Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Cara Ricketts as Innogen and Graham Abbey as Posthumus in the 2012 production of Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

It’s doubtful that Cymbeline has a single believable situation.  A few examples: right off the bat we meet a King who’s angry — why would any good father be angry? — with his daughter Innogen for marrying his Posthumus, a manly paragon of virtue, instead of his stepson Cloten, a drunken lout. In the middle of the play, Innogen wakes up to find herself in the mountains of western England — what were the chances? — lying next to the beheaded body of her stepbrother.

And at the play’s end, the Queen makes a death-bed confession to Doctor Cornelius that she never loved the King, was always repulsed by his body, and married him only for his position. Anyone with a shred of discretion would keep such a revelation to himself, but Cornelius rushes to blab it to the King, word for word. (Cymbeline tells everyone he never had a hint that his wife felt that way about him — who could be so oblivious?)

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Cymbeline, King of Britain

Not just the play’s plot elements, but its themes as well are incoherent.  In the final scene, Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davis) announces that Britain will keep paying tribute to Rome (3,000 pounds per year) even though he had just fought and won a war against the Romans over the very issue of tribute.  Not paying tribute had been a matter of principle, patriotism, and pride. As Cloten (Mike Shara) had said,

. . . Why tribute? why should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for light; else, sir, no more tribute, pray you now.

(Act III, Scene 1). Cymbeline himself was done with paying tribute:

You must know,
Till the injurious Romans did extort
This tribute from us, we were free:
Caesar’s ambition,
Which swell’d so much that it did almost stretch
The sides o’ the world, against all colour here
Did put the yoke upon ‘s; which to shake off
Becomes a warlike people, whom we reckon
Ourselves to be.

(Act III, Scene 1). Yet tribute is to be paid anyway. It’s as if George Washington, after accepting Cornwallis’s surrender and winning independence for the American colonies, had announced that the United States would go back to paying the tea tax.

The story of Cymbeline is as complicated as it is incredible. Till earlier this year, I’d made several abortive attempts to read it; I kept getting lost in the plot and the multiplicity of characters.  Finally, last winter, facing the prospect of actually seeing the play this spring, I made another essay and found smooth sailing.

This year’s production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival shows that this relatively obscure Shakespeare play is a good tale that makes for a highly satisfying three hours of theater. There are two main storylines and several lesser ones. The first main plot deals with the efforts of Cymbeline, King of Britain (Geraint Wyn Davies) to separate his daughter Innogen (Cara Ricketts) from her new husband, who is also the King’s foster son, Posthumus Leonatus (Graham Abbey). (Confusingly, Shakespeare’s characters sometimes call him “Posthumus” and sometimes “Leonatus.”) Banished by Cymbeline, Posthumus goes to Italy (these are the days of the Roman Empire, with Caesar Augustus as Emperor). Innogen eventually leaves home, disguised as a young man, with the hope of reuniting with her husband.

Tom McCamus

Meanwhile, at a dinner in Italy (this is the second main storyline), where all the men are bragging about their women the way Don Quixote bragged about Dulcinea, Posthumus meets a smooth-talking blackguard who offers to bet that Innogen is not so chaste that he, Iachimo (Tom McCamus), cannot seduce her. Astonishingly, Posthumus not only agrees to the bet, but even gives Iachimo a letter of introduction to his father-in-law. After Iachimo returns to Italy and tricks Posthumus into thinking he’d succeeded in bedding Innogen, Posthumus dispatches his loyal servant Pisanio (Brian Tree) to take the supposedly unfaithful Innogen out into the wilderness and put her to the knife. Posthumus is soon overwhelmed with remorse, believing himself a murderer. In fact, Innogen is still alive.

We learn from Posthumus later in the play that Innogen had for some reason persuaded him to put off consummating their marriage. The playwright is thus asking his audience to believe that Posthumus would have agreed to let Iachimo take a shot at “firsties” with Innogen! However far-fetched the proposition, it lets the audience ponder the contrast between the “purity” of Posthumus’s love for Innogen with the brutishness of the two other men in the play who want her, Iachimo and Cloten (who brags to his friends that when he finds Innogen, he’ll rape her, then kill her).  Shakespeare is not for the squeamish.

My wife, who isn’t a play-reader, told me she found this show unusually easy to follow. The reason, I am sure, is that director Antoni Cimolino had faith in the play that the Bard wrote and didn’t feel bound to tinker with the complicated story or make more or less of it than the text warranted. Mr. Cimolino’s only interpolation is a striking scene at the very beginning of the play that shows Cymbeline dreaming in bed. It’s a nod to the improbability of the play’s twists and turns, which are not unlike the incongruities of our dreams, in which people often behave irrationally and illogically.

Cymbeline has a large cast, but in this production even minor characters like the Roman general Lucius (Nigel Bennett), the fugitive warrior Belarius (John Vickery), and the court doctor, Cornelius (Peter Hutt) project distinctive, complex personalities. I enjoyed all three actors immensely. When I read the play, I didn’t quite grasp that whoever plays Posthumus has the romantic lead; Graham Abbey, a good-looking chap whose physique is positively ripped, nails the part (and set my wife’s heart a-flutter). Each of these actors, not to mention Yanna McIntosh as the Queen, Geraint Wyn Davis as Cymbeline, and Brian Tree as Pisanio, are masters of the difficult art of making Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language immediately accessible.

