Romeo and Juliet at The Old Globe

The Old Globe, in partnership with University of San Diego, offers the Shiley Graduate Theatre Program, a two-year MFA course in classical theatre. It admits only seven students per year, selected from applicants nationwide. This was the first time I’ve seen an MFA performance at The Old Globe.

The Old Globe is a campus of three theatres. Romeo and Juliet was performed in the most intimate of them, the in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. The closeness to the actors added to the sense of immediacy as the play unfurled rapidly almost within arm’s reach.

I liked the way the play was divided, with a boisterous, joyfully bawdy first half and a second half heavy with foreboding. The intermission came at the announcement of Mercutio’s death offstage, a great way to stage the turning point.

Most productions set up Mercutio and Tybalt as opposites: a funny, street-wise Mercutio facing off against an icy, ornately cultured Tybalt. This one offered a refreshing change: Mercutio and Tybalt were paired punks, a smoldering love/hate coupling emphasized by Tybalt being a tattooed young woman. They danced with each other, erotically, at the Capulet’s party, a heated reflection of Romeo and Juliet.

But if Mercutio and Tybalt echoed each other in dress and behavior, their weapons were characteristically unique: Mercutio wielded a katana, Tybalt a matched pair of long daggers. The pivotal duel was a gleeful, sexually charged power play on both sides until Romeo got in the way. Mercutio’s death seemed accidental, with Tybalt looking on in horror before fleeing. As the lights closed the first half, there hung in my thoughts a hint of edgeplay gone terribly wrong. And, as the second half opened, Tybalt returned as if going to the gallows, and her defense against Romeo’s furious attack seemed half-hearted.

Creating a Mercutio-Tybalt relationship made Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hands much more believable. I’ve always had to suspend disbelief that Tybalt, an acknowledged expert fighter, could lose to Romeo. But, if Tybalt was indeed Mercutio’s lover, her willingness to follow him in death neatly foreshadowed the deaths of the principals.

It occurs to me that I’ve spent all this time discussing Mercutio and Tybalt, and none on Romeo and Juliet. That’s because Romeo and Juliet can be little more than lovesick teenagers mooning over each other, whereas this Mercutio and Tybalt had bite. After all, which pair is more interesting, Claudio and Hero or Benedick and Beatrice? Yup, there ya go.

I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet live at least twice before, both excellent but conventional productions, and own two versions on DVD (BBC Shakespeare and Baz Luhrmann). This live production showed how performance choices can remake the story afresh. We all know the play and how it ends tragically, but the creative team managed well the trick of making me feel like everything might come out OK after all. That, I think, is the key to Shakespearean tragedy in performance: giving real glimmers of hope before it goes dark for the last time rather than an inevitable glide to black.

The Importance of Being Exton

I’ve seen a half-dozen productions of Richard II both live and (mostly) on DVD, and in most the knight Piers Exton, Richard’s killer, is swapped out for or combined with another character, most often Aumerle. I suspect two directorial motivations. First, to trim the cast. Second, to avoid having the play’s climactic Big Event occur at the hands of a character who is, at most, a silent background extra until more than half-way though Act V.

While the Exton/Aumerle swap adds a frisson of betrayal at the end, it’s a betrayal that to me usually rings hollow. Moreover, it misses two key points that I think are central to the play.

First, that threats to political stability don’t always come from major political players. While Henry Bolingbroke occupies most of the play’s – and Richard’s – attention, Bolingbroke doesn’t so much threaten the existing political order as represent its continuation. Even the dynastic line remains unbroken. Bolingbroke, arguably already heir to the throne, deposes. But Exton, a nobody out of nowhere, disposes.

Historically, a young Richard II faced down the Peasant’s Revolt, an uprising of relative sociopolitical nonentities who were treated as such – and worse – as soon as they were deceived and crushed. Having a minor character kill Richard both echoes and closes that earlier revolt.

Second – and, as a writer today I think this is the more-important point – Richard’s death at Exton’s hands shines a spotlight on the underbelly of political dialogue. It demonstrates how idle comments that may have been made by influencers (the audience has only Exton’s recollection, after all), including leaders but also including, oh, playwrights, can provoke unwanted violence from unexpected quarters. Exton’s importance lies in his unimportance.

