Tag Archives: Shakespeare

I Pledge Allegiance, to William Shakespeare

Kansas City, like many thriving metropolises (is that the correct plural form of that word?), has an annual Shakespeare in the Park to-do that’s kind of a medium-size deal. I have only been three times. I went to see Macbeth last year, and then this year, with the return of the double-performance feature, I saw both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony & Cleopatra.

My prior exposure to MND was seeing that horrid movie version that came out around, oh, I don’t know, 2000? 2001? (IMDB says 1999. I was very close.) And then of course I read the play in my undergraduate Shakespeare class – begrudgingly, since my memories of the movie were so negative. (And I’m sure in that class we watched – if not the entire thing, at least some clips from – one of the myriad movie adaptations out there.) Luckily, I enjoyed reading it rather more than watching the movie, but I still didn’t have a positive overall memory of the play.

My expectation for Kansas City’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was thus: I would enjoy it only insomuch as I enjoyed the company I saw it with. To that end, I  gathered up some of the best metro company around, in the form of five friends and a baby, and we shared blankets, refreshments, and lots of mirth as we gathered on the lawn for the play.

Before we went, I had flipped through my copy of the well-chewed (thanks to the dog) THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE (which, due to its size, caused a friend of mine, upon recently seeing me reading it from a distance, to ask if it was a science or medical textbook). I wanted to skim through my margin notes on this particular play, just to give myself a quick reminder of the basic plot. My refresher course went like this: Play inside a play. Pyramus & Thisbe. Some forest confusion involving ribald fairies and nymphs and unrequited love and…an ass? There’s a particularly obnoxious mischief maker named Puck. Then back to the castle for the rest of the frame play, happy ending, lots of laughter and delighted tears. Whether one’s previous experiences with a single play are positive or negative, that sort of bare-bones recap isn’t going to do much to persuade one’s expectations in either direction.

Even so, sharing the company of good friends really can add a glossy sheen to any occasion. So, given my companions, the outdoors, and the refreshments, I was already pleased with the outcome of the event within half an hour of having left my house. And then the best part of the whole evening happened: The play began. I witnessed, hands down, the best adaptation and performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream I have ever had the opportunity to see. The speech was easy to follow, the story line a cinch to pick up. Things flowed along smoothly, and the opportunities to laugh were frequent and numerous.

The actor I was most impressed with was the one who played Puck, coincidentally. He flew, jumped, somersaulted, and acrobatted all over the stage, and he perfected this sycophantic, servile facial expression that he adopted whenever he spoke to Oberon, his master. In fact, in these interactions with Oberon, the expression on Puck’s face consistently reminded me of Ed the Hyena from The Lion King. And, somehow, this was just fitting.

The entire performance was laced with an air of merriment that the actors could not have faked. It was raw and contagious, and of course it was catalyzed early in the first act by the sole canine thespian breaking free from its leash and bolting from the stage (clearly not part of the script, but the cast handled it and the audience’s reactive laughter and resultant momentary distraction well). The actors got a standing ovation at the end, and they deserved it. The energy between the audience and the stage was palpable, and it was a good night to be at the theater (in the park). And, no offense to my awesome friends, but I rather think I would’ve enjoyed the play whether they’d been there or not!

I can’t say the same for Antony and Cleopatra, though. My prior exposure to A&C before a couple of weeks ago was zero. Before I went to see the Kansas City version, I once again used THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE to read the whole play so I could get a head start on following it live. As I read, I didn’t think I disliked it, although Act IV does get tedious. So, I don’t know if it’s this particular acting company’s approach to tragedies or if I truly don’t love Antony & Cleopatra as a piece of literature/art in and of itself, but I was not moved by this performance. That night, it was almost exclusively the friends I was with who helped me immensely enjoy the night, rather than the acting. I got bored before intermission (whereas I was genuinely surprised at MND when it was time for the fifteen-minute break).