The finest performance, to my mind, is that of Tom McCamus as the smarmy Iachimo, the Roman who makes a sport of assaulting the virtue of another man’s wife. The dinner party scene in which Iachimo prevails on Posthumus to wager on his wife’s virtue is a highlight of the show. And at our performance, the audience collectively held its breath during the erotically charged, dream-like scene in which Iachimo rises out of hiding in Innogen’s bedroom, steals a clasp from the sleeping woman, and steals a look at her person for an identifying birthmark that would convince Posthumus that Iachimo had, in fact, been intimate with Innogen.

The only performance that did not seem fully satisfactory – why, if I have a reservation about a play at Stratford, is it usually about a younger performer? – was that of Cara Ricketts as Innogen. Ms. Ricketts delivers her lines expressively and audibly, but she delivers them all at the same intense emotional level, like a pianist who plays every phrase of a Beethoven sonata agitato or appassionato.  There were scenes in which dolce or gracioso was called for.

Thanks to my friend Shelly Jansen, who has written a thoughtful doctoral dissertation on the subject, I am now aware that when Innogen finally comes back to Posthumus, she does so as a revenant, a literary type that Dr. Jansen describes as a “spectral being” returned from a kind of death, literal or symbolic. When a character like Innogen is in a revenant state, forgiveness and reconciliation can place — and in all of Shakespeare there is no “group hug” reconciliation scene quite like the one at the end of Cymbeline. Other notable revenants include Hermione, in A Winter’s Tale, and Alcestis, the title character in the play of Euripedes.

Dr. Jansen’s thesis, written last year as part of her Ph. D. work at SUNY Binghamton, is entitled For-Giving: The Economy of the Revenant. The title of every doctoral thesis must include a colon.


The real case for Oxford won’t be found in the movie Anonymous

In the past we’ve groused (see, for instance, this post) about how the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has flat-out ignored the Shakespeare authorship question and has snubbed those who think that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, rather than Will Shakespeare, the actor and businessman from Stratford, was probably the real author of Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

But we can’t complain any more, because in the last several months the Festival’s boss of bosses, general director Antoni Cimolini, has been all over the subject. It is said that one of Mr. Cimolini’s distinguished predecessors in Stratford, Tyrone Guthrie, who directed the very first Shakespeare performances in Stratford in 1952, very much doubted the traditional attribution of the plays. Unfortunately Mr. Cimolino (who will be directing Cymbeline at Stratford in the summer of 2012 and is also apparently the leading candidate to replace Des McAnuff as Artistic Director after the 2013 season) doesn’t take the issue seriously.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

The reason for all this talk is that movie critics have been interviewing prominent Shakespeare people like Mr. Cimolini about the new Roland Emmerich movie Anonymous, which we’ve finally seen. Just like Shakespeare in Love, this new movie has plenty of historical characters, a few historical facts, a number of historical inaccuracies, and a wholly invented story. When we first heard about it, we hoped that it might draw attention to the real case for the Earl of Oxford. Unfortunately, Anonymous — whatever its merits in strictly cinematic terms, on which we express no opinion — is downright counter-productive on the authorship question.

In the movie, the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), portrayed by Rhys Ifans, is in the closet as a playwright because it doesn’t befit a nobleman to be mixed up with theater. By the early 1590s, Oxford has written one unperformed play after another, tied them up in neat bundles, and piled them on a shelf — Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and plenty more. He writes compulsively.  His wife, frustrated because he neglects his other affairs, comes into his library and says, “Writing plays again? You promised!” (The producers clearly didn’t blow their budget on screenwriters.)

The actor Rhys Ifans, who plays Oxford

Oxford wants to see his plays performed, and fortune delivers into his hands a chance to blackmail Ben Jonson into making it happen. Oxford insists that Jonson put his name to Henry V, but Jonson doesn’t want credit for it and arranges for an vain, illiterate actor named Will Shakespeare to claim authorship instead. The play is a smash, and at the final curtain, when the audience cries “Author, author!” (surely audiences didn’t do that back in 1593!), the oafish Shakespeare comes forward to accept applause. As more of Oxford’s plays are produced, Will Shakespeare continues to take credit. Oxford’s stash still hasn’t given out when he dies in 1604, so “Shakespeare” plays continue to be brought forth for years to come.

But there’s more. It seems (in the movie) that Edward de Vere was the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth, secretly raised and educated as a nobleman’s son. Later, de Vere has an affair with the Queen (his own mother, though neither knew it!), resulting in the birth of the Earl of Southampton, whose mother is thus also his grandmother.

The movie gives Stratfordians new pretexts for piling ridicule on Oxfordians and for ignoring the real case for Oxford. It’s “snobbery,” says Stephen Marche in the New York Times, for Oxfordians to insist that a glovemaker’s son from Stratford with a grammar school education could never have become a brilliant writer. Mr. Cimolini piles on in the Toronto Globe and Mail: “inherent snobbery.”

But (and I think I speak for most Oxfordians) this isn’t the Oxfordian argument at all. Who actually insists that Will Shakespeare was an illiterate bumpkin, as one of the characters in the movie says he was? A few Shakespeare doubters may think that, but most of us don’t. Why shouldn’t such a man have gotten a decent education? And of course Oxfordians recognize that men and women with little formal education can come to write timeless literature.  We just don’t think Will Shakespeare was one of those persons. “Snobbery” is a classic “straw man” argument.


