HENRY IV · HENRY V · THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

SHAKESPEARE ROUNDUP

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A cloudy day in Stratford-upon-Avon, 2012.

I have not been reading any Shakespeare lately, but I have been listening, watching, and just absorbing him in all the ways I am able to, and my heart feels so big. I sometimes worry that I’ll forget, or that my feelings will lose their depth, but every time I am pulled back into Shakespeare’s orbit I enjoy the peculiar feeling of my heart inflating like a balloon.

And since I have been engaging in all this fun media, I thought I would do a roundup and talk about some of the things that have been on my mind! It might be the only way to get my heart to shrink down to its original size (a reverse-Grinch, if you will).

Shakespeare Unlimited
Shakespeare Unlimited is the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast, and I highly, highly recommend it if you’ve never listened! It isn’t perfect, but every so often you’ll find yourself listening to a total gem. Other times, well…

I had the misfortune of listening to an episode called Steven Berkoff: Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains. I love character-centric episodes because I love to harp on about Shakespeare’s characters! This episode made me so incredibly uncomfortable though, and it has a lot to do with Berkoff’s interpretation of Shylock. They played a clip of his Shylock and I was totally floored by the accent he was putting on. It was, well, terrible.

BOGAEV: How did you decide on that voice for him? Where did that come from?

BERKOFF: Well, I thought part of the reason was that Shylock today has been, and I mention in the piece, homogenized, deodorized, cleaned up, because we don’t like to, you know, infer that we are supporting him, so even some directors cut one or two lines. He says, “I hate him for he is a Christian,” they’ll cut that, they’re so dumb. So I wanted to go the reverse way.

First, I’d like to say that I’ve never seen the line “I hate him for he is a Christian,” cut out of The Merchant of Venice, and the one production I’ve been to was incredibly abridged. Second, is Shylock homogenized, deodorized, and cleaned up? This seems a stretch. All that has changed about The Merchant of Venice is the audience. We now have more empathy toward Shylock because it is a different time and we are different people. Frankly, I found this comment to be a little disrespectful to all the different interpretations of Shylock that have been brought forth by other Jewish actors.

BERKOFF: I didn’t want to, although I could have done, played him as a heroic Jew, they’re the current fashion. The philosophical Jew, the noble Jew, the Fiddler on the Roof Jew, I thought, “I want to play him as the Bard, as Shakespeare, wrote him, as disgusting, rancid, angry, filthy, dangerous.”

Look, Steven Berkoff is Jewish, so I can’t really knock the way he chooses to play Shylock. But I would like to ask how he knows what Shakespeare intended. I promise I am not being facetious. Is the heroic Jewish character really the current fashion?

The Merchant of Venice is a tough nut to crack. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was a big box office hit, and Shakespeare was trying to emulate that. But here’s the thing: he could have written a character who was outright disgusting, rancid, filthy, and what have you. He could have written it very clearly. Shakespeare needs no help with words. He’d have known how to do it. He has, after all, given us characters like Iago and Richard III. He knows what evil is.

Instead, he had Shylock challenge the audience, ask the Christians in this play to explain the logic behind their racism. I do not know what Shakespeare’s view on Jewish people was. I have no idea if he ever met any Jewish people, as they’d been banned from England in the late 1200s. But in Shylock, he gave us a complicated, three dimensional man. And when I read Merchant, I do not see him as a villain. Because he does not have to be. He is a man wronged, and despite the acidity of his demeanor, you can’t help but think that Antonio, Bassanio, and even Portia sort-of-kind-of deserve it.

I was so upset by this depiction of Shylock that I went online to find out what other controversial opinions were held by Berkoff. And, lo and behold, I found out that he thinks Othello should be an option for white actors, and that we shouldn’t cast black men in the role for the sake of ‘political correctness.’

So I think it’s safe to say that his opinion on The Merchant of Venice is now null and void. The Folger, meanwhile, needs to be more careful about who they let onto their podcast.

Shakespeare Uncovered
So, after being deeply disappointed by Shakespeare Unlimited, you find yourself wondering where you might go to find more nuanced, sensible discussions of Shakespeare. Lucky for you, Shakespeare Uncovered exists.

Shakespeare Uncovered is a documentary series that airs on PBS here in the USA. I have absolutely loved every episode I’ve watched. Discussions of the plays are incredibly detailed, and the hosts are so obviously passionate. Since we’re on the topic of The Merchant of Venice, F. Murray Abraham’s episode on the play was top notch. I watched it early one morning while getting ready for work, and the closing lines wrecked me.

