Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal and Shakespearana around the Web

Before I go into what Shakespeare on Toast is all about, I’d like to tell you what it isn't.
  •  It isn't a biography. Crystal doesn't concern himself with Shakespeare the man except when it has a bearing on his writing. You’ll learn very little about Shakespeare’s life that you didn't already know.
  •  It isn't about conspiracy theories.  The book doesn't explore the authorship question. Crystal makes it quite clear that he doesn't really care who really wrote Shakespeare. The book doesn't delve into any of the other theories or speculations about Shakespeare either. Was he gay? Is he addressing a secret lover in his sonnets? Was he a bad husband? Don’t know, don’t care is the book’s answer.
  •   It isn't Shakespeare for Dummies. The book doesn't attempt to deconstruct, simplify, summarize or try to feed you Shakespeare with a baby spoon. Some guides to Shakespeare are undoubtedly helpful when starting out with Shakespeare (the no fear series for instance) but so many of them seem either patronizing or so simplistic that they take all the beauty and complexity out of the plays.
  •   It isn't a textbook. There are no discussions of facts or figures or grammar or chronology.

William Shakespeare is probably the most widely read and widely feared playwright in English literature.  His play’s have been acted, adapted and re-interpreted in so many different ways over the centuries. The very fact that they have thrived and provided entertainment in so many different era’s and cultures makes them deserving of respect. Unfortunately, this respect has, over time morphed into a snobbish reverence that scares away anyone who isn’t scholarly enough to ‘get’ Shakespeare.  Ben Crystal tries to break it down for you without dumb-ing it down.   Here’s what Shakespeare on Toast is essentially about:

Who was Shakespeare writing for?
According to Crystal, understanding the Bard’s intended audience is key to understanding his work. We are taken back in time to Elizabethan England to meet the people Shakespeare actually wrote his play’s for. Crystal explores the minds of these people. What scared them? What made them laugh? What were their cultural and political influences? This isn’t a boring history lesson. It really gives you a back story for Shakespeare’s work. For instance, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth (about the murder of a king) right around the time of the Gunpowder Plot. Topical or what?

Why he wrote the way he did?
Shakespeare never meant for his plays to be published or read. He meant for them to be performed. By actors he knew. Crystal shows us how each play is written with instructions to the actor coded into it. The way the sentences stop and start, the metre and rhythm of each verse, it’s all meant to help the actor create the maximum impact on stage. When you start to read it that way, you see a really different pattern emerging.

Crystal sprinkles the book with several amusing anecdotes and trivia. I especially liked the one where Schwarzenegger plays Hamlet and throw’s Claudius out of a window.  There’s also a really good breakdown of one particular scene in Macbeth, done to illustrate how Shakespeare wrote with his actors in mind.

I must confess though, Crystal lost me in the rather involved chapter on Iambic Pentameter.  I read poetry that feels good to me and have never really bothered with its structure or mechanics. So all this talk of syllables and metrical feet bored me a little. But even this is really just me being a nag. The book does just what it sets out to do. It de-mystifies Shakespeare and shows you what awesome fun he can be.

This is going to be my last entry for Shakespeare reading month, though definitely not the last I read of Shakespeare. This event has really rekindled my love for the Bard I’m really glad I played along. I hope Allie thinks about making this an annual event.

Here are some rather novel adaptations of Shakespeare. More proof, if you needed it, that Shakespeare can work in any setting or form.
Raymond Chandler’s Hamlet by Jonathon Voss Post
This is a short story I found, which is a version of Hamlet written Raymond Chandler style. If you’re a fan of Chandler you’ll enjoy this I think. It’s a very short piece. Read it online here
Stick Figure Hamlet
Don’t have the time or patience to read through Hamlet? Have a go at this stick figure comic here

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Short Stories on Wednesday: A Wife’s Letter by Rabindranath Tagore

   Risa, who hosts Short Stories on Wednesday, has switched things up a bit this year to add a little excitement to the event. One of the new elements is that the last Wednesday of every month will be theme-based. Risa comes up with a word or idea and we read a story (or several stories) to match. This time around, the theme is ‘letter’. We are to interpret that anyway we please. I love the idea, mostly because, when deciding on a story to read, this gives you a definite direction to look in but it’s still broad enough so you don’t feel limited.

    A couple of weeks ago Mel U had done an excellent guest post on Breadcrumb reads about Indian short stories and one of the author’s he mentioned was Rabindranath Tagore. I’ve read a couple of Tagore’s translated poems and maybe a short story or two very long ago but nothing since then. Happily, this week’s theme gives me a chance to revisit Tagore.

