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Tony Grist

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Shakespeare's Problem Plays [Jun. 1st, 2008|09:51 am]
Tony Grist
Here's the problem: that Shakespeare's characters are just not simple enough for our tastes. 

We want moral consistency. We want a fixed viewpoint. We want to know who to cheer for, who to hate. We want goodies and baddies. And he refuses to oblige.

In Measure for Measure it throws us off balance that the Duke is both Godlike and creepy, that Isabella is both heroic and self-centred. We want the wrinkles smoothed out. We want them to be one thing or the other. 

The same thing happens in All's Well That End's Well. Helena is both noble wife and obsessive stalker, Bertram is both the perfect Renaissance gentleman and an utter shit- and it confuses us.  It makes us angry. We wriggle out of our discomfort by calling the play a failure.

The so-called Problem plays are the ones that take this characteristic of Shakespeare's art to its most unsettling extremes- It doesn't help that they're billed as comedies- but it's to be found everywhere. The lovable Hamlet is cruel to Ophelia, callous in his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Goneril and Regan have right- or at least commonsense- on their side;  Henry V is both national hero and cold-hearted politician; Falstaff is utterly unscrupulous but also the personification of merry England. There's a debate to be had about all of Shakespeare's major characters- are they this? Are they that? Each one is a drama within a drama, a  puzzle on legs.  It's the reason why actors still want to play them, why- after 400  years- the plays are still so stageworthy, so much alive.

Shakespeare is not a moralist. The waters are always muddied. His plays have nothing to teach us- except that this is what life is like.

[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2008-06-01 02:38 pm (UTC)
I agree with this wholeheartedly. To this day microsteph and I still debate whether Hamlet was genuinely crazy, or the whole thing was an act that got carried away. Shakespeare was a master of the human personality, and he still leaves modern-day celebrity pychologists in the dust in that regard.

So is Iago the exception to the rule? Not much complexity or nuance to that guy. ;)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-02 08:56 am (UTC)
Is Iago all bad? there are hints that he's acting out of revenge- which would (arguably) put him on a level with Hamlet.

I'm playing devil's advocate here. Even if there aren't many (any) glints of goodness in him, Iago remains an enigmatic character. We know enough to make him fascinating, not enough to pin him down.
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[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2008-06-02 01:02 pm (UTC)
I think that's pretty much it. Iago is fascinating, because he's enigmatic. Some think him motiveless, others suggest everything from the obvious (he was passed over for promotion) to the more subtle (racism, suspicions of infidelity). My assessment is that Hamlet's desire for that particular level of revenge springs from something stronger, more understandable to the audience. Even so, he agonizes over it, equivocates. With Iago, once the decision to destroy Cassio and then Othello is made, that's it. He doesn't weigh cause or consequence, he doesn't think about his own sense of worth or guilt. He has little regard for the innocent third parties who suffer in the path of his revenge, and in the end, when he is caught, he offers nothing by way of justification to his accusers.

I sometimes wonder if Shakespeare wasn't offering Iago up as an archetype of the sociopath. Or a Scorpio. ;)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-02 07:45 pm (UTC)
Iago is one of those blank canvas roles. An actor can do anything he likes with it. The most striking interpretation I've seen is Mckellen's- who makes him into a cheery professional soldier, life and soul of the party, salt of the earth. I suppose the truth is that Iago is himself an actor. What we see is what he chooses for us to see. God only knows what's going on- if anything- behind the facade.
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From: manfalling
2008-06-04 02:14 am (UTC)
I watched Mel Gibson's Hamlet- though I doubt it did the play much justice. I haven't seen or read it before, but in this version Hamlet just seemed like a total pansy. Quit prevaricating and chewing the scenery, I thought, and go get your revenge like a good protagonist!
Then he starts being mad, and it all just seemed like pre-amble, filler really, the equivalent of purple prose or mindless exposition. I tuned out and did something else and let him continue in the background. I tuned back in at the end when he is sword-fighting with some guy. He seemed on top of things then, which was cool, though of course- as with Shakespeare generally, the ending is a cop-out 'everybody dies' affair.
I need to see it again, rendered by both a lead actor and a director a little more able than Gibson and his director, Zefirelli.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-04 11:41 am (UTC)
Yes, but the prevarication is the play. If he went staight ahead and killed Claudius it'd all be over by the end of Act I.

I believe he has his reasons. Would you go out and kill someone on the say-so of a ghost? Hamlet isn't actually sure of his uncle's guilt until after the play scene. Again, killing a king is a pretty big deal.
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