All’s Well

A few weeks ago, I went to Ashland with some friends and, in what can only be described as a frenzy of playgoing, we saw — over a two day period — a musical (the Music Man), a brand new play about Shakespeare and the Bush administration (Equivocation), and a production of All’s Well That Ends Well that was terrific, but wasn’t actually the play Shakespeare wrote.

This last thing is what I want to talk about today, because I’m still turning over in my head what happened between the time Shakespeare wrote All’s Well That Ends Well and a couple weeks ago, when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged it. If all goes well, I’ll actually have a point at the end of this post, and if all doesn’t go well, at least you will know the plot of a lesser-known Shakespearean comedy, which I figure is good value, given that this is, after all, a blog.

Many people (including me) don’t know the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well. This is because it’s a comedy that’s not staged very often, probably because the plot — if believed — isn’t all that comic. Also, very few people read Shakespeare and so why should anybody know the plots of the plays, although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the closer you get to Ashland, Oregon, the less true this is. Ashland was teeming with Shakespeare groupies. Everywhere you looked, there they were, proclaiming their love of Will in t-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, hats, and key chains. In fact, so deep does bardolatry run in Ashland, that it has spawned an entire category of theater-goers, people known as “canon clickers.” A little like a train spotter, the canon clicker is unable to die until he has seen one of each — in the case of the canon clicker, that would be a performance of every play in the canon. The festival’s director received two cases of wine this year from a canon clicker because they staged Henry VIII, which is a bad play to stage, but did enable some guy to go to his grave a happy man.

Anyway, the plot. The play’s heroine is named Helena. She’s the daughter of a renowned, and lately dead, doctor. Her guardian is the countess of some French-sounding place, and the countess has a son, Bertram, who ALSO has a guardian, in this case, the King of France. So, there you have it, your lovers are clear from the get-go.

Helena loves Bertram. Bertram is an ass, and does NOT love Helena, because her father was only a doctor. (Clearly, he is not living in the United States in the present time, when doctor’s daughters in comedies generally are perceived of — or were until we elected Obama and ruined our fully functional health care system, if you believe the crazy republicans, which of course, none of us do! — as in high demand. Lots of money there, right?)

Helena is not put off by the fact that Bertram is an ass. She, it turns out, is incredibly resourceful, has made up her mind to have him, and she has a chest full of cures that were left by her father and, apparently, she hasn’t given a thought to them (although they could have cured half of France if she’d been thinking about it) until she decides she wants Bertram for her own.

The King of France, it turns out, is very, very sick. He has an illness Shakespeare calls a “fistula,” which I love because it’s very specific and really disgusting, which you too can discover simply by googling “fistula” (this is what the internet was invented to do, by the way). Anyway, Helena offers to cure the King in return for being able to choose a husband. The King agrees, is cured, and Helena picks Bertram. Bertram is not at all happy to be chosen, but he caves, in an ill-tempered way, and off he goes to the Tuscan Wars (conveniently invented by Shakespeare to allow Bertram to flounce off the stage in an Italian kind of way, and also to participate in a very funny subplot I won’t go into here). Before Bertram flounces off he taunts Helena with how much he hates her — he tells her he won’t treat her as a wife until she gets the ring from his hand and herself with child by him, which isn’t ever going to happen, so there. Now, this is classic comedic bad behavior, which we have little trouble seeing as bad behavior, although of course in real life, what’s wrong with being unhappy about an arranged marriage? But we’re led to believe by the play that Bertram is an ass, and so it’s hard to work up a head of steam about his predicament.

As I was saying, off he goes. Helena, being Helena, packs up her stuff, and goes after him. On the outskirts of Florence, she meets a lady who houses pilgrims and has a beautiful daughter named Diana and immediately offers Helena refuge. Bertram has been wooing Diana (who resists him, of course, because she’s not that kind of girl, and she knows an ass when sees one). Helena convinces Diana (well, actually, she pays her three bags of gold) to pretend to give in to Bertram’s desire to sleep with her, but only if Bertram will give her his ring. They perform what I have recently learned is a literary plot device called the “bed trick,” where a man thinks he is sleeping with one woman (usually someone he isn’t supposed to be sleeping with, like Diana) but in the dark, this woman is replaced by another woman (the one he IS supposed to sleep with, Helena). And that usually works out, believe it or not, which is because in the dark all women are alike to men, something I think might actually be sort of true.

