To Be or Not To Be

From Written Images

I’m not sure I’ve talked about Shakespeare too much yet on the blog except in passing. I have a rocky relationship with the Bard. On one hand, I adore his comedies. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer’s Night Dream and I am a happy girl. His tragedies on the other hand…we’ve never gotten along. I did talk about Romeo and Juliet before. I try to forget Othello (or am I trying to forget the awful film version we watched?). The Scottish Play wasn’t much of a fave either though Lady Macbeth is kind of awesome in her evilness. Hamlet, on the other hand, is one I’ve always had a complicated relationship with. I read it on my own in high school (yes, I was a nerd. I was trying to convince myself I liked Shakespearean tragedy. It didn’t go well). Then, I read it as part of my Shakespeare course while in England. We even went to see it performed at Great Malvern with Ed Stoppard in the title role. I had loathed Hamlet in high school; in college, I could appreciate what was happening. Seeing it performed though was a revelation. Suddenly certain aspects of the play clicked; certain scenes became funny that weren’t when you just read the words. Even though that particular production went off the rails in the end, there were scenes that I found to be favorites. I could, at that point, grudgingly admire Hamlet if nothing else.

Fast forward to now and my summer film challenge. There was a version of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company that fans petitioned for, and got, a recorded version of which was released by the BBC. Tennant, at the top of my list for his Doctor, was going to finally make me appreciate Hamlet the way I should. And people, I think he succeeded. His Hamlet is, as a friend says, the closest we’ll get to a feminist one. Suddenly, that ridiculous “Get thee to a nunnery” speech made sense! He’s warning her away, trying to get her out of a situation that he knows is going to destroy more than just his uncle. He’s also a sympathetic Hamlet, a Hamlet I can actually understand is struggling between his duty to his dead father and his own conscience. I see a Hamlet that actually had a relationship with his mother before, who is hurt because he no longer knows how to relate to her after what she did in the aftermath of his father’s death. Also, I found a Hamlet who is funny, ironic, and who is no more mad than I am. This is a Hamlet who is playing a part, perhaps to protect himself from what he knows he must do eventually.

In fact, if I took nothing away from this version other than one thing, it is that a production of Hamlet with a sense of fun is ten times more interesting than one who takes itself seriously. Because, honestly, I have never noticed how witty, how funny, Hamlet is before this production. Perhaps it is Tennant’s delivery of Hamlet, his expressions as he delivers his lines that help convey that sense to the production (it doesn’t hurt that certain facial expressions or delivery of certain words had me wondering if it was Tennant as Hamlet or Tennant as the Doc that I was watching). But I found it made me like Hamlet the character and also Hamlet the play much more.

I also really enjoyed Patrick Stewart as Claudius and the Ghost. It was obvious why he earned an Olivier Award for his work with the production. I always found Claudius a hard character both to read and watch. He is on one hand, presented as a loving husband and worried new father to Hamlet when underneath he is scheming, cunning, ruthless and willing to remove any obstacle in his path. The ruthless side is, I think, often downplayed but here you catch the glimpses of it when necessary to believe this is a man who murdered his brother and married his brother’s wife. Stewart is a master at suppressed rage and once he does let it out for a moment, it is that much more powerful. He is a charming murderer; always the diplomat as he strokes Laertes’ anger at Hamlet to lead him to murder. You can never quite not like Stewart’s Claudius which makes him that much more effective as a villain.

Someday, somewhere, I will find a version of Ophelia I can get behind. This was not it. Kate Winslet remains my favorite though even Kate struggles with a character who doesn’t seem to have a true place in the play. If you remove her, what would be lost? A speech that usually gets bungled and a few mad scenes that wouldn’t be missed. The other players were decent and interesting in their roles. I did love the portrayal of Horotio though; for the first time, you really saw that Hamlet and Horatio are friends, that in a castle where Hamlet has no allies and is increasingly fighting himself, Horatio is there to lean on.

I also really loved the staging of the play. For this recorded version, the play was filmed on location rather than on the stage, allowing more movement by the characters and also adding a great mood over the play. I loved the use of security cameras, and also a hand-held camera at one point, to give the viewer a different perspective on the scene, things you cannot do when an audience is in an auditorium with one view point with which to watch. It was a unique blend of stage set and film set which I think added something to the experience of watching the play.

