a successful entrepreneur, financier, play broker, businessman, theater shareholder, real estate investor, commodity trader, moneylender, and shareholding actor, but not a dramatist. It further proposes that the works of “William Shakespeare” were written by an unnamed gentleman of rank.’

Price’s book is a work of impressive, if misguided, scholarship. She ranges far and wide over historical, biographical, literary, bibliographical, theatrical, and dramatic evidence in what is surely the most determined attempt ever made to destroy the Shakespearian case. She creates an impression of great authority which may well delude unsuspecting readers into accepting her thesis. But it has fatal weaknesses. Here are some of them.

Price is as willing as her opponents to cite legends rather than facts. Several times she cites what she admits (p. xiv) is a ‘legend’, a ‘tradition’ (p. 242) that Shakespeare of Stratford left school early, when he was no more than thirteen years old. In fact, as she frequently tells us, we have no documentary evidence that he even attended school, let alone when he stopped doing so. She writes that he grew up in a home ‘filled with illiterate people’ (p. 242) and that he ‘retired to an illiterate household at the height of his literary powers’ (a judgement which itself could be questioned). At other points she attempts to denigrate Shakespeare of Stratford’s literary reputation by proposing that his wife and daughters were illiterate. Yet she has to admit that Susanna, married to a distinguished and learned physician, could at least sign her name, and she ignores the evidence of Susanna’s epitaph that she was ‘witty [intelligent] above her sex.’ (In any case literary fathers can have illiterate daughters.) Rather similarly she writes of Stratford as an educational backwater while quoting John Hall’s description of one of the Quineys – a family into which Judith Shakespeare married – as ‘a man of good wit, expert in tongues, and very learned.’ (p. 237).

Price misleadingly says that ‘there are ‘no commendatory verses to Shakespeare’, ignoring those printed in the First Folio as well as the anonymous prose commendation in the1609 edition of Troilus and Cressida and that by Thomas Walkley in the 1622 quarto of Othello. Her statement that ‘nothing marked Shakespeare’s demise until seven years after his death’ ignores the fact that the monument in Holy Trinity, with its inscriptions eulogizing Shakespeare of Stratford as a writer, would have taken time to design and prepare and that it may have been erected any time before we first hear of it, in 1623; and if Price’s remark refers to publication in 1623 of the First Folio, it ignores the fact that big books take a long time to compile and to produce. Still more importantly, Price downplays William Basse’s elegy on Shakespeare which ranks him with Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont and which could have been written any time after Shakespeare died, and which circulated widely in manuscript – at least 34 copies are known – before and after it was published in 1633, and she fails to note that one of the copies is headed ‘bury’d at Stratford vpon Avon, his Town of Nativity’.

Price more than once advances eccentric interpretations of contemporary documents to bolster her case. She interprets John Aubrey’s statement that Shakespeare ‘wouldn’t be debauched & if invited to writ: he was in pain’ to mean, not, as is surely right, ‘wrote that he was in pain’ but ‘if Shakespeare was asked to write, he begged off with a sore hand.’ (p. 128) Rather similarly, in the Parnassus plays Gullio quotes from Romeo and Juliet, provoking from Ingenioso the response ‘Mark, Romeo and Juliet: o monstrous theft! I think he will run through a whole book of Samuel Daniel’s.’ Price interprets this as an implication that Daniel wrote Romeo and Juliet, while admitting that the first quarto, Meres, and Weever (let along the First Folio) all attribute the play to Shakespeare. The more natural interpretation is surely ‘if he can do that, he can probably quote a whole book by Daniel.’ And discussing Shakespeare’s relationship with the Earl of Southampton she states that the dedication to Lucrece is ‘equally formal’ as that to Venus and Adonis as if the words ‘The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end’ were a mere formality.

Like many other anti-Shakespearians Price irrationally casts doubt on posthumously derived evidence, even to the extent of doubting the First Folio’s statement that Shakespeare acted in his own plays on these grounds (p. 41).

Attempting to show that there is no evidence that the Stratford man was a writer Price offers a detailed discussion of William Dugdale’s sketch, made around 1634, of the Stratford monument, which she accepts as an effigy of the Stratford Shakespeare, but fails to take note of Dugdale’s statement that it portrays ‘william Shakespeare the famous poet’ even though she reproduces it (Figure 19).

