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!