Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

This is from the Hogarth Shakespeare series, modern retellings of Shakespeare stories by well-known authors. I’ve read a couple from the series and this is by far my favorite, which makes sense because I love Atwood so much. It’s The Tempest. Prospero is Felix Phillips, a theater director who has been cast out from his regional theater and is now teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. He hatches a plot to teach the politicians who took his theater job from him a lesson when they visit the prison. There are at least 3 layers of play-within-a-play. It’s funny, redemptive, and has a happy ending. It’s kind of a master class in the multiple interpretations of Shakespeare’s play, as well. Felix teaches his students that all The Tempest’s characters are in a prison in one way or several ways. It’s a very appropriate and creative recasting of the old story.

Two Gentlemen of Verona

On Saturday I attended and read Two Gentlemen of Verona at Shakespeare Allowed in the Nashville downtown library.One of the most fun parts of reading a play in a group like this is when everyone reacts at the same time to the humor or irony or sentiment in a line. This one is a shorter play, and full of delightful jokes, especially with the servants Launce and Steel. The group enjoyed their puns and verbal battles. When the dialog is rapid-fire like that, it goes around the circle quickly, and no one has the anxiety of turning the page to see you’re going to be the one reading the longest, most complex speech in the play.

I think somehow I missed reading this one in my education, because it felt new and fresh, and I was wondering what happened next. Two best friends, Proteus and Valentine, are in love with two lovely ladies, Julia and Silvia. Valentine leaves to go to the emperor’s court, where he’s wooing Silvia, his daughter, and Proteus follows him, leaving Julia behind with a ring and many promises. Proteus falls in love with Silvia when he meets her, and sabotages his friend’s courtship, getting him banished. Silvia resists Proteus, though, because she doesn’t like that he’s so disloyal to his first girl, Julia. Julia hears about the whole thing, and goes to the emperor’s court herself, dressed like a boy, of course. Of course, it all works out in the end, and they all end up with the right person.

We were stunned at the end when Valentine forgives Proteus so quickly and easily for ruining his relationship and going after his girl. But hey, it was the last pages of a comedy, so what do you expect. Of course the grooms need to be getting along if we’re going to have a nice double wedding. Julia, though, must be the bigger fool for taking Proteus back. If a little distance made him disloyal, what kind of husband will he be? (As half of a couple that survived 2+ years of long distance with never a temptation of infidelity on either side, I have little sympathy for those who can’t handle a little time apart.) Does Julia plan on keeping him with her every minute, so that he doesn’t fall in love with another friend’s girlfriend next year? Proteus really does live up to his name: changeable.

Titus Andronicus

On May 5 (AKA Cinco de Derby), I went to the downtown library to participate in the reading of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first and bloodiest tragedy. It really packs the crimes and taboos in there: war crimes, kidnapping, blood sacrifice, filicide, deception, murder, rape, adultery, mutilation, wrongful execution, miscegenation*, treason, impersonation, insanity, revenge, rebellion, cannibalism, honor killing, more murder, regicide, and execution by starvation. It’s kind of over the top. In fact, as we read aloud, we sometimes found the descriptions of violent, horrific events filled with the blackest of black humor, and couldn’t help laughing. The first death occurs with more rapidity than in any piece of literature I can think of offhand. The dramatic irony of Marcus interrogating his niece about why she won’t talk, not knowing she’s had her tongue cut out, was so overwhelming to the reader that he had to pass the remainder of the speech on to the next person in the circle.

I read aloud with the group this time, round-robin style. It’s funny how stressful it is to have everyone’s attention on you for a long speech. I had the honor of reading Aaron’s long speech in which he describes the plot to rape and mutilate Lavinia and urges Tamora’s sons to participate. It was fun to infuse my voice with utter villainy.

At the end of the play, I felt the pity and fear that you’re supposed to with a tragedy, but there was a lot of disgust mixed in there too. A black sense of humor really was necessary to truly enjoy this one, especially the lines and phrases that struck home with such biting irony.

*Of course, we now know that there is nothing wrong with couples and children of mixed races, but in Shakespeare’s time and for a long time afterward, it would have been considered a taboo, especially a European woman taking an African man as a lover instead of vice versa. I only list miscegenation, which is itself a racist, outdated term, here because the play makes such a big deal of it and I wanted to accurately count the taboos as the original audience would have percieved them. It’s certainly not comparable to the other items in the list.

Wishing Chair Productions’ The Tempest at NPL

Last Saturday I went to see a puppet show production of The Tempest at the downtown library. It was in the children’s theater, so I got to see the children’s department for the first time. I was really impressed by its size and comfort, as well as the whimsical and colorful artwork displayed all around. The theater itself was set up for kids and their parents to sit on the floor. It was fun watching a show with small children, who giggled at the puppets and made little sounds of wonder when the puppets and puppetteers did amazing things.

The marrionettes used were about 70 years old, hand made by a Nashville puppetteer named Tom Tichenor who got started giving shows for children in the public libraries. They were cute or silly, dressed in pretty robes. The courtly characters had beautiful, rich garments, and the Ariel puppet was particularly ethereal. I was also impressed with the staging and scenery. The effects they used to create the storm were pretty impressive.

It’s about a half hour show, vastly condensed for a child audience. It’s in modern English, with a few quotes dropped in. The effect of the abridgement was to make the story seem even more like a fairy tale than it already is. The stakes seemed lower, since the happy ending started happening almost as soon as the conflict was introduced. Postcolonialists might have been scandalized at the way Caliban was made into a caricature, rather allowed to raise important questions about the way we treat native peoples. However, the purpose of this series of puppet shows is to introduce children to Shakespeare’s plays so that they’ll better understand and enjoy them when they encounter the bard later in life, not to communicate the complexity of the drama and the Elizabethan language. The show suits that purpose just fine.

The puppet show plays this weekend and next, on Friday and Saturday, at 10:30 and 11:30 AM. That means today and tomorrow! This show is just part of a series, so I hope to see the future shows as well!

Henry VI Part III

I really enjoyed attending the Shakespeare Allowed reading yesterday afternoon in the library. The group of readers was welcoming and friendly, but since it was my first time I sat back, listening and reading silently, rather than joining in the reading aloud. They read in a round robin style, just going around a circle with each person reading one line, then the next person reading the next, so that no parts were assigned. This contributed to the egalitarian feeling of the group, but made a somewhat scattered listening experience, as I couldn’t connect a particular voice with a character. I’ve been spoiled by audiobooks.

Blazing through the first two parts of Henry VI in the last 24 hours before yesterday’s reading, I was surprised in a few things. First of all, I was shocked to see Joan of Arc portrayed summoning demons, then trying to save herself from burning by saying she’s pregnant and naming several possible fathers. I guess the history plays are nationalistic, and anti-French sentiment was still strong in Shakespeare’s day. Part II is a bloodbath. It seems like an entire generation gets wiped out, and most of the murders are not in fair fights, but in ambushes. Jack Cade’s rebellion had a strange anti-intellectual tone. Like most second parts of a trilogy, it seemed the weakest of the three.

In reading Part III, the group laughed at Edward’s frank courting of Lady Rivers and the insults given to Queen Margaret. We enjoyed the villainy of York in the beginning, but felt some surprise at his cruel demise. The ending, when Margaret of Anjou curses King Edward for killing her son, is eerie when you know that Edward does eventually lose his own sons. They were the famous lost princes in the tower. In Phillipa Gregory and other books I’ve read concerning the period, the murder of those York princes in the tower seems like the original sin that every royal narrative since has tried to explain or justify.

Next month, on April 7, the group will read Richard III. I doubt I’ll be able to come, as it’s the day before Easter.