SHAKESPEARE’S 400TH ANNIVERSARY — A CELEBRATION, PART 1

by Molly Pearson, Nándor Révész, Beth Saward

From an idea by Jake Reynolds.

April 23rd will mark four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare. I won’t patronise you by introducing him. I contacted ten people — some undergraduates, some Master’s students, some UEA alumni — and asked them who their favourite Shakespeare character is. Or, more specifically, which character had the most profound effect on them. The responses have been read in a variety of different and fascinating ways. Some ground the character in the text, while others branch across to discuss film portrayals, personal experience, and cultural commentaries. The characters you will see championed here over the next three weeks come from current and former students of literature, creative writing, American studies, film studies, scriptwriting and performance, politics and international relations, and more. What binds them is their passion — the Shakespearean character, whoever he, she, or they may be, still survives the death of their creator, alive and rattling in our minds as they did to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. 

Molly Pearson – Richard III from Richard III

(Richard III portrait © Wikimedia)

Richard III was Shakespeare’s first great villain, and one of those characters that audiences love precisely because of his monstrosity. He indulges our fantasies on two levels — we envy the freedom afforded by total selfishness as he schemes for the crown of England, and (in between murders) we bask in his wit and charm. And Richard is nothing if not charming. Irreverent and playful, with a lecherous glibness that often belies his true menace… never did rampant sociopathy come so appealingly packaged. As the popularity of recent productions of Richard III show, his character has stood the test of time.

And there is something about Richard that tells me that he would adapt his skill set especially well to modern society. There is a decidedly twenty-first century feel to him; certainly, his rise to the throne of the play’s unstable, faction-ridden England parallels the career of many a dictator. He is the perfect politician: a gifted speaker and relentless Machiavellian, bullshitting his way to power with despicable charisma. Even on a smaller scale, Richard could be successful; he might run a ruthless business empire or claw his way to the top of the Wall Street wolf pack. With his eloquence, he could even make a career as a writer (of the Bret Easton Ellis variety, one imagines), channelling his lust for power into the domination of imaginary worlds.

Yes, Richard’s fondness for words would certainly be an asset today. One can imagine him blogging about evil as a method of overcoming body dysphoria, or on Twitter soliloquising about his conquests 140 characters at a time. #I’llhaveherbutIwillnotkeepherlong. How the Lad Bible would love him.

Of course Shakespeare’s characters didn’t have social media. And with Richard in their midst, that’s probably a good thing.

 

Nándor Révész – King Lear from King Lear

( Joseph Marcell as King Lear © Ellie Kurttz )

When I first went to see King Lear, it was more of a gesture of support for the beleaguered anti-government and gay director (a rather odd – and since then, deposed – phenomenon in the context of the omnipresent ultra-conservative Hungarian regime) of the National Theatre, Alföldi Róbert, than an appreciation of a classical Shakespeare play.

Therefore, I didn’t think much about the play for a long time, even after I saw it. For me, Lear was nothing more than a hubris-fuelled child, deserving of his fate even as his world and system crumbles and shatters around him.

I still can’t say I entirely disagree with this thought. But then something became apparent to me: it is not just Lear’s world which falls, it is the world itself. As Jan Kott put it, “Gloucester was right when he said: ‘This great world shall so wear out to nought.’ Those who have survived – Edgar, Albany and Kent – are, as Lear has been, just ‘ruin’d pieces of nature’”.

Indeed, he causes his own downfall. But especially now, in the days of cruelty, greed, and institutionally cultivated discord across Europe, what would we come to if we gleefully watched the systems we know and live within dismantle themselves due to their own hubris? Are we ready to pay the potential price of becoming ‘ruin’d pieces of nature’ ourselves in the process?

 

Beth Saward – Macbeth from Macbeth

( Michael Fassbender as Macbeth © See-Saw Films )

Why Macbeth? Through the course of the play we see him go from a loyal and honourable war hero to a despotic tyrant who is murdered by his own subjects. He’s complex and shows the corrupting influence of unchecked ambition in a very human way. As an audience, we watch the shift in his character as he goes from having the thought of murder ‘unfix [his] hair / And make [his] seated heart knock at [his] ribs’ to murdering the entire Macduff family in retribution for Macduff not supporting his leadership. We see him sacrifice everything: he has his best friend murdered, his marriage unravels, his wife commits suicide and he himself is killed.

Michael Fassbender, in the latest adaptation of Macbeth, plays off the line ‘Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!’ to give us a Macbeth who’s gambled away his own sanity in a relentless pursuit of power. This Macbeth lurks underneath Shakespeare’s text, surfacing in lines such as ‘I have supp’d full with horrors; / Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts / Cannot once start me.’ He’s become so resigned to the violence of his life that he, in one of the play’s most memorable lines, talks about being ‘in blood / Stepped in so far, that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ And yet, when Lady Macbeth dies, Shakespeare conveys Macbeth’s grief in such a heart-breaking monologue:

Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

It’s Macbeth’s tangled and fascinating personality and the way his character changes throughout the play that makes him the best Shakespeare character.

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