Thursday, January 01, 2009

I still don’t like Shakespeare

Beginning of December I excerpted some comments by John McWhorter about the extent the language has changed since Shakespeare wrote. Perhaps it’s that I don’t understand his words – perhaps that’s why I don’t like Shakespeare.

Inspired himself by McWhorter’s discussion of Shakespeare, Kent Richmond has been translating Shakespeare plays into contemporary English. A nearby library has one of them, King Lear, so I requested it. I’d never read King Lear so it would be wholly fresh for me. Yes, I knew a bit of the plot – Lear divides his kingdom between his daughters but they betray him and he ends up wandering the moors raving, accompanied by his sharp-tongued fool (jester). Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a version of King Lear and I liked that all right, except for the fool who was just annoying.

So? Now that I’ve read Shakespeare in fully comprehensible English? Well, Richmond uses contemporary vocabulary but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to figure out what’s being said, so it’s maybe not fully comprehensible, but close enough, you know, if it’s good stuff. Is it good stuff?

It’s a tragedy, right? Everybody – just about – comes to a bad end. So you gotta expect that going in.

But, you know, in order for it really to be tragic, you gotta feel like the miseries are undeserved. When we meet Lear in the very first scene he’s a total asshole, ordering his daughters to outbid each other in dishonest praise of himself. When one balks (she’s got integrity!), he abrupty disinherits her and banishes her from the kingdom – and she, supposedly, is his favorite! Even allowing that the old guy is going senile, and he seldom makes a sensible decision throughout, this behavior is pretty egregious. When the daughters who buttered him up start cutting back on his allowance and he acts like he’s been stabbed in the heart, it’s darn hard to feel sorry for him. You disinherited your daughter and threw her out of the kingdom on pain of death and now you’re sobbing about being denied a few retainers? Dude, you deserve whatever you’re going to get. And I hope it’s bad.

Sadly, it’s bad. Bad as in ridiculous. I could see staging this thing as a comedy but as a tragedy? Two different characters hide in plain sight by changing clothes. One joins Lear and the fool in a mad rave-fest on the stormy moor. Presumably the language isn’t supposed to make sense in these scenes so the original is missed because it sounded exotic not just huh? (Or so I want to allow.)

One character or another tells us Lear is a great guy, yet the assertion is contradicted by his actions. Maybe if one of his character witnesses said something like, “This is so unlike Lear! Remember when he saved the little girl from drowning? Or what about when he opened the royal granaries the year of the famine?” With this Lear it’d be easy to imagine him having a starving mother dragged in and strapped to a chair so she could watch him eat ice cream and throw darts at her bawling infant.

Kent has wondered if maybe I’m being too harsh on Shakes.

To which my reply is: one cannot be too harsh on Shakespeare. His reputation is godlike. Nothing I say will disturb it. Nor is it incumbent upon me to contort myself and betray my brain in order to love him, or tolerate him, for that matter.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

From what I remember about the "traditional" definition of tragedy it wasn't that I was supposed to feel bad for the main character or that their tragic end was undeserved. The protagonist was supposed to be possessed of a Tragic flaw that drove him to his end - MacBeth had ambition, Oedipus had to find the truth, Othello was jealous and I guess King Lear was an asshole. From what I remember of most Classic Tragedies they all had protagonists whose company I'd want to avoid. Kind of how most Classic Heroes are big, boastful bullies. Different times.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

From Wikipedia: "Many have linked these plays to Aristotle's precept about tragedy: that the protagonist must be an admirable but flawed character, with the audience able to understand and sympathize with the character. Certainly, all of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists are capable of both good and evil."

Lear is never once admirable. At best he's pathetic. But the machinations of the plot are often ridiculous so it's hard to anything but laugh as the atrocities pile on.

I remember reading "Antigone" and being impressed that an old Greek play affected me. I felt for Antigone, who wanted to bury her brother's body so that he could be at rest in the underworld. It seemed like a pretty reasonable request, frankly.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

Ah. I'd missed (or forgotten) the part about the protagonist being admirable.

Unknown said...

I don't think I was the one who said you were too hard on Shakespeare. It is only today--1/22--that I have read any of your posts.

I'm thrilled that you read my translation. I am also glad that you found it a challenge. Shakespeare was trying to be a bit difficult, and I did not want to want to simplify him. That has already been done in the side-by-side/facing page translations.

By the way, Glenn is right that the atrocities pile on. But he may be misjudging Lear. He behaves abysmally toward all three daughters, even the wicked ones, but Lear is characterized numerous times as "kind." His affection toward the downtrodden later in the play is deserving of some admiration.

When I was a kid in college, the professor said Lear's flaw was that he wanted to be treated like a king without taking on the responsibilities of being one. If you combine that with Lear's bad temper and his advancing senility, you have an effective vehicle for exploring a successful and admirable man's collapse.

Kent Richmond

Glenn Ingersoll said...

ah Kent! You got hung up on a coincidence -- my partner's name is Kent! 'Twas he who defended the ol' bard.

Judging Lear I'm certainly doing. Misjudging? "He behaves abysmally toward all three daughters, even the wicked ones, but Lear is characterized numerous times as
'kind.'" As I note in the blog post above, Lear is repeatedly called "kind" by other characters in the play but he only displays a hint of kindness after he's gone totally demento. This is a hallmark of bad writing -- telling us something but never demonstrating it.

I have no problem with your professor's Lear flaw, except that it is only one of many, so many that it is not really a flaw, rather any redeeming feature would be the flaw in Lear's perfect awfulness. What did he ever do that was admirable? Name one thing.

Unknown said...