A Wife’s Letter

    This is an epistolary story i.e. the story unfolds within a letter. Mrinal writes the letter to her husband of 15 years. As she reminisces on her past and their life together we learn of their arranged marriage when Mrinal was a mere child of 12. Her husband’s family, though not outright cruel, are mostly indifferent to her, as is her husband. Her beauty is considered her only asset and her intelligence is treated as an affliction. Then one day, Bindu walks into their home and family. Bindu is the orphaned, unwanted younger sister of the family’s eldest daughter-in-law. Mrinal takes the scared and abused girl under her wing and starts to care for her. Bindu in turn, adores Mrinal and the two create a sort of parallel world of their own. But then Bindu’s marriage is arranged to a mentally unstable man and she is to have no say in the matter. Mrinal tries to fight for her but is powerless in the face of her family’s adamant insistence. What follows is heart-wrenching to say the least.

“In Bengal no one has to search for jaundice, dysentery, or a bride; they come and cleave to you on their own, and never want to leave.

    The first thing that strikes me about this story is that it is one of those rare ones where a male writer writes in a female voice and gets it so absolutely right. I’m not being sexist here; it’s equally rare for women writers to write in a male voice without sounding contrived. Even though the culture and era that the story is set it in may be alien to most, Mrinal is recognizable and she wins your sympathy and respect right off the bat.
If you would like to read this story, you can find it here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Short Stories on Wednesday: The Thing around your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi made an impactful debut with her maiden novel Purple Hibiscus. She won the 2005 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best first book. Then came the epic, Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran War. It won all sorts of accolades, including the Orange Prize for Fiction. Half of a Yellow Sun is one of my favourite works of contemporary literature and I was very impressed with Adichie’s narrative style (my review). So, when I spotted her latest book of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, at my local library, I snapped it up. I had hoped to finish the book by now and pick my favourite stories to write about, but life intervened and I’ve only managed to read the first two stories so far. But if these are anything to go by, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

Cell One.
Nnamabia is the wayward son of fairly wealthy family. Things have been getting progressively worse, with him even robbing his own mother’s jewellery for a couple of night’s worth of fun. It’s a dangerous time for the once-serene, university town of Nsukka. Cults and brutal daylight murders have become commonplace. One day, Nnamabia is arrested on suspicion of belonging to a cult. He protests his innocence, but is otherwise not unduly concerned about his predicament. His father’s position and money ensures that he doesn’t have to eat the terrible prison food, his cell mates seem to like him and the whole situation seems to have a certain glamour and drama to it which appeals to the cocky young boy. The only thing he’s really scared of is the dreaded cell one. Terrible things happen to an inmate unlucky enough to be dumped there and the prison authorities constantly use cell one as a threat to keep the inmates in check.

I liked this story. Mostly because the character of Nnamabia is pretty well drawn. You find yourself exasperated with him and concerned for him in equal bits. It’s a fairly straightforward tale and Adichie resists the temptation to push it over the edge and make a proper blood-curdler of it. This story was first published in the New Yorker so luckily it is available online here.

Nkem is the wife of a wealthy businessman and art collector. For the past several years her husband has been spending most of his time in Nigeria, visiting Nkem and the children in America for just a couple of months in the year. Nkem has gotten used to life in America and to the loneliness that is her constant companion. When the story begins, she has just heard that her husband has a girlfriend in Nigeria and they have moved in together. Memories, insecurities and desires come flooding back to her. In an attempt to imitate her husband’s mistress, Nkem hacks off all her hair. This imitation is echoed in all the ‘imitation’ artefacts that her husband collects. Nnkem loves those artefacts and their histories, even though she knows they are not the real deal. Finally, it is time for her husband to visit them again but Nkem cannot decide what to do or how to react to him.

Unlike Nnamabia from Cell One, Nkem feels like a more standard-issue character. It is difficult to sympathise with her or even like her very much though you are very obviously supposed to. This is largely because she doesn’t really let you into her head at any point and although you are told what she is thinking, you never really get a sense of what she is feeling. There are other things to like about the story though. It is well written and insightful, especially when it talks of the immigrant experience. Though Imitation is a good story, it stops just short of being great.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays maybe where all his glory lies but you cannot discount his poems. He was a very prolific poet with 154 sonnets, 2 narrative poems and several smaller poems.  He isn’t called The Bard for nothing. It must have been a natural progression for him since most of his plays are also written in verse. I haven’t read too many of his sonnets yet, but a narrative poem like Venus and Adonis is very like his plays. Complex characters, lyrical dialogue, a tragic bent to the story and those evocative Shakespearean metaphors.

