Mists of Time: 23rd April

There’s lots at the moment about Shakespeare, today being the 400th anniversary of his death.

But his was not the only important death on the 23rd April. (I’m not sure about ‘important’. Significant, maybe, or interesting. Are death-days important? Or just morbid? Anyway…)

From my medieval mindset, I tend to start with it being the death-day of two Aethelreds, the first being the elder brother and predecessor Alfred the Great in 871, and the second being Aethelraed the Unready in 1016. Of the two, this year is the greater anniversary for the second, since it’s the 1000th anniversary.

Aethelraed the Unready’s death led to the accession of his son Edmund Ironside. Not that Edmund lasted very long, splitting England with Knut of Denmark following the Battle of Assandun on 18th October 1016, and then dying himself at the end of November that year. Knut took Wessex and crowned himself King of England.

On 23rd April 1014, it was the day of the Battle of Clantarf in Ireland, when Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig (Brian Boru to most of us), High King of Ireland, led a force against an Irish-Norse alliance, and had a good’n’bloody fight (tens of thousands dead kind of thing), ostensibly victorious, although since he also died, along with his son and grandson, that’s a matter of opinion.

For the literary, and more modern, world, William Wordsworth snuffed it on this day in 1850, and Rupert Brooke, a WWI war poet, in 1915, of a sepsis complication following a mosquito bite.

And for the interested, 9 years ago, in 2007, Boris Yeltsin, First President of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, died.

But Shakespeare. Let’s return to Shakespeare and his literary mark on the world. The Guardian have a piece today suggesting that if he were alive today, he’d be a crime novelist. Admittedly this piece was written by a crime novelist (with a book out), but do you agree? Would he still be a poet and playwright, or would he be doing something else? Literary or otherwise…

The Merchant of Venice

All I knew about The Merchant of Venice before I read it was that Shylock was a Jew and that he made that speech about being the same as all the Christians of Venice regarding bleeding if cut etc. And demanding his pound of flesh for the unpaid debt.

Apparently, it falls under the category of “Comedy”. While it had some moments of amusement, I’m not sure that’s how I’d categorise it. But then, since the other two categories in the Folio are Histories and Tragedies, I can understand it being a comedy.

I was quite taken by poor Shylock. Granted he was being unreasonable about the (late) repayment of the loan, without interest, paid to Antonio, but Antonio did sign on the dotted line to pay with a pound of flesh if he couldn’t find the cash. I’m just surprised at Shylock refusing to settle when the money (plus some) turns up.

If I’ve learned one thing from all the murder-dramas I watch, it’s that moneylenders don’t kill debtors. Dead men can’t pay up. And moneylenders like their money back. What on earth was he going to do with a pound of flesh?

I get that he had cause to hate the Christians: Antonio particularly hadn’t been overly friendly, and his daughter Jessica had just eloped with a Christian Lorenzo (taking lots of jewels with her). But he was offered double the loan as repayment. He wasn’t due any interest. Antonio was only supposed to repay the capital.

In the end, Shylock is left broken and destitute. And forced to convert to Christianity, so he probably had to leave Venice as well. They might not have killed him, but the Christians weren’t quite as merciful as they thought they were. He lost everything. He didn’t even get the money he was owed. He just wanted the contract to be upheld.

A gentleman’s word is, after all, his bond, is it not?

Macbeth

Hecate: And thou shalt be King hereafter.

Macbeth: King?!

Hecate: Aye. And you, Banquo, you will not be King. Yet, you will be royal.

Banquo: Oh, oh, I’m going to be Queen!

I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, June 1968

Macbeth has never been a favourite. Probably something to do with having studied it in Drama in Yr 7, Music in Yr 8 and then for SATs in Yr 9. Now that I’ve got some distance from all of that (it doesn’t quite feel like ten years since I last read it), I dislike it less. The ISIRTA version is my favourite though.

Now I know that without Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions there isn’t much of a play, but seriously, what good did they really think would come of murdering Duncan in his bed? Killing a King in battle is one thing, but while he sleeps? Really? Such a bright idea!

