Max Webster’s production of Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse promised to examine a riven England and the alternating cast of cynics and inadequates who govern it. The interpretation is still apt, though the genuflections to colonialism and climate change seem like the perfunctory box-ticking of liberal orthodoxy. Other interpretations are now more pressing, and more awkward. This is a war play, the story of an overweening king set on reconquest, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Or is it? Isn’t it also the story of a master rhetorician, a reformed actor-king uniting a fractious nation?
The philosopher Stanley Cavell, who died yesterday at the age of 91, wrote a piece on the Marx Brothers for the LRB in 1993: Movies magnify, so when pictures began talking they magnified words. Somehow, as in the case of opera’s magnification of words, this made their words mostly ignorable, like the ground, as if the industrialised human species had been looking for a good excuse to get away from its words, or looking for an explanation of the fact that we do get away, even must.
I recently heard a couple of stories about health and safety suggestions made by children’s book editors. They are often along the lines of ‘we’re concerned that the character is in danger here,’ but breast-feeding was also a no-no in a book for eight to twelve-year-olds. The most famous editor as moral policeman is Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 produced his Family Shakspeare [sic]. He was from a long line of Shakespeare sanitisers. A copy of the Second Folio now in the Folger Library in Washington preserves the often frustrated expurgatory efforts of William Sankey (signing himself Guillermo Sanchez), a 17th-century English Jesuit; the edition came from the English College in Valladolid. The pages are covered with Sankey’s redactions. What I like best about the book is the total absence of Measure for Measure. I wonder how much of the play he crossed out before giving up and ripping the whole thing out.
Jeanette Winterson and Anne Tyler, among others, are rewriting Shakespeare's plays for Random House. Just in at the LRB is a review copy of a much bolder project, Marcus Brady's self-published Dark, Love and Light: A 21st-Century Play with Shakespeare-Style Language.
Michael Dobson in the LRB, 17 January 1999: Every year, on a Saturday morning in April, the miscellaneous participants in the most improbably charming event in the official national calendar gather for a cup of tea in the Georgian town hall of a small market town in the West Midlands. There is a great deal of scarlet in evidence, in the robes of the assembled Council and of sundry invited academics, white in the vestments of the local clergy, and a respectable quantity of gold in the mayoral chains of office; there are any number of sombre grey suits on visiting diplomats and corporate sponsors; and outside the sunshine, if there is any, glints from the brass instruments and buttons of a military band.
Tragedy. Groan groan. It’s a bummer, isn’t it? It’s all just so... inevitable. You read, weeping, as Anna Karenina goes for the train, as Lear enters with Cordelia dead in his arms. No choice: just turn the pages, sit back and grieve. And it’s the same old story every time. The train is never late. Cordelia never pops up and says: ‘Hi dad, I could murder a pizza.’ It’s all so unmodern, so uncool, just so friggin’ Greek. We moderns have moved on. We’re all free agents. We make choices. Choices are what make us. So give me tragedy with choice and give it to me now. Instead of just blubbing and crying out ‘NOoooo’ while what you don’t want to happen happens, why not just turn to page 394 and get a new ending? Cool. Indeed, totally friggin’ awesome.
The news that archaeologists had found, or thought they’d found, the body of Richard III under a council car park in Leicester ought to have been cause for celebration. He (or presumed he) is exactly where he ought to have been according to historical sources. He had an arrow in his back and his head had been bashed in. There could be no clearer physical proof of the complete ruthlessness of Henry Tudor. Apparently the body has curvature of the spine, so Thomas More and Shakespeare weren’t too far off when they called Richard crook-backed. History seemed to have been vindicated. But somehow I just didn’t feel good about it. Partly it was the solemn University of Leicester press conference, where men in suits tried to hold in sober academical check their triumph at a great historical find. They had discovered, after more than 500 years, a body that had been killed in a very nasty way, then dumped with the minimum of decorum required to avoid a public outcry. I wondered how archaeologists in the future might reveal that they had discovered the bones of bin Laden.
It seems that the usually irresistible force of Foster + Partners, architects, may have hit an immovable object in the form of the London Stone. Minerva, the developers who commissioned the Walbrook Building from Foster’s firm, have applied for permission to move the stone from its present location in Cannon Street in the City of London to a ‘purpose built display’ in their new complex, thereby getting it out of the way of the 35,000 square feet of ‘retail and restaurant accommodation’ they have planned for the ground floor. The case remains undecided but there are a number of significant objectors, including English Heritage and the Victorian Society.
It was all set to be grand night out. A special preview of Coriolanus at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, to be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director and star, Ralph Fiennes. But he failed to show up. Fortunately I had brought a bag of Revels with me. They kept me going for the first ten minutes, during which Coriolanus, set in modern war-torn somewhere, is unrelentingly khaki.
Shakespeare in the news. It’s always stuff that isn’t Shakespeare or stuff that Shakespeare isn’t, isn’t it? Shakespeare not by Shakespeare. What a bore. Shakespeare a Catholic. What a bore. Poems that Shakespeare didn’t write. Stylometric fingerprinting suggests to boffin and Dan Brown readers that a scholarly conspiracy has occluded The Truth, which is to be found by the chosen ones who can decipher the acrostics scribbled in the gents in the Middle Temple crypt. What a bore.