So, I think I’m finally square with Hamlet. The question becomes which tragedy should I tackle next to try and at least get over my dislike. Any suggestions?

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Romeo, Romeo…oh you know the rest

From Elle (great Q&A with author!)

So, don’t strike me down with lightning or anything but I’ve never been a big fan of Romeo and Juliet. I thought Romeo was a bit of a wimp and Juliet just seemed to cry her way through the play. This was a revelation to me when I read it the first time. I was a hopeless romantic, adored every love story I read but come to my first Shakespeare and I just didn’t get it. I have since learned I’m more of a Beatrice kind of girl than a Juliet and that is infinitely cooler but back in 8th grade, I was seriously concerned about myself. The greatest love story of all time and I didn’t like it?! Luckily we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 9th grade and my love of Shakespeare was born but still, I’ve always wanted to love Romeo and Juliet more than I do.

So when a friend pointed out Anne Fortier’s novel Juliet to me last year I thought maybe this was my chance, maybe someone would finally make me love this play. I’m not sure the book deserves that much praise but I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who would enjoy taking history and fiction and melding it into a romantic adventure in modern-day Siena.

Julie Jacobs has never belonged. She’s never really tried, knowing whatever she expressed interest in, her twin sister Janice would mock into oblivion. So she’s skated along in life, forever the outsider with a protester’s past and a blank future. Then her Aunt Rose dies and sets Julie off in an adventure in her native Siena where her long-dead mother once almost solved the great mystery of the real Romeo and Juliet and was trying to lift the curse on the houses when she died. Julie, always wanting to know where she belongs jumps into the mystery, not understanding she just embarked on the most dangerous adventure of her life.

Reading this right after People of the Book was a risk; both books have a similar format where you follow a modern day character unraveling the mystery the reader also sees unfold in historical chapters. What I think helps Juliet is the modern-day tale is always the focus of the book; the historically based chapters never take over the narrative completely and in fact fall off later in the story. Fortier also changes how she tells the history; some chapters are from the characters’ points of view, others are chapters told as if they were bedtime stories to the modern day heroine. This change in format makes all the difference to me as it kept me on my toes as a reader and meant the story was not always going to be predictable.

Another major difference, and where Fortier almost succeeds in winning me over to the Romeo and Juliet bandwagon, is she fleshes out their characters brilliantly. You don’t necessarily always like them but they are always interesting and fun to read about. Her characterization of the original Juliet alone made me want to hug her. Here was a girl who wanted revenge, who was filled with anger and hate and who did not fall in love with Romeo without asking a price from him. I’m not sure how she did it but her Romeo and Juliet were equals, both passionate and fierce. They were fighters originally, browbeaten into submission and death by the society they found themselves in. Miscommunication plays a part but it is not what leads to their deaths ultimately. I liked that; I always despised that part of the plot in the play. It seemed too easy an ending.

The modern-day Julie is more complicated; a woman who has spent her whole life trying to be opposite of her sister, trying to fade into the woodwork. She loves dead and fictional men because they cannot hurt her (word on that sister – my ideals are often fictional or dead). When she dares to go on her big adventure, she is unsure and scared but she also has a will to fight and to follow her instincts. In fact, it is when Julie doesn’t follow her heart that she gets into trouble. She is in turn likable and yet pathetic. You want to hug her and say “you go girl” and then the next minute you’re smacking the page going “really hon? really?” which is a realistic character when you think about it. One thing you do want is a happy ending for her and Shakespeare does his best to thwart her throughout the narrative.

Once I started reading this book, I had a hard time putting it down. The action is fast paced and entertaining. In a sense, it’s a very cinematic book in that I had an easy time of it imagine how scenes played out and what sort of music might work best in the background. Fortier’s descriptions of Siena and its surrounding countryside show a woman who knows her landscape and loves it. She understand a balance between telling a story to the reader and letting a reader unfold it as she goes. Not always the easiest balance to strike but she did well here. Heck, she almost made me want to read Romeo and Juliet again and that is saying something.