Monday, November 28, 2011

Why, look you, how he doesn't storm! (The Merchant of Venice, 3.1)

To Salerio’s question, “Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh: what's that good for?” Shylock offers a reply very similar to Lear’s when Regan asks, “What need one?” to her father’s demand to be followed with such a number of “knights.”  Shylock’s “reason” for needing the flesh, then, is very similar to Lear’s ("O, reason not the need...") and to Caesar’s when telling Decius Brutus why he will not go to the Senate (“The cause is in my will”): because it is good enough for him.  It also rings of what Charles Foster Kane exclaims to his second wife when she wonders why she needs to continue with her fruitless efforts of becoming a diva: "My reasons satisfy me, Susan!"  Shylock’s reply, though, is not only ironic, but gruesome.  If Salerio and Solanio must know, then to appease them, and shock them, Shylock states, “To bait fish, withal.”

Shylock will indeed take the flesh.  His statement, however, may not only perturb the two men on the Rialto, but would most likely terrify and offend any reader or audience member, too.  But Shylock quickly gets himself out of the perhaps bad graces of his listeners and makes his reason, the use of the flesh (that which is not his own), a bit more reasonable, and understandable: “if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.”

Very astute that Shakespeare would have two of his most profound leads, Lear and Shylock, be of like mind and like ability to make quick and strong replies to questions that nag them so.  Both men suffer from what can be considered a Job-complex, even though everything that they’ve lost (that they want back: daughters, kingdom, ducats) they’ve brought about themselves.  But both want what they feel is due to them.  Both want (and get, in different ways) their day in court.  And when that happens, like Lear, whose revenges shall be the terrors of the earth, so too will Shylock’s execution of revenge “go hard” and “better the instruction.”  Each man’s sense of entitlement is not meant for others to comprehend, but to accept, abide by, and accommodate.  

Lear’s command to “reason not the need” is often read as meaning, “do not measure or calculate the need,” but can also be read and performed as meaning, “I do not need a reason,” and can be performed in a very measured way (even though the line is often taken as the precursor to the storm that begins, aptly, toward the end of this speech in 2.4 and to the great storm speech of 3.2).  Likewise, there are different ways that Shylock’s “bait fish” line can be read and performed.  Two interpretations, specifically, that come to mind are that of David Suchet and that of Patrick Stewart in the fourth episode of the Playing Shakespeare series led by John Barton in the early 80s (available on DVD).  Both men played Shylock at different times under Barton’s direction, but in this program we get to see both men perform nearly every speech made by Shylock.  As for this particular line, Suchet’s interpretation is driven by anger, and Stewart’s almost by madness or one could even say Joker-like hysterics.  Both are very interesting and suitable enough for the part.  Olivier seems to just pass over the line altogether, and not give it much emphasis.  A possible third interpretation, one that also perhaps does not require as much effusiveness as it is given by Suchet and Stewart, is more matter of fact, as if to almost say, “What difference does it make?” which speaks to the sense of entitlement described earlier.  Shylock does not immediately have to make heaven’s vault crack, as one might be inclined to have him or Lear do right off the bat, but rather maybe build up to the emphasis where it is most needed.  Hamlet’s words, as ever, remain germane: an actor ought to acquire and beget a temperance that may give the whirlwind of passion smoothness.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

When we are born (Hamlet, 5.1)

As Banquo says to Macbeth, "the instruments of darkness tell us truths."

In Hamlet, this is especially true in the graveyard scene.  Every once in a while, Shakespeare allows a protagonist to step out of his noble robes and, like Odysseus, don rags in order take what is, perhaps, a public opinion poll.  Find out what people know or think, especially about the protagonist.  Two such instances of this occur for sure in Measure for Measure and in Henry V.  Now, in Act 5 of Hamlet, the prince is not necessarily in disguise.  One wonders, then, if the Gravedigger (or Clown) knows whether or not he is actually speaking to Hamlet.  One could make a case either way.  Regardless, the Gravedigger makes a rather profound point regarding that sheds light on both the birth of Hamlet and the madness of Hamlet.  In a passage that most scholars typically use to mark the age of the prince, the Gravedigger says, in response to the question about how long he has been a "gravemaker":

Of all the days i' the year, I came to't that day
that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
How long is that since?
          Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that: it
          was the very day that young Hamlet was born; he that
          is mad, and sent into England.

Here, an interesting correspondence is made by the Gravedigger between two events, and the result of one of those events, that most likely took place right about the time of the beginning of the play: Denmark's triumph over Norway and the subsequent death of King Hamlet, which is the likely cause of Prince Hamlet's madness, however one chooses to define or describe his madness.  That moment, then, according to the Gravedigger, seems to be the moment that Hamlet was truly born: the moment that he first went mad.   

Call this an "imperial theme," then, for this idea of a connection between birth and madness is not uncommon in Shakespearean lore.  This idea certainly gains attention in King Lear.  No doubt that when the king goes mad, that is when he begins to see the world more clearly, lucidly, perhaps even more astutely.  In a man in rags, his godson Edgar as Tom O'Bedlam, Lear recognizes a "philosopher," "Theban," "Athenian."  What rational man would take for gobbledygook, King Lear, in all his crazy splendor, soon to be arrayed like the wild flowers of the field, is able to deduce wisdom in Tom's windy words.  Even Poor Tom is amazed by this. This becomes most apparent when in Act 4.6 of King Lear, Tom reinforces a point made earlier in Hamlet by Polonius that immediately and aptly precedes Lear's recognition of Gloucester:

          O, matter and impertinency mix'd! Reason in madness! 

Once  Lear states his recognition of Gloucester, he makes the compelling statement that "When we are born, we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools."  The more we live, the more distracted by the world we become that we don't even realize how foolish it is.  We get pooped and demoralized, according to the Creator of the Universe in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, by "having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn't meant to be reasonable."  O, reason not the need!  The phrase that the Duke of Venice says to Othello comes to mind: the more we "slubber the gloss" the more we lose sight, perhaps, of just how foolish the world is, of how country matters are, because we get too exhausted to even think about it when we have maybe those few precious moments away from the toiling and spinning.  One needs to officially break, go mad, in order to really see it all, understand it all, more clearly.  That is the moment that one is truly born.