1998

Re: Jessica

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0367  Monday, 20 April 1998.

[1]     From:   Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 21:46:09 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Jessica

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Monday, 20 Apr 1998 00:17:37 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0365  Re: Jessica


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 21:46:09 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Jessica

As I tried to suggest in an earlier post, there is a distinct
allegorical level in this particular play which involves the Protestant
Reformation in England.  The breaking of the thousand year bond with the
Roman Church was the source of profound anxiety among Elizabethan
Englishmen.

The fate of their souls had been secured by the authority of Peter who
got it straight from Jesus.  In order for the Reformation to be
successful, the people had to be convinced that the covenant of Abraham
that had passed from  the Jews to the Christians at the Resurrection had
now passed to the English, that they were now the "chosen people."

On the allegorical level of the play, Jessica represents that covenant
(Shylock as an Italian usurer is therefore the Popish Church with only a
genealogical relationship to Judaism). She is the daughter of a Jew, but
marries a Christian.

Her relationship to the Jew had been one of Law (i.e. covenant), but she
transgresses Law in the name of Love (i.e. Christianity).

Portia represents the passing of the covenant from another perspective.
In order for the English to inherit, they must choose aright, thus the
three caskets.

Shylock's ring is a symbol of grace.  Shylock attempts to lock it away
as a possession held by covenant, but Jessica gives it away freely in
the name of Love, replacing a Judeo-Catholic orientation to grace with a
new Protestant vision.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, 20 Apr 1998 00:17:37 -0400
Subject: 9.0365  Re: Jessica
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0365  Re: Jessica

Ben Schneider wrote:

>  Bassiano's giving away Portia's ring to pay back "the lawyer" is an
> analog of Jessica's giving away
> Leah's ring to buy a monkey.

I think I should resent that.  Larry Weiss

Re: RNT Othello

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0366  Monday, 20 April 1998.

[1]     From:   David Levine <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 01:52:36 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0363  Re: RNT Othello

[2]     From:   Charles Weinstein <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 10:52:55 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0360  OTHELLO at BAM, directed by Sam Mendes

[3]     From:   Larry Weiss <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 23:32:37 -0400
        Subj:   RNT Othello


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Levine <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 01:52:36 EDT
Subject: 9.0363  Re: RNT Othello
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0363  Re: RNT Othello

Well, I guess I agree with Tanya, to an astonishingly complete degree.
I also thought Harewood's senate scene was absolutely masterful and
very, very moving.  But (as I have said) Othello should be very
frightening when he's roused to anger, and part of this fearsomeness is
his complete difference from all the "well-behaved" Venetians.  Indeed,
he is supposed to be somewhat savage (in a few places the text alludes
to this...Desdemona remarks that his eyes are "rolling," etc.).  Now,
there is certainly going to be the matter of racial stereotyping here,
but let's face it, folks...it's part of the play...in some fundamental
ways, Othello is less "civilized" than the people he is working for (I
use that term advisedly, having read the new Caryl Phillips
novel...title escapes me at this hour...in which Othello is a main
character, and which provides a lot of really fascinating background to
the play).  This might make him a better human being, but he IS
different; his emotions are in different relationship  with his  body.
IT is this aspect of the play that I have observed many Black (well,
African-American to be more specific, and for obvious reasons) actors
having difficulty with.

As for Beale's Iago, I had no doubt at all that he felt Emilia had slept
with Othello, but  he would assume automatically that, given the chance
to sleep with ANYONE else who was proximate, she would do so because he,
I ago, was so disgusting.  That Othello is so obviously more charismatic
and sexually attractive only makes the infidelity more probably from
Iago's standpoint.  Indeed, his self-loathing (in Beale's performance)
is the first cause of everything.  What was chilling in that kiss from
Emilia was how he went through the motions, giving NOTHING back, which
suddenly told us a tremendous amount about the everyday pain of their
marriage and how that pain kept providing feedback to sustain the awful
system.  Much like a lot of folks we doubtless know.  Beale's real
jealousy also added countless level to the "green-eyed monster" speech,
since it was obvious to Iago ( and to us) that he was talking completely
about himself.

For those of you who didn't like the production...all I can say is
something like "Jeez, folks..." and scratch my head.  And I am no blind
Anglophile about Shakespearean productions at the RSC and RNT.  And I
have seen Othello many many times in the last thirty five years.....

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Charles Weinstein <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 10:52:55 -0400
Subject: 9.0360  OTHELLO at BAM, directed by Sam Mendes
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0360  OTHELLO at BAM, directed by Sam Mendes

I saw this production in London last Fall.  I wish I had kinder things
to say about it.  Unfortunately, it borrows so heavily from Trevor
Nunn's 1988 Othello that one can get distracted by the deja vu effect.
Mendes' set is virtually identical to Nunn's; and the staging,
characterizations and overall "look and feel" are highly reminiscent of
Nunn's choices.  The major difference is a telling one:  Nunn's
production was superior in every way.