Then there’s the “conspiracy” card. J. Kelly Nestruck, who reviews theater in the Globe and Mail, says that he “made the leap from ambivalence” about Shakespeare authorship to “ardent defender of the Bard of Avon” when he met somebody who not only believed that William Shakespeare did not write the plays, but who also turned out to be a “truther” — one of the paranoid screwballs who think the Twin Towers were brought down by George W. Bush and the Jews. Nestruck charitably lumps Oxfordians with some of the better-known examples of ignorance and hatefulness: “Shakespeare denial is part and parcel of a dangerous, anti-rational mode of thinking,” a “gateway drug” to becoming a Truther, a Birther, and a believer in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

What rot! Emsworth, who is willing to bet that he’s read a lot more of Richard Hofstadter than J. Kelly Nestruck ever has, and who firmly resents the imputation of anti-intellectualism, can’t think of a single conspiracy theory, from “who shot JFK” to ” who fixed the Super Bowl” that he ever bought into.

This is just changing the subject. As a class, we Oxfordians aren’t suckers for conspiracies. How exactly it happened that Oxford didn’t take credit for the Shakespeare plays and sonnets, we don’t know, but we doubt very much that it was anything like the elaborate conspiracies postulated in Anonymous. The movie recycles several of the least likely of the speculative scenarios that have cropped up around Oxford and the question of authorship and gives Stratfordians plenty to mock. There’s no historical evidence that the Virgin Queen was actually a promiscuous slut or ever had any bastard children, but in any event why should the love life of Queen Elizabeth or the parentage of Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton, have anything to do with the question of who wrote Hamlet? The movie leaves viewers with the false impression that to believe in Oxford’s authorship of the “Shakespeare” plays is to buy into an imaginative set of wildly improbable conspiracy theories. We assure anyone who’s actually interested in the subject that it’s not necessary.

Then there’s the crude slur that to doubt the Stratford man is to have a screw loose. Stratfordians generally begin talking about Shakespeare authorship by sneering about the name of one of the early Oxfordians (Mr. Marche is typical: “the aptly named J. Thomas Looney”), and some them have wasted a lot of ink over the last few months on amateur psychoanalysis of the supposedly paranoid tendencies of people who would doubt something so “incontrovertible” as the notion that the man from Stratford wrote Hamlet. James Shapiro, the writer of a generally interesting book about the history of the Shakespeare authorship question (see this Emsworth comment) is one of the quickest to impugn the mental stability of authorship doubters.

Sadly, the public comments of our Stratford man, Mr. Cimolino, over the last several months don’t suggest that he’s actually reviewed the substantive case for Oxford. He asserts in the Globe and Mail that there is “in fact no evidence to connect Oxford with the plays, and no reason to suppose that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote them. To which Oxfordians retort, ‘Of course not: Oxford deliberately deliberately hid his authorship.'” No, Mr. Cimolino, that’s not what we say.  True, there’s no “smoking gun,” no single, irrefutable document that conclusively proves the case for Oxford.  But there really is plenty of evidence, much of which is reviewed, very soberly and with considerable erudition, by such organizations as the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (here’s its website) and the journal Brief Chronicles (here’s its website).  Viewing it as a whole, we find it persuasive.

No doubt Mr. Cimolino did not set out intentionally to insult the many patrons of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who doubt the authorship of the Stratford man, and we’re slow to take offense.  But we invite him to take a closer look.

We preview the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) will be celebrating its 60th season by cutting its Shakespeare offerings down to three plays, plus a version of Macbeth using characters from The Simpsons. Overall, it’s a disappointing 2012 playbill. Still, in order of interest, these are the shows that interest us the most:

1. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (at the Festival Theater)

Much Ado About Nothing figures to be the best Shakespeare of the season. Ben Carlson, one of the finest classical actors we’ve seen anywhere, will play Benedict, and his wife Deborah Hay will appear as Beatrice. Since he’s been at Stratford, Mr. Carlson’s been as good as they get as Hamlet, Brutus, Leontes, Touchstone, and Alceste (in last season’s The Misanthrope). The question is whether Ms. Hay can match him in Shakespeare. At the Shaw Festival she stood out as a comic actress, but she was also terrific three years in a more nuanced role in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this Emsworth post).

If you haven’t noticed, Shakespeare’s five most popular comedies are in a rotation of sorts at the Stratford Festival; it’s comforting to know that it won’t be long before you can see one of your favorites. We’ve had

The Taming of the Shrew (2003)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2004)
As You Like It (2005)
Twelfth Night (2006)
Much Ado About Nothing (2006)

The Taming of the Shrew (2008)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009)
As You Like It (2010)
Twelfth Night (2011)

It was therefore predictable that Much Ado About Nothing, which is indeed a favorite of ours, would be on the marquee in 2012. It will be directed by former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton, who has said the play will be set in Brazil.

2. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

We’ve tried and failed several times to read Cymbeline, but it’s always seemed too hard to follow. So we’re hoping this show will bring to life a Shakespeare play that hasn’t worked for us in print. Stratford productions have done this for us before — we’re thinking especially of Troilus and Cressida (2003) and Two Gentleman of Verona (2010).

We don’t claim to understand Cymbeline‘s plot, which is the complicated story of a young woman who marries against her father’s will. Geraint Wyn Davies will play the title role, and Cara Ricketts will play his daughter Imogen. Despite its uncomfortable seats, the Tom Patterson Theatre is still our favorite place to see Shakespeare.