Bolingbroke himself identifies this tremendous power very early in the play: “Four lagging winters and four wanton springs/End in a word; such is the breath of kings.” (1.3.214-215)

I don’t think these are especially prescient points for Shakespeare to have made. After all, politics has been going on for a long, long time, and the fundamental issues are simply evergreen. But each generation discovers the truths anew for itself.

The hero of The Merchant of Venice

I actively dislike The Merchant of Venice. That it provokes in me such a strong reaction is a testament to Shakespeare’s brilliance as a playwright.

Thing is, I find the characters repulsive and the way they behave indefensible. Antonio is a self-important racist so hardened that slurs and derogatory treatment of others are second nature. Shylock is a bitter, grasping zealot who drives away his daughter and would publicly torture a man to death. Bassanio and Lorenzo are ignorant gold-diggers. Gratiano is a party-hearty bully. Jessica is a thieving spendthrift. Portia is a heartless, hypocritical, selfish deceiver who breaks the law to serve her own ends, with Nerissa as her eager accomplice.

Now, by “hero” I don’t mean “title character.” I’m pretty sure Shakespeare meant the titular merchant to be Antonio; he’s the main character, the one at greatest risk. Story-wise, Bassanio and Shylock are merely the means to place Antonio in danger and Portia the means to save him.

At the same time, we’re all creative enough to fight our corners for any of the characters. I might place my stake on Portia as being worthiest of the title, because she sells the biggest bill: the lives of three men, Antonio, Shylock, and Bassanio, with a little of Gratiano and Nerissa and Lorenzo and Jessica thrown in for good measure, all while branding herself as “good.”

But that doesn’t make her a hero in my book.

However, it finally occurred to me that there is one character in The Merchant of Venice I quite like. It’s Launcelot Gobbo’s father, Old Gobbo.

Old Gobbo’s story mirrors Antonio’s. Like Antonio, he has a deep love for a dependent who needs his help to reach a better place in life. Unlike Antonio, he’s old, poor, and blind. But Old Gobbo manages to help his son attain his goal through heartfelt, direct action – the dish of doves, by the way, unlike Antonio’s cash, is just one element of his plan – all without bringing disaster on his head. His success is singularly untainted.

Furthermore, Old Gobbo doesn’t even mention the trick his son plays on him. Instead, he’s full of a father’s love, just happy to be with his son and happy to be helpful.

In all the ways that really matter, I think Old Gobbo is the real hero of The Merchant of Venice.

Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon as a Zen parable

I love Joseph Conrad’s work, but came to his novella Typhoon only about a dozen years ago. I instantly recognized it as an extended Zen parable, which just as instantly struck me as an odd thing for Conrad. I turned to the library and the web to learn more.

It turns out that I may be the only person on the planet to believe Typhoon has anything to do with Zen. Conrad’s faith, of which he was skeptical, appears to have been rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And, of course, the novella Typhoon is based on a real event.

On the other hand, as a sailor Conrad spent time in and around Southeast Asia. As a writer, he occasionally refers to Eastern philosophy. In Amy Foster, for instance, Mr. Swaffer asks Dr. Kennedy if the ragged, incomprehensible man who washed up on their shores might be “a bit of a Hindoo,” and in Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes Marlow as having “. . . the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus flower . . . ” It’s perhaps worth noting that Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, the same year Conrad started writing Typhoon.

Multiple readings haven’t altered my opinion: Typhoon is a great Zen story, all the greater if it was achieved unknowingly.note*

Here’s a five-sentence summary of Typhoon. Captain MacWhirr of the steamer s/s Nan-Shan is a stolid, unimaginative man and a source of amusement for his young chief mate, Jukes, and his chief engineer, Solomon Rout. While on a routine trip carrying cargo that includes 200 homeward-bound Chinese laborers, signs of an impending storm prompt Jukes to suggest altering course to dodge it. MacWhirr, though, sees no benefit in dodging weather – the storm’s location can’t be pinpointed and once course is changed it’s impossible to confirm the storm’s presence on the original track. He maintains the ship’s heading and runs smack into the typhoon. He persists, however, meeting an extraordinary situation with ordinary competence, and the ship, with all hands, including the Chinese passengers, survives to limp into port.

