“What ho, Pisanio!” — Echoes of Cymbeline in P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse

I can’t prove it, but I feel in my bones that echoes of Cymbeline can be found in P. G. Wodehouse. As I noted in an earlier post, Wodehouse’s stories are full of allusions and quotations from Shakespeare. What would make it unusual is that Wodehouse drew mostly from the best-known Shakespeare plays; I’m not aware of any other references in Wodehouse to Cymbeline

What struck me in Cymbeline, when we saw it performed a week ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, were words that fell from the lips of Innogen when she realized (Act I, Scene 6) that Iachimo was a dirty-minded lecher who had been feeding her lies about her husband Posthumus to get her into bed. Innogen calls for Pisanio to show Iachimo the door: “What ho, Pisanio!”

In Wodehouse, of course, Bertie Wooster and his Drones Club friends often greet each other with a friendly “what ho,” as they do, for example, in the 1922 novel Right Ho, Jeeves.  Other Wodehouse characters too, as in Indiscretions of Archie, Chapter XVIII:

Archie was concerned. “Listen, old bean. Make an effort. You must remember that sausage episode? It was just outside St. Mihiel, about five in the evening. Your little lot were lying next to my little lot, and we happened to meet, and I said ‘What ho!’ and you said ‘Halloa!’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho!’ and you said ‘Have a bit of sausage?’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho! What HO!'”

Back to Cymbeline: a few seconds later, the angry Innogen assures Iachimo that her father the King surely won’t stand for a “saucy stranger” who has exposed his “beastly mind” to her as Iachimo has. “Beastly” is another Wodehouse trademark . Bertie Wooster and his pals use it as a all-purpose pejorative, but they are especially apt to apply it (much as Innogen does in Cymbeline) to romantic rivals, with the implication that the motives of those rivals are less than pure.

In chapter 11 of Right Ho, Jeeves, for instance, Tuppy Glossop, rants that if he ever catches up with the unknown “foul blister” who has alienated his girlfriend Angela’s affections, he plans to “to take him by his beastly neck, shake him till he froths, and pull him inside out and make him swallow himself.” Wodehouse used “beastly” six times in Right Ho, Jeeves alone.

It may be only my fancy that Wodehouse drew from Cymbeline, which after all isn’t the only Shakespeare play in which somebody says “what ho.”  Macbeth calls out “Who’s there?  what, ho!” shortly after he murders Duncan.  In Romeo and Juliet, another Wodehose favorite, several citizens of Verona use the phrase, including Capulet (“What, ho! What, nurse, I say!), Romeo (“What, ho! Apothecary!”), and the Prince of Verona, complaining of the brawling in the streets (“What, ho! you men, you beasts . . .”).  In a comment to the original version of this post, Stina pointed out that the use of “beastly” is not terribly uncommon in Shakespeare; it appears about 20 times in various plays. It appears to me, though, that only three times did Shakespeare put the word in a character’s mouth for the purpose of name-calling, the way Wodehouse usually did: in Lear (“you beastly knave”), in Henry IV Part 2 (“Thou, beastly feeder”), and in Cymbeline (“His beastly mind”).

Only in Cymbeline do the Wodehousean words “what ho” and “beastly” appear in close proximity.  Cymbeline isn’t notable for famous lines, but Innogen’s rebuke of Iachimo is a highlight of the play.  It’s easy to imagine not only that Innogen’s speech appealed to Wodehouse, but also that two of its “hottest” words and phrases stuck in his mind, tucked away for future use.

Away! I do condemn mine ears that have
So long attended thee. If thou wert honourable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek’st, – as base as strange.
Thou wrong’st a gentleman, who is as far
From thy report as thou from honour, and
Solicit’st here a lady that disdains
Thee and the devil alike. What ho, Pisanio!
The king my father shall be made acquainted
Of thy assault: if he shall think it fit,
A saucy stranger in his court to mart
As in a Romish stew and to expound
His beastly mind to us, he hath a court
He little cares for and a daughter who
He not respects at all. What, ho, Pisanio!

Color-blind casting and other distractions at the Stratford Festival

Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James as Romeo and Juliet

Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James as Romeo and Juliet

(September 2008)  This year’s Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) has a racially mixed cast. Emsworth is fine with color-blind casting and wouldn’t ordinarily think it worth mentioning unless it’s botched. That’s what happened here. (Emsworth reviews this unsatisfactory show at this post.)

In this production, Juliet is played by Nikki M. James, a young black woman, while Romeo is played by Gareth Potter, a young white man. At first I thought that director Des McAnuff was casting the entire Montague clan as a white family and all of the Capulets as a black family, all in a patronizing attempt to make the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets “relevant”.

Selfishly, I welcomed the prospect of a Romeo and Juliet in which I would be able to tell the factions apart by the color of their skin, for the same reason I am grateful that football players wear uniforms. Emsworth isn’t good with faces, and visual cues help keep him track of large numbers of characters on stage.

