Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Shakespeare Study: More Miscellaneous Books

My Shakespeare study, which began in earnest in 2010, will likely never end. I am often finding interesting books on the subject, and there are always new productions and film adaptations to enjoy. Here are notes on a few of the books I’ve read recently.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare; abridged by Leon Garfield; illustrated by Nikolai Serebriakov – This book is a companion to Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. It begins with a description of what theatre-goers experienced in Shakespeare’s day, including mention of buckets along the back wall for use as toilets, a detail I don’t recall reading in other books. This section is written by Patrick Spottiswoode, Director Globe Education at Shakespeare Globe Trust. Then Leon Garfield provides a brief biography of William Shakespeare, and also a bit about the play Macbeth. “This is one of the darkest of Shakespeare’s plays, and perhaps the most terrifying play ever written” (p. 8). This version of the play contains lots of stage directions, or descriptions, including an interesting bit with a drum held by Banquo: “With each pronouncement, Macbeth taps humorously on Banquo’s drum; but with the last, his blow is violent and splits the drumskin. The rent is in the form of a dagger!” (p. 13). The book is only 48 pages, so obviously a lot is cut, including the Porter. The artwork for this book is what makes it really special. This book was published in 1993.

Mac Bird! by Barbara Garson – This play is an adaptation of Macbeth, with Lyndon Baines Johnson in the title role. By the way, his character is named MacBird, but the book’s cover and title page have the title as Mac Bird! with the space in the name. The play shows the tension between Johnson and the Kennedys. We’ve all heard the rumors that LBJ was behind the assassination of JFK, and in this telling of Macbeth, he certainly is. The foreword contains information on the genesis of the play, which actually began with a slip of the tongue during a speech at an anti-war rally. Though the play is an adaptation of Macbeth, Barbara Garson finds inspiration from several other Shakespeare works. There is a prologue which will sound familiar to those who have read Henry The Fifth. The first scene takes place at a hotel at the Democratic convention, with the three witches. The third witch borrows from Polonius in one of her speeches: “Neither a burrower from within nor a leader be,/But stone by stone construct a conscious cadre./And this above all – to thine own class be true/And it must follow, as the very next depression,/Thou canst not then be false to revolution” (p. 8). The witches hail MacBird as Senate Leader, Vice President and “that shall be President” (p. 10). John Kennedy is referred to as John Ken O’Dunc, and is the Duncan character. Robert Kennedy, here Robert Ken O’Dunc, is essentially named successor, so is the Malcolm character. Ted Kennedy is Donalbain. But Robert Kennedy also functions as the Macduff character. As you know, John Kennedy was murdered in Texas, Lyndon’s Johnson’s home state, and Garson makes use of that fact. “We’ll have a grand procession through the streets/For you to greet the people of my state” (p. 18). The play is often quite funny, and I love that Earl Warren is referred to as “The Earl of Warren” (p. 23). A bit that had me laughing is when the Fourth Voice says: “Let’s get the facts. Let’s go and watch TV” (p. 34). This is funny, particularly as the line is spoken by someone who is present at the assassination. Richard The Third is another of Shakespeare’s plays referred to in this play, with MacBird saying, “This here is the winter of our discontent” (p. 25). And there are a lot of references to Hamlet, including a play on Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy: “To see or not to see? That is the question./Whether ‘tis wiser as a statesman to ignore/The gross deception of outrageous liars,/Or to speak out against a reign of evil/And by doing so, end there for all time/The chance and hope to work within for change” (pages 41-42). And it actually continues from there, and this speech is shockingly pertinent today. Robert Kennedy also borrows from Cassius’ lines in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Egg, is never in our stars/But in ourselves that we are underlings” (p. 44). And MacBird borrows from Richard The Second: “Have I no friends will rid me of these living fears?” (p. 47). In this adaptation, Lady MacBird is desperate to get rid of the smell of blood, rather than to clean blood from her hands, and her daughters help with an aerosol spray can. This play was published before the murder of Robert Kennedy, but Senator 2 says to him, “You may be next, I fear” (p. 70). I love what Garson does with the witches in this adaptation. Their refrain is “Bubble and bubble, toil and trouble/Burn baby burn, and cauldron bubble.” But the ingredients they mention are perfect. Here is a taste: “Sizzling skin of napalmed child/Roasted eyeballs, sweet and mild./Now we add a fiery chunk/From a burning Buddhist monk” (p. 79). By the way, the “pricking of my thumbs” line is left intact. Interestingly, this adaptation adds another scene with the witches, where Robert Kennedy also seeks their advice. He is announced thus: “By the twitching of my ears/Something cunning this way steers” (p. 82). They answer him with words from Hamlet: “The serpent that did sting thy brother’s life/Now wears his crown!” (p. 83). And there is a take on the play scene from Hamlet. Later one of the witches mixes lines from Hamlet and Othello: “But this above all: to thine own cause be true./Set sentiment aside and organize./It is the cause. It is the cause” (p. 99). One of the other witches finishes the thought, sort of: “My ass” (rather than “my soul”). Mac Bird! was published in 1967. The copy I read was the second printing of the Evergreen Black Cat Edition. It contains several illustrations by Lisa Lyons.

