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Henry IV, Part Two

March 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The second half of Shakespeare's Henry IV is difficult to stage, to say the least. It is an incredibly long play as well as staging scenes in thirteen different locations. It's ambitious goal was to develop characters. Shakespeare is one of the first to take an old style farce and develop these tropes into characters. Therefore, Henry IV, Part Two includes characters such as Silence, Feeble, Shadow, Mouldy and Wart. Interaction with these comedic characters further develops the characters we met in the first half of Henry IV, such as Falstaff, the Lord Chief Justice, and, of course, Henry V (Prince Harry). The names are funny, ironic, and serious, all of which adds to the development of the characters that interact with them. The New Cambridge Edition of Shakespeare's complete plays (1942) gives the following analysis of this play. They write:

“Whatever may be thought of the comparative merit of the historical scenes, there is no decline in the part of the play carried by Falstaff. The conversations between him and the Chief Justice, the Tavern riots in which Mrs. Quickly is developed from the sketch in Part I and Doll Tearsheet and Pistol are added to the group, and the scenes with Shallow and Silence in Gloucestershire are among the greatest triumphs of Shakespearean comedy. The part played by the Prince in these is a diminishing one, the dramatist clearly preparing him and us for his final withdrawal. When this occurs in the great scene following the coronation and the reconciliation with the Lord Chief Justice, the transformation of the wild prince into the hero-king is complete. This had obviously been contemplated by Shakespeare from the first and was, of course, inevitable. Yet few episodes in these plays have been more bitterly resented than the rejection of Falstaff. Much argument has been waged in attack and defense, all of which goes to show how completely and perhaps uniquely Shakespeare has succeeded in producing in his greatest comic creation the absolute illusion of reality.”

Add to that, the fact that this play relies upon slang language much more heavily than previous plays. This localized language is one more tool in the effective development of characters. For example, much of the play takes place away from royalty, in taverns, on the streets or even one poor residential home. Difficult language adds to the difficulty of reading the play and requires the curious reader to look up many terms. For example, the banter between Mistress Quickly and Falstaff is sarcastic, biting and witty. The tone is clear, regardless of whether one understands the actual terms, yet it is difficult to ascertain exactly what their insults mean without notes. Below, I have listed a few examples of curses common to the day, and no longer in use.

"Hostess [Quickly]: By my troth, this is the old fashion; you two never meet but you fall into some discord. You art both, I' good truth, as rheumatic as two dry toasts; you cannot one bear with another's confirmities. What the good-year! One must bear, and that must be you; you are the weaker vessel, as they say, the emptier vessel." (Act II, Scene iv, 60-66)   What the good year! = a common expletive

“Prince: This Doll Tearsheet should be some road.” (Act II, Scene iii, 183)  road = harlot

“Falstaff: Away, varlets! Draw, Bardolph; cut me off the villain's head. Throw the quean in the channel.” (Act II, scene i, 50-52)  varlet = dishonest or unprincipled man or someone acting as if a servant, false servant; quean = hussy; channel = gutter

“Page: Away, you scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe.” (Act II, scene i, 65-66)  scullion = servant assigned the most menial tasks in the kitchen; rampallian = villain, rascal; catastrophe = end, backside

Why did Shakespeare choose such language for the second half of Henry IV? Hal increasingly becomes kingly, and the reader sees this transformation in his language, style, education and affiliations. He no longer pals around with Falstaff. On the other hand, Falstaff continues to swagger, to boast, to command a handful of poor beggars, and to drink. This continuance of character is expected, which perhaps makes Henry V's condemnation of Falstaff all the more striking and painful. When the King banishes Falstaff, the reader hopes that Falstaff will eventually gain esteem again.

The 2013 BBC film version offered incredible cuts to make the film possible, believable and narratively tight. The writers melded scenes together in a way that made a lot of sense. Difficult language does not intrude on the film version because the actors enhanced body language and facial expressions. In addition, the movie successfully employed usual tactics such as sound, colors and set design. This play lacks the action of the other three in the series, but it was never intended to have battles and Hotspurs. Rather, this play focuses on the internal political battles between Prince Harry and Henry IV, and Henry V and Falstaff.

Thanks to all of those who discussed it in our ongoing Harrison Middleton University Film Series. I look forward to Henry V in April. For more information, email rfisher@hmu.edu.

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Film Review: Little Dorrit

November 18, 2016

Thanks to Peter Ponzio, Doctor of Arts, Harrison Middleton University, for the following film review of the 2008 BBC production of Little Dorrit.

Charles Dickens was a prolific author, penning some fifteen  novels, hundreds of articles, editing two periodicals (Household Words and All the Year Round) as well as editing two newspapers, Bentley’s Miscellany and The Daily News.  In addition to his authorial and editing duties, Dickens gave numerous speeches and spent the last several years of his life touring Great Britain and North America giving readings of his most popular works.

The sheer complexity of his novels, their length (an average of some 800 pages), as well as the profusion of characters makes the transition from novel to screen a difficult undertaking.  A number of adaptations have been attempted with varying degrees of success.  Three of his mature novels, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, have been adapted by the BBC to critical and commercial success.  The current review will focus on the BBC production of Little Dorrit in 2008, which was originally released for television in fourteen episodes.