King Lear gave his kingdom to his daughters. That was kind. In fact, Kent and Gloucester are impressed in the very first scene with how equally he divided it. As for the marriages he arranged for his daughters, 2 out of 3 seemed satifactory (Albany and France).

Then all hell breaks loose.

And don't forget the Gloucester, Edmund/Edgar subplot that mirrors and intersects with Lear's struggles. Both plots have touching, revealing moments and contain some of the best dramatic poetry ever written. Meanwhile, a fascinating philosophical discussion on nature, need, and kindness weaves itself through the play without getting in the way of the plot. It works brilliantly and shows what Shakespeare was capable of at the height of his powers.

And what a cast of vivid characters. "Out vile jelly. Where is thy luster now?" When performed well, that scene where Gloucester loses his eyes is still shocking. People in the audience cry.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Back to defend Shakie from the philistine's darts, eh, Mr Richmond?

In a comment above you say your professor believed Lear wanted to be treated like a king but didn't want the responsibility. That sounds like a more plausible motivation for his dividing the kingdom between his daughters than kindness.

Arranging satisfactory marriages? It could have been worse? That's evidence of kindness? Even allowing that the husbands were initially pleased with the bargain (half a kingdom & a wife!), the bargain proved poor.

I haven't forgotten Edgar, Edmund, and their credulous father. The man, blinded, can't recognize the voice of his son? The son leads Dad to an imaginary cliff then tells the suicide that (a miracle!) the fall wasn't fatal? This is touching? This is freaky.

You add, "a fascinating philosophical discussion on nature, need, and kindness weaves itself through the play [which] works brilliantly and shows what Shakespeare was capable of at the height of his powers." What play was this? Either it wasn't the play I read or the "fascinating philosophical discussion" was conducted in a code I couldn't crack.

I imagine I would find somebody's eyes being ripped out and stomped on rather shocking. Isn't that a gimme?

Hey, I read the dude, I'll read him again, prob'ly. But whenever I read him I come away less impressed. It's not that he's incapable of a good line -- Shakie cranks out fun quips and he's got a good ear -- but ... considering his rep he ought not to need someone else to make the case for him. It should be there in the work.

Unknown said...

You are setting up straw men. You are trying to get me to argue that Lear made no mistakes and that Shakespeare's disguises are always plausible(though remember that the action is supposed to be in pitch black night where disguises may work better, and voices are easily disguised, especially by talented actors). For about 200 years after Shakespeare's time, dramatists tried to fix these parts of Shakespeare's plays. But modern critics are willing to overlook the sillier features of Elizabethan drama and focus on what makes Shakespeare stand above the rest.

By the way, in the 19th century, there was a thriving industry of people who made fun of Shakespeare. They wrote spoofs called Shakespeare Travesties that poked fun at the plays, much as you are doing now.

The nature/need/kindness discussion is certainly there, and it is not in code. Shakespeare used the words natural/unnatural/nature over 40 times, need/necessity nearly 30 times, and kind/kindness/kindly over 20 times. I forgot about the "nothing" theme—that word appears about 35 times. I won't argue whether these themes are fascinating or not, but they are most certainly there.

I wouldn't be so anxious to sell Shakespeare short. You will end up resorting to mockery when the evidence builds against you—or worse yet, purposely misunderstanding others' arguments so that you can then mock them. If you want to knock Shakespeare down a bit, remember that he wrote 15-20 mediocre plays and a few terrible ones that you are welcome to pick on.

And also remember that you do not need reasons for not liking Shakespeare. You just don't enjoy him. I have never cared for opera, but I still recognize that those people can sing. My wife does not enjoy NBA basketball, but it is not because she thinks the athletes are no good. I am translating Shakespeare because I do not fully enjoy him either. I think he's too good not to be enjoyed, and I want to do something about it.

Kent Richmond

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Not a good idea to accuse someone of "setting up a straw man" then hoist one's own. I have no interest in your arguing that Lear made no mistakes. Such an argument would be ridiculous. I would never make it. No human being, even the best, gets through life without making mistakes. It insults me to claim that's what I want out of Shakespeare. You've lost track of what I've written and are starting to imagine things.

Let me shake off my umbrage so we can go on. I appreciate the little history lesson. That "For about 200 years after Shakespeare's time, dramatists tried to fix [the silly] parts of Shakespeare's plays." Nice to know.

And this is fun, too: "[I]n the 19th century, there was a thriving industry of people who made fun of Shakespeare. They wrote spoofs called Shakespeare Travesties that poked fun at the plays, much as you are doing now."

I like that you came by my obscure little blog and taught me a thing or two. But do hold the condescension. I am fully aware that my likes influence my reactions -- we could add to your opera example everything from the preparation of foods one doesn't like to the crafting of repellent textiles -- so what? I gave a reading of King Lear in the context of my learning, my tastes, my times. I was not writing a scholarly essay locating Shakes in his time, addressing his education or that of his contemporaries, or exploring the conventions he inherited. There are all sorts of things I wasn't doing, and I am good with that. Shakes is long dead; his feelings won't be hurt. And I'm not going to spare a moment to worry about damage to his reputation caused by my poor opinion.

Anonymous said...

I've tried very hard to like Shakespeare. I've watched numerous productions by renowned companies and often enjoyed them, though this was often despite rather than because of the play itself.
It seems to be blasphemous to not appreciate the bard. My experience is that the plots are often badly chosen (he is said to have taken them from other sources) the action is implausible and chaotic, and the comedies are just not funny. I'm sure this was very different when the plays were written, but why should that mean I have to like it in 2016?

It's an interesting project of Kent's, to translate the plays into modern language, but I do wonder whether the result will have any merit at all. It seems to be helping to demystify the plays and I thank Glen for being the kid to shout out that the emperor has no clothes.