3. 42nd Street (at the Festival Theater)

We were startled to realize that 42nd Street was not from the golden age of Broadway musicals. We’d seen the ’30s movie and assumed wrongly that it was based on a musical play. In fact, 42nd Street wasn’t staged until 1980; it won the Tony as best musical play in 1981.

The story of 42nd Street is a show about a show, with cliches that were endlessly recycled in old movie musicals; a chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, is canned for messing up, but is rehired to take the place of an injured star. Interestingly, the Stratford Festival has yet to announce who will play Peggy Sawyer. [1-23-12 update: it’s been announced that Jennifer Rider-Shaw, a young singer who was part of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar last year, has been given the part.] But long-time Stratford favorite Cynthia Dale will be returning to play Dorothy Brock, the injured leading lady whom Peggy Sawyer replaces. Gary Griffin, who directed the phenomenal West Side Story at Stratford three years ago, will be in charge.

The show uses one of Emsworth’s all-time top-ten favorite pop songs, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” This tune was not in the 1933 movie, but was instead written by the same songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin for another show, Dames, a year later. Other songs in 42nd Street include “Lullabye of Broadway” (which wasn’t in the 1933 movie either) and “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me.” June 2012 update: “I Only Have Eyes for You” wasn’t used in the show after all! But the show as a whole was dazzling entertainment.

4. Electra (by Sophocles, at the Tom Patterson Theater)

Another shot at classical Greek tragedy! We have shamefully little experience either seeing or reading the ancient Greek poets. Three years ago at Stratford we did see a play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women, which like Electra was written about 400 years before the birth of Christ, but we didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t feel confident enough to blog about it. We still find it mind-boggling to think that these dramas have been preserved for 2500 years.

In a way, Electra is a sequel to The Trojan Women. In the latter play, the Greek king Agamemnon and his men have burned Troy and carried off their women. In Electra, the Greeks are back home after the Trojan wars, but Agamemnon and his new Trojan concubine Cassandra have been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra (as predicted by Cassandra in The Trojan Women). Agamemnon’s daughter Electra is unhappy about the murder of her father, and she and her twin brother Orestes set about to revenge their father by slaying their mother. Good times!

In the plays of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller — that is, in modern theater — the characters have more or less realistic conversations with one another. There was none of that in The Trojan Women, which consisted mostly of protracted laments by angry women, plus speeches by the gods. There probably won’t be any snappy repartee in Electra either. But it’s a different genre; we’ve gathered that ancient Greek tragedy is as different from modern theater as modern theater is from opera.

5. The Matchmaker (by Thornton Wilder, at the Festival Theatre)

Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams wrote novels too, but nobody reads them. Thornton Wilder is on the short list of writers who have been as successful writing stories and novels as they have writing plays. In fact, we just read and enjoyed Wilder’s late novel The Eighth Day this fall.

Everyone knows and loves Wilder’s Our Town, but The Matchmaker, which we enjoyed about ten years ago at the Shaw Festival, is every bit as entertaining, and funnier. This is the play on which the musical Hello, Dolly! was based. The wonderful Seana McKenna will play the matchmaker, Dolly Levi.

6. Henry V (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre)

Emsworth ungraciously announced a year ago that he did not intend to buy any more tickets for Shakespeare plays directed by Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff. Faithful to that vow, we boycotted the McAnuff-directed Twelfth Night last summer, even though it’s one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (see this list), and even though it was apparently popular with Stratford audiences. We were told by reliable friends that we did well to skip it. We don’t doubt that Mr. McAnuff sincerely loves Shakespeare, but he clearly doesn’t have faith that a Shakespeare play can stand on its own without gimmicks like the sixties-style rock songs that (report has it) repeatedly interrupted the story of Twelfth Night last summer.

But what could Mr. McAnuff possibly do to ruin Henry V? It’s a play about a historical English king, set unambiguously in a definite time and place in history. So surely he won’t re-imagine it as a fascist fable (as he did with As You Like It a couple of years ago) or set it in Africa (as he did with the Scottish play, Macbeth, a year before that). Fortunately, our vows are not as inviolable as Lear’s, which he “durst never” break (King Lear, Act I, Scene 1). We’ve never seen Henry V on stage, and we badly want to.

It’s disappointing that Ben Carlson wasn’t cast as Henry V. Mr. Carlson is of suitable age for the role now, but he won’t be the next time the Stratford Festival mounts Henry V, in another ten years or so. The part has been given instead to Aaron Krohn; Mr. Carlson will be relegated to the minor role of of the Welshman, Fluellen. Lucy Peacock will adorn the role of the Hostess; we’ll be glad to see Tom Rooney as Pistol.

7. A Word or Two (readings/recitations by Christopher Plummer, at the Avon Theater)

A year ago we expressed the hope that Christopher Plummer would return to Stratford in 2012 to play the Duke in Measure for Measure. Mr. Plummer is indeed coming back to Stratford, but to give a solo program of readings and recitations. It’ll run for only a month, from late July to late August.

No doubt these readings will be memorable. But we are seriously put off by the fact that tickets for this one-man show will be about 30 percent more expensive than tickets for, say, Henry V, which will have castles full of courtiers and battlefields full of armies.

8. The Pirates of Penzance (operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan, at the Avon Theatre)

Wonderful tunes, clever lyrics. The Pirates of Penzance is the farcical story of a young man whose nurse accidentally apprentices him to a band of pirates, to whom he is bound until his 21st birthday. But Frederic was born on February 29, so unfortunately he won’t hit 21 for a while. It’s all very entertaining, but we’ve come to think of Gilbert & Sullivan as community theater material and aren’t likely to add this show to our bundle of tickets.

9. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (musical play based on Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, at the Avon Theatre)

Surely they jest.

10. MacHomer at the Studio Theatre)

Homer Simpson and family do Macbeth. Here’s more evidence that the management at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival doesn’t have faith in its core product. This show will play only during May, while the schools are still in session and English teachers are still bringing their students to Stratford. After all, why should the kids have to suffer through Much Ado About Nothing? Give ’em something they’ll understand! And something that’ll make ’em laugh!

Other shows: Hirsch (by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, in the Studio Theatre); The Best Brothers (by Daniel MacIvor, in the Studio Theatre); Wanderlust (by Morris Panych, in the Tom Patterson Theatre)

The play called Hirsch is about John Hirsch, who was Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival for five years about 30 years ago. We’re not uninterested in the history of the Stratford Festival (see this post), but this seems a stretch.

The Best Brothers is a world premiere by a Canadian playwright, described as the story of a couple of brothers coming to grips with the death of their mother.

Wanderlust is a new musical play written by the Canadian playwright and director Morris Panych. It’s advertised as based on the poems of Canadian poet Robert W. Service. Like Jack London, Service wrote a good deal about the gold rush in Alaska and the Yukon in the early 20th century, and that’s what this story is about. Tom Rooney will take the role of the poet.

The establishment strikes back: Contested Will

A statue intended to represent William Shakespeare adorns the gardens of the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario

Nothing changed in 2010: the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) still doesn’t grant that William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, England, might not actually have written Richard III, King Lear, or the other “Shakespeare” plays.   The programs for Shakespeare plays still recite the same stale “facts” about the life of the Stratford man and still blithely credit him with the plays.  As we wrote in this space a couple of years ago, the question of who wrote Hamlet just doesn’t seem to be up for discussion. 

We don’t blame Stratford General Director Antoni Cimolino for keeping mum on the subject — how better to keep people from being mad at  you!  Still, we must point out that on the other side of the continent, Oregon Shakespeare Festival executive director Paul Nicholson has now joined the long list of theater luminaries on record as doubting that the Stratford man deserves credit for writing Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice.  (Nicholson runs the largest Shakespeare festival in the United States, nearly up to the scale of the Stratford Festival.) 

Paul Nicholson

According to a September 23, 2010 article in Southern Oregon’s Mail Tribune, Mr. Nicholson has noticed how implausible it is that the Stratford man could have had the intimate knowledge of law, falconry, life at court, and English history that the playwright clearly did.  Mr. Nicholson also points out that William Shakespeare was only in his twenties when the sonnets were written; most of the sonnets, of course, are poems written from the standpoint of a man of mature years in relation to a much younger man.  Mr. Nicholson is one of several other actors and directors at at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who recently signed the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare,” which has been circulating online since it was drafted in 2007. See this website. (Presumably the Oregon Shakespeare Festival itself takes no official position on the question of authorship.)

What Mr. Cimolino, Des McAnuff, Lucy Peacock, Martha Henry, Brian Bedford, and others at the Stratford Festival really think about the authorship question, we’d love to know.  Some of them, we suppose, think it doesn’t matter and don’t take any interest in it; we’ve met a a surprising number of Shakespeare lovers who feel that way.  Personally, we think it does matter.  A work of art has so much more interest when you know a bit about its creator and his life. 

At any rate, we are gratified to see that the debate over who wrote Shakespeare is heating up, as evidenced by this well-written, well-researched new book by James Shapiro.  To the author’s credit, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare gives Shakespeare lovers something different from the usual Shakespeare “biographies,” which invariably rehash familiar material about the historical and cultural climate during which the plays were written but have little to say (because little is known) about the Stratford man. Contested Will gives us, instead, a history of the controversy over who really wrote the works of Shakespeare.

It’s a good story, with plenty of colorful characters. There was William-Henry Ireland, who in 1794 first began “discovering” correspondence to and from William Shakespeare (including a letter to him from Queen Elizabeth!), then manuscripts of the plays (King Lear!), then “lost” plays of Shakespeare. (We were reminded of P.D.Q. Bach, whose compositions, like The Short-Tempered Clavier, the “Erotica” Variations for banned instruments and piano, and the opera A Little Nightmare Music, have been “discovered” by Peter Schickele over the course of the last 40 years.) James Boswell was among those taken in by Ireland before he was exposed as a fraud (though not until a new “Shakespeare” play, Vortigern, was debuted in London).

Another forger, John Payne Collier, produced so much phony Shakespeare memorabilia in the 1830s and 1840s that it took Shakespeare scholars decades to sort it out from the real thing. And then there was Delia Bacon, the first major proponent of Francis Bacon as the author of Shakespeare, a pioneer (as a woman) in the field of literary scholarship who got the attention of Hawthorne and Emerson, but whose monomania and paranoia (she was afraid to publish her findings for fear that others would steal her ideas) eventually led her to the madhouse.

It wasn’t until we were halfway through Shapiro’s book that we realized that we’d been taken in ourselves. It gradually dawned on us, as we were reading about what Emerson, Mark Twain, and Freud thought about Shakespeare authorship, that Shapiro had an agenda: he intended, ultimately, to portray Oxfordians and other anti-Stratfordians as mere dabblers in the subject (Twain), or perhaps a little neurotic (Freud), or caught up in passing trends like the “Higher Criticism” that had challenged traditional notions of authorship of books of the Bible.