A listing of the primary characters and the actors who portray them, will provide a feel for the complexity of the novel and the profusion of Dickensian characters: 

Actor                                   Character

  1. Claire Foy                           Little Dorrit
  2. Matthew Macfadyen           Arthur Clenham
  3. Tom Courtenay                  William Dorrit
  4. James Fleet                       Frederick Dorrit
  5. Emma Pierson                   Fanny Dorrit
  6. Judy Parfitt                        Mrs. Clenham
  7. Andy Serkis                      Rigaud/Lagnier/Blandois
  8. Alun Armstrong                Flintwinch
  9. Eddie Marsan                  Pancks
  10. Amanda Redman            Mrs. Merdle
  11. Anton Lesser                   Mr. Merdle
  12. Sebastian Armesto         Edmund Sparkler
  13. Russell Tovey                 John Chivery
  14. Ron Cook                       Chivery
  15. Georgia King                  Pet Gowan
  16. Alex Wyndham              Henry Gowan
  17. Bill Paterson                  Mr. Meagles
  18. Janine Duvitsky             Mrs. Meagles
  19. Maxine Peake                Miss Wade
  20. Freema Agyeman          Tattycoram
  21. Zubin Varla                    Daniel Doyce

The novel explores a number of themes that recur throughout Dickens novels, and indeed, in a number of other Victorian novels.  These themes include the lack of proper parenting, the class distinctions that permeate Victorian society, the deplorable conditions of the debtors’ prisons, the almost slavish worship of money as a panacea for society’s ills, the uselessness of charitable societies and organized religion to ameliorate the conditions of the poor, and the nepotism masquerading as an effective political structure in Victorian England.

Given the number of characters and themes present in the novel, it would seem that the BBC production would have a difficult time capturing the complexity and tone of the novel.  Yet despite its relatively modest run time of approximately eight hours, the BBC production manages to convey the atmosphere of early Victorian London while adhering to Dickens’s sometimes labyrinthine plotline.

The pacing of the movie is aided by the cinematography which conveys the bustle and squalor of the seamier sections of London, such as Bleeding Heart Yard and the House of Clenham.  The tight shots of the rooms in the Marshalsea help to convey an atmosphere of claustrophobia, reinforcing Dickens’s vision of the city as a prison.  Likewise, the opulence of the Merdle household and the scenes in Venice depict a society that is riven by class distinction.  It is clear from these scenes of London and Italian social life that there is a sharp divide between the rich and the poor, at least when it comes to material comfort.

As the movie nears its conclusion, the scenes in Venice take on a more constricted look, emphasized by the tight shots of the crowd at Mrs. Merdle’s Venetian banquet and William Dorrit’s confinement to his room before he dies.  Similarly, when Mr. Merdle ventures to a public bath which is inhabited by denizens of the poorer areas of London, and with his subsequent death, the viewer is reminded that the apparent differences between the rich and poor in London are somewhat tenuous.  Mr. Merdle, in particular, seems to be a man who is in the public eye but is uncomfortable with his station in society; he inhabits a no-man’s land between the rich and poor, the affluent and destitute.  Several other characters inhabit the same no-man’s land as Mr. Merdle, traveling back and forth between riches and penury.  The list of such characters includes Arthur Clenham, Pancks, Daniel Doyce, Mrs. Clenham, and of course Mr. William Dorrit.

Little Dorrit understands the thin veil that separates the upper and lower classes.  While in Venice, she muses that there is little difference between the Marshalsea Prison and the self-erected prisons of polite society as well as the prisons erected by Mrs. Clenham, Miss Wade and Mr. Rigaud.

As for the attempts of religion to ameliorate society’s ills, the portrayal by Judy Parfitt of Mrs. Clenham makes it quite clear that her rigidity and Old Testament morality leave little room for comfort or spiritual growth for herself as well as for other members of society.  Indeed, Mrs. Clenham cannot grow; she is trapped in a prison of her own making and the final scene of the House of Clenham is of Mrs. Clenham’s wheelchair poised above a ruined domicile.

The ability of governmental institutions to help the poor is also limited.  The Circumlocution Office is depicted as a series of winding staircases leading to nowhere, flanked on all sides by reams of paper scattered haphazardly over everything.  There is no rhyme or reason to the Circumlocution Office; it exists mainly to afford appointment to connected, inept officials who accomplish nothing yet are well paid for their incompetence.

The depiction of Rigaud/Lagnier/Blandois by Andy Serkis is, by any standard, over the top:  Dickens would have loved it.  Dickens had an eye for the macabre and melodramatic; Serkis certainly delivers in these two departments.  The plight of John Chivery, rejected by Amy Dorrit, reads somewhat comically in the novel.  Yet, Russel Tovey’s performance, while emphasizing the bathetic nature of the character, somehow evokes a feeling of sympathy for this heroic-comic figure.  Sebastian Armesto injects the proper degree of innocent incompetence into the character of Edmund Sparkler, while Emma Pierson portrays Fanny Dorrit as a self-satisfied, venal and manipulative social climber who traps the unsuspecting Sparkler into marriage.  Amanda Redmand’s portrayal of Mrs. Merdle is spot-on, combining equal portions of haughtiness, venality and loathing of those in lower social stations. Dickens attacks her character mercilessly in the novel.

