Bargain Shakespeare From eBay

Shakespeare videos

A couple weeks ago, eBay offered a rare site-wide 20% off coupon. So, I shopped for Shakespeare. I was hoping for a Norton Third Edition in four volumes, but instead filled my cart with used DVDs.

I bought The Merchant of Venice, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings, all for about $20 after the coupon.

I’ve seen this 2004 production of The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock, and feel it’s well worth owning. As I recall, Jeremy Irons is superb in the thankless role of the titular merchant, and the backdrop of ethnic venom is horrifyingly current. It’s also worthwhile for Mackenzie Crook’s kindlier Launcelot Gobbo. I have said in the past that I dislike this play, but it’s grown on me, perhaps because of its increasing social relevance. It’s a dystopian play for dystopian times.

As for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), I saw this show live more than 30 years ago and remember enjoying it. I’ve studied and seen a lot more Shakespeare since then, so it may be even funnier to me now.

Which brings me to the BBC’s landmark 1960 series Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings. This 5-DVD set was on my Amazon wish list for some time, so to find it used for a third the price was a happy score. I’ve come to love the history plays. They combine high stakes, complex relationships, and acute observations of human behavior with a dash of real events. I once watched all the BBC TV Shakespeare history plays in order, an epic experience I’m eager to repeat because it was so rewarding. Age of Kings is nearly as epic, with 15 60-minute episodes, each adapting roughly half of one of the history plays from Richard II to Richard III. It covers nearly 90 years and seven kings (although only five get a full treatment from Shakespeare). I’m partway through Henry IV. So far, although I’m occasionally distracted by the mid-century style of Shakespearean acting, I’m also quite satisfied with the editorial choices.

In all, some great ways to veg out with Shakespeare on a hot summer afternoon!

Globe for All Twelfth Night

Every year, as part of its relatively new Globe for All program, The Old Globe performs a Shakespeare play for free at various community venues. Twelfth Night is the third Globe for All performance our family has seen.

The venue we attend, at the San Diego Central Library, uses the Shiley Special Events Suite on the 9th floor – the roof – of the downtown library. This floor is set up as a miniature campus, with individual buildings set in a open rooftop space. The Shiley Special Events Suite is a standalone structure with a back-of-the-house catering area fronted by a soaring open space with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views and lashings of natural afternoon light.

Because the performances use community spaces, the staging is created around the absence of a stage in the traditional sense. At the Central Library, the stage was set square in the middle of the room with rows of chairs on each of the four faces. Each corner was left open for entrances and exits. Props were arrayed on tables on three sides, with the fourth side having the prompt/call book, and all the costuming and prep took place in full view of the audience, although behind the opposite bank of seats.

Before the show started, the play’s director took the stage to do a quick warm-up/survey of the audience, including some fun audience participation bits to get people into the swing of Shakespearean language in performance.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Twelfth Night, here’s a six-sentence version. Viola and Sebastian are twins of minor nobility, indistinguishable except that one is a woman and one is a man. They are separated in a shipwreck in which each thinks the other has died. Stranded in a hostile country, Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario and enters the service of the local Duke Orsino, who uses Cesario to deliver messages of love to Olivia, a local countess. Olivia refuses Orsino, but falls in love with Cesario, which is bad because not only is Cesario in fact Viola, but Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. A major subplot involves the gulling of Olivia’s arrogant steward Malvolio by her chambermaid and houseguests. Unbeknownst to anyone, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian arrives in town and much chaos ensures before the twins are reunited and the couples sort themselves into traditionally gender-appropriate pairs.

The play was done in modern dress, but the text was Shakespeare’s. The set was simple: two chaise longues with an elaborate drinks cart between them, a slightly extravagant patio chair, a brace of potted plants, a floor mat indicating water, and another floor mat indicating a boardwalk or perhaps a dock. Illyria was set on the U.S./Mexico border, a trenchant update.

To emphasize the bicultural nature of the story, several lines were spoken in Spanish, some throw-away lines and other key lines that were either understood in context or essentially restated in English. The musical interludes were particularly outstanding, making full use of several performers who could play guitar and sing as well as act. A few PG-rated lines and actions were included, but they were done in ways that put them more in the potty humor class; the small children in the audience were as tickled as the adults. And, in a fun revision, the fencing duel was rendered as a boxing mismatch between a towering but cowering Sir Andrew and a petite but reluctantly game Viola/Cesario.

