SHAKESPEARE’S 400TH ANNIVERSARY — A CELEBRATION, PART 2

by Jo Thompson, Jake Reynolds, Hannah Whaley, Alex Valente

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. 

Jo Thompson – Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

( Kevin Kline as Bottom, Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania © Fox Searchlight )

I liked Bottom in secondary school. You could make rude implications with his name.

We meet Nick Bottom gearing up for the first rehearsal of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play being put on within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He asks what kind of part he’s cast, ‘a lover, or a tyrant?’ At the time, I sympathised. Shakespeare’s characters seemed to boil down to the same old categories, all either in or in the way of love. Bottom, a little more singularly, ended up getting cursed with a donkey head. I was a fan.

Nick Bottom is the play’s fool, a ridiculous figure given an ass’ head to match his name. He’s entirely self-absorbed and misinterprets to great comedic fault, but he’s not just the butt of the joke, not all ass. Bottom works because he’s the best story-teller on the stage. Perhaps the lesser-known connotation to Bottom the Weaver’s name is that a bottom is a part of a spindle, our fool a weaver through and through, a spinner of yarns by vocation. As such, Bottom becomes a common thread in the unravelling narrative, to the extent that he meets almost every character in the play, making Bottom the only part that can’t really be multi-roled. This becomes particularly fitting when considering the character’s greed to take on every part in Pyramus and Thisbe.

Throughout chaos and calamity, Bottom is never quite sure whether he’s in a play or not, what part he plays in things, whether or not he’s being pranked when his friends run screaming from his newly-metamorphosed head – the costume he can’t escape himself to see. Bottom is entirely, redundantly tangled in himself, but as the play’s knotty centre it’s only in extrications from his mess that the rest of the characters can find their resolutions, Bottom still with a few loose ends.


Jake Reynolds – Perdita from The Winter’s Tale

( Tim Brown, with Lupita Nyong’o as Perdita © Joan Marcus )

‘So long could I / Stand by, a looker on.’ These are the last words Perdita speaks in The Winter’s Tale. It’s a simple utterance, delivered as much to thin air as it is the other characters present in the play’s magical and surreal final scene.

Perdita is proof that the characters bestowed with infamous monologues and soliloquies are not necessarily the most fascinating. The binding substance of the various communities (or lack of) in the play, she exerts much of her power silently. She is a love song to every quiet person in a loud room, watching from the corner but also, invisibly, at its very centre.

Perdita does not utter a single word until act four of the play. Yet her birth signifies a much-needed opportunity for hope and union in a world fragmented by her father’s paranoia and tyranny. Born in the prison cell Hermione is taken to, Perdita – ‘lost one’ in Latin – is soon exiled at her father’s request. She is both a child of the broken kingdom, and the agent who was born to fix it. The ‘lost one’ – lost to her family, in the eyes of the shepherd who finds her. Lost to her mother, whose other child has died. And also representative of something that has been lost in the kingdom of Leontes for a long time: the possibility of change, a beam of light in the darkness.

So by the time the final scene comes around, Perdita can be content with being a ‘looker on’; it is, superficially, what she has been all her life. But of course the assembled – and presumably ‘happy’ – union of characters would not exist without her. It is too easy to say that ‘her work is done’. For Perdita, this was never work. Her power and virtue is palpable as soon as she is born.

 

Hannah Whaley – Leontes from The Winter’s Tale

( David Anthony Smith as Leontes © Roger Mastroianni )

My interest in Leontes is rooted in the idea that he is characterized by the sum of his faults, rather than one singular flaw. Unlike the jealousy of Othello, or the stubbornness of Lear, Leontes is an amalgamation of the core harmatia of tragedy, yet somehow he manages to arrive at a state of contentment by the closing scene.

The Winter’s Tale is a problematic play in many ways – at points reading as two different plays melded together – and I have my own issues with its fragmented nature. However, it seems perfectly fitting that the play should jump – between tragedy and comedy, the court and Bohemia – as frequently as Leontes’ mood alters.

Unlike Othello, Leontes is opposed in his suspicions by almost everyone in his court: his servants defy him, his childhood friend goes into exile to escape his tyranny, and his wife rejects his accusations of adultery. If it were not for the fact that we know his allegations to be unfounded, we might admire his determination. He has created his own world of disbelief, his own self-fulfilling prophecy; as Hermione aptly says during her trial, “My life stands in the level of your dreams”. What’s fascinating is that the fate of those closest to him relies purely on the whims of his borderline-schizophrenic personality.

Leontes continues to both baffle and entertain me. I cannot help but laugh at lines like ‘see it instantly consumed with fire’ (here referring to his newborn daughter). He’s proof that there is nothing more dangerous than an unstable man in possession of enormous power. Though his actions appear almost farcical in their absurdity, we cannot forget that he is a King; we can laugh at the confused man in his insecurity, but we tremble before the volatile King, and await his fall.

 

Alex Valente – Caliban from The Tempest

( Djimon Hounsou as Caliban © Touchstone Pictures )

One of the more puzzling plays by Billy Shakes, The Tempest, also gives us some of his most difficult characters – first above all being Sycorax’ son, Caliban. Caliban is a double and duplicitous character. He is both human (very much so) and not, both supernatural and not, but always controlled by someone, or something, else. Perhaps one of the most troublesome of Shakespeare’s characters, given the multiple colonial readings of his dynamic with Prospero, too: he and Ariel are the last indigenous inhabitants of the island, both enslaved in one way or another; one a spirit of the air, the other a creature of the earth, both forced to do the sorcerer’s bidding despite their own power. At the same time, we can also find a reversal of that dynamic, and a counter-commentary to the oppression – the best example, perhaps, in Act I, scene ii:

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! –(363-65)

Sound familiar to a recent article of mine? The imposition of language, a rebellion to it, an inevitable use of it to express those feelings; Caliban, somehow and surprisingly, seems to embody post-colonial views on cultural imperialism.

Where this line of thinking falters, however, is in the other sides of the gut-driven, earthly mooncalf/fish/creature: we see him as simple-minded, violent, aggressive, especially towards Miranda, Propero’s daughter, and Ariel, his ‘fellow’ islander. Cannibal Caliban is shown as good and evil, with a steady degeneration and tendency to the latter, the longer and further he strays away from Oppressor Prospero. As he ends up in the company of Stefano and Trinculo, he falls into yet more submissive behaviour (though both sides are essentially using the other for personal gain), almost inevitably so – as claimed some of the ideas that undoubtedly buzzed around when Shakespeare was writing.

Troublesome, as I said, but still incredibly fascinating in its potential for progressive readings: the clowns are as a devious as the monster, the sorcerer just as cruel, the children just as submissive. Yay for 17th century equality?

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