On the face of it, Typhoon is the story of one man’s will (and by extension, man’s will) overcoming the vastly superior forces of nature.

But, as I said, I see more to it than that.

The very title, Typhoon, is Eastern in origin. It comes from the Chinese dai-fung, meaning “big wind.” So, not only is the title a spoiler – the reader knows from the beginning that the ship and crew will encounter a specific maritime disaster – it also establishes place. As an aside, my Japanese grandfather believed it was a good sign when a baby slept with its legs and arms spread wide. It was dai, or “big,” because the Chinese character, and the Japanese character based on it, resembles a small person with arms and legs outstretched. In context, that particular word “big” encompassed robust health and great good fortune. So, although an English speaker might find ominous the obvious homonym for dai, an Eastern speaker might find more-positive associations.

Typhoon‘s first sentence tells us about the captain.
Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled.

I was immediately struck by the idea that MacWhirr is the human equivalent of the Taoist “uncarved block,” or a thing in its simplest, most-natural state.

This impression was powerfully reinforced in the next paragraph, in which MacWhirr is described as sitting “sunburnt and smiling faintly, with downcast eyes.” The image of a Buddha is underlined by his partial resemblance to a polished bronze idol: “. . . no matter how close he shaved, fiery metallic gleams passed, when he moved his head, over the surface of his cheeks.”

MacWhirr’s professional abilities reveal something akin to a nearness to nature, or, perhaps more accurately, to things as they really are. For instance, he reveals a faulty door lock with no fuss or even evidence that the omniscient narrator can share; it’s an incident of transcendental, yet pragmatic, awareness. His ship is “the floating abode of harmony and peace.” And, he blandly understands the language of the sea, forgoing his cabin to live on the bridge and sleep in the chart room on this particular voyage.

Furthermore, MacWhirr’s decision to not alter course could be seen as being in keeping with the Zen concept of not changing with the changes. There’s a concise explanation of this idea in Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness (1994) by Tsai Chih Chung and translated by Brian Bruya, pp. 73-74.
In changing with the changes, the more we chase the farther away we get. Meet the changes by not changing, for the number of ways to change is limited, while the number of ways to stay the same is infinite.

In other words, we don’t know where the typhoon is or where it will be in the future. So, any spot in the area is about as safe – and as dangerous – as any other. Here’s MacWhirr trying to enlighten his chief mate:
A gale is a gale, Mr. Jukes,” resumed the Captain, “and a full-powered steamship has got to face it. There’s just so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it . . .”

MacWhirr’s chief mate, Jukes, could be seen as a novitiate. He is an educated, competent officer and, to a large extent, Conrad’s alter ego. The chief engineer, Solomon (loaded name, that) Rout, represents a worldly wisdom, rooted in reality but with the intellectual distance to be amused in turns by both MacWhirr and Jukes. The ugly, ape-like boatswain might be an easy-going idiot, but he does his job well – he, like MacWhirr, may be closer to Zen than the others. The grubby freelance second mate may be the most imaginative, prescient person aboard; no wonder he loses his way in the crisis.

Yet, if MacWhirr is close to the sea and may be well on a path toward some sort of enlightenment, he’s also untested.
The sea itself, as if sharing Mr. Jukes’ good-natured forbearance, had never put itself out to startle the silent man . . . Dirty weather he had known, of course. He had been made wet, uncomfortable, tired in the usual way, felt at the time and presently forgotten. . . . But he had never been given a glimpse of immeasurable strength and of immoderate wrath . . . the wrath and fury of the passionate sea. He knew it existed, as we know that crime and abominations exist; he had heard of it as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines, and floods, and yet knows nothing of what those things mean . . . Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror.

Here we have the pre-crisis Captain MacWhirr. To the Western mind, including that of the author, he’s ignorant. To the Eastern mind, he lets the past go, and he has something of the know-nothing mind. Either way, the universe has a test for him: the typhoon. It would overwhelm the merely ignorant. But, like a student of Zen, MacWhirr’s letting go of the past holds fast the lessons of the past; his know-nothingness is rooted in vast experience and practical know-how.

