Sunday, June 19, 2016

Talks about Shakespeare in 1960

     B. A. W. Jackson, ed. Stratford Papers on Shakespeare (1960) Given at the Shakespeare Seminar organised by McMaster University’s Extension Department. I don’t know if the experiment was repeated. The participants are listed, almost all of them are women. Teachers mostly, I would guess. I think they got their money’s worth.
C. J. Sisson (in his day a noted Shakespearean) discussed King John as an Elizabethan history play, outlining Shakespeare’s selections from Holinshed’s Chronicles and arguing that the play amounted to propaganda for the Tudors. Of course. King John has always, I think, mattered more as propaganda than as history. Sisson reminds us that the modern veneration of Magna Carta would have made no sense to Elizabeth. I’d go a step further: anyone suggesting a modern interpretation of it would have risked losing his head.
     John Cook gives some apposite and cogent remarks on music in Shakespeare, using his experience as a theatre composer to explain how Elizabethan players used music, and to argue that modern productions need modern music. Agreed. His slighting references to movie music betray a blind spot: movies aren’t theatre in another medium, so music plays a somewhat different role.
     RCMP Sgt R. A. Huber, an expert in forensic handwriting analysis, gives a cautious “probably Shakespeare” as his verdict on who wrote the extant manuscript pages of The Boke of Sir Thomas More. Sisson’s afterword adduces content and style as support for what he regards as a clinching argument that we do indeed see Shakespeare at work here. I don’t know enough to either agree or disagree with his conclusions, so will stick with Huber’s “probably”.
    In Shakespeare the Writer, Sisson presents a rather too bardolatrous study of Shakespeare’s lost years, arguing that he must have been writing scripts for quite some time before envious rivals bothered noticing him as an upstart shakescene, a valid and important point. He traces Shakespeare’s development as a writer and dramatist, arguing that Shakespeare’s plays increasingly were about character: Hamlet is about Hamlet, he says. True enough, but that’s not enough. Hamlet’s despairing The time is out of joint, O cursed spite that ever I was born to put it right announces the theme of the play. It’s the disconnect between Hamlet’s sense of himself and of his times that’s kept the play relevant for four hundred years. It is indeed “about” something, the alienation caused by an increasingly human-constructed world.
     I’ve seen many Shakespeare plays more than once (Hamlet at least 12 times on stage and screen), so I found Robertson Davies’s after-dinner talk the most congenial. He says that he’s enjoyed Shakespeare more the more plays he’s seen and the more often he’s seen them. Exactly. Sisson’s treatment of the plays as literature tends to misss the point: they’re scripts, and a script must be acted just as a score must be played.
     An uneven but interesting collection. Out of print, but if you like Shakespeare, it’s worth looking for. ** to ****

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