Edward de Vere

Not till the latter pages of Contested Will does Shapiro get to the present-day groundswell of support for the authorship of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  By then, though, his mask is off and the book’s pages drip with scorn and ridicule. True it is that there has been no shortage of nutty ideas associated with the question of who wrote Shakespeare. Here we think, for instance, of those who not only maintain that Oxford wrote the plays and sonnets, but also insist that the Earl of Southampton (presumed subject of the homoerotic sonnets) was also the love child of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth. Personally, we don’t have much trouble telling the loony stuff from the solid arguments for Oxford; Shapiro, clearly a smart guy and a scholar, ought to have been able to do it too. But he chose not to.

For the last couple of decades, the main tactic of Stratfordians has been simply to ignore the doubters (and the Oxfordians) and to marginalize the whole issue by preserving a chilly silence. Now, clearly feeling the heat, they’re starting to fight back. Contesting Will represents one of the first open counter-attacks.

Meanwhile, in southern Ontario just seven miles east of Stratford, a new controversy is brewing that may end up affecting more lives that the debate over who wrote Shakespeare. We gather (solely from the evidence of a number of lawn signs) that transportation officials are proposing to widen that part of Highway 7/8 that runs through Shakespeare from two lanes to five. (This is the route most folks take to get to the Stratford Festival.) A number of houses and shops are already pretty close to the highway, and some are clearly going to have to be torn down or moved if the project goes through. We sympathize with the locals, but take no sides.

A pox on Shakespeare in “translation”

Hansel and Gretel

Perhaps high schoolers should simply be issued Little Golden Book editions of Romeo and Juliet

The latest bad idea is that Shakespeare needs to be “translated” for the benefit of bored schoolchildren who can’t make sense of 16th-century English. Reading about this recently gave us a slow burn. Emsworth has put a lot of time into learning to read and understand Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida; now reading Shakespeare is as easy for us as rolling off a log. But what was it all for, if this push for Shakespeare in “translation” catches on?

So we were relieved to see that Antoni Cimolino, boss of bosses at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, is stoutly against it. (See this article.) Relieved, but not surprised: as a classical actor, Mr. Cimolino has a lot more invested in the “original” Shakespeare than we do. Having him on the right side of the issue should guarantee that we’ll be able to hear the immortal and original (if sometimes impenetrable) language of Shakespeare in Stratford, Ontario, for at least a few more years.

Kent Richmond's Romeo & JulietWhat might Shakespeare in translation be like? Well, a fellow named Kent Richmond, who teaches English at some college in Long Beach, California, is already at it. He’s selling “verse translations” of King Lear and several other plays for your Kindle (also in paperback) (here’s his website), and he’s put a little of his new and improved Macbeth online.

Here’s some of it.  Macbeth, Act II, Scene 2. Macbeth has just heard Duncan’s death knell. Spurred on by his loving but bloodthirsty wife, he has gone off in the night to dispatch Duncan to the next world. Back in her chambers, Lady Macbeth wonders aloud how the murder is going. First, Shakespeare’s original:

[Within] Who’s there? what, ho!
Alack, I am afraid they have awaked,
And ’tis not done. The attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready;
He could not miss ’em. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t.

(These, we trust, are the lines we’ll hear later this summer in Stratford, where by coincidence Macbeth is on the playbill along with Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)  But here is Mr. Richmond’s “verse translation”:

[from beyond the door] Who’s there?—What’s that?

Oh, no! I am afraid they’ve woken up
And it’s not done. Attempt without the deed
Will wreck us.—Listen!—I laid out their daggers.
He couldn’t miss them.—Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I would have done it.

See how much better it can be said?  We don’t.  Mr. Richmond apparently thinks that the meaning of the phrase “What ho!” has become obscure over the centuries.  But P. G. Wodehouse, master of 20th-century colloquial English, clearly didn’t think so; in stories written from 1920 to 1965, his character Bertie Wooster  said “What ho!” all the time.

And who, really, would fail to understand Lady Macbeth when she says, “Alack, I am afraid they have awaked/And ’tis not done”? And what sort of person would want to banish “alack” from our vocabulary?  It’s a pearl of a word!  And who wants to pay good money to see Macbeth and hear Lady Macbeth say “Oh, no!”

And does Mr. Richmond really think that audiences will understand “Attempt without the deed/Will wreck us” any easier than Shakespeare’s original?

We have a few more questions. First, isn’t Shakespeare suspiciously popular for a playwright that audiences don’t “get”? Know how many theater companies exist mainly to put on the works of Shakespeare? Nearly 200 of them in the United States alone! (They’re listed here on Why try to fix something that ain’t broke?

Here’s another: When did Shakespeare suddenly become so hard to understand? Standard English really hasn’t changed much for nearly two hundred years. No one literate enough to read Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) comfortably will have any trouble with Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford (1851).  Pride and Prejudice (1813) is read and loved more than ever.  If kids today have more trouble making sense of Hamlet than they did 100 years ago, the reason is not that the American language is changing, but that the kids aren’t being given the intellectual challenges that might prepare them for Hamlet.