But this was not to be. Juliet, it turned out, had a black mother and a white father. Romeo, on the other hand, had a white mother and (how’s that? was he adopted?) a black father.

Mr. and Mrs. Montague, played by Irene Poole and Roy Lewis

Two multi-racial couples at the head of the feuding families? Too much of a coincidence to reflect color-blind casting; the director did this on purpose. But why? I missed several speeches during the play while I tried to figure out what he might have intended. I never did.

This was a distraction we could have done without. As it is, an audience trying to follow a play performed in Elizabethan English needs all its concentration to hear and understand what’s being said. A director owes it to his audience not to use gimmicks that draw attention away from the dialogue.

For that matter, what was director McAnuff’s point in having this Romeo and Juliet start in modern times, move back 400 years, and then revert to modern times? (In the last scene, coroners in modern dress arrive at the scene of the carnage at the Capulet crypt.) I didn’t get it. Once again, I was distracted from the play while I tried to make sense of it.

Personally, I don’t need gimmicks like color-coded casting, or like setting Hamlet in 1938 (as in another play at Stratford this season), to help me understand Shakespeare’s “relevance” to modern society. I wouldn’t buy tickets in the first place if I didn’t think Romeo and Juliet still speaks to the way we live now.

The cult of multiculturalism and its priests give the Stratford Festival their stamp of righteous approval, but say the Shaw Festival still hasn’t gotten religion on “diversity”. Emsworth loses patience in this post.

Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) has its moments. But the lead actors are so weak that the show can’t be recommended.

As directed by Des McAnuff, Shakespeare’s tragedy opens in 21st-century Verona, in a public square, with motorized scooters, young women text-messaging on their cellphones, and two servants of the Capulets who are itching for a fight with the Montagues. The brawl is broken up by authorities who wield (and fire) automatic pistols.

Gareth Potter as Romeo

Meanwhile, the pride and joy of the Montagues decides to crash the Capulets’ masked ball, along with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio, in the hope of meeting Rosaline, with whom he is infatuated. As Romeo sheds his modern clothing for his ball costume, the time of the play shifts backward four centuries to 16th-century Verona, where Shakespeare actually placed his play. (After the ball, the cast appears in nifty 16th-century costumes.)

At the ball, Rosaline is forgotten when Romeo falls for the Capulets’ 13-year-old daughter Juliet. The attraction is mutual, and knowing that the Capulets will never consent to their daughter’s marriage to a Montague, the lovers arrange for Friar Lawrence, a local priest, to marry them secretly.

But Romeo (Gareth Potter) gets caught up in another streetfight with the Capulets and stabs Juliet’s favorite cousin Tybalt in a swordfight. Will Juliet (Nikki M. James) forgive Romeo for dispatching her cousin? Will Romeo escape punishment from the Prince of Verona, who is disgusted with the endless feuding? Will the violence escalate? Will the lovers ever be united?

Nikki M. James and Gareth Potter as the star-crossed lovers

Unfortunately, this show is spoiled by frankly amateurish — Emsworth doesn’t mean to be harsh, but how else to put it? — performances from the actors playing Romeo and Juliet.

The program bios indicate that director Des McAnuff has recently directed Nikki M. James as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. No doubt she shone in that role, which doesn’t require much expressive range.

But how could McAnuff have thought James could do justice to some of the most poetic lines in Shakespeare? James delivers each line in the same soprano range of her voice that she must have used to call Toto. Nor does she do well without the microphone with which she was surely equipped in The Wizard of Oz; she seems to think that the only way to be heard in the spacious Festival Theater is to shout. The most that can be said of the casting is that James is a lithe and attractive Juliet who passes convincingly for a 13-year-old.

Des McAnuff

In the program, McAnuff indicates that he sees the first half of this play as a comedy and the second half as a tragedy. That’s a reasonable way of approaching the play, given the tone and the sweetly romantic scenes in the first two acts.

But Nikki M. James and Gareth Potter seem to have misunderstood what McAnuff meant about “comedy.” They perform the famous balcony scene as if it were a joke that everyone in the theater is in on — almost as parody. And Juliet wakes everyone up everyone in the house when she screeches “Anon” to her nurse at the top of her lungs in the middle of her tender speeches to Romeo. After hearing these outbursts, I fully expected Romeo to make his excuses and slink out of the garden, grateful that he had not committed himself too far to this petulant, shrill-voiced child.

Nor does James seem comfortable with Shakespeare’s language. When Juliet learns that her new husband has been banished for slaying Tybalt, she does an extended riff on “banished.” Unfortunately, each time she bellows the word, she places the accent on the third of the syllables: “ban-i-SHED.” The effect is alarming. (A scene or two later, Friar Lawrence, Romeo, and the Nurse all pronounce it with only two syllables.)

