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.

3 thoughts on “SHAKESPEARE ROUNDUP

  1. I caught “Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villians” by Berkoff on Amazon or Netflix – I don’t remember which. I didn’t agree with a lot of it, but it’s so hard to find interesting Shakespeare discussions here in the dreary midwest that I watched it through a couple of times. Some good stuff, some I didn’t care for.

    The Merchant of Venice is such a difficult play, for all the reasons you state. I think it is possible to overcompensate and make Shylock too sympathetic. He needs to be prickly (I mean, he is trying to kill someone), to force us all to confront our own prejudices. My own personal feeling is that the more we sympathize with Shylock, the worse Porsche looks in comparison. And I don’t want Porsche to be too flat. I do sympathize with Shylock far more than the other characters. I like performances of Merchant that challenge me, make me see Shylock as a whole person, with some characteristics that aren’t so nice.

    I agree with you that the Shakespeare Uncovered episode of Merchant is excellent, as most of them are. My only quibble with Shakespeare Uncovered is the Richard II episode with Derek Jacobi. For some crazy reason, Jacobi goes into the authorship controversy, supporting the idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. First, it’s a silly conspiracy theory, and second, I don’t care. The plays are what they are, and they’re what matter.

    Other than that, though, there is so much to love in the series. Measure for Measure is lovely, King Lear is really strong, Macbeth (a play I know you don’t like much) is dark and twisty, and even Julius Caesar, a play I have a difficult relationship with, gave me some new insights.

    Great to read your entries, as always!

    1. Like you, I also sympathize with Shylock more than the other characters. This is a tricky play because it is very hard to label characters as heroes/villains. I can’t stand most of the characters in The Merchant of Venice, indicating that it is a play that really struggles to exist in modern times. As you said, it really only works if one of the goals is to challenge the audience.

      I really didn’t like that episode on Richard II either. Derek Jacobi hangs onto the Earl of Oxford theory like no actor I have ever seen. It’s completely irrelevant to Richard II. It’s completely irrelevant, period. And I say that as someone who believes that Shakespeare wrote his own plays while acknowledging that there was some collaboration here and there. There is really nothing more classist than thinking that Shakespeare “couldn’t” have written his own plays, and the BBC should have just left it out of Shakespeare Uncovered.

      It is a really good series overall! And, wouldn’t you know it, I bought tickets to Macbeth since it’s coming to LA in July. Maybe it will change my mind!

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