Although Price accepts the Sonnets as autobiographical when it suits her case to do so, she ignores No. 136, which by that token shows that the author’s name was Will. This would at least narrow down the number of aristocrats eligible by her account for consideration as the author of the works.

And, of course, she can produce not a single scrap of positive evidence to prove her claims; all she can do is systematically to deny the evidence that is there.

I disagree with many other judgements in Price’s book, but I have tried to select for discussion those that are most demonstrably wrong or unfair. Its aims are entirely destructive and it is not the definitive work that it claims to be.

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Digging for Richard //

Photo by Christoph Manuel Mueller

Though Shakespeare was not mentioned, there was a manifest and contrived theatricality about the press conference announcing that the skeleton unearthed in a Leicester car park was indeed that of King Richard III. Not that anyone could have doubted what the conclusion would be. How could the University, clearly pulling all the stops out to assert its academic excellence, possibly have gone to such lengths if all it had had to say was ‘no, it isn’t’, or even ‘well, it could be’?

But the event was skilfully stage managed, with a succession of academics from a variety of departments – archaeological, historical, medical, but not, I noticed, literary or dramatic, standing on a podium and gently swaying their way through a succession of prepared statements, illustrating their points with documents and graphs, and mounting gradually to the climactic revelation of the results of DNA tests. And there was a nice element of cloak and dagger too. Who was the mystery man or woman whose DNA helped to clinch the case but who preferred to remain completely anonymous? Could it have been . . . a living personage of royal blood?

It was all thoroughly convincing and certainly achieved its purpose so far as the University was concerned. As a contribution to scientific, and perhaps to historical research it is doubtless a significant achievement. But is it in any degree relevant to Shakespeare buffs? Richard III is the most charismatic of Shakespeare’s villains. A great ironist, he limps his way through his play with ferocious intelligence only to discover finally that his apparent self-knowledge conceals a vast and tragic moral emptiness.

Shakespeare had adumbrated him in the character of Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece. And later in his career he was to develop him into another, less ironic, more deeply tragic murderer and child-killer, Macbeth. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a hunchback may seem to be a piece of dramatic symbolism, and loses none of its power even though it is now vindicated by the gruesome evidence of the mutilated skeleton, damaged both by wounds inflicted in battle and, it would seem, by others designed to humiliate the defenceless corpse. It has inspired a succession of great performances from the time of its first impersonator, Richard Burbage, onwards. David Garrick, Edmund Kean, G. F. Cooke, J. P. Kemble, W. C.  Macready, Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, Antony Sher, Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale, and Kevin Spacey are only a few of those who have triumphed in the role. The play has often been given in spectacular stagings with elaborate, historically based settings, as for example in Bill Alexander’s R S C production of 1984, which had a magnificent coronation scene. Olivier’s film is a classic. And both the role and its interpreters have been burlesqued, parodied and sent up mercilessly by amateurs as well as by professionals.

What will happen now?  Will the discovery and identification of the dead King’s bones, along with the confirmation that he was indeed physically as well as morally deformed, have any impact upon Shakespeare’s play in performance? Will the upcoming production at the Bristol Tobacco Factory make any attempt to capitalize on it? Is John Mackay quaking in his leather boots in the thought that they may try to replicate the site of the blows that killed the King?

Good luck to them if they can make anything of it, but how they might do so is a task for the theatrical, not for the academic imagination.

O, and by the way, Leicester means Lear’s city. Another Shakespeare connection. Maybe the university should take another look at that car park.

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The Stage and The Scholars //

Photo by Christoph Manuel Mueller

One day in 1950 when I was an undergraduate in London I told my tutor, an immensely distinguished literary critic, that I was going to see Michael Redgrave play Hamlet that evening. ‘O’, she replied. ‘I should like to see Hamlet. One day.’ Whether she ever did I don’t know. But her attitude was typical of the gulf at that time between the academic world and the theatre. American universities had run drama departments for decades – Yale’s dates back to 1926 – but the first one in England had been founded only in 1956, in Bristol. Most of the best work on the history of Shakespeare’s plays in British performance came from American scholars such as Arthur Colby Sprague and Charles Shattuck. Shakespeare criticism was almost entirely text-based, paying little attention to performance.

The same was true of editions. Dover Wilson’s idiosyncratic and often eccentric New Shakespeare, published by Cambridge University Press and at that time dragging painfully towards its close, included bare, completely uncritical lists of productions through the ages, and Arden editions – including some volumes, such as Kenneth Muir’s Macbeth, which are still in print – virtually ignored the theatre in both their introductions and their notes.

