Friday, April 14, 2006

Much Ado About Nothing

I've said this before and I'll say it again. Shakespeare never ceases to amaze me. I attended a performance of Much Ado about Nothing two days ago, and the audience spent some 60% of its time in splits - by the time we got out of there my sides hurt from laughing so much. Obviously, a lot of that is the acting and what the performance is able to bring out, but it never ceases to astonish me that a 400 year old script can still seem so relevant, so accessible [1] . And it's not like Much Ado is one of his greatest plays or anything.

The trouble with reading Shakespeare / watching his plays performed, I think, is that it's impossible to empty your head of all the literary / cultural baggage that we bring to him. I can never help wondering, as I sit through one of his plays, how much of what seems familiar to me was new and startling when it first came out. What would it have felt like to watch the first performance of Othello, to hear that green-eyed monster line for the first time? Was there a time when that balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet was an innovative way of staging? How much of this banter between two sincere but clueless watchmen was avant garde stuff in its time?

Or, put more generally (for the problem is hardly exclusive to Shakespeare), how do we deal with an artistic endeavour so successful that it has become an integral part of our culture, has become, in other words, cliche? We can appreciate what's beautiful in it, of course, but how do we recover that sense of innovation, that feeling of surprise?

[1] Well, almost accessible. I have to say that there were a few points in the play where I was the only person laughing. You know the bit in Act III, Scene 3 where the watch is being given their charge? We got more than halfway through that before anyone else seemed to realise it was a joke.



meditativerose said...

yay! footnote links!
Being really greedy - can you put a link from the footnote back to the originating point?

ozymandiaz said...

See, this is where someone like me who has a really bad memory has an advantage. It's kinda like new ever time. It has been a while since I have seen anything other than a film rendition of Shakespeare and I have yet to see one that is particularly stellar.

Falstaff said...

MR: how should I know? also, be less lazy woman - just hit the back button on your browser and it'll take you back to where you started from. Uff. Some people, I tell you.

Oz: Oh, i forget the details as well - so the dialogue always seems fresh (at least in stuff like Much Ado - that may not hold for Tempest though). But it's the big stuff that you can't possibly forget - the narrative, etc. I mean okay, so I know his plots were derivative and stolen from all sorts of sources. But I can't help wondering if the notion of star-crossed lovers wasn't an exciting and novel one to audiences at some point. You can't forget the premise of Romeo and Juliet - even if you could forget the dialogue.

And as I said, it's not just Shakespeare. I'm never going to be able to really see, for example, why the early impressionists were such revolutionaries.

Veena said...

Falstaff: Notion of star-crossed lovers is not exciting to audiences anymore? Really? You mean you haven't sat in movie theaters across the country and wondered at the 'sense of innovation' in all the latest chick flicks? Really?

Seriously though, how about Brokeback Mountain? You could wonder at that!

Falstaff said...

Veena: It isn't in the sense that it's no a new concept - obviously you can still have variations on it. Also, in some ways I'm curious about the opposite effect - if R&J hadn't got us trained to think of star-crossed lovers as being all romantic and moving, would we still find these stories as interesting? If you think about it, the logical response to R&J is to say - why didn't they just move on? Even if they wanted to be together initially, why didn't Romeo just carry on after he thought Juliet was dead, instead of trying to kill himself. You'll argue that that would be the less romantic thing to do - but the question is, if Shakespeare hadn't written R&J, would we still feel the same way about it? As Harold Bloom would say: how much of what we consider normal human emotion today is stuff Shakespeare just made up?

ozymandiaz said...

What's the old saying "there is nothing new under the sun"? (Although I don't think you'll ever hear an immunologist say that) Perhaps a poor analogy but the Beatles never really came up with anything new either but packaged what they did in novel ways. Sometimes the redesign is more creative than the original. Sometimes a wonderful idea needs a new perspective. Perhaps Shakespeare offered that perspective.

Aishwarya said...

The problem with actually studying Shakespeare is that you have to bring all that baggage with you. It's never quite as fresh, sometimes it's hard to hear a line without thinking about the two critics who disagreed over its meaning. I'm not sure if this has spoilt him for me in any way, though. I'm not sure if you can spoil Shakespeare (I've seen a couple of performances that tried very hard)

Also, I think it was all rather new and startling at the time. I mean, I mean,English commercial drama only really came into existence in the second half of the 16th's this completely new toy they're playing with, they're trying out all the things they can do with it, and you can just sense the excitement, can't you?

Falstaff said...

Oz: oh, completely - but that's the point, right - in his time it was a new perspective, for us it's stuff that's been refracted so endlessly into our literature that it doesn't seem that new. If you grow up listening to rock bands and then listen to the Beatles at 15, that's not the same thing as being 15 when Abbey Road first came out.

Ash: I feel your pain - which is why I've always stayed away from studying the man. And yes, you can glimpse the excitement - all that glorious self-consciousness, all those laughing asides, all that blending of the serious and the comic, of the high and the low. which is why I can't help feeling that it would have been so much more fun to have been there when it first came out. Like showing up for the first performance of Waiting for Godot, when you had no clue what to expect.

As for performances that spoil Shakespeare - watch for my next post.

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