The best performance is Trevor Peacock's as Brabantio.  All three leads
are inadequate.  David Harewood is an overly-young and lightweight
Othello, barely credible as a General let alone the supreme commander of
the Venetian army.  Physically, Harewood is in decent shape, but his
voice isn't up to the part.  Claire Skinner is a stunning art-deco
object with her blonde bangs, her slinky 30s dresses and her impossible
kewpie-doll voice; but Nora Charles has never been my idea of
Desdemona.  (Nor, for that matter, has Betty Boop).  Simon Russell Beale
is a tiny, tubby, Teutonic-looking Iago, lacking only a spiked helmet to
complete the total effect.  He brings nothing new to the role, playing
the ancient as a poisonous toad crouching within the familiar bluff and
coarse-grained soldier.  This latter approach has become almost
scriptural; yet I think it quite wrong.  In truth, Iago is an
intellectual, a rigorously consistent nihilist committed to
"deconstructing" the notions of love, honor, nobility, fidelity, loyalty
and self-sacrifice by exposing them as pleasant fictions.  Iago is the
ultimate post-modernist.  One day, I hope to see him played as such; but
I'm not holding my breath.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 23:32:37 -0400
Subject:        RNT Othello

I, too, saw the RNT Othello at BAM last weekend, and find myself siding
with those who found the production compelling.  I think what Bill Cain
and Shaul Bassi both found missing was a "reinterpretation" of the text
to either alter the racial aspects or illuminate them differently.

For me, the naturalistic, unaffected production brought out a clarity
and simplicity of plot and characterization that we seldom see.
Harewood, Simon Beale and the rest of the cast, presented characters who
were far more human and believable than those found in more stylized
productions.  Othello, for example, was neither an exemplar of nobility
nor an abused member of a minority group.  And Iago was neither a
virtuoso villain nor a lump of motiveless malignity.  Simon Beale showed
me a man tortured by jealousy and envy, who sets about destroying the
source of both emotions, not because he can, but because he feels he
should.

I also disagree with Tanya Gough's finding fault with Harewood for not
being as commanding a presence as she would prefer.  The tragedy was
more real and personal for me because the hero was not presented as a
superman, but only a husband whose day job is army general and who, like
most such men, is a competent leader.

Shakespeare as Character/"These Our Revels"

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0364  Saturday, 18 April 1998.

From:           Laura Fargas <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 17 Apr 1998 13:57:23 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Shakespeare as Character/"These Our Revels"

Two quick notes and one longer one:

There is a late story by Borges called "Shakespeare's Memory" in this
week's issue of the New Yorker.

There is a novel called "Sphere" which has at least some passing scenes
in Elizabethan England-I haven't seen it yet, just read a bit about it
on the Amazon books website.  I'm not positive Shakespeare appears as a
character, but it sounded like it.

And lastly, there is a novel called "Forever Knight: These Our Revels,"
by Anne Hathaway-Nayne, released on April 1 as a paperback original, in
which Shakespeare, Burbage, Jonson, Pope, Condell, Will Sly, Ned Alleyn,
and Philip Henslowe all appear as characters.

This last I know about because, along with a friend, I wrote it.

"Forever Knight" was a Canadian TV show about a vampire who is currently
refusing to kill human beings because he wants to become mortal again
and recover his soul and his salvation.  The show's writers frequently
poked fun at the pieties of the vampire genre.

The lead role was played by a Stratford-trained actor, Geraint Wyn
Davies, who had toured for six months as Hamlet immediately prior to
taking the part.  (My sister came to live with me when she graduated
from college; in the following months, I became intimately acquainted
with every science-fictiony thing then on television.  I liked this one,
I think because it played its story both straight and ironically in
different episodes.  I also thought I could see qualities the actor had
brought from Hamlet into this character.)

The novel is set in summer 1599 and February 1600, when we have assumed
Shakespeare was beginning to write _Hamlet_.  We have him finishing it
and giving a private premiere at Lord Hunsdon's manse simply because we
needed to have a performance at night so our vampire could be there.
This gave our vampire (who, in the series, met nearly everyone in
history, was on the Titanic, etc.) an opportunity to mix with
Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men.  Shakespeare meets Dracula
<g>.