In addition, MacWhirr embodies the paradox of wei wu wei: the ability to do without doing. Look, for example, at how MacWhirr’s characteristic inertness is repeatedly described: almost always coupled to positive outcomes such as his crew’s harmonious existence, or the profound relief felt by his chief mate upon his mere presence on the bridge.

And indeed in the moments following the storm hitting, MacWhirr is a man of invisibly decisive action. While his second mate is paralyzed by fear and his deck crew mills around under cover, MacWhirr, with the assistance of a stoic helmsman in the wheelhouse and frenzied engineers below decks, manages his ship’s heading to minimize the storm’s threat and maximize the effects of his own meager resources. He then, methodically, turns his attention to his deck crew, sending officers to roust them and put them to work securing the pandemonious Chinese laborers and their belongings. It’s a mission that strikes Jukes, a man of imagination, as a futile exercise, but MacWhirr is undeterred.

MacWhirr’s calm spreads through the crew. Jukes, harboring a fatalistic belief that he won’t live through the typhoon, remains steadfast in a state of what Conrad calls “do-nothing heroics.” The rest of the crew’s beliefs are unexplored; instead, their actions demonstrate the re-emergence of order. The ape-like boatswain manhandles objects and people into compliance. The ship’s carpenter silently retrieves ropes with which to rig lifelines. Only the second mate is left gibbering on the wheelhouse floor, relieved of his duties by MacWhirr.

Jukes’ journey, in contrast, is one of facing the inability of imagination and knowledge to adequately grasp the situation as it is. At the first whiff of danger, he springs into action with alacrity and professionalism. However, with the typhoon descending on him and his ship, Jukes finds himself saddled with “an inclination to disbelieve the reality of this experience. . . . (he) had never doubted his ability to imagine the worst; but this was so much beyond his powers of fancy that it appeared incompatible with the existence of any ship whatever.”

Desperate, Jukes turns to an unknowable force beyond nature: “My God! My God! My God! My God!”

The maelstrom tumbles him into MacWhirr, an island of solidity on the bridge, and in that moment more solid, and more useful, than the fixed cast iron fittings.

As always, MacWhirr deals pragmatically with things as they are, not things as they might be, a characteristic that seems to extend even to the concept of a deity; it’s worth noting that Conrad never has MacWhirr calling on supernatural assistance. Instead, his faith lies in his ship’s builders, the engines, chief engineer Rout, and chief mate Jukes. Upon being told that the lifeboats have been swept overboard, MacWhirr’s response is a calm “All right. . . . Can’t be helped.”

By the way, “can’t be helped” is embedded deep in Japanese culture as “Shikata ga nai.” It looks to Western eyes like a form of stoicism, but what it is, is an acceptance of things beyond one’s control. That nuance is often overlooked: shikata ga nai is not a surrender, it’s a letting go that enables one to get on with it, whatever “it” might be at that moment. It’s a tool that helps one practice mindfulness. There’s a closely related Zen teaching to the effect that the main cause of suffering, is not accepting things as they are.

The difference between MacWhirr and Jukes, between pragmatism and intellectualism, can be summed up in a single exchange between them, shouted over the shrieking hurricane while locked in a tight embrace for dear life. Jukes shouts “Will she get through this?” MacWhirr answers, “She may.”

Jukes has the mental vividness to conjure up a vast range of hypothetical outcomes, to which MacWhirr responds with simple reality.

Later, in the stillness of the eye of the hurricane with the second half of the storm fast approaching, MacWhirr attempts to impart to Jukes some final bits of wisdom. They are as good a Zen story-lesson as anything else.
It will be bad, and there’s an end. … We must trust her to go through it and come out on the other side. That’s plain and straight. . . . She will be smothered and swept again for hours,” mumbled the Captain. “There’s not much left by this time above deck for the sea to take away – unless you or me.”

Both, sir,” whispered Jukes, breathlessly.

