Sunday Retrospective ~ January 27th 2019

I’ve spent most of this week immersed in Shakespeare. The group I’m teaching is just coming to the end of a sequence of sessions on King Lear, one of my favourite plays.  We’ve been looking at the production history and as you might imagine there have been more than a few stagings to consider. However, there have been a couple of periods when it has been absent from the stage.  In 1810 it was banned because it was thought that audiences would draw a parallel between Lear’s madness and that of George III.  When the King died in 1820 producers fell over themselves to be the first to stage it again.  Then, it fell out of favour at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries after Henry Irving flopped in the part.  I find it fascinating that one man could so dominate the theatre scene that his failure in a role could see it ignored for eighteen years.  Presumably there had to be something wrong with the play itself if Irving was unable to rise to its demands.

Of course, for most of the period between 1681 and the middle of the nineteenth century it wasn’t so much Shakespeare’s version of the Lear story that was staged as the adaptation made by Nahum Tate, probably the most well-known of the many ‘re-writes’ of Shakespeare’s play’s that graced eighteenth and nineteenth century theatres. Among many other changes Tate is best known for his alteration of the ending.  In his version both Lear and Cordelia live, Cordelia marries Edgar and they rule in her father’s stead.  Lear, Kent and Gloucester go off and live in ‘a cool cell’.  I take it that is a reference to the temperature rather than an indication that they were having a rave up every night.

So, I have enjoyed teaching King Lear.  However, my other contact with the Bard this week has been via the material I’ve been asked to tackle for the first week of an on-line course which for the opening fortnight is concentrating on one of my least favourite plays, Macbeth.  I have a theory about Macbeth.  I don’t think we have all the play as Shakespeare wrote it.  It is much shorter than any of the other tragedies, in fact I’ve seen it played without an interval in just over two hours. The only text we have is that which is in the First Folio and I suspect that all Heminges and Condell had to work with was what we would call a prompt copy, cut down to fit ‘the two hour traffic of our stage’.  By-laws meant that performances had to be over by a certain time and a four hour version of Shakespeare’s latest opus just wasn’t going to cut it. This, I think, is the reason that Macbeth as a character is so hard to make work psychologically.  He’s lost a lot of the stages in his downward spiral. What Burbage thought of having his part slashed like that, goodness only knows. Certainly, although I must have seen upwards of a dozen productions, I have only seen one that I thought successful; that was Trevor Nunn’s staging with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench and that only worked when it was in the confined area of The Other Place where a sense of claustrophobic evil could be built up.  Moved into the Main House it lost all its power. So, I have been ploughing my way through the play this week and trying, without much success, to drum up some enthusiasm for the on-line discussion that is part of the course.  Fortunately, the other plays involved are all favourites: Twelfth Night, Henry V, Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale.

All this Bardolodry has severely cut into my reading time and so the only book that I’ve completed has been Olivia Isaac-Henry’s Someone You Know, which I reviewed earlier in the week.  I’m not a thriller reader at the best of times and I don’t think that this is the best of times.  The thriller is the ‘in’ genre at the moment and as a result I rather think publishers are taking on board novels that they might otherwise have had second thoughts about. While Someone You Know is not by any means a bad book, I’m not sure it would have stuck out enough to attract attention if there weren’t a demand for this type of novel and to be honest I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t had a personal connection to the author.  I am not looking forward to my next meeting with one of the book’s dedicatees.

I do like police procedurals’ however and the more so when they are as well written as those by James Oswald.  I’ve just started the ninth in his Edinburgh series, Cold As The Grave and once I’ve whipped round everyone else’s blogs to see what they are up to I’m going to spend the rest of this wild Sunday curled up in my chair and being suitable scared by the wicked Jane Louise Dee who is back in harness again proving that unfortunately real evil is unlikely ever to be completely defeated.  I wonder if she was one of the original wyrd sisters?

Then it’s back to Shakespeare, not only for another week of Macbeth but also for a dose of The Tempest via Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed, her retelling of the play for the Hogarth series.  This is my next book group choice and if I’m honest, not one I’m looking forward to.  I have a fundamental problem with trying to rewrite Shakespeare in this way and although I know that this is reckoned to be the best of those so far published I am still very uneasy about the project.  I’m also not really a great fan of Atwood.  Oh well, maybe this will be the book that will convince me I am wrong about both Hogarth’s endeavours and the author.  Or maybe not!

21 thoughts on “Sunday Retrospective ~ January 27th 2019

  1. A Life in Books January 27, 2019 / 1:58 pm

    What an interesting post! King Lear was my A Level Shakespeare but I had no idea about the Tate version. Were audiences thought to be incapable of coping with its tragic ending, I wonder.

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    • Café Society January 27, 2019 / 2:05 pm

      It wasn’t that they were ‘thought’ not to be able to cope with the ending, they flatly refused to! Much fun was poked at Shakespeare for the number of dead bodies that littered the stage at the end of each of the tragedies and even though several of the great actor managers of the eighteenth century tried to restore the ending so that they could have their big scene over Cordelia’s body the productions flopped and they failed to break even. Later, of course, you had to deal with Victorian sensibilities and even though the ending was restored the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are put out (and I could regale you with some horror stories about how that has been done!) was still being omitted as late as 1892.