We have Shakespeare coming to like him enough to lend him the "sugar'd
sonnets circulating privately," and conversing with him a little about
the issue of killing-which was amazingly close to home, since Ben Jonson
himself bore the thumb-brand of having killed a man and successfully
claimed benefit of clergy.  At this period in his life, our vampire is
only just beginning to grapple with the issue of not-killing.  after
about 350 years of being perfectly contented with what he was.  (No, we
do *not* have our vampire inspiring any part of Shakespeare's play.)
This was also a wonderful opportunity to play with issues of masks,
playing, gender roles, and whatnot.  And with language-we wanted this
book, like the series, to be full of humor.

Jayel Wylie, my co-author, is a novelist who trained as a
post-modernist, and who also has a background as a working actress.  As
I've said before, I'm a working poet (I studied with Stephen Greenblatt
back in the dawn of time, and am trying to screw up my courage to send
"Revels" to him <g>).

The book was a lot of fun to write, and we even got paid for it -- a big
thrill for me, since my royalties as a poet in any given year tend to be
in the high two figures.

We tried to be accurate-the only errors I remember us tolerating are the
appearance of what sounds like a hired coach, a reference to the Golden
Hind actually sitting in the water at Deptford (she was up on blocks),
and a joke in a sailor's mouth about a wench having a "coppered bottom"
(the Royal Navy didn't start coppering the bottoms of its ships until
much later).  Of course, our dating of bits of _Hamlet_ is purely
conjectural, but we stuck to what was not impossible- we assumed
performances in 1600, with a later revision adding "the little eyases"
topical reference, for example.

If any SHAKSPERians read it, we would be delighted to hear your opinion
of it, good or ill.

Laura Fargas

Re: Jessica

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0365  Saturday, 18 April 1998.

From:           Ben Schneider <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 17 Apr 1998 14:59:27 +0000
Subject:        Jessica

I think we should not resort to speculation about Jessica until we have
exhausted the play's own resources.  Bassiano's giving away Portia's
ring to pay back "the lawyer" is an analog of Jessica's giving away
Leah's ring to buy a monkey.  The episodes have more in common than is
at first evident.

When Shylock took Leah's ring from his finger and put it in his strong
box it immediately lost any sentimental patina it might have had and
became cash.  When Jessica spends at a rate of fourscore ducats per
sitting, as if there were no tomorrow, she commits an act of
magnificence. It is Shylock who takes thought for the morrow; he has no
interest in today.

Likewise, Bassanio flouts the sentimental significance of Portia's ring
when he takes it off his finger and gives it to "the lawyer." He does it
for his friend Antonio, who was ready to die for him, because Antonio is
deeply indebted to "the lawyer" for having saved his life.  Here we have
an act of magnificence paralleling Jessica's, but on a heroic level,
because the ring is the most valuable thing Bassanio owns, he having
given an oath to protect it with his life.  This way it becomes much
more than cash, because it magnificently requites a friend, and the
lawyer to whom the friend is very much obliged.

Both rings represent contracts, and this fact takes us to the central
argument between the Belmontese and Shylock, about whether you can own
anything.  Shylock says yes, and demands a pound of flesh for Antonio's
breach of contract. The Belmontese say no, and make a joke out of
Bassanio's breach of contract. Bassanio insists to Portia.  "If you had
been there I swear you would have given the ring to the worthy doctor,"
Of course she would have.  For she understands perfectly the bind she
put him in, and knows there was no other way out.

By their treatment of contracts you may know them.  Jessica's ring for a
monkey is a little precursor of Bassanio's ring for a friend's life.

Yours ever,
Ben Schneider

Re: RNT Othello

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0363  Saturday, 18 April 1998.

[1]     From:   Patricia Cooke <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Saturday, 18 Apr 1998 09:01:30 +1200
        Subj:   RNT Othello

[2]     From:   Tanya Gough <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Saturday, 18 Apr 1998 14:47:49 -0400
        Subj:   RNT Othello

[3]     From:   Shaul Bassi <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 00:54:21 +0200
        Subj:   SHK 9.0360: OTHELLO at BAM


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Patricia Cooke <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 18 Apr 1998 09:01:30 +1200
Subject:        RNT Othello

We have just had the Royal National Theatre production of Othello here
in Wellington and I am posting a copy of the open letter my organisation
sent to the Director of RNT Trevor Nunn, in the light of general
disappointment at the overall standard of audibility, in reply to David
Levine and Bill Cain. I apologise for length.

An open letter to the Directors of the Royal National Theatre and the
production of Othello

"Acting is the art of stopping people coughing" Anon

Dear Trevor Nunn

Your production of Othello at the recent International Festival of the
Arts here in Wellington New Zealand was eagerly anticipated.  Theatre is
very popular in this city and Shakespeare's plays are always attractive
especially among the young, who are actively involved in annual
Shakespeare Festivals through their schools (and our Centre).  The
prestigious name of the Royal National Theatre was also a draw (although
many people thought you were the RSC).