But in the post-War period scholars at last woke up to the fact that the theatre might have something to tell them, indeed that performance is itself a form of criticism, and that actors and their directors may have insights into the text which are no less valuable than those of literary scholars and critics. Great pioneers were Glynne Wickham, of Bristol, and John Russell Brown (still going strong), who worked simultaneously for the National Theatre and the University of Sussex. During the past half century or so theatre-based criticism has escalated in volume to the point where it is now a major subsection of the Shakespeare industry. Whole volumes are devoted to studying the theatre history of individual plays, attempting to discover what it can tell us about their stage potential and their openness to variant interpretation. Moreover editors have tended to privilege theatre-derived texts of Shakespeare’s own time, such as the First Folio versions of King Lear and of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, over quarto versions that are closer to what Shakespeare wrote before the plays were put into rehearsal and performance.

Another result of developing academic interest in theatre is that scholars have increasingly been asked to review productions. The Times Literary Supplement took a valuable lead, and specialist journals such as Shakespeare Survey and Shakespeare Quarterly have done the same. This has been especially useful at a time when the space given to newspaper reviewers has shrunk. Academic critics, not always working to tight deadlines, can offer more in-depth appraisals of what they see.

Scholars of our time are rarely purists. Most of us recognize that productions which depart greatly from the original texts, using them as jumping-off boards to reflect political and social concerns of the time and place of performance, are worthy of study in their own right, seeing Shakespeare as a catalyst as well as a creator. Many of the plays performed during the World Shakespeare Festival last year at the Globe and elsewhere used freely adapted texts, often in translation. And they are to be the subject of a book, A Year of Shakespeare, edited and written by theatrically aware academics and published this spring by Bloomsbury.

Whether the interest that academics take in the theatre is reciprocated by theatre practitioners is less clear. Certainly directors of Shakespeare’s plays are more likely now to have been university educated, many of them having read either English or Drama or both, than a half century ago. Cambridge especially has been a great training ground, partly because of the enduring influence of George (Dadie) Rylands. But I have a feeling that once they embark on their careers such practitioners become so immersed in their profession that they rapidly lose touch with academe. Admittedly they, or their publicity managers, often call on scholars to write short essays for their programmes. But pressure of timing usually means that the writers of such essays are in the dark about what line the director will take, and so can only write on the basis of the text itself. Though there was an occasion when Adrian Noble asked me to change a piece in which I’d written that King Lear dies as he is looking into Cordelia’s eyes because in his production Robert Stephens would be having ‘a kind of vision.’ As he duly did.

Theatre has to exist in the present, but I sometimes wish it were more willing to treasure its past, and to learn from it. Knowledge of past productions can inform and enrich new ones. Academics learn much from the theatre, and we’re only too happy when we can help those who work in it.

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Shakespeare Goes to Utrecht //

A visit to the Netherlands this week gave me the opportunity to see something of the significance of Shakespeare in a European context. The occasion was the Inaugural Lecture at the University of Utrecht of Dr Ton Hoenselaars, who is an authority especially on the European reception of Shakespeare. He studied for his Ph.D. here in Stratford, at the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham, and his thesis was published in 1992 as Images of Englishmen and Foreigners in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries.

Since writing that he has continued to work in related fields and has recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists – which he generously dedicated to me. He is also working on what sounds like a potentially fascinating study of Shakespeare and the First World War. His considerable administrative skills find special outlets in his work as Chairman of the Shakespeare Society of the Low Countries – which he founded – and as President of the European Shakespeare Research Association, more commonly known as ESRA.

The lecture itself was an impressive occasion. Ton had invited eminent guests including Professors Manfred Pfister, of the University of Berlin, and Clara Calvo, of the University of Murcia, in Spain, who works with him on the First World War project. She also has special interests in the history of Stratford-upon-Avon as a centre of literary pilgrimage, and it was good to have the opportunity to talk to her about this. The ceremony was conducted with considerable, and impressive, academic formality. We (somewhat self-consciously, it must be admitted) donned the university’s own robes, caps and cravats which made us look rather like the subjects of some of the portraits by Rembrandt which we had seen during a morning visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Thus garbed we walked in formal procession to the great hall which was packed with well-wishers. The lecture itself was given in Dutch, but Ton had summarized it in advance, and made kind reference to his special guests, and the reasons he had chosen them, in English.