Eventually, everyone gets back to the countess’s palace, Bertram is confronted with his caddish behavior, Helena reveals that she is pregnant and has the ring, and Bertram basically gives in and grumpily agrees to acknowledge her as his wife.

Okay, then. I defy anyone to read this play and find in it any hint of growth on Bertram’s part. He’s caddish and grumpy from beginning to end. And I sort of liked that, because really, isn’t it worth saying that we love who we love, even if they’re not always such fine fish? (Bertram is handsome, good at wars, and going to inherit a dukedom — worse men exist.) And that women will go to great lengths to get the men they have decided they love? And that men are lucky they do, because things usually turn out well for men when women look past their flaws to their better selves, which we all have, even if they aren’t on display at the moment (a truth that turns out to be equally applicable to women)? All these things are true, worth saying, and basically the point of All’s Well That Ends Well. (The title, of course, is another way of saying “the ends justify the means” — Helena’s trickery, though troubling, ends in the marriage she wants.)

So. If you are still reading, and many of you probably gave up at the fistula part, here’s the thing. In Ashland, the play was staged in such a way that you were led to believe that Bertram loved Helena from the very start, but he didn’t know it. Since this isn’t in the text, you see in the way he looks at her, and holds her hand, even, these nascent feelings of love. And we also see him changing, again through non-verbal cues, becoming ashamed of his behavior, until at the end, he behaves as though he embraces his marriage with a full heart, when really, if you read what he says on the page, his heart is hardly full. I think if Shakespeare wanted Bertram to grow and change, he would have given him and Helena a lot of lovely speeches where he does just that. The person who wanted Bertram to grow and change is the play’s director and, of course, us, the people the director staged this play to delight. (It WAS delightful, by the way.)

My point is a small one, but it is a point: apparently, the requirement that characters change and are redeemed is one that has made it impossible for this play to be what it really is. I think modern cinematic romantic comedy is responsible for this staging — in romantic comedy, the lovers who begin the film are stubborn, wrong-headed, silly, headed in the wrong direction, as romantic comedy lovers general are, and they are NEVER the same as the lovers who end the film by recognizing their true love, being chastened by their bad behavior, redeemed into being their finer selves by the power of love. Shakespeare’s point is indeed that we are redeemed by love; it’s just that he also seems to be saying that we don’t actually change that much sometimes during courtship, that love is truly blind, and yet so generous as to be given to us in spite of our churlishness and bad behavior. This is a powerful point, tricky and unattractive though it might seem at first glance. But that’s why we read Shakespeare — to have our thinking challenged, which is certainly what this play does and what this production, though an entertaining and wonderful romantic comedy, does not.

This doesn’t mean that the play wasn’t terrific — it was, featuring as it did, wonderful actors, lovely costumes, and a plot that was entertaining and interesting — it just wasn’t the All’s Well that Ends Well that Shakespeare wrote. No harm in that, in the end. It seems churlish to fault a production for not being faithful to its source, the way people get mad at movies because they’re not like the book. In the end, I was entertained for the two hours I spent in the theater, and that is more than enough for me.

Time for Everything in the World

Shakespeare wrote 12 comedies (14 if you count The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale) over the course of 16 years or so, an output that seems even more prodigious when you realize he was also turning out tragedies and histories at the same time.

There’s something about the chronological list of the plays (which I looked up because I’m spending a lot of time reading the comedies, and I keep forgetting which one I’m supposed to be on next) that I find enormously interesting.