The three primary characters in the novel, William Dorrit, Arthur Clenham and Amy Dorrit are admirably played by Tom Courtenay, Matthew Macfadyen and Claire Foy, respectively. Tom Courtenay’s performance as William Dorrit is brilliant, alternating between fawning servility and injured superciliousness often within the same scene.  Matthew Macfadyen strikes the right note as the sensitive, emotionally stunted Arthur Clenham who believes that he has lost the ability to love as a result of his repressive upbringing and advancing years.  Claire Foy imbues the character of Little Dorrit with a self-effacing, kind, and noble character that Dickens so often attempted to portray in his female characters.

It is difficult to effectively present the idea of goodness existing in an evil world, yet the novel Little Dorrit attempts to do just this.  The BBC production of Little Dorrit helps bring Dickens’s creation of a prison world to life; a world inhabited by flawed people, some of whom are truly good.  The novel ends with Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham married and inhabiting this flawed world.  They make their way in life in much the same way as Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the garden; inhabiting a fallen world attempting to bring sweetness and light to their fellow creatures.

This review was originally published in Harrison Middleton University's fall 2016 newsletter.

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FILM REVIEW: Macbeth

March 18, 2016

Permit us this one final post on the thrill of living in the world of William Shakespeare. Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays. And yet, the dramatizations of it are often quite long. In order to make the character believable, the director must find a motivation for Macbeth's downward spiral. The 2015 film, directed by Justin Kurzel, offers a refreshing view on one of Shakespeare's classic figures. Filmed in Scotland, it also offers incredible scenery.

Kurzel's version begins with the death of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's child. The unique and solemn beginning offers insight into the mindframe of Macbeth. Later (after Duncan's murder), as Macbeth sits idly in his room, stirring dust with his dagger, Lady Macbeth asks him what he is doing. He replies that she should know only the necessary things, and not this newest deed in his mind. He goes so far as to point his dagger into the bodice of Lady Macbeth's gown. Circling the dagger over her womb directs us back to the first scene and the funeral pyre. Losing a child is inexplicable and painful, but now Macbeth has lost an heir. Further, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are beginning to realize what they sacrificed when they grabbed at their one opportunity for something greater than themselves. With thoughts turned towards his legacy, Macbeth feels that Banquo, his good friend, is the newest threat. Skilled only in the art of defense, Macbeth clearly lacks (or has lost) reason necessary to deal with the intricate responsibilities that accompany leadership.

Kurzel's film also surprises with the addition of a silent, young witch. She accompanies the other three and even touches Macbeth. This compelling image darkly aligns with the death of Macbeth's own child. While she does not speak, she does appear at key parts of the film. In fact, she comes to rescue Banquo's son, the distant heir to the throne (also part of the witches' prophecy), from Macbeth's hired murderers. Her innocence starkly contrasts the darkness of the deeds.

The witches are endlessly fascinating. Within them, they contain the idea of fate, control, happiness, and spirituality. I tend to think of the witches as devoid of emotion. Instead, they are fulfillment. They are purpose. They are fate. Shakespeare's original text offers a sort of madness about them, which, to me, does not align with any consistent human emotion. They have incredible power, directing the thoughts (and therefore, the actions) of brave men, of entire kingdoms. If Macbeth had not been tempted to this place of power, it is unlikely that he would have fallen. On his own, he would not have committed this major, egregious mistake. In other words, did the witches realize a truth about Macbeth that would otherwise be indemonstrable?

This solitary meeting on the Scottish heath circled through Macbeth's mind so much so that it controlled every future move. And as a result, Macbeth gains an understanding of virtue, but only after it has been entirely stripped from him. Did the witches intend to sacrifice one person in order to demonstrate virtue? It is difficult to define the phantoms' roles, but Kurzel's invention of the fourth witch was entirely new, surprising and thought-provoking.

Kurzel's film also utilizes the Scottish landscape as a character. Winds blow as they light the funeral pyre for Macbeth's child. The witches seem to rise out of the cold, hard ground, or roll in upon the fog. Its grueling chill and barren stretches overtake Macbeth's victory march. And when Macbeth orders the death of Macduff's family, the landscape seems to weep as does Lady Macbeth. And finally, Macbeth meets his end in the orange glow of battle, in an orange glow of rage and defeat. The landscape is mysterious and brutal. It is breathtaking.

At the end of the play, Macbeth fears being made a fool. After he learns of Lady Macbeth's death, he fully realizes the horror of his mistake. He says: “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more: it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” Macbeth refuses to leave his life completely devoid of valor. Therefore, compelled by fate, character or persistence, Macbeth says, “bear-like, I must fight the course.” This is Macbeth's only path towards reclaiming virtue.

Kurzel's film version adds a newness to a much loved, but much played story. The director's eye along with the scenery and actors' abilities allow for additional conversation of a complex play.

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