At the close of the ceremony we processed out of the hall to the strains of, somewhat surprisingly, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, chosen no doubt because it was composed for performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was followed by a reception in the course of which a large number of Ton’s friends and students queued to offer him their individual congratulations.

And then of course there was a grand dinner with plenty to eat and drink…

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Year of Shakespeare: Verdi’s Otello //

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


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For me, the grand climax of the Year of Shakespeare came with a revival at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s Otellowhich was first given for the opera’s centenary in 1987. It was a grand climax because this is one of the grandest of all operas, because it was given in the grandest of all British theatres, and because it demands grand forces – a large chorus and orchestra, spectacular staging, and great singers including if possible the world’s finest heroic tenor. It was also a production of a work in which the greatness of the text that Shakespeare wrote is complemented, even challenged, by a musical score which has equal claims to greatness.

All the performances we have been seeing are to some degree or other adaptations of the original plays, altering and usually shortening the texts, many of them translated into languages different from that in which they were written, adopting new sets of theatrical conventions, and making explicit or covert allusions to contemporary political and social issues. In a sense there is no such thing as a Shakespeare play, only an ongoing series of infinitely variable theatrical and other events stimulated by the words that Shakespeare wrote. Each can be enjoyed (or not), and demands to be judged, as a new creation. And operatic adaptation offers its own critical challenges because it is multi-layered, requiring not only adaptation of the text to fit the requirements of musical setting but also a musical setting of the adapted text which makes independent claims to artistic integrity. Add to this the interpretation of the resultant work of art in a period later than that in which it was composed and you have a whole Chinese box of critical complexities.

The first requirement for a Shakespeare opera is an adaptation of the text which, while having its own kind of theatrical validity, allows room for musical creativity. Almost inevitably this requires both abbreviation and simplification. Only one Shakespeare opera – Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – uses Shakespeare’s words virtually unaltered, and even this shortens the play by about a half, opening in the forest not in Athens; similarly Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist, working of course in Italian not in English, starts Otellonot in Venice but in Cyprus, though he skilfully incorporates bits of Shakespeare’s first act, such as references to Othello’s account of his martial adventures, into the later scenes. He pares away minor characters, streamlines the plot, and cuts dialogue back to its bare bones so as to allow the music full scope for emotional expressiveness. Boito also creates opportunities for solo arias and other set pieces, such as Iago’s creed – ‘I believe in a cruel god’ –, Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’, and the great love duet climaxing in the words ‘ancora un bacio’- ‘one more kiss’ – which close the first act and recur with devastating effect as Otello, sinking to the ground, sings them over Desdemona’s corpse in the opera’s last moments. And, like the English actor managers of his time, he brings the curtain down on the tragic hero’s last breath.

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Music limits interpretation. That is to say, the music to which Verdi sets Boito’s words – assuming that it is performed as written – goes a long way to determining the style and impact of the performance. An actor speaking Shakespeare’s verse has more leeway for interpretation than the singer of musical notes whose dynamics are governed by the composer’s shaping of the words and by the intricate orchestration that goes alongside them. Similarly the production style in purely theatrical terms is largely laid down by the conventions to which the original work conforms. If Verdi writes music demanding a large body of choral singers, as he does in this opera’s first act, you’ve got to have room for a lot of people on stage. To this extent an opera belongs more firmly to its own time than a play; it’s far less easy (though not, as the recent English National Opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a boys’ school demonstrates, impossible) to have a radical reinterpretation of an opera than of a play. Two years after its premiere in Italy, in 1887, Otelloreceived its first London production at Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, around the corner from the Royal Opera House, and as I saw this production I could have almost imagined myself transported back to the Lyceum of Irving’s time. Timothy O’Brien’s set, defined by dark green Corinthian pillars, is based on Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence. The singers wear Renaissance costumes.

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Pervasive religious symbolism, which counterpoints Iago’s declarations of atheism and reinforces Desdemona’s devout Christianity, includes two massive painted backdrops, one of a crucifixion and the other of Venetian painter Tintoretto’s ‘Deposition from the Cross’, along with a succession of crucifixes. In the thrilling opening scene, with its choral and orchestral depiction of a tempest which anticipates the internal one that will destroy Otello, the presence of a great cannon facing directly into the auditorium along with the milling of a crowd of citizens is as naturalistic as anything produced by Irving or Beerbohm Tree.