John Mcwhorter

John McWhorter

One of our favorite thinkers, the usually sound John McWhorter, has unfortunately come out on the wrong side of this. In an article in The New Republic (here it is), McWhorter says that we’re so far away from Shakespeare’s time that “we cannot understand what the man is saying.” Understanding Shakespeare, he says, “has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists.”  But he makes his case, in part, by quoting an  article in an 1898 issue of The Atlantic in which someone complained about a puzzling passage in Hamlet.  We say: if it’s been a problem that long, it’s one we can live with.

True, we’ve sat through Shakespeare performances ourselves (even at Stratford) where, for a minute or so, we didn’t understand what the actors were saying.  But more often than not the problem lies with inexperienced actors who (a) don’t seem to fully understand their lines and (b) merely speak the words without giving the audience the inflections, the pauses, the gestures that communicate meaning where mere words don’t.

When Shakespeare is acted well, one hardly notices obsolete words and phrases. Several years ago at Stratford, when the late William Hutt appeared in The Tempest, Prospero was as easy to understand than Walter Cronkite delivering the evening news.   We can almost say the same of this year’s Julius Caesar at Stratford (see this Emsworth review), so well acted that we don’t think there was a single line whose meaning that escaped us.

Why would anyone want to settle for Shakespeare filtered through someone else’s sensibilities? We don’t love the Shakespeare plays for their plots, but for the beauty and power of the language and for the playwright’s insights into human nature. But Shakespeare’s language, by definition, won’t survive a translation (you saw what happened to Macbeth!). And the insights won’t be the same either; language and ideas are too closely connected. We won’t have Shakespeare unalloyed anymore. No matter how beautifully a “verse translation” of Shakespeare turns out, there will be too much of the translator and not enough of Shakespeare.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

Bartholomew Fair at the Stratford Festival

Bartholomew Fair

Cliff Saunders as Leatherhead, the peddler and puppeteer

Bartholomew Fair deserved a fair shot. And we’re not really complaining. We got to see a play by another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and we saw a snapshot of life in London in Shakespeare’s own time. But this play by Ben Jonson at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) takes more effort than it’s worth.

In fairness, director Antoni Cimolino and the big cast did their best to make Bartholomew Fair as lively as possible. The actors scurried here and there, scolded and abused one another, sang and danced, and laughed loudly at their own jokes. There was plenty of groping and off-color humor.

But the play still isn’t that entertaining. It’s all a bit forced, like the names of the characters (like Littlewit, Winwife, Knockem, and Wasp, who was actually costumed like a wasp). At our performance, some of the audience gave up and left after intermission.

The play takes place in London on Bartholomew’s Day. John Littlewit (Matt Steinberg), a Puritan who has written a puppet play, is plotting to go to the wicked fair over the objections of his strict mother-in-law, Dame Purecraft (Brigit Wilson). Various friends and neighbors wander in and out, also intent on the fair; Littlewit encourages them to kiss and fondle his wife Win (Jennifer Paterson).

Bartholomew Fair

Tom McCamus as Justice Overdo

One of his friends is the well-to-do but dim-witted Bartholomew Cokes (Trent Pardy), who is planning to marry Grace Wellborn (Alana Hawley). Littlewit, a scribe, has drafted a marriage license for them. Cokes’s fiance is the ward of the local magistrate, Justice Overdo, who plans to go to the fair to scope out vice and crime.  One of two men competing for the affections of Littlewit’s widowed mother-in-law is an unpleasantly joyless church elder named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy (Juan Chioran).

Bartholomew Fair

Brian Tree as Humphrey Wasp, with Alana Hawley as Grace Wellborn

Littlewit occasionally makes plays on words, then boasts that he has made a “device.” This is unfortunately typical of the play’s humor. In the same vein, Cokes is noisily amused by the fact that his first name is Bartholomew, like the name of the feast-day and fair. Cokes’s manservant Humphrey Wasp (Brian Tree) has the thankless task of protecting him from his own foolishness; of all the generally good performances in Bartholomew Fair, we liked Brian Tree’s best.


Lucy Peacock as Ursla the pig-woman

There are plenty of villains and dubious people at the fair, including Joan Trash (Kelli Fox), a faux-cripple who sells gingerbread; Lantern Leatherhead (Cliff Saunders), who peddles cheap musical instruments and hobbyhorses and gives a puppet show. Most fantastic of all is a monstrously large seller of pork and ale named Ursla (Lucy Peacock); her tent is also the base of operations for pickpockets (who target Bartholomew Cokes), pimps, and whores.

This was our second attempt at appreciating an Elizabethan playwright besides Shakespeare. Several years ago, we tried the Stratford Festival’s Edward II, but even though we read Christopher Marlowe’s play before we went, we still had trouble following the story and staying focused on the performance.  Bartholomew Fair wasn’t hard to follow. In fact, the language of the play seemed easier to understand than some plays by Shakespeare, who was prone to inverted sentence structure and long, complex clauses.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

But our limited experience with Marlowe and Jonson simply confirms what people have known for hundreds of years: Shakespeare was in a class of his own. Ben Jonson’s characters are hardly more than caricatures; they don’t think deep thoughts, utter memorable epigrams, face great challenges, or wrestle with moral dilemmas. 

And while Bartholomew Fair has a narrative, it barely has a plot. It’s as if the playwright didn’t really expect that his audience would be playing close attention. Jonson seems to have assumed that his audience wanted only to see cliched characters indulging their carnal urges, making asses of themselves, and getting their comeuppances.