It’s clear that Shakespeare’s first preoccupations were with the question of how we learn to love well — an obvious enough first preoccupation.  And then (and also at the same time) in the histories his concern is with what is, essentially, the next important thing that comes up in becoming an adult — mainly family, both public and private, which is what drives the histories.

It’s the tragedies, though, where things sort of blow apart.  I mean, obviously, the tragedies are linked by the fact that they all end in death rather than in marriage.  But they’re each so  beautifully and particularly about life itself, and its problems — with love, certainly, but also jealousy, fidelity, and language’s failure — and our own — to say what we mean.  In the comedies, and in literature that mirrors the comedies, like Austen’s novels, the curtain falls on marriage.  What’s wonderful about Shakespeare is that the curtain lifts again and again on what happens afterwards.  Sure, people end up dying, but then don’t we all?

Today, though, I’m still reading the comedies.  Maybe because it’s summer, there seems today to be time enough to get to those other preoccupations.

Here’s the list, in case you’re interested:

1589 Comedy of Errors

1590 Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III

1591 Henry VI, Part I

1592 Richard III

1593 Taming of the Shrew
Titus Andronicus

1594 Romeo and Juliet
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Love’s Labour’s Lost

1595 Richard II
Midsummer Night’s Dream

1596 King John
Merchant of Venice

1597 Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II

1598 Henry V
Much Ado about Nothing

1599 Twelfth Night
As You Like It
Julius Caesar

1600 Hamlet
Merry Wives of Windsor

1601 Troilus and Cressida

1602 All’s Well That Ends Well

1604 Othello
Measure for Measure

1605 King Lear
Macbeth

1606 Antony and Cleopatra

1607 Coriolanus
Timon of Athens

1608 Pericles

1609 Cymbeline

1610 Winter’s Tale

1611 Tempest

1612 Henry VIII

Happy Birthday

It’s Shakespeare’s official birthday today and, in celebration, William and Jack’s school had a poetry recitation.  William recited a poem by Billy Collins that really cracks me up, so I am giving it to you today, in honor of both William, the son, and William, the writer of all those sonnets, and comedies, and tragedies and histories and the other plays which are harder to classify, and also in honor of Poetry Month in general.

Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

Billy Collins

The Promised Profit Post: Measure for Measure

Oh, so long ago, I said I’d be writing about reading Shakespeare for profit, and then life intervened and I went off on a long jag of Elizabeth Taylor reading, and a lot of novel and story writing, and re-writing, and some other stuff, and well, really, it’s time to get back to Measure for Measure, for profit’s sake.

The word “profit” is one I love, just as I love the word “rich.” I have long felt compelled to point out to those who have to listen to me (aka my children) the non-monetary meanings of words like this. Think of it as a little bit of vocabulary subversiveness. “Rich” doesn’t mean rolling in cash; it means replete with something. It’s a good word, describing as it does the quantity of good things we should all have in our lives: we should be rich in laughter, in books, in words, in love. Same with profit. We profit from things not just monetarily, but morally and spiritually, intellectually and entertainment-wise.

Whenever I think of the word “profit” I think of Tennyson’s Ulysses, a poem so old-fashioned that it shows up in Ted Kennedy’s speeches. It begins: “it little profits that an idle king….” And, on the subject of random word association, I noticed this last week, as William was preparing for his First Communion, that when my kids think of profits they think of guys with long white beards who are messengers from an angry old testament god.

Okay, here comes the Shakespeare part. (Aren’t blogs great? They are one big digression. And nobody nails you for it!)

Sometimes, the thing you’re reading perfectly fits your current preoccupations. In the case of Measure for Measure, I found myself thinking that Shakespeare knew there is no better set up for a comedy with a slightly tragic edge than that of the righteous man who is himself doing the thing he so vigorously condemns.  And how that is SO Eliot Spitzer.

Shakespeare’s Spitzer is Angelo, who, moments after he is put in charge of the kingdom, gets right to work handing out death sentences for having sex without being married. And then, just moments later, he is busy trying to figure out how to seduce the play’s number one virgin who also happens to be a nun. You can tell that Angelo is in for a big fat fall.