You are always meeting trouble halfway, Jukes,” Captain MacWhirr remonstrated quaintly. “Though, it’s a fact that the second mate is no good. D’ye hear, Mr. Jukes? You would be left alone if . . . “

Captain MacWhirr interrupted himself and Jukes, glancing on all sides, remained silent.

Don’t you be put out by anything,” the Captain continued, mumbling rather fast. “Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That’s enough for any man. Keep a cool head.”

Everyone makes it, of course.

So, should MacWhirr have changed course? The absence of evidence reinforces the Zen teaching: one simply can’t say.

In the end, though, Jukes – and, by extension, perhaps Conrad himself – doesn’t get it. Jukes writes to a friend about Captain MacWhirr and the typhoon, saying, “I think he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.”

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu (1963, translated by D.C. Lau, p. 73) writes about leadership in Book One, XVII: “The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. . . Hesitant, he does not utter his words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’”

MacWhirr is, by that standard, the best of all captains. And, perhaps because the expected hero in the Western tradition, Jukes, so thoroughly misses the point as seen from an Eastern perspective, Typhoon may be among the best of all modern Zen literature.

What is the point of Zen enlightenment? Nothing (Chung and Bruya, p. 19.) What was the point of the typhoon? Nothing.

I’ll let Joseph Conrad have the final word here, from a letter to Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, quoted in Joseph Conrad: A Biography (1991) by Jeffrey Meyers, p. 166.
Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow. . . . In this world – as I have known it – we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause, or of guilt. . . . A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains – but a clod of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.

* An alternative explanation is that, being a man with rudimentary knowledge of a hammer, everything I see is a nail. A more theological argument might be that certain concepts of Zen philosophy, being universal, quite naturally exist within the Western tradition by other names, and vice versa. Go back up

International Women’s Day: Favorite female characters from Shakespeare

On Twitter today, Shakespeare’s Globe (@The_Globe) asked users to name their favorite women from Shakespeare’s plays. I answered there (follow me at @MidLifeLit), but wanted to expand on my answers a bit.

The first fictional woman that really whacked me over the head was Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, in a college class on Medieval Literature. Mercenary, earthy, domineering except with husbands she truly loved, the Wife of Bath – and The Canterbury Tales, and Dr. Urania C. Petalas – really fired up my interest in literature.

When I read Chaucer now, and it’s a struggle, I can still see Dr. Petalas leaning an elbow on a battered podium, answering wide-eyed inquiries about Middle English. In response to a young woman’s question about whether “queynte” meant “quaint,” as in old-fashioned, she leaned forward, looked her student full in the face, and enunciated: “It’s. Her. Genitalia.” By the way, it also means “clever,” so, as Benedick says, there’s a double meaning in that.

Anyways, that class, that book, and that character were my first clues that human relationships weren’t so different 600 years ago, my first hint that there was altogether more to literature than what junior high and high school teachers were prepared to go into.

Moving on to Shakespeare, the history plays hold one of my all-time favorite fictional women: Margaret, in Henry VI, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Richard III. I think of this set as the Margaret Tetralogy, in which we see her grow from a frightened, virginal prisoner-of-war to a fierce warrior and political player in her own right. She’s savvy, far-sighted, independent, and absolutely determined. I’m strongly influenced by Julia Foster’s astonishing portrayal in the BBC TV Shakespeare series, which, to me, still stands alone amid a sea of extraordinary portrayals.

In the tragedies my favorite (so far) is Cordelia from King Lear. She’s uncompromising: a young, female version of Lear, but with more heart. And that heart makes her a much stronger person than Lear, or his other daughters. When the need arises, she’s also a warrior queen and a good leader. She dies at the end, yes – it’s a tragedy after all – but she triumphs over everyone, including Lear and her sisters.

From the comedies, I especially like Anne Page from The Merry Wives of Windsor. She’s independent-minded but truly gracious (a rare quality in Shakespeare’s characters), even conversing pleasantly with the absurd Slender. Despite interference from just about every character in the play except Falstaff (an exception I find funny in itself), she firmly holds her own and outmaneuvers everyone to get what she wants. It’s commonly played that Mistresses Ford and Page are the big protagonists/winners, but Anne tops them all.

Do you have a favorite female character from Shakespeare? There are certainly plenty to choose from!