As Romeo, Gareth Potter delivers his lines with little more real expression than James, and his voice has an indistinct quality that makes him hard to hear. Seated only a few rows from the stage, off to one side, we hardly caught a word of one key speech that he delivered from the front of the stage.

One supposes that the casting of Romeo and Juliet always presents problems like this; by definition, young, relatively inexperienced actors must be called upon to play the parts.

Lucy Peacock as the Nurse and Nikki M. James as Juliet

Despite the leads, there are some fine performances in this show. As the garrulous Nurse who can never be brought to the point, Lucy Peacock is magnificent. So is Peter Donaldson as Friar Lawrence; his rich baritone, perfect diction, and sympathetic understanding of Shakespeare’s language are a treat. Both Roy Lewis, as Montague, and John Vickery, as Capulet, convey power and dignity as heads of the warring families.

I especially enjoyed Evan Buliung as Romeo’s friend Mercutio and could not help thinking that either he or Timothy D. Stickney, who had a strong stage presence as Tybalt, would have been better cast as Romeo.

The set for Romeo and Juliet at the Festival Festival consisted of a cleverly-constructed, versatile Italian bridge that morphed, as needed, into a ballroom, a balcony, and a crypt. It also facilitated some exceptionally rapid and well-choreographed scene changes. We wished, though, that its moving action had operated more quietly.

Emsworth carps about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, as a result of which Des McAnuff became sole artistic director of the Festival last winter, in this post.

See Emsworth’s review of the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of All’s Well That Ends Well at this post, and his review of Hamlet at this post.

The priests of multiculturalism give the Stratford Festival their stamp of righteous approval, but say the Shaw Festival still hasn’t gotten religion on “diversity”. Emsworth loses patience in this post.

The politically incorrect Shakespeare

Statue of Hamlet in Stratford-on-Avon, England

(August 2008) Emsworth finds that he enjoys Shakespeare plays best when he has brushed up on the written text ahead of time. Reading Romeo and Juliet this last week in anticipation of an imminent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), he was struck once again with the extent to which Shakespeare can offend contemporary sensibilities — sometimes even Emsworth’s.

Take the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. Samson and Gregory, who apparently work for the Capulets, are trash-talking about what they’ll do to the Montagues if they get the chance. Samson brags,

I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men I will be civil with the maids — I will cut off their heads.

What Samson means by “heads” is “maidenheads,” and the rest of the dialogue makes it clear that what he intends is forcible rape.

This may have passed for “comic” dialogue in Shakespeare’s day, but it doesn’t seem funny today. Especially after all we’ve read lately about the deliberate use of rape as a tool of genocide in Africa, it’s a bit raw. Samson’s braggadocio may seem mild compared to the viciousness of some of the characters in contemporary plays by David Mamet, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter, but those characters aren’t comic, and their lines are intended to shock.


Katherine learns submission in the Stratford Festival's 2008 show

In fact, one doesn’t have to look very hard for politically incorrect material in Shakespeare:

In Othello, all the characters take it for granted that Desdemona is debasing herself by making the beast with two backs with the dark-skinned Moor, “a Barbary horse.”

In The Taming of the Shrew (also at the Stratford Festival this season), Petruchio teaches “submission” to Katherina.

And in The Merchant of Venice, the avaricious Shylock embodies many anti-Semitic prejudices — and is forced at the end of the play to “convert” to Christianity.

As I recall, last year the Stratford Festival included a warning on its website that The Merchant of Venice was a “controversial” play (much as they might have warned that there would be strobe lights or smoking on stage!). And the program for last year’s Merchant actually seemed to be apologizing for the Bard:

The anti-Semitic nature of the play has caused controversy, particularly in the 20th century. The anti-Semitism is not confined to evil characters in the play, which makes scholars conclude that Shakespeare himself must have accepted at least some of the bias of his age.

Well, how astonishing would it be if Shakespeare hadn’t harbored some of the prejudices of his contemporaries? Whoever thought that literary genius was necessarily accompanied by enlightened social views? It’s a sorry commentary on our politically correct times that a theater company should feel that it needs to apologize in advance for material in a Shakespeare play, worrying that audiences might impute the prejudices of the playwright to the management!

No one needs to make excuses for Shakespeare. We ought to be tolerant enough, and humble enough, to recognize that in every culture, and at every point in history, cultured people of good will have had moral blind spots.  That includes, of course, twenty-first century Americans and Canadians as well as the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Update. As it turned out, the Stratford Festival’s 2008 Romeo and Juliet just wasn’t very good — it seemed a bit of a muddle. See Emsworth’s review at this post. And for Emsworth’s comments on the “color-blind casting” for Romeo and Juliet (which wasn’t really color-blind at all; they bungled it), see this post.

But the Stratford Festival did put on a highly entertaining The Taming of the Shrew in its 2008 season. For Emsworth’s enthusiastic review of this show, see this post. For his comments on certain kinky aspects of how Katherine the shrew was “tamed” in the Stratford show, see this post.