The reason I say it could be the troupe’s interpretation of tragedies is that I felt the same way about Macbeth last year, and normally I appreciate and enjoy Macbeth. They took a lot of sexual liberties with the Macbeth adaptation last year, even going as far as to make us all gasp in shock when Lady Macbeth jumped Macbeth in the middle of the stage, and they both went crashing down to the floor; then proceeded to hump for several awkward seconds. Thinking this might be an impromptu ad-lib added as an especial treat for our performance only,  I checked around with other friends who saw the play on different nights, and they gave the same report. For me, this bold addition cheapened and perverted (pardon the pun) the core of Shakespeare’s message, as if they were implying that his writing wasn’t good enough to stand on its own merit, or else that the audience wasn’t elite intelligentsia enough, and they must add these bawdy interludes to keep us from nodding off. (Now I’m not only insulted on Shakespeare’s behalf; I’m enraged on my own!)

Back to Antony & Cleopatra. Setting aside the fact that the titular characters were played by the same lead actors who so offended me in Macbeth, one thing that could let this acting company off the hook is to consider the possibility that I just don’t love this particular play. And that is indeed possible. After all, the story centers around a middle-aged couple who act with less sense than the adolescent Romeo & Juliet (don’t even get me started on them). And there’s a secondary story featuring four men who are essentially in a machismo contest, all trying to conquer the world and all unable to swallow their pride long enough to figure out how to share the pieces of that world. To be frank, it’s embarrassing to watch such a juvenile plot be played out amongst characters who are supposed to be grown adults.

It’s embarrassing fictionally and historically speaking. Where, after all, would Shakespeare get the idea for such a silly story? Well, from real life, unfortunately. The leaders of Ancient Rome were a lot of good things, but I don’t think mature, play well with others, and morally sensible were on the list. The only welcome bits of this play were the blunt sexual innuendos (for their comic relief factor and shock value) and the beginning of all the deaths (since that meant the play was nearing its end).

Kansas City’s Shakespeare in the Park is a cultural touchstone that should be experienced, I’ll warrant. But this year, if you’ve only got time to get to one of the plays, make sure it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Whatever your feelings are about the theater, or parks, or various Shakespeare plays, one thing cannot be denied: Will was brilliant, and exposure to his work can only make us better people.

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The Myth of the Happy Ending

If I could get on a soapbox (other than this one, I guess . . . which would be silly . . . because this truly is my soapbox, but whatever), here is one thing I would say to writers everywhere: Don’t fear the tragic.

Writers tend to avoid unhappy endings. They think that a happy ending equals closure, and that does not have to be true. They also think a happy ending equals a happy reader, and that does not always have to be true either. Yes, stories often need definitive closure, but closure doesn’t have to mean happily ever after. (Whether a story really needs closure is a whole other blog post.) Writers have gotten this erroneous impression about the “need” for happy endings from readers who think that they want happy endings.

But readers do not always know what they really want in a story. And I think that by giving them what they think they want, we are insulting their intelligence and allowing them to wallow in a mire of mediocre material where they don’t realize what kind of literary luxuries they’re missing.

Let’s take a look at one of history’s most revered and respected writers – Will Shakespeare. If given ten seconds to name as many of his plays as you can, I’d be willing to bet this computer I’m typing on that in ten seconds, you could (and would) name more of his tragedies than any of his works from other genres. Heck, Romeo & Juliet is the first play that springs to most people’s minds when they think of good ol’ Shakesey. (And don’t comment and tell me something different. That just means you’re the exception or you’re showboating, and I don’t care.) After R & J, the plays I can name the fastest are these: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though not all are tragedies, the first three are, which of course you should have seen coming because it proves my point, and why would I write anything contradictory to my point?

Shakespeare was a great playwright because his tragedies moved people (and still do). People get pissed off when they read Romeo & Juliet because anyone who’s ever been in a relationship that has lasted longer than a week knows that communication is the key element missing from Romeo and Juliet’s relationship and that their pathetic, dramatic, teen-emo-worthy deaths could have been avoided had they just had better communication or a little patience. (But then, where would the story be?) Still, it’s infuriating to watch these adolescent idiots moon over each other and make mountains out of molehills and end up dead because they let their hormones control them.

However, are not rage, annoyance, anger, infuriation – are they not emotions? Even if you’re sensitive (read: silly) enough to feel pity for the two lovers or mourn their deaths, is that not still a reactionary emotion? Has Shakespeare not stirred you? Of course he has! Which means he has written well.