Because the play was performed in daylight and in the round, the action and actors were far less isolated than in conventional stagings. Audience members in the first rows found themselves made part of the play as actors interacted with them, hid behind them, ran through them, or even asked for help with a particular prop, all of which made the story come even more to life.

If there was any loss it was that the streamlined interpretation gave short shrift, in varying degrees, to secondary characters: Malvolio became more bumptious, Sir Toby Belch more depraved, Sir Andrew more vapid, and Feste more yobbish, all as suited a performance focused on Olivia and Viola’s parallel journeys to love.

The great gain, in these Globe for All performances, is that they are followed by a question-and-answer period in which the audience can engage with the actors and the play.

The Globe for All program deserves kudos for bringing live Shakespeare into the community and making it free and easy for everyone to experience. Twelfth Night continues for five more performances, including two final shows on Sunday, November 19, at The Old Globe’s rehearsal space inside Balboa Park’s House of Charm. That’s the week San Diego schools are off for Thanksgiving break, so there’s no school the next day and no excuse for not taking the kids!

My personal Shakespeare weekend

It wasn’t intentional; in fact, both were last-minute things. But, I ended up seeing seeing two of Shakespeare’s plays in one weekend. That’s not quite a festival, but it’s more than I usually get to see.

On Thursday, I learned that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be closing Sunday at San Diego City College, so I got tickets for Friday night’s performance and we made a big family night out of it. Although I’ve seen a few productions on DVD and streaming, this was my first time seeing it live.

The production set the action in a wharfside New York alley circa 1953. Theseus was the CEO of the slightly seedy Athens Insurance Company, and Oberon and Titania beatnik leaders. “The Boy” was an encyclopedia of beatnik knowledge.  Few other changes were needed: Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius remained establishment youths; Puck retained his mysterious, magical qualities; the rude mechanicals remained solidly working class.

The cast of mostly young theater students was energetic, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Any scholarly Shakespearean depth that was diffused in delivery was more than made up for in sheer joie de vivre. It’s a fun play, and fun is the way to play it.

The set design was exceptional for its detail and depth, and the director encouraged everyone to take pictures of the stage and post them online as part of the theater department’s promotional efforts. I especially liked the wire-frame donkey’s head fitted to Bottom, which conveyed the right impression while allowing the audience to see Bottom’s facial expressions. Theseus/Oberon was doubled but Hippolyta and Titania were played by different young women, which lent a frisson of infidelity to the alpha male/s. Jazz music and dance numbers rounded out a thoroughly entertaining performance. Well roar’d, well run, well shone, and well played San Diego City College cast and crew!

Then I found out that Sunday was the final day of on-demand streaming of Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, a recorded livestream from the Barbican Centre in London. So, Sunday afternoon I settled down to watch. I’d seen it live at The Old Globe a few years ago.

Cheek by Jowl delivered a minimalist, yet exquisitely engineered stage on which performances simmered to explosion. In a stroke of genius, Leontes’ son and heir Mamillius was played as a precocious child perhaps on the autism spectrum, which seemed connected to Leontes’ inexplicably intractable delusion and later unyielding self-abuse. Leontes’ own position on that same spectrum was the neatest explanation I’ve seen for his behavior. Another sweet twist: the appearance of Polixenes and Camillo in disguise at the sheep-shearing festivities in Bohemia was echoed by the doubling of Hermione/Dorcas and Paulina/Mopsa.

While the live audience stretched their legs for the interval, the recorded livestream had an interview with the founders and directors of Cheek by Jowl, Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan. One key takeaway came from Nick Ormerod, talking about the minimalism of the set (in stark contrast to the City College production): “The essence of the theatre is in the imagination of the audience.”

And here’s rather longer excerpt from Donnellan, about Shakespeare’s writing:

I don’t think that he was some genius who spent hours and hours and hours, sweating, sweating, sweating; it doesn’t feel like that way to me. It feels like he was somebody who wrote fast … it was intuitive. And every now and then, when there are some laborious stretches in Cymbeline, when you feel he has maybe sweated a bit over something. But it’s not very often. But at his greatest, you know, it comes burning off the page.”

This production of The Winter’s Tale came burning off the screen, a powerful show that I feel privileged to have seen.

And that was my personal Shakespeare weekend, half shared with family and the other half savored on my own. Perfect!

Much Ado About Nothing at the Coronado Playhouse

I just found this post I’d written and not posted. It’s a quickie about a stage production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Coronado Playhouse back in July.