We couldn’t help thinking that Bartholomew Fair was something of a prototype for the contemporary genre of gross-out teen sex comedies like American Pie and Superbad, which have essentially the same stock characters. These follow the same formula as Bartholomew Fair: sexually frustrated young people go to a party and hook up; a repressed young thing loses her inhibitions and learns the liberating joy of sex; the local puritan is exposed as a hypocrite; the local authorities are bumbling fools who end up getting some of their own medicine.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

The leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival

(August 2008) From a distance, Emsworth has followed the shenanigans at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) over the last year with more than his customary irritation. Let us review the chain of events:

Richard Monette

Richard Monette

     1. In late 2006, Richard Monette retires as the Festival’s Artistic Director after 14 extraordinarily successful years, leaving the Festival in solid shape.

     2. Incredibly, the Festival’s board of directors, under no particular pressure to do so, decides to replace Monette not with one person, but with three: a triumvirate of Marti Maraden, Don Shipley, and Des McAnuff. The three are supposed to have “equal” responsibility for programming and the hiring of talent. Decisions are to be made by “consensus.” Antoni Cimolino is made General Director of the Festival on the understanding that he will keep his fingers out of artistic decisions.

     3. The three co-artistic directors plan a 2008 season with five Shakespeare plays instead of the usual four.  They also include a play by Euripedes, an obscure Spanish play from the late 1500s, and an adaptation of Moby Dick that has essentially no dialogue. They put four of of the five Shakespeare plays in the 1838-seat Festival Theater.  They program two popular musicals (The Music Man and Cabaret), but put them both in the smaller, 1083-seat Avon Theater.  They give the Festival a cumbersome new name, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Marti Maraden

     4. Throughout the fall and winter of 2007-08, the three co-directors can’t agree on much of anything.  More often than not, Des McAnuff is off in London and New York on other projects, making it difficult for Shipley and Maraden to collaborate with him.  Cimolino interferes and makes artistic decisions that Shipley and Maraden think belong to the co-artistic directors.

Antoni Cimolino

     5. On March 8, 2008, Shipley and Maraden quit as artistic directors, citing Cimolino’s interference.  The finger-pointing begins. In an interview, the frustrated Maraden complains there was “no protocol for decision-making.” Cimolino claims he intervened only when the three couldn’t agree on major points. To her credit, Maraden keeps her commitment to direct All’s Well That Ends Well and The Trojan Women during the 2008 Stratford season. (See the Emsworth review of All’s Well at this post.)

Des McAnuff

     6. Des McAnuff — the member of the triumvirate who apparently had the least time to devote to the job, and whose resume is thinnest in classical theater — is installed as sole Artistic Director. In July, Dean Gabourie is appointed as assistant artistic director.

     7. Predictably, tickets for The Music Man and Cabaret are are scarce. Meanwhile, the Shakespeare plays are performed before hundreds of empty seats in the Festival Theater.

     8. In mid-July, Cimolino and McAnuff warn Stratford personnel that the Festival is on track to lose as much as $5 million during the 2008 season. They blame gas prices, the U.S.-Canadian currency exchange rate (currently disadvantageous to us Americans), and a general decline in Ontario tourism — everything but the directors’ programming decisions. Personnel cutbacks and a less ambitious season are forecast for 2009.

Any fool who has spent any time with artistic types would know that appointing three experienced, strong-willed directors who don’t know each other very well to be co-artistic directors of a major repertory theater company, with all major decisions to be made by “consensus,” is a recipe for disaster. What was the Board of Directors thinking?

Anyone could also have predicted that feelings would be hurt and relationships damaged upon the inevitable collapse of the triumvirate. One can only hope that Don Shipley and Marti Maraden will not be so soured by their leading roles in this debacle that Stratford audiences will be deprived of their talents in future years.

Stratford's Festival Theatre

Stratford's Festival Theatre

But the Board’s decision to place the Festival’s artistic direction in the hands of a three-person committee can also be blamed for the programming decisions that will apparently cost the Festival millions of dollars this year. (Emsworth gloomily predicts that it will not be long until he and other members of the Stratford Festival are called upon to to help narrow the deficit.)  Not one of the three, I would wager, if the responsibility had been his or hers alone, would have gambled the 2008 season on the proposition that large audiences would fill the Festival Theater to see The Taming of the Shrew and All’s Well That Ends Well, or that audiences would buy tickets for a lesser-known Shakespeare play (Love’s Labours Lost) as readily as they would for (say) a popular work by Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, or Tennessee Williams.  But responsibility was diluted.  When you bargain for decision-making by committee (“the buck stops nowhere”), that’s what you get.

Robin Phillips

Most irritating of all is that the Stratford Festival has been through this before.  A friend recently lent Emsworth a copy of A Stratford Tempest, a 1982 book by the Toronto journalist Martin Knelman about the leadership debacle that followed in the wake of the 1980 resignation of another highly successful artistic director, Robin Phillips. Amazingly, the book relates, the Board of Directors chose to replace Phillips with a committee of nine co-artistic directors!

In short order, most of this unwieldy committee resigned.  The remaining four put together a promising 1981 season — but then the Board of Directors panicked, fired the four, revamped the season, and hired a single artistic director, John Hirsch.  The Festival lost a lot of money that year, too. Many of the survivors of the 1981 debacle are still associated with the Stratford Festival, including Brian Bedford, Marti Maraden, Martha Henry, and others.  Why can’t an organization like the Stratford Festival learn from its own mistakes?