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      • A Life in Books January 27, 2019 / 2:13 pm

        Twentieth-century audiences seem to have been made of sterner stuff, then, and of course now we’re primed by the horrors of TV crime drama!

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  2. Jeanne January 27, 2019 / 3:35 pm

    I agree with your theory about Macbeth; that makes a lot of sense.
    I enjoyed reading Hagseed, so maybe you will find some enjoyment in it too.

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    • Café Society January 27, 2019 / 3:43 pm

      I hope so, Jeanne. I hate going into a book group discussion where I feel I need to be negative especially when it is someone else’s choice I am being critical of.

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  3. Desperate Reader January 27, 2019 / 4:05 pm

    The thing I’d like to see explored in Macbeth (it hasn’t been in the couple of productions I’ve seen) is his childlessness. The lack of an heir seems topical for the time it was written, and makes Lady Macbeths speech about infants more interesting, and makes a kind of sense out of his downward spiral too.

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    • Café Society January 27, 2019 / 4:15 pm

      Coincidentally, that is something I brought up on our discussion board this morning. Not so much the childlessness of the Macbeths but the question of an heir. Historically speaking the play is set at a period when the succession was moving from being to the strongest individual, the one who could lead the kingdom in war to primogeniture. I think you can argue that as long as Macbeth thinks he might follow Duncan as the obvious choice for next king he is content to let the role come to him as Cawdor has. It is Duncan’s naming of Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland and his heir that tips him into taking agency. You’re right that the issue of succession had been a problem in England for decades and the issue peppers the later Elizabethan plays, (although not always obviously; it wasn’t something you raised in Elizabeth’s hearing) but by the time Macbeth hits the stage James is on the throne and he has two living sons so perhaps not quite the immediate concern it had been.

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  4. Helen January 27, 2019 / 8:59 pm

    I really enjoyed Hagseed when I read it last year, although I don’t have the knowledge and background in Shakespeare that you do, which probably makes a difference (and I also tend to like Margaret Atwood). It should be an interesting book to discuss with a group anyway, as it has a lot of layers and is more than a simple retelling.

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    • Café Society January 27, 2019 / 9:06 pm

      The one thing I’m sure of, Helen, is that Atwood will have done a thoroughly professional job and that we will have something to discuss. Some of the books have been nothing more than an exercise to keep the publisher happy.

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  5. Jenny @ Reading the End January 28, 2019 / 1:56 am

    Oh, that’s really interesting about Macbeth being the abridged version. I will now spend the rest of my life being maddened that we do not have access to an uncut version. :p Anyway, it’s my favorite of the tragedies. So many good lines and I adore Lady Macbeth.

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    • Café Society January 29, 2019 / 1:47 pm

      Yes, it’s maddening to think what we might have had, isn’t it? There is even the likelihood that some of what is there is by Middleton rather than Shakespeare, which is even more galling.

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  6. Liz January 28, 2019 / 12:27 pm

    This is such an interesting post. I have over the years tried very hard to ‘get into’ Shakespeare with minimal success, but will keep trying. My least favourite play is The Tempest, so I have shied away from Hagseed. But the thought of Anthony Hopkins in pretty much anything sounds good, so I will definitely seek out King Lear and perhaps even have another go at reading it, you never know!

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    • Café Society January 29, 2019 / 1:48 pm

      If you can get hold of a copy, Liz, try the RSC’s version of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Not the most popular of plays, but this was a really excellent production which had audiences on their feet cheering every night.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Liz January 29, 2019 / 9:37 pm

        Thanks Ann – I will have a hunt around. 🙂

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  7. BookerTalk January 28, 2019 / 2:39 pm

    A very credible theory about Macbeth. It would also explain the sudden leap from his encounter with the witches who give him an idea and the meeting with his wife where his mbiruon as moved on so much it seems a done deal he will kill the king. Most odd.

    What’s the course? One of the Mooc options?

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    • Café Society January 29, 2019 / 1:51 pm

      Yes, I have, as I said, only ever seen McKellen bring that off. The course is with Oxford University. Expensive but so far I think worth while. I’ll tell,you more when it’s over. I really want to do some of their art history and history course but thought I would start with something where I was comfortable with the subject matter.

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      • BookerTalk January 29, 2019 / 2:34 pm

        Was that the version where the witches were under the table as Macbeth and Lady M were eating? I saw a clip of it on You Tube and it was the most creepy version of the witches I’ve ever seen

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      • Café Society February 4, 2019 / 4:24 pm

        Certainly not when It was in The Other Place. The only props were beer crates. It might have been when it transfered to the main house.

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      • BookerTalk February 4, 2019 / 9:48 pm

        I’ll have to dig around on You Tube to find the clip and see if that has any clues

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  8. Cathy746books January 28, 2019 / 8:51 pm

    I like your theory about Macbeth, it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays but your take makes sense!

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    • Café Society January 29, 2019 / 1:52 pm

      Thanks Cathy. It isn’t one I’ve heard elsewhere but it is the only way I can make sense of the rapid shift in Macbeth’s move towards the killing.

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