Shakespeare In The Red: Tales From The Bard By A Soviet Lamb by M.S. Bazagonev – This humorous book takes five of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and re-tells them for the benefit of Soviet citizens. It was published in 1965, during the Cold War, and at times is wonderfully dated, with references to skirts getting shorter and to beatniks, and including a playful reference to Breakfast At Tiffany’s. In its telling of Macbeth, the witches are described as secret agents: “In point of fact, Soviet historians have definitely established that the Weird Sisters were English secret agents, wearing beards as a disguise, and that their mission was to foment civil strife in Scotland through false predictions” (p. 12). There are many funny passages in this book, as when Bazagonev plays with the word “smear” in the Macbeth chapter: “‘It took you a long time,’ remarked Mrs. Macbeth sarcastically, ‘I thought you’d fallen asleep on the job! Have you smeared the pages with blood so we can pretend at the trial that they were the murderers? I thought not! I have to do everything myself!’ And full of anger she embarked on this smear campaign, also leaving beside the pages the incriminating kitchen-knife” (p. 16). And regarding the Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, Bazagonev writes, “he set eyes on the refugee Macduff, disguised as a poplar” (p. 21). The chapter on Romeo And Juliet begins with a play on West Side Story: “Seeing that the West side story of Romeo and Juliet – that of the imperialist aggressors – has been the only one in circulation for centuries, we have deemed it necessary to publish the East side story – the Socialist one – of the same immortal love” (p. 23). From that chapter, this line about the balcony scene made me laugh: “Juliet was sorry indeed that Romeo had heard her talking to herself: in the first place, he might think her insane” (p. 29). And I love this: “When Count Paris came the next morning with an orchestra to wake her up, as was the wedding custom in Verona, he found his prospective bride frigid. The Capulets immediately altered the invitations, wrote ‘funeral’ instead of ‘wedding’ and dispatched them to the guests, with many outward signs of grief” (p. 36). In the chapter on King Lear, Bazagonev writes: “The right to retinue was an old medieval privilege, and the retinue were supposed to follow their master everywhere: even when he went out, let’s say, to wash his hands, the retinue followed him and waited patiently at the door, exactly in the same way as the Politburo had acted under Stalin” (p. 44). Probably the funniest line in this chapter is about Kent’s banishment: “But Kent refused to ‘shut up’ and so King Lear banished him to live abroad, a cruel punishment totally unknown in Communist countries” (p. 45). In the chapter on Hamlet, Bazagonev writes, “As soon as they were alone, the ghost showed him all his bones, saying: ‘I am your father, but I’ve lost weight. I want you to know, son, that I was murdered!’” (p. 56). There is also a play on Hamlet’s most memorable soliloquy: “After such an inspiring discussion, Hamlet spoke his famous soliloquy, starting with the words: ‘To be or not to be with the people’ which was subsequently truncated by the feudalists and their bourgeois cousins” (p. 57). And in the chapter on Othello, Bazagonev writes, “Among these feudalistic sharks the most hated was undoubtedly Senator Brabantio, the Chairman of the notorious Committee for the Investigation of un-Venetian Activities” (p. 67). And, regarding Othello’s wooing of Desdemona, Bazagonev writes, “He told her how once he had entered the Black Sea, hoping to see some fellow-Africans on its shores, but had the unexpected privilege of meeting his first Russians, the most advanced people in the Middle Ages, in which condition they are still today” (p. 68). Shakespeare In The Red: Tales From The Bard By A Soviet Lamb was published in 1965 by Arc Books, Inc.

King Lear by William Shakespeare – I like to return to King Lear fairly often. This time I read The Pelican Shakespeare edition, which was first published in 1958 and revised in 1970, and was edited by Alfred Harbage. The copy I read is from 1983. In the introduction, Harbage writes: “Lamb has been much taken to task for declaring that ‘Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage,’ but more often than not our experiences in the theatre confirm his view. There have been fine productions, but not very many: one touch of insincerity can rot everything away” (p 20). Regarding Lear’s character, Harbage writes: “His inability to distinguish between the false and the true, and his craving for visible displays, are not failings peculiar to him. ‘How much do you love me?’ – few parents suppress this bullying question, spoken or unspoken, however much they may have felt its burden as children. It seems in the nature of some things that they always be learned too late, that as children we might have offered more, as parents demanded less” (p. 23). Regarding Lear’s final moments, Harbage writes: “There is no melioration in his dying delusion that she still lives, no mention of an after-life. It is unspeakably sad. But it merges with a larger yet less devastating sadness” (p. 26). A footnote regarding that famous moment when Lear says “And my poor fool is hanged,” reads: “i.e. Cordelia (‘Fool’ was often a term of affection, and sometimes, as in Erasmus and elsewhere in Shakespeare, of praise – an ironic commentary upon self-seeking ‘worldly wisdom’)” (p. 166).