I’m still trying to decide if it makes for a better story than what actually happened to Macbeth. He was King of the Scots in the mid-11th Century, for about 17 years. He’d defeated King Duncan in battle, whose widow and sons then fled. Then, in 1054, Earl Siward of Northumbria – who may or may not have been related to both Duncan and his wife – launched an invasion in which lots of people died, including his own son. And in 1057, Macbeth made his last stand, being defeated by Duncan’s son Malcolm. Macbeth died the following April, and his stepson is crowned King. But, you know, life is tricky, and he met an untimely end, after which Malcolm becomes the Third Malcolm of Scotland and manages a long reign. Sadly none of the Three Weird Sisters stuff is recorded as having happened…

Anyway, Macbeth. In which a man is goaded into killing the King and it all ends messily. Supposedly it’s a tragedy, but I think they had it coming.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A fun play, with fairies and spells and bewitchments causing mayhem and confusion.

What I want to know, though, is why Hermia and Helena don’t just slap Lysander and Demetrius and go off to become nuns together? At the very least, those two men could be made to do a better job of professing their love and trying to make amends. I mean, seriously? They change their minds at the drop of a hat/dab of a potion, and Hermia and Helena are supposed to believe they’re sincere? And Titania seems very forgiving to Oberon…

The other thing I’ll say about this is that they all seem very coherent and eloquent as soon as they wake up. I’m very impressed. They don’t even need any tea or coffee!

I know there needs to be some suspension of rational thought, logic, and general belief in reality when reading or watching things, but sometimes it’s a bit tricky. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but as soon as Lysander is un-bewitched, she immediately believes that Demetrius loves her? Unlikely.

Twelfth Night

I actually managed to read all of it this week. Probably this is due to the train-journeys to and from the Eurovision party. I had the time to just sit and read. So I did.

Twelfth Night always confuses me. I understand the whole premise of mistaking twins. But would male and female twins really be that similar? Even with the female dressing up as her brother? And why don’t they cotton on to the fact that the twin they thought was dead might not be a bit sooner? Surely they would still be hoping against hope? They just seem a little slow to connect the dots…

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As I was reading this, it came to me that this is one that I’ve seen. Last summer, the Globe broadcast their all-male performance to cinemas. The cast included Stephen Fry as Mavolio, Trigger from Only Fools and Horses as Sir Andrew, and Posner from The History Boys as Sebastian. (The other actors are just as worthy of notice, but these are the ones which I really remember.) And Olivia looked like she was on wheels, zooming about the stage. Actually, with that production, I can understand them mixing up the twins. I had trouble sometimes telling them apart.

But anyway. I’m not really going to comment on the writing – the fact that we still read and perform Shakespeare’s works is testament to that. Even with people suggesting we should cease to study them in schools, which, by the way, I think is a bad idea. I see absolutely no reason why schools should be dumbed down any further.

The Tempest

I managed to find the time to finish it this week.

As Shakespeare’s plays go, and maybe I’ll find this to be the case with his other comedies, it reminded me a great deal of the sort of thing that Gilbert and Sullivan created. This is in no way a bad thing. One of the constants in my childhood was a yearly trip to see the I.C.Op.Soc. production in Budleigh Salterton. Until about 2003, it was a G&S. Every year. I like a good comic opera or musical.

So yes. I could quite see The Tempest being set to a score by Sullivan with a chorus of sailors and spirits.

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Although I still don’t think that I’d have been quite so eager to forgive and forget my brother’s betrayal, if I was Prospero. Well, maybe I could. If he was in exile and I never had to see him again. To be honest, I don’t think I’d be so eager to believe Prospero was who he said he was if I was Alonso. Not after all I’d been through. But this is just me.

All in all, though, once you’ve untangled the various plots and worked out who’s who, The Tempest is quite a fun read.

Stormy Waters

I’m supposed to be writing about The Tempest, that being the Shakespearean work of the week.

Only, I haven’t finished it yet. Life has rather got in the way, although I am making some headway with it. I’m about half way through.

So far, there’s lots of pessimism and a lesson in not lying to your children. Although, saying that, Miranda didn’t seem all that fussed by Prospero’s revelation. Or is she? She didn’t seem so to me, but then, I don’t tend to try and analyse stories as I read them. I just read them. And enjoy them, or not. And I probably wasn’t concentrating fully, since I’ve been reading this at bed-time.

And there’s a lesson in trusting people who’ve stabbed others in the back. Never trust a usurper. Just as well Ariel was about. I mean, seriously? Why would you ever trust someone like Antonio? If they’ve done something so devious once, chances are they’ll do it again – or help others to do it. Like that old adage about men marrying their mistresses and creating vacancies.

Obviously some can be redeemed, and do change their ways. But I’d still keep them at a distance. Or, indeed, keep them closer. That way you can keep an eye on them…