ABRAHAM: The Merchant of Venice is hardly what we see as a comedy today. It’s a play with dark shadows, and the character that casts the longest one is Shylock. Shylock will not go away because we haven’t answered his questions. We can’t explain why we persecute difference, why we reject the outsider, why we still refuse to see each other’s humanity.

What a thought-provoking and intelligent interpretation of The Merchant of Venice. The episode on Measure for Measure (which, by the way, still haunts me on the daily) was also carefully written and hosted. The subject matter is delicate, the time we are in even more so, but host Romola Garai and the guests she spoke to made it clear that Measure for Measure is a difficult play with no right answers.

Because, as we know, there is no clear hero or heroine. All we have to deal with is Isabella and Angelo, the Duke and Mariana. The episode was gorgeous and interesting, much like the rest of Shakespeare Uncovered. I highly, highly recommend it! I’ve used it in the past to prep my family for plays, and it’s always been a huge help. And for someone who is well-versed in Shakespeare, it is a relaxing, thoughtful dive into our favorite plays.

The King (2019)

What is a post from me if it does not contain even one mention of Henry V? The King is an upcoming Netflix movie based on Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V. Oh, the endless possibilities! And oh, the potential for absolute disaster.

From the get-go, I was very skeptical of the casting. I think you need incredible range to play Hal, especially if you’re going to carry him through the Henriad. The shift from rebellious scoundrel to pressured king cannot be jarring. The transition needs to be smooth and natural, which is quite difficult. I thought Tom Hiddleston did a good job of it in The Hollow Crown. I saw Jamie Parker as Hal in Henry V at the Globe in 2012, and I could see glimmers of the prince I love and know so well even in what was being put on as a stand-alone play. What I’m saying is a ruffled bowl cut does not a Prince Hal of England make.

The AV Club’s synopsis more or less confirms that I am going to be hate watching this more than anything else. It goes, “Hal is a reluctant heir to the English throne who’s been living as a commoner these many years. He’s forced to take the crown, however, after his tyrannical father bites it. Now the young king must navigate the palace politics, chaos and war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life – including his relationship with his closest friend and mentor, the aging alcoholic knight, John Falstaff.”

Reluctant heir is right. But living as a commoner? I’m not sure I’d call messing around at the Boar’s Head ‘living as a commoner.’

I take the most issue with him being forced to take the crown after his tyrannical father ‘bites it.’ 4.3 in Henry IV, Part Two is an incredibly important scene, and this part of the synopsis tells me that Henry IV isn’t the only thing that’ll be biting it. Hal and Henry IV’s tension reaches its limit in 4.3, and their reconciliation is incredibly important for Hal’s character development. While Hal does have to navigate palace politics as he tries to reconcile who he is with who England expects him to be, I would not say that he is dealing with chaos and war left behind by Henry IV. 4.3 very clearly shows Henry IV telling Hal to distract the court with French wars so that they don’t have the time or energy for another uprising a la Hotspur and Northumberland.

Speaking of Hotspur, where is he?

As for Falstaff, I guess he isn’t dying anymore! If we cut out 4.3, and if we reduce Henry IV down to a tyrant, then we are getting rid of what pulls Hal toward Falstaff – the deep-rooted desire for a father figure who does not mind his rakish ways. Mentor, no. A source of validation and support, yes.

It also looks like Katherine might have more of a role in this movie, which I can’t really complain about. I did laugh out loud at her asking Hal, “Do you feel a sense of achievement?” A little on the nose there, don’t you think? Also, definitely not a line from 5.2 of Henry V!

I think the Henriad is wonderfully accessible, but we need to listen to what the source material is trying to tell us. Shakespeare has it all laid out in black and white: Hal, the struggling prince, later the struggling king. How do you make peace with your past? How do you bridge two parts of yourself while ensuring the loyalty and love of your people? How do you cope knowing that all of England has put their souls on your shoulders? Who do you grow up to be when you’ve been desperate for your father’s approval all your life?

And Falstaff: the clown, but also the crude, makeshift father figure for the unruly prince. A source of oddly put wisdom, a warm, funny place to go when the palace is too cold and the walls begin to close in.

It’s all there, and I don’t think The King went into this knowing that. But we shall see! November 1st is fast approaching, and I doubt this movie will leave my radar any time soon.

And, before I leave, all hail the King? Really? That’s the tagline they came up with for the Henriad? Talk about dark times.

PERSONAL

GIRL, BUTTERFLY, AND BUG

Stained glass in Nasir al-Mulk mosque. Shiraz, Iran.

When I was a little girl, much smaller than I am now, I went to a school called Al-Rabeeh. The school was in an old villa in Abu Dhabi and I didn’t like it very much. I used to burst into tears every time my mother would drop me off, and I cried every day until a sweet girl with cornrows sat next to me and asked me why I was so sad all the time.