The Shakespeare Book by Levi Fox – This book was published in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and is a short volume about William Shakespeare’s life rather than his work, with a focus on his time in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is full of photographs, mostly of buildings, such as his birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s cottage, but also of important documents. Toward the end, there is a section on the growing appreciation of his work as well as the growing tourist trade to the place of his birth. From what I can tell, there have been at least two different editions of this book published. The other has a yellow band beneath the title rather than the red of my copy. It looks like the yellow version was published earlier, and the edition I have was published in the early 1990s.

Othello by William Shakespeare – This is a volume in the Pocket Classics series, famous works of literature presented in comic book form. The series includes twelve of Shakespeare’s plays. Othello is the eighth book in the series. No author other than Shakespeare is credited, though the words have been changed. Likewise, the illustrator is left uncredited. The strangest thing about this telling is that Othello’s race isn’t really mentioned much at all.

Act I

In the opening scene, Iago tells Roderigo straight out that he hates Othello because Othello “chose Michael Cassio to be his next in command!” (p. 8). Brabantio mentions Othello’s magic a couple of times: “You have taken away my daughter with your magic!” (p. 11) and “She has been stolen away by magic” (p. 13). But these references seem to lack the racial tones present in the play. Though almost all of Othello’s speech regarding his winning of Desdemona’s attention and affection is cut, the Duke still says “I think my very own daughter would have done the same” (p. 14). Because the details are cut, the line seems odd. Iago’s soliloquy is not spoken aloud, but presented in a thought bubble.

Act II

At the beginning of the second act, all of Desdemona’s interactions with Cassio, Iago and Emilia are cut, and instead we see her embrace Othello right away.


In this version, Iago says to Othello, “Wasn’t that Cassio that just left your wife?” (p. 22), whereas in the play it is Othello that notices Cassio, saying to Iago, “Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?” And in the play Iago pretends to think it couldn’t have been Cassio, whereas in this version he tells Othello, “He looked guilty and ran when he saw you” (p. 22). Basically, this version is a lot less subtle and crafty. Iago does tell Othello to beware of jealousy, but the famous “green-ey’d monster” line is cut.

Act IV

This version has Othello merely fainting. There is no mention of epilepsy or fits. That wonderful scene between Desdemona and Emilia is largely cut, including the willow song. In fact, the only line that Emilia speaks is “I wish you had never seen him” (p. 46). Hardly worth having her there at all if that’s all she’s going to say.

Act V

Iago’s line “This is the night/That either makes me or fordoes me quite” becomes “This is the night that either solves my problems or kills me for trying” (p. 50). While Desdemona sleeps, Othello says “You are the cause of it all!” (p. 51).

Othello was published in 1984.

William Shakespeare’s Get Thee Back To The Future! by Ian Doescher – Ian Doescher created a series of books in which he retold the entire Star Wars saga in the style of William Shakespeare, in iambic pentameter and with plenty of references to the plays. He has also now taken the same approach to the film Back To The Future. The Chorus tells us this play takes place four hundred years into the future, so this play is being performed in the late 1500s, making it one of Shakespeare’s earlier works (though apparently after Titus Andronicus, for that play is mentioned by the Chorus). In this telling, Marty’s guitar becomes a lute, which might seem a bit odd considering there is still a time-traveling automobile. If there is a car, why not a guitar? Well, no matter. As you might recall, Huey Lewis And The News did some of the music for the film, including “The Power Of Love” and “Back In Time.” So Ian Doescher creates a speech out of titles of Huey Lewis songs, including “I Want A New Drug,” “Hip To Be Square,” “If This Is It” and “Bad Is Bad,” and ending it with a reference to “The Power Of Love.” There are, as in the Star Wars books, lots of playful references to Shakespeare’s plays. For example, Doc says “Friends, makers, countrymen, lend me your ears” (p. 42), a reference to Antony’s famous speech from Julius Caesar. And a Libyan is given a version of Shylock’s famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed” speech (p. 55). And later Biff threatens to take a pound of Marty’s flesh. When Marty realizes that he and not his father was struck by the car, he says, “Aye, there’s the rub” (p. 97), echoing Hamlet. There is also a cute nod to Stephen King’s Christine, the film version of which had come out just a couple of years before Back To The Future. As is done sometimes in Shakespeare, one scene is described afterward, rather than shown. Here it is the scene where Marty frightens George by pretending to be an alien.

William Shakespeare’s Get Thee Back To The Future! was published in 2019 by Quirk Books.

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