How does it end up? It’s a C-O-M-E-D-Y, so after the proper amount of chastisement, everybody marries somebody and things are good.

It profits an idle writer like me to read Shakespeare not only because you realize that there are no unique plots, but also because once you are freed from the scariness of making stuff up, you can look around you and see how all you have to do is just steal what you need. And that’s what I did. I STOLE part of Measure for Measure for my new novel, for a subplot set in the Marks & Spencer food hall at Paddington Station. I even have a nun character. She’s Swedish. She looks severe. She’s a traffic expert. She knows a lot about snow. I think that’s very nun-like, to be an expert at things having to do with winter. The Marks & Spencer manager is a righteous guy. And that’s all I needed to get going. Thank you, Will.

Reading Shakespeare for Fun and Profit

My husband picked up my copy of Measure for Measure a couple of nights ago. This isn’t so bad,” he said. “I think I can read this.” He asked me for some advice about how to read the plays, or he should have, which amounts to the same thing, so I am going to tell you what I told him. I also know that many of you readers, literate men and women that you are, have in fact already read many or most or all of the plays, plus seen the movie, and you don’t need to hear what I told him. But bear with me, or I’ll have to write another two sentence post.

Basically, I’d advise against reading Shakespeare at the rate of one page a night, which is how my husband is doing it. He read Emma this way also. As a result, it took him several years to find out that Emma was going to marry Mr. Knightly. What I find amazing about his reading of Emma is that he really didn’t guess that Emma was going to marry Mr. Knightly until she actually did. Every night, I’d say something innocent like, “So honey, who’s Emma going to marry?” And he’d say, “oh, I don’t know. But not that Mr. Knightly guy. She really hates him.”

So that’s my first piece of advice.  Try to finish the play quickly enough that you can still remember what happened in the beginning.

This brings me to my second piece of advice, which I know will be a little controversial. It’s this: read a summary of the play before you begin. Yes, this will ruin the ending. But you know what? You probably already know that both Romeo and Juliet die and that things don’t go well for Hamlet. How do you know that? Because they are tragedies. And yes, in fact, they all DO get married at the end of the comedies. It isn’t going to ruin a thing if you figure out ahead of time which couples end up together and maybe some of the more complicated stuff about who gives the gold chain to whom. You’ll be more relaxed as you read because you won’t be trying to figure out the plot. You can expend your energy on thinking about why it is that some people speak in verse and some people don’t and considering what tune those songs in the comedies might have been sung to.

My third — and final — piece of advice has to do with where you should read Shakespeare. In fact, it is my main suggestion this morning. That is because I am about to get on the train, and it just occurred to me:

Read Measure for Measure standing up, while commuting to work. Read it while standing over a young man who should have gotten up and given you a seat, seeing as how you are engaged in heavy intellectual lifting and he is reading Gamer’s Weekly. Actually, he is not reading Gamer’s Weekly. He is staring blankly at you, and not doing a thing.

He is also barely out of high school, and perfectly able to stand up and give you his seat. I know this is retro and not cool, but it has begun to bother me quite a bit when men do not offer to give their seats to the women who are teetering over them trying to keep their balance as the train throws them back and forth. The woman I am thinking of is teetering around because she is carrying a lot of stuff and is also trying to read Shakespeare.

It is not mandatory to give up your seat, but it’s such a nice thing to do, and I have come to the decision, after years and years of commuting, that giving up your seat should be part of every man’s repertoire of charming things to do.

There are good reasons to do this. The main reason is that the reward for giving up your seat to the woman who is trying to read Shakespeare and not kill herself trying to hold a book and a really heavy bag full of the computer she doesn’t get to use to write her novel with because the train is so crowded, is that doing so will cause every woman on the train to look at the seat-giver-upper and smile. And if the man is single, maybe this will include a woman who might otherwise not give him the time of day. If he is married, this will remind him that he once won a woman’s heart by being a good guy and so should say something sweet to his wife when he gets home because her heart is still his.