The Coronado Playhouse has a tradition of putting on a free show every summer, usually Shakespeare. It’s funded by a grant from the City of Coronado, as well as support from patrons, sponsors, and members.

In the past, we’ve seen The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, and Hamlet. This year’s free Shakespeare play was Much Ado About Nothing.

It was performed in modern dress with a rousing pop soundtrack, set as a backyard barbecue welcoming home returning troops under the command of Major Don Pedro. In this hierarchy, Benedick and John the Bastard were captains, Claudio and Balthazar lieutenants, and Borachio and Conrade non-coms. Coronado has a rich military history, so the update added relevance.

Twists I especially liked:

  • The relationship between Dogberry and Verges was tilted; although Dogberry continued to be the superior officer, Verges was more in charge of Dogberry than vice versa.
  • Benedick had a solo dance number after being gulled into believing Beatrice loved him, which crept in organically and built up to a frenzy of exuberance, a physical “mountain of affection.”
  • When Claudio had finished eulogizing Hero and been escorted offstage, weeping, Hero entered, cast an eye over the epitaph left by Claudio, and then flashed a huge grin at the audience.
  • In a nifty sleight of hand, Claudio first planted then pulled Benedick’s attempted poem from his back pocket.

It’s always fun to see what modern directors make of old stories, and Shakespearean plays seem to lend themselves to fresh interpretations.

Thoughts on The Taming of the Shrew

My family has tickets for an upcoming performance of The Taming of the Shrew at a local community college. My teens are familiar with the story, sorta, from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which they really enjoyed.

The Taming of the Shrew is among the few Shakespeare plays I think often improve when adapted. 10 Things added to the story, while preserving its basic plot and even a few gags. A generation before, there was a wonderful episode of the detective drama/comedy Moonlighting, starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, called “Atomic Shakespeare” (1986). It’s a retelling of The Shrew as a retelling of The Shrew in a brilliantly erratic mash-up of period dress, original dialog, and anachronistic references.

On the other hand, I find Kiss Me Kate (1948, 1953), McLintock! (1963) and the first-season episode of The Saint (“The Golden Journey,” 1962) to be condescending and regressive compared to Shakespeare’s play. So I’m really looking forward to seeing what a college drama department makes of it today.

To prepare, I read the play (Riverside) and watched two versions. The first was an American direct-to-video stage production starring Karen Austin and Franklyn Seales as Katherina and Petruchio (1982, currently available free via Amazon Prime). The second was the BBC-TV version starring Sarah Badel and John Cleese (1980).

To my surprise, neither included the introductory Induction with drunken tinker Christopher Sly being fooled into thinking he’s a nobleman watching a play put on by his servants. To me, that scene sets the stage, both literally and metaphorically, for a farcical view of events unfolding in a self-aware, self-mocking performance. Without that initial set-up, the viewer is dropped into first-world events happening as realistic comedy, instead of second-world events presented as parody.

In contrast, the Moonlighting episode not only preserves the framing device, but returns to it at the end, giving the story a final dismissive fillip in a snarky parody of Alexander Pope’s additions to the Sly character. That may be why I like that version so much.

However, with what we have of Shakespeare’s play, a complete framing device is non-canonical. Often, directors opt to delete it. What remains, though, then rests on a fundamental misogyny that takes considerable interpretive effort to soften or redirect.

This, by the way, is not a modern issue. Shakespeare’s successor, John Fletcher, wrote a popular sequel called The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed, in which a widowed and remarried Petruchio finds himself on the receiving end of such treatment as he dished out, with echoes of Lysistrata, and with similar results.

Many modern interpretations turn Katherina’s submission speech at the end into a spoof of obedience, during which she indicates to the audience that she means none of it. In other words, she isn’t “tamed.” That approach, though, calls into question the central love story, and turns the play into a mere contest between con artists – in which case, if Katherina is the wittier, why marry Petruchio?

(I feel, although the story is a farce, it’s still a love story. So Katherina and Petruchio should, for the sake of the story, be struck by real, passionate love for each other at first sight.)

Of the non-adapted versions, I rather heretically think the Yankee one surpasses the British in solving the problems. The American version begins with a physical setting of the stage, and continually reminds the viewer that one is watching a farce by incorporating vaudevillian performance jokes: everyone leaning to one side every time the word “Pisa” is said, en masse sighs at every mention of Bianca, and frequent direct eye contact through the fourth wall. That establishes and maintains the action within the realm of unreality, even without the Induction.

Every generation creates its own version of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m very excited to see a fresh one in a few days!

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.

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!