I love the phrase character you love to hate because it describes a writer’s skill so well. There is a prime example of this technique in a movie I recently watched, He’s Just Not That Into You. In discussing this movie with a couple of my friends, I said there was a particular character (Gigi, in case anyone has seen it) in the movie whom I absolutely hated, and my friends both gushed that they loved her. I asked how they could, and they said “Because she’s so cute!” And I said, “But she’s so stupid and clueless and pathetic and annoying!” One friend argued, “But she’s supposed to be over the top. No one is really like that in real life.” Whether the character traits were exaggerated intentionally or not, the character still got under my skin and I still hated her.

Which means that the writers did a brilliant job with that character. Not to toot my own horn (but then, why would I have my own blog if I didn’t intend to do just that), but I think that my reaction to the character is “correct” and my friends’ reactions “incorrect,” in terms of assessment of technique. I don’t think viewers are supposed to love this character. If she is a well-written character and if the actress portraying her is doing what she’s supposed to be doing, then viewers should be annoyed by her because she’s absolutely ridiculous. In a movie, the ultimate effect is comical, yes. But in real life, nobody would want to be this girl’s friend. Especially not me. In essence, we are supposed to love to hate her. Which I do.

This is what tragic/sad endings are supposed to do as well. If done right, a tragic ending should anger the reader or make him cry, and if it does, the writer has achieved her goal. If you have a strong outburst of negative emotion that directly pertains to a scene in a book, then it should not matter whether you “like” to cry or you “like” sad endings. All that should matter is the fact that such a reaction was able to be evoked from you. If you don’t like to cry, all the better. Because I think it’s safe to assume that if you don’t like to cry, you don’t do it often. Which again points to the skill of the author who succeeds at making you cry.

An example of someone whom I believe fears the tragic is J.K. Rowling. If you haven’t read all seven Harry Potter books and don’t know how the series ends (and don’t want to), please do not continue. You have been warned. If you would at least like to see my conclusion, then just skip the next three paragraphs and pick up with the words I don’t respect. . . .

Before you get in a tizzy about the fact that I’m critiquing one of the world’s most renowned writers, please note that I am in no way disparaging Rowling’s talent as a writer. I think she’s brilliant, and I love her series. But I think she got afraid of where it was going and took control near the end instead of letting the story and characters take their natural course.

I would have loved to see her kill off Harry. Of course I love Harry, but that’s exactly why I was hoping he would die. My outpouring of emotion over the death of one of my favorite literary characters of all time would have been intense, and it would have been warranted and well earned. Now, I know that Rowling is no stranger to tragedy in her fiction. I know she kills off a lot of people, especially in her last two books, and I did cry over most of them. But what courage it would have taken for her to kill Harry, and what skill it would have required!

Writers who risk everything by being bold and daring enough to be willing to upset readers are met with a challenge that forces skill, determination, and supreme effort. And the ones who succeed are to be commended rather than decried. I still love Rowling, and I know my opinion in the literary world is worth nothing (but then, that’s why I blog about it instead), but I’d have really respected her a whole lot more if she’d been courageous enough to kill him. And I was superbly disappointed by her attempt at closure in her happily-ever-after epilogue. To me, that felt like a coward trying to hide his shame.

I don’t respect readers who say they don’t like sad endings. If that is really true, then they aren’t realizing their full potential as readers. To me, this is like the person who says he avoids dating or relationships because he’s afraid of getting hurt. This person isn’t doing himself any favors. Instead, by closing himself off from love or the possibility of it, he’s missing out on a lot of fantastic emotions and feelings and experiences.

I can neither respect nor relate to people like this. I don’t care if I end up hurt. Wounds heal, and a broken heart isn’t going to kill me. I’d rather have the laughter, the physical touch, the intensity of shared emotion, and the chemistry and spark that come from human connection. Tears always dry eventually.

So for the sake of their readers’ emotional education, writers have to be willing to break hearts. It doesn’t mean that everything they write has to be sad. But all writers should be more open to the idea of hurting their readers, and all readers should be more open to the idea of getting hurt.

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