Verdi’s music demands large-scale acting, too, but allows also for lyricism and subtlety. Otello makes what is surely the most thrilling first entry in all opera with his cry of ‘Esultate!’ delivered here by the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko with burnished tone that immediately established his heroic credentials. But later the role modulates into the tenderness of the love music and this too was finely sung. The Desdemona I saw, Marina Poplavskaya, had intended to be in the audience but took over from the announced singer. She did full justice to the role, phrasing not only beautifully but dramatically. In the Willow Song, for instance, she sang ‘Salce, salce!’ – ‘willow, willow!’ – as if it came from the lips of the maid Barbara, not from a diva performing a set piece. The handsome Iago, Lucio Gallo, singing in his native language, acted with disingenuous subtlety, addressing his creed directly to the audience. Blessed with the Royal Opera’s superb chorus and orchestra, Antonio Pappano conducted with commanding skill. Verdi’s Otello is a rare instance of one masterpiece engendered by another, and this production did full justice to it.


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare in Hungary //

Photo by Christoph Mueller

The world of Shakespeare is coming to England during this Olympic year with a whole string of remarkable productions, many of them taking off from a Shakespeare play rather than offering a straightforward, text-based account of it. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a world of Shakespeare elsewhere.

From 10 to 15 July I had the great honour, and even greater pleasure, of being invited to the annual Shakespeare Festival in Gyula, a delightful spa resort of around 35,000 inhabitants in Hungary, close to the Romanian border. Dominated by a handsome brick-built medieval castle close to a charming lake surrounded by trees, the town attracts visitors partly through the remarkable spa, a complex within a tree-strewn park of around twenty thermal baths and swimming pools offering various levels of aquatic engagement and supplemented by treatment centres for a wide range of ailments.

The festival itself, established in 2005, spreads over several locations. The central courtyard of the castle encloses a stage and temporary auditorium. In the nearby lake is a floating stage with seating on the bank. The town’s cultural centre incorporates a theatre, as does the festival’s office building. Performances cover a wide range of styles, media, and languages. Some of them are simply DVDs of varying interest. But during my five-day stay I was able to watch, along with other entertainments, live performances of two different Shakespeare plays in three different languages.

Curiously, all of them used a single room as a setting.

First came a Hamlet performed by the Teatr Zeromskiego of Kielce, in Poland. The stage projected slightly into the auditorium, and the acting area was defined by a curving set of coloured footlights creating an obvious sense of theatricality. Behind these was an odd kind of dining room furnished by a large table at which the characters sat for much of the time, with a back wall covered, for no reason that became obvious to me, with nine glass cases full of stuffed animals and birds. I understood neither the language in which the play was spoken nor that of the surtitles, but although the action broadly followed Shakespeare’s play, it was clearly considerably adapted, to the extent even of opening with a long original soliloquy spoken by a resurrected Yorick. Both the cast and the action, played without an interval, were pared down.

There were strong elements of caricature in the characterization. Gertrude was a glamorous but empty-headed, middle-aged platinum blonde with fluttering false eyelashes, paired with an unusually short, plump, besotted Claudius. Hamlet, played by a handsome and clearly highly talented actor, came on nude for a scene with Ophelia and preened himself while she took photographs of him on her mobile phone. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were women, one of whom fellated Hamlet at one point. He shot both Polonius and Claudius, and after Ophelia’s death appeared wearing her clothes. At the end he and Horatio remained alive, consoling one another in a friendly embrace.

It was all very odd, but for all that I found much to enjoy in the theatricality of the performance, the conviction and vigour of the acting, the physical tensions established between characters, and visceral intensity of the relationships among them. I’m not sure whether I should have enjoyed it so much if I had understood it better; at any rate I was the only one to call ‘Bravo’ at curtain call.

The other foreign language production was of The Tempest, the play that formed a focal point for the entire festival and on which I contributed a short paper to the festival’s academic conference. Given in Romanian, this performance was directed by the eminent Silviu Purcarete. It was set in a large baroque bedroom, suggestive of a Mozart opera or a Beaumarchais play. In the centre of the back wall stood a big wardrobe from which characters could peer out to observe what was going on and from which they could emerge as if from a mysterious world elsewhere. To the right a door gave onto the outer world, sometimes letting in bright light and tempestuous gusts of air. But often the stage was lit only dimly, sometimes partially illuminated by the bulbs of a many-branched lamp stand. Some of the characters were robed in paper costumes that crackled and tore as they moved. Miranda and Caliban were played by the same actor. There were many silences, creating a sense of hushed mystery. Out of the linguistic obscurity emerged a sense of strange beauty.

