I’m in the mood for Shakespeare today—but not for any of his 154 sonnets.
Even the painfully honest one.
I’d much rather talk about his plays, which are poetry to our modern ears anyway, in rhyme and in rhythm—and also, sometimes, in confusion.
Anyone who’s been forced to read Romeo & Juliet or Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet or MacBe The Scottish Play in high school or college knows how difficult it can be without an annotated script or a handy copy of the OED.
That’s partly because language doesn’t like to sit still and more than three hundred years ( and the occasional ocean) separates our lingo from Shakespeare’s, and partly because plays are written to be performed, preferably by people who understand what they’re saying, so that they can communicate the meaning to the audience, even without a program.*
But even then, some things can still stutter in translation. The cultural differences alone can make it tough going, even without the language: biting one’s thumb at someone—like Sampson did to Gregory in Romeo & Juliet**— is fairly easy to figure out, especially in context, but other things . . . like the motivations of characters, and some of the jokes, aren’t.***
I have a theory that the closer a staging of Shakespeare is to our time, even if the language remains Elizabethan, the easier our understanding will be.
Archetypes aside, maybe that’s why people can’t stop messing with his stuff . . . Then again, theater doesn’t much like sitting still, either.
One of my favorite versions of Much Ado About Nothing^ is Kenneth Branagh’s film, which is set in an Italian villa in the time period in which the play took place. Because this is a Branagh production, it is ruthlessly accurate, full of gorgeous pageantry, and includes—or so I’m told, as I don’t watch these things with my Folger Library copies handy—every blessed line.
And it does work.
Benedick and Beatrice are tricked by their friends into admitting they love each other, Don John is evilly manipulative—and wooden, ‘cause Keanu—Hero is slut-shamed at her own wedding for something she didn’t do (and never has done), Claudio is guilt-ridden, Leonato is vengeful, Dogberry is an ass, love triumphs over all and there’s a Hey Nonny Nonny village spiral line dance at the end.
If some of the lines aren’t entirely comprehensible—looking at you, Mr. Keaton—they’re certainly lovely to hear in those pretty accents.
But now I’ve seen Joss Whedon’s version. Which is set as a kind of modern black and white noir piece in the highest of political, social—and possibly not-quite-legal—circles. With guns and paparazzi and photo ops and dear Lord, the social drinking:
The lines have been trimmed a bit—nothing major—but the language is the same, if spoken in unapologetic American accents. And the plot remains.
And it makes sense to me in a way that the previous version doesn’t, even though I know this play pretty well.
The backstory for Benedick and Beatrice’s mutual verbal abuse is given more support and their scenes together play off this history—they can hurt each other, and have, and they protest(eth) too much because their pride and defense mechanisms won’t either of them be the first to cry pax.
Their affair, for which there were only personal repercussions, helps change Hero’s alleged crime from the loss of her virginity to the shocking indiscretion of sleeping with another man the night before the wedding—and makes her claims to still be a virgin a defense (“I’ve never slept with anyone, much less this mystery man”) instead of reassurances of a still-intact prize.
This is an interpretation that works really with the more modern (and heavily wet-barred) setting. Of course, Claudio is still a young, ineffective jerk who reacts badly and all too publically when he assumes, without confronting her—and/or immediately storming up to her room with that gun he’s packing—that Hero has betrayed him. He wants to punish her, and he does.
I’m still not sure that’s love, but I can’t say it’s not realistic.
And I really appreciate Leonato’s reaction to his daughter’s supposed behavior in this one. It’s less of a traditional (and physically violent) rejection of Hero and more the explosive rant of a powerful, loving father caught between the severe damage this public embarrassment will do to him politically and sheer, disbelieving heartbreak.^^
The minor characters have their adjusted motivations, too: Dogberry is a cop who thinks he’s far smarter than he is, but is honestly trying to do a good job and is deeply hurt when Conrad (a woman here, which gives her devotion to Don John a much different interpretation) disses him. ^^^
Even Borachio has a more . . .twisted . . . motivation than a spear-carrier (ahem) playing a practical joke.
Not that Mr. Branagh messed up—he absolutely didn’t—-but this is an interpretation that makes sense to me, all the way through, plot points to complicated speeches—no OED required.
Sure, a little more common sense from Claudio would be nice, but that’s just a pet peeve of mine and would change the source material perhaps a tad too far.
Just to add a touch of “standard” poetry to this post (your standards, as always, may vary), here’s the “Sigh No More” poem from the play, which Emma Thompson read—beautifully—as a sort of foreshadowing prologue to Mr. Branagh’s film:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into, “Hey nonny, nonny.”
Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
Or dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leavy.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into, “Hey, nonny, nonny.”
And here is Mr. Whedon’s film’s interpretation:
It’s nice to have options, isn’t it?
Have you seen Whedon’s version, yet?
What did you think?
Or will you now?
*Samuel Beckett excepted, as I doubt anyone who has ever performed Waiting for Godot has understood their lines.
**Yeah, I had to look them up, too—I thought Tybalt was involved, but no, just spear-carrying (thumb-carrying?) servants giving each other the 17th Century version of the finger. Regardless, this does illustrate the baseline maturity levels of most of the characters in this story. You don’t have to be a teenager to embody this level of passion, drama, and blazing stupidity—anyone remember the Jerry Springer Show?—and not all teenagers do, of course, but everything made more sense to me once I paid attention to the ages of the MCs: Juliet was thirteen and Romeo was about seventeen. I don’t care how much the mortality rate and cultural differences shifted the age of majority—this is not a play for, or about, grown-ups.
***Which is why most schools don’t start with, say, Troilus and Cressida, because day-umn.
^ Aside from a Victorian-set production I saw in Stratford, Ontario maybe fifteen years ago, where Benedick and Beatrice were each about sixty or so. It was an amazing performance, and at the end, when each was given the love sonnet the other had secretly written, they both stepped forward and pulled out reading glasses. It brought the house down and earned them a standing ovation.
^^Full Disclosure: I’m in deep, abiding brainlove with Clark Gregg, but even if I wasn’t, I’m pretty sure I would have cried over this scene, because his performance was perfect.
^^^He also enunciates and doesn’t rush. I’m just sayin’. Good job, Mr. Fillion