Sunday, August 4, 2013

Shakespeare Extravaganza

It really has been more than a year since I wrote here. Kinda makes me think of how time flies and that life is transient and all that jazz. Either that or I am lazy as hell. It’s probably the latter.

Anyway, seeing that my writing has been significantly reduced to an annual one-off thing, I’d better make this post slightly above average, even though that would be a hard goal to score after not writing for so long. Man, what a vicious cycle.

So here goes the "Shakespeare Extravaganza" that I have been planning for days. I realize that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am feeling very self indulgent right now, so bear with me. Since plays are meant to be performed and not just read, I have also included links to YouTube videos of selected scenes at the end of every entry, for your reference. Let’s start now, shall we?

1. Macbeth

I know of many people who are conflicted about Macbeth. On the one hand, it is possibly the greatest tragedy Shakespeare ever wrote, arguably of course; and on the other hand, most everyone who took the SPM would look back to that time and associate that with the confusion of “Life’s Brief Candle”, a famous soliloquy from the play. The trauma of having gone through that usually puts people off Macbeth, which is a shame because in terms of length, the play is considerably shorter compared to the other tragedies (King Lear creeps to mind) and the storyline much simpler.

The play starts with the audience being informed of Macbeth’s valiant acts in a recently concluded war with a rebel, the Thane of Cawdor. We are told of his awesome feats in battle by another soldier, for the attention of King Duncan, who immediately plans to make Macbeth the new Thane of Cawdor, replacing the rebel. Before Macbeth even hears a word of this plan to honour him, he comes across the three weird sisters (or witches, if you will) prophesying Macbeth’s rise to the Thaneship of Cawdor and later….. to the Kingdom of Scotland. Mind you, Macbeth is not Duncan’s son as you probably can tell anyway, so the only way Macbeth can ever be the next king is if Duncan and his heirs to the throne die first.

Now, there seems to be the suggestion that Macbeth might be able to ignore the weird prophesy, but the possibility is dashed by a message sent by King Duncan’s envoy, informing Macbeth that he is now the Thane of Cawdor. Man being what he is, Macbeth grows impatient and begins to eye the throne, even considering foul play to speed up the process. It does not help matter that his wife is this insanely ambitious bitch with a heart of stone to go with it. But just how a far can a man go for ambitions? In a heated exchange with his wife, who accuses him of being lily-hearted in his pursuit of power, Macbeth retorts the following:

“I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more, is none”

This is a play that touches the psychological consequences of immoral acts. More than any other plays, Shakespeare devotes a great amount of time in showing Macbeth’s internal miseries. How can he not, when in his greed, Macbeth is driven to regicide and still later, to murders of innocent children? One cannot commit all those offences and expect to get away with it. We see how Macbeth subtly suffers from insomnia because he is too afraid to sleep, having killed Duncan while the latter was asleep. And we see how he becomes increasingly reliant of evil (the three sisters) in his efforts to stay in power. It’s an avalanche of evil deeds, one that results in destruction to the victims as well as the perpetrators.

Give this play a try. It’s packed with a lot of action and makes you think twice before doing something immoral to get where you want to be. And, for those of you who are fans of the "tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow" soliloquy, here are two famous renditions for comparison; one by Patrick Stewart (Professor X) and the other by Ian McKellen (Magneto/Gandalf):

2. Much Ado About Nothing

I am not really a fan of Shakespeare’s comedies, but a few stand out in my eyes, one of them being the light and sweet Much Ado About Nothing. The premise is nothing original; we see two couples who are brought together in a merry little town of Messina; one through cupid, and the other through their friends’ mischief. It's a story as old as love itself, which actually adds to the charm of the play.