It was a far cry from this to the other version of The Tempest, played in English by two men, both of latish middle age, and set in an ordinary, somewhat dingily furnished English living room. Centre stage was an old-fashioned radio, from which voices emerged from time to time. The actors, Mick Jasper and Iain Armstrong played all the roles, using changes of vocal pitch, fragments of costume and props to suggest change of character. Though the play was shortened its action was not drastically altered. The demands on our imagination called for by this method of performance seemed appropriate to the play’s dramatic mode. The greatness of Shakespeare’s poetry, sensitively spoken, lifted us above the dinginess of the setting and made us feel its power and beauty afresh.

This continues our series of blogs about international Shakespeares during the Olympic Games. What are your experiences of Shakespeare in other languages?

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Olympic Shakespeare //

Photo. by Christoph Mueller

‘The isle is full of noises….’ Well, it certainly will be as the Olympic Games open with a ceremony that takes as its keynote these words from The Tempest. One of the noises will be the resonant sound of the great bell, the biggest in Europe – twice the size of Big Ben – which is being specially cast for the occasion. It is inscribed with Caliban’s words which continue with ‘sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’, words that, though they come from a ‘savage and deformed slave’, speak nevertheless of the consolations and pleasures of nature and of civilized art.

The Games will bring hundreds of thousands of people into our island. And through media of communication undreamt of in Shakespeare’s time they will be transmitted to millions over all over ‘the great globe itself.’ It was an imaginative decision to link them with the art of a writer who is himself both the glory of our island and one of its greatest exports.

Shakespeare’s global outreach has grown exponentially within the past few decades, and the stimulus to imagination and to creativity that his works provide is reflected in the world-wide range of theatrical productions that stream into and emanate from this isle in the form of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012. You can read the reviews by a band of Shakespearians on this blog and via

Understandably, the festival centres on London, the focal point of Shakespeare’s career, and specifically on the playhouse which bears the name of that which Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, built in 1599 and in which the words ‘All the world’s a stage’ were first heard: The Globe. It was a brilliant stroke of imagination – and no doubt a logistical challenge of the first magnitude – to programme, in the weeks leading up to the Games, a series of productions of all 37 of Shakespeare’s acknowledged plays along with a version of one of his narrative poems, each of them performed in a different language, even including hip-hop and British Sign language, by actors from the originating countries. And it was a great stroke of wit to make this Globe to Globe Festival culminate in the first performance of the Globe’s own production (in English) of Shakespeare’s most strongly nationalistic play, Henry V, thus eliding the Festival season with the Globe’s own, which will run throughout the period of the games.

Though when Shakespeare wrote he can have had no idea of how great his impact on later ages would become, he knew something from his reading of both British and classical history of the intensity with which events and literature of the past may reverberate, like waves of sound from a bell, through subsequent ages. After the bloody murder of Julius Caesar he causes Cassius presciently to look forward to a time when what he dignifies with the label of a ‘lofty scene’ will be ‘acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown.’ So it is with the lofty – and the often unlofty – scenes that Shakespeare himself created. His play texts can still be richly rewarding when presented as they have come down to us, challenging us to enter imaginatively into the language, the dramatic conventions, the systems of thought of worlds far distant from ours.

But there is no denying that his plays too have achieved the status of myth. Increasingly in recent decades they provide the inspiration for scenes far different from any that their author could have imagined. Most of the productions at the Globe, and many of those performed elsewhere, will be given not only in accents unknown in Shakespeare’s time but in theatrical modes undreamt of then. His words will be stripped back, even abandoned, his stories will be reshaped, his characters re-imagined, modern cultural and political significances will be drawn from the plays’ bowels or grafted on to their limbs in the attempt to make them speak directly and vibrantly to modern audiences.