Unfortunately, yes, it has to be said, the general overall response was
one of great disappointment.

This was because of the speed and inaudibility of the speech from the
actors (except Trevor Peacock and Clifford Rose).  This may have been as
the production was originally directed for the Cottesloe which I know to
be 300+/- seats and with a thrust stage.  It was therefore a chamber
performance which did not sit well in the large proscenium arch theatre
here - and in other places, too, I guess.

I know that time and money may have made it impossible for it to be
restaged to suit the venues, but we felt a bit cheated.  Surely the
actors and stage manager could have taken the situation in hand
themselves?  Perhaps the actors had been playing for so long to
audiences for whom English was a second (or third) language that they
felt that distinguishable words were not worth bothering about.  Perhaps
you didn't know that we speak English here in New Zealand - well, sort
of.  Even the very best actor, Simon Russell Beale, appeared to be
trying to break the world-speed record for Shakespeare, which meant that
most people who did not know the play well were left behind - and cross
about it.  I felt that his performance as Iago made the whole thing
worth seeing and many agreed with me, but there was always the added
feeling that the rest should have been much, much better.

The whole play was remote, staged upstage, much along the back wall and,
with open spaces on each wing, the sound simply dissipated into thin
air.  I went twice, opening night in the gallery which is very hot and
stuffy but where the acoustic is better, and on the last night in the
front stalls where I could hear everything, but the weaknesses of the
production (and, I hate to say, some of the cast too) were even more
obvious.  Even then some people in the stalls left at half time saying
they could not hear.

I know that in many cases this means that audiences do not listen and
are not attuned to the fullness and eloquence of Elizabethan language,
but surely it is the purpose of tours such as yours to change this
attitude rather than confirm it.

Many people go to the theatre only when something prestigious arrives
and if they are disappointed by it, vow never to go to anything again,
leaving the local theatres in an even more parlous state than they are
already.  For this you must take some responsibility.

Yours in sorrow
Patricia Cooke

PS I was personally very distressed to hear the actors' comments about
the new Globe Theatre at a forum at the NZ Drama School.  They felt it
was "a worthless experiment" and, I quote, "actors have nothing to learn
from it".  I beg to differ, having been to the Globe three times and
been inspired as never before by the familiar play Henry V becoming so
much a physical part of me and everyone else in that magical and
acoustically perfect building.  All actors can benefit from working
there - if the Globe could use them."

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tanya Gough <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 18 Apr 1998 14:47:49 -0400
Subject:        RNT Othello

Funny, but what Bill Cain found understated to a fault, I found subtlety
sinister and ultimately well conveyed.  I found Iago's detachment more
frightening for its chilliness (note the moment when Emilia claims an
embrace as reward for stealing the handkerchief and is met with frozen
repugnance), and I tended to see great versatility in a stark set - a
set which used its beige tonality to function as a blank canvas on which
scenes were painted.  The addition of a wicker chair, an oriental rug
and throw pillows evoked exotic luxury, slated panels doubled as windows
or doors, a wooden table and canvas chairs were well suited the
stringency of military activities.  Cain objects to Othello's beauty -
but surely his virility is part of the attraction he holds for
Desdemona.  I had rather more problems with his ability to carry the
part: his entrance was masterful, commanding and resonated throughout
the hall, but he soon lost that sense of center stage.  I've always felt
that Othello should be a man of unquestionable power, and Desdemona a
woman of great passion (albeit naive and unaware of her own power).
Also, I disagree with Cain's comments about racism: Iago's self loathing
is primary, and all else grows from it.  His disgust at Othello is
matched by his disgust for Emilia, but I tend to think his involuntary
retching came from within.

Tanya Gough

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Shaul Bassi <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 19 Apr 1998 00:54:21 +0200
Subject: OTHELLO at BAM
Comment:        SHK 9.0360: OTHELLO at BAM

I agree with Bill Cain when he suggests that the RNT Othello reinforces
racial stereotypes. I saw the production in London last summer and
having worked extensively on the history of Othello's ethnicity I was
literally shocked to see David Harewood (Othello) beating on his chest
Tarzan-like after killing Desdemona. My impression is that the show
succumbs to such stereotypes only because it tried to evade the racial
issue, which, inevitably, has surfaced anyway. Whether one likes it or
not, the racial issue is too much part of our zeitgeist  (at least in
the US and England, much less so in Italy where the most recent
production was extremely, if undeliberately, racist) to efface it from
any performance of Othello.

Shaul Bassi (Venice, near the Sagittary)

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