It is good for men to feel like they’ve been helpful. (Yes, it is good for PEOPLE to feel like this. But as it happens it’s always a guy who’s sitting down reading something stupid or staring into space with his mouth open while I’m standing up trying to maintain my dignity and get in some reading. Okay, sometimes I’m staring into space because I forgot to bring a book. But my thoughts have redeeming value.)

One other thing: Be sure to flip the pages of your edition of Shakespeare at a rate of more than one every twenty minutes. Even if you aren’t reading, flip the pages fast. He won’t notice, probably, but it will make you feel better.

So. That was the fun part. Tomorrow (or as it goes in BlogLily time, in a few days) I’ll get to the profit part.

And Then the Lighting of the Lamps

Lighting of the LampsLondon in the winter is a place that’s perpetually darkening — the clouds always seem to be moving in and evening comes surprisingly early, especially if you, like me, are sleeping in a different time zone and find it difficult to wake up before lunchtime.

Yesterday though was a breathtakingly clear, silvery winter day. After lunch (with the very, very nice U-Dad, with whom I ate something far better than hummus and apples), I walked home through Green Park and then through Regent’s Park, and as I walked I could see it becoming evening all around me. It was extraordinarily beautiful, and I was not at all sad to see the day end so early. Well, a bit sad — which is how I feel about having to go home tomorrow.

Tonight (after a really fun trip to Cambridge to see litlove — about which I have much more to say in my next post!) I saw the most amazing production of Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre. Much Ado is a comedy that’s perpetually darkening — the witty banter of Beatrice and Benedick, for example, is shadowed by Claudio’s brutal accusation of Hero’s infidelity just as he and Hero reach the altar. Beatrice and Benedick are the only middle-aged lovers in all the comedies (there is a strong suggestion that they have loved each other before, and that Benedick dumped Beatrice, so having a history together is what makes most directors cast them as middle aged.) And so love for them is a little more rueful than it is for younger lovers, although still giddy enough for this to be a satisfying comedy, and to keep the darkness at bay.

What struck me most tonight (aside from the wonderful performances, the great staging and the really terrific music and dance) is that very little separates Much Ado from Romeo and Juliet — they share, for example, a friar who has the bright idea of suggesting to a young woman in love that her troubles will all be cleared up if she’ll just pretend to be dead for a while. Now why didn’t I think of that when I was in my twenties? In one play she comes to life to reunite with her lover and in the other… well, not so good. There is also a challenge to a duel, one avoided in Much Ado and one unavoidable in Romeo and Juliet. Much Ado ends with marriage; Romeo and Juliet ends with death. But very little more than chance and luck seems to separate the lovers in the comedy from the lovers in the tragedy. Maybe that is the point, in fact.

And so to bed, after one last cup of tea and a little bit of packing.

All Packed Up With Somewhere to Go

I’m leaving in a little while for London, where I have heard the sun will actually be shining — for maybe 6 hours — when I arrive.  Here is my carry-on suitcase.  Naturally, the heaviest thing in there are the three comedies I’m bringing.  (I’ve got two others in my purse.) I am so looking forward to a long read on the plane, and a little time to collect my thoughts about London and how it will fit into the next book I am writing.

 Oh, and here is my travel tip of the day:  three ounces of fluids?  That’s a lot of liquid.  If you’re only going for a week, bring the size you get when you stay in hotels, which is about an ounce, maybe less.  You’ll be fine.  And if you run out of conditioner you can try Cam’s suggestion — go to the local pharmacy and buy some.  It’s an inexpensive way to partake of the flavor of the place you’re visiting. 

 While I’m in London, I plan to wear a lot of brown and black and green.  I am going to see some theater.  The History BoysMuch Ado About Nothing.  Maybe Shadowlands if I have time.  It is expensive there.  I will be eating hummus, energy bars and apples. 

When I return, I think it will feel more like spring, as Mandarine so smartly pointed out a few days ago.