The play opens with the announcement that Don Pedro ( who just won a war) is visiting his old friend, Signior Leonato, the governor of said Messina. Don Pedro brings along Don John, his illegitimate brother; Claudio, a young Count; and Benedick, a confirmed bachelor. Leonato’s daughter, Hero, will be paired with Claudio, in what is suggested to be love at first sight. Whereas Benedick, the self-proclaimed bachelor for life, seems to be a convenient match for Leonato’s niece, the seemingly misandristic woman who is sworn against men. But are they as ill-suited as they seem? Hmmm…

Obviously the answer is “No”, for therein lies the comedy of the play. It strikes one as being too simple a premise for comedy, and I would be the first to agree with that claim. But it is not a stretch, I think, to say that the best comedies -in good hands- are usually the simplest. I cannot remember how much I laugh throughout  the film version of this play, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh in 1993. The verbal sparrings between Benedick and Beatrice (as you can see in the video above) are cruel, sweet and funny all at the same time, and before long, you just cannot wait to see them fall in love with each other, thanks to their conspiring friends who matchmake people for fun (because, hey, that’s what soldiers who return from war do every day!).

Shakespeare being Shakespeare, there is also the dark side of Much Ado that threatens to shatter the bliss enjoyed by the ‘good’ characters. Don John, whose mission in life appears to be to vex his brother, does all that he can to stop Claudio’s marriage to Hero. And it all unravels at the expense of everyone involved. One cannot help but to be reminded of how fleeting happiness is. Once in a while, when you are not careful, misery comes knocking and one just needs to cope with that.

To me, the highlight of the play is when Benedick, after an elaborate trick, finds himself in love with Beatrice and seeks to justify this sudden turn from the bachelor life he swore himself to. It’s a great piece of comedy and Branagh aced it, in this video:

All in all, to every bad in life, there’s good to accompany it, and it usually makes all the difference =)

3. Othello

Let me first admit that the first time I watch the film version of Othello, I saw Sir Lawrence Olivier in thick make-up pretending to be the black eponymous Moor. I was really put-off by that, added to the fact that I have always found Sir Lawrence’s acting a bit too hammy to my liking. It’s a different age, I suppose, but it left a bitter taste to my experience of Othello.

So when I heard that there was another film version out there, one that stars a black man in the role of Othello and the ever wonderful Branagh as the villain, I didn’t think twice before watching it on YouTube. I can safely say that it was one the best decisions in my life. (I am inclined towards the melodramatic, so bear with me) For the first time, I began to see how difficult it must be for a black man to survive a white man’s world, which is essential to a play like Othello.

At the opening of the play, we are told that Iago the villain has been passed over for promotion in favour of another soldier under Othello’s command, the straight Cassio. In an act of revenge, Iago plans to sully Othello’s name by blowing the cover of Othello’s secret marriage to Desdemona, while at the same time pretending to be Othello’s loyal friend. Italy at the time was still rife with racism, and Desdemona’s father took the news badly even though he was once fond of Othello. He even warned Othello to be careful of Desdemona:

“Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see/She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.”

Iago, seeing his chance, exploited the warning to further fill the seed of doubt in Othello’s mind. Desdemona is, by all accounts, a virtuous woman, so it takes a masterful villain to change the way Othello sees his wife and loses sleep over her fidelity (or the alleged lack thereof). It is in this respect that Shakespeare proves a crafty artist in his creation of Iago. As a villain, he was numerously called by others as “honest Iago”, and is universally liked by all other characters in the play, something that you cannot say for Shakespeare's other villains. Iago is also honest in his duplicity as he declares: “I am not what I am.” The way Iago plays all other characters is fascinating to watch, even though we know just how much misery it causes Othello and the ones around him in the end.

Here is a video of how Iago starts make Othello suspicious of Desdemona. Nice scene.

Never has the subject of jealousy been tackled so plainly as Othello does. One sees how suspicion, when inflamed just right, gives birth to an irrational condemnation of the thing that we hold most dear. I guess fear of losing something is one of the ingredients required to actually lose it. Here is an exchange between Othello and Iago. Powerful performance all around:

And here is the full movie, courtesy of the uploader and YouTube. Don't mind the subtitle. Enjoy =)

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