I can’t remember what I answered, but I do remember that we had a deep and unwavering friendship that lasted until the sixth grade. She was the Lavender to my Matilda, but this is not a story about us. It’s a story about the playground.

Al-Rabeeh eventually moved to a proper building with a real playground, but when I started there we were still in the crumbly old villa. Children shared folktales about the villa, like the rumor about the honeycomb patterned cement wall. If you put your hand through one of the hexagonal holes, children whispered to one another on the playground, a hand would grab yours and pull. It was terrifying. Plenty of the girls and boys stuck their hands through the holes in hopes of antagonizing the ghost. I was too scared, and caution was my middle name.

Aside from the haunted wall, there was a small area off the main playground that was filled with odd, jewel-colored plastic domes. Like most of the playground, this area was shaded to protect us from the sweltering Arabian sun. But, as it always did, the heat seeped through. Crawling into one of those plastic domes was like knowingly inserting yourself into an oven. And, as none of us aspired to leave the playground a rotisserie chicken, we avoided the plastic domes. I would peek in every so often, but only because I was taken with the colors the translucent plastic would throw onto the playground walls. Like stained glass, which I had only ever seen in books about churches and old, crumbling things.

Near the edge of the plastic dome farm sat a tree. It was an odd place for a tree, out of the sun and isolated. One day, I wandered into the dome area to look at the colors and to enjoy a little bit of quiet. I’ve always been attracted to quiet, which is why I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence hiding in school libraries. Because I was very small, and because there were no adults to watch me, I was not allowed to sit in the library alone. If I wanted peace and quiet, I had to go to the plastic domes. So I went, usually when the others felt like tempting the ghosts that haunted the cement wall.

On this particular day, I went to the tree. I was an odd child, always silent and watchful. I was so quiet that, when we lived in South Carolina for a bit, school officials came to my family home to make sure I wasn’t being mistreated. My mother was flabbergasted and offended, but apparently my habit of not interacting with the other children and hiding away with books was not normal. That was before Al-Rabeeh, before Abu Dhabi. Nobody in Abu Dhabi really cared. In fact, I was the ideal Arab student: quiet and obedient.

So I quietly examined the tree, taking a close look at the gnarled bark and tracing the bumps with my fingers. The plastic domes cast their rainbow light over the tree, and the heat seeped into my red-collared shirt. I contemplated joining the other kids at the haunted wall, but then I saw it: a pair of gossamer wings jutting out of a hole in the tree.

What a dilemma.

I reasoned I could do one of two things: I could pull at the wings, or I could leave the bug alone. I didn’t like bugs, I didn’t want to hurt this particular bug, it could be trapped, I could be leaving it to die – when I mentioned my middle name, I forgot to add thatĀ cautious was hyphenated with overthinker. I agonized over these tiny, glimmering wings, feeling slightly offended that my quiet time with Al-Rabeeh’s plastic jewels had been interrupted by a philosophical and moral debacle. I think it took me a good twenty minutes to decide what to do – but twenty minutes to an elementary school student may as well be a full twenty hours. Having retreated deeper into the dome valley, I returned to the tree, took a deep breath, and pulled as gently as I could at the wings.

The little butterfly had been stuck after all, trapped by the sap that filled theĀ tiny hole. I was gentle enough not to hurt it, and it fluttered around me. It was a brown little thing, certainly not the most remarkable looking butterfly in the world, but I was not one to judge, having grown up feeling like the most unremarkable person in the world anyway. As a final parting gift, the butterfly decided to land right on the tip of my nose. I froze, very worried about a bug touching me with its spindly little legs, and also because I knew, deep in my very young soul that felt very old and tired already, that I was being thanked in the way that suited me best: silently.

A few months ago, I came home from work and I picked up a mug by my bedside table. It was filled with the quintessential Middle Eastern drink: laban. I lifted the mug to take a sip and caught sight of a black dot, stark against all the white.

It was a bug. Not a butterfly with soft little fairy wings, but an average, run-of-the-mill bug. I peered into my mug for a moment, wondering how disgusted I was supposed to feel, when I was suddenly gripped with an intense memory: the plastic domes, the gnarled tree, the unremarkable butterfly.

I went to my kitchen and used a spoon to fish the bug out of my laban, and I walked it out onto the balcony where I gently placed it on the concrete in a puddle of milk-but-not-really.

It didn’t take me twenty minutes this time. And, wouldn’t you know, the little thing dried in the cool breeze and took off, disappearing into the Los Angeles night like the butterfly, albeit on a different continent, had done all those years ago.