This process may deny the plays’ uniqueness, limiting their range of reference and muffling their resonances like the tones of a cracked bell that has become encrusted with the detritus of time. Yet it would have been familiar to Shakespeare himself. Just as he re-shaped and re-imagined both history and the myths and fictions on which he drew, so theatre practitioners of today find new meanings in his plays, taking them as points of departure while weaving new fantasies around them. They are most successful when they are most radical, seeking not to provide audiences with a half-baked mish-mash of past and present but treating the original texts with the same kind of creative daring with which Shakespeare transformed the legends of King Lear and Hamlet, the histories of Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra, and the romance stories of As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. His plays not only derive from the art of the past, they have come to be used as sources for the art of the present.

In the tiny village of Aston Cantlow, where Shakespeare’s parents are likely to have married, hangs a church bell that was cast before the Battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare must have heard it. The Olympic bell that will sound for the first time at the opening of the games may well survive as long, linking the events of this summer of 2012 with a future that is as unimaginable to us as our time was to Shakespeare.

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‘Music to hear’: Shakespeare and Rufus Wainwright //

To go into the Barbican concert hall and see the full forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra ranged in tiers before you is to see a splendid sight. The auditorium, shaped like a great oyster shell, resembles that of The Olivier Theatre at The National. In both, visibility is excellent from any part of the house. The platform protrudes only slightly – it’s adjustable, I believe – so no members of the audience are disadvantaged by being too far to the side of the performers. The acoustics are splendid too.

Almost all the music in the performance I went to see and hear on Sunday had been inspired by Shakespeare. The Jewish Viennese composer Erich Korngold made most of his money and achieved his greatest fame after emigrating to America in 1938. There he embarked on an immensely successful career as a film composer, most famously for The Sea Hawk (1940), starring Errol Flynn. He also wrote much other music including a fine violin concerto which is often heard in the concert hall. But the Shakespeare music played in the concert I attended was composed when he was only in his early twenties.

Korngold had developed a passion for Shakespeare as a boy, and he composed incidental music for performances of Much Ado About Nothing when he was little more than twenty years old. It’s often played in an arrangement for violin and piano. Colourful, melodious, appropriately theatrical, it’s marvellously well suited to the play. Indeed I remember playing a movement from it to a friend without telling him anything about it and asking him which Shakespeare character it reminded him of. ‘Dogberry’, he said, after a few moments’ thought, and indeed Dogberry is the character whom Korngold was attempting, clearly with great success, to portray in musical terms.

After this came a selection from the far more angular and acerbic music that Serge Prokoviev wrote for a ballet based on Romeo and Juliet. It’s wonderfully vigorous music, also like Korngold’s vividly suggestive of the characters and event of the play. To see rather than simply to hear it performed adds an extra dimension to the experience. The young, highly promising conductor Rory MacDonald was immensely expressive and authoritative in his gestures, and the timpanist really had a ball, bashing away ferociously with both arms flailing in the music’s many percussive stretches.

Even though the evening’s programme centred on Shakespeare it must be admitted that this was not the attraction that caused tickets for the event, which was broadcast live on the radio, to be sold out almost as soon as it was advertised. After the interval, exceptionally, the voice of the announcer Petroc Trelawny filled the hall as he heralded the arrival on stage of Rufus Wainwright.

For some years now this popular and talented singer and composer has been performing and recording his own settings of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The entire second part of this concert was made up of only five of them, which seemed as if it could be short measure. But in the event it made an excellent climax to the evening.

I knew Rufus’s settings of some of the poems in their versions for voice and piano. But here he sang them with full orchestral accompaniment. And in addition each sonnet was read in advance by Sian Phillips, speaking with exemplary clarity and rhythmic sensitivity. I was especially interested by an unexpected emphasis in Sonnet 20, the one that begins ‘A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion.’ I have always taken the words ‘as is false women’s fashion’ to imply, misogynistically, that all women are false. But by the way Sian Phillips inflected ‘false’ she suggested that the poet was referring not to the whole of the sex but only to those members of it who are false.

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets do not lend themselves easily to musical setting. Indeed over the centuries, though the songs in the plays have inspired great settings by a wide range of composers, there have been few memorable songs based on the sonnets. They are so densely written, so finely nuanced, that music can add little to their effect. Perhaps this is why Rufus Wainwright felt that it would be helpful for us to hear them spoken in advance of his performances. But he sang them plangently, sometimes dramatically, deploying the full range of a voice which at times ascends almost into the range of the counter tenor but is capable also of declamatory impact. This was a star performance and it has to be said that in the end the evening’s star was Rufus, not Shakespeare.

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