Venus and Adonis is the story of the goddess Venus and her love for the mortal Adonis. The poem begins with Venus wooing a reluctant Adonis. She praises him very eloquently and tries to persuade him to sit by her and accept her kisses. But Adonis is unmoved and impatient to go hunting, so he shrugs her off and goes in search of his horse. His horse however, being of a more romantic temperament, runs off with a pretty mare leaving a frustrated Adonis without a ride. Venus returns to his side and redoubles her efforts to try and seduce him. Finally Adonis relents slightly and gives her a kiss but he will go no further. His heart and mind are set at hunting a boar. Hearing this, Venus is alarmed and tries to dissuade him. She advices him to hunt a less ferocious beast but Adonis is adamant. The next day the hunt is on and Venus follows along to make sure Adonis is alright but seeing the raging and frothing boar brings back all her worst fears. I’ll leave you to read the rest for yourself.

Obviously, Shakespeare didn’t think this one up all by himself. It is based on a tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Shakespeare did however introduce several twists and new elements here. For one, Metamorphoses portrays Venus and Adonis as lovers but Shakespeare makes Venus lovesick and Adonis ‘frosty’ so there is a whole other kind of chase and hunt going on here in addition to the obvious hunting scene. There is also a very beautiful interlude when Venus, believing her lover to be dead, admonishes and riles against death (Hateful divorce of love,’—thus chides she Death,—Grim-grinning ghost, earth’s worm, what dost thou mean-To stifle beauty and to steal his breath,) then, hopeful again, she placates death and tries to flatter him into leaving Adonis alone. Venus and Adonis is also the most sexually charged work by Shakespeare that I've ever read.  I don’t know the tone Ovid takes on this so I can’t compare but Shakespeare’s Venus is not coy about her passion for Adonis.

The foreword of the poem had a very flattering dedication to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was at the time, the bard’s benefactor. Shakespeare assures Wriothesley that he will soon come up with a graver piece of work if Venus and Adonis earns his patron’s approval. The graver work turned out to be The Rape of Lucrece, another narrative poem based on another Roman legend from Ovid’s book. Although The Rape of Lucrece is generally considered the more superior poem, I really like Venus and Adonis much better. It is less action-packed but far wittier I thought. I leave you with one of my favourite couplets from the poem.

"For where Love reigns, disturbing Jealousy
Doth call himself Affection's sentinel;
Gives false alarms, suggesteth mutiny,
And in a peaceful hour doth cry `Kill, kill!'
Distemp'ring gentle Love in his desire,
As air and water do abate the fire.

"This sour informer, this bate-breeding spy,
This canker that eats up Love's tender spring,
This carry-tale, dissentious Jealousy,
That sometime true news, sometime false doth bring,
Knocks at my heart, and whispers in mine ear
That if I love thee I thy death should fear;

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Short Stories on Wednesday: George Bernard Shaw

The only Shaw I've read so far is the iconic play Pygmalion which, as you probably know, was later adapted as My Fair Lady. I have a vague memory of seeing an amateur performance of Androcles and the Lion ages ago (Mel U has a nice review of it here). I also own a non-fiction book by Shaw titled The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (how’s that for appealing to a reader’s vanity?), but I haven’t read it yet. This week I stumbled upon a short story by Shaw and now I really want to read more of him.

The Miraculous Revenge

Our narrator is Zeno Legge, a pompous, slightly mad youth. Think Bertie Wooster with a mean streak.  Zeno means to visit his uncle, who is a Cardinal. The Cardinal decides that the only way to keep Zeno away from trouble and from his uncle’s house is to send him to a village called Four Mile Water to investigate a miracle. A ‘dirty, drunken, blasphemous blackguard’ named Fitzgerald had been buried in the sacred burial ground by the river. But the nun’s and saints buried in the same cemetery are unwilling to share their afterlife with such a disreputable character. So the amazed village wakes up to find that Fitzgerald’s grave has been moved to the opposite bank of the river, overnight. Zeno sets out to debunk the miracle but once in Four Mile Water, he is convinced. What’s more is that he has fallen in love (“I had been in love frequently; but not oftener than once a year had I encountered a woman who affected me so seriously as Kate Hickey.”). But Four Mile Water has more miracles up its sleeve.

I quite liked this story. It was witty and engaging from the very beginning. The bumbling idiot/annoying pest character was funny, if not very likable. I believe Shaw wrote quite a few short stories but sadly, this was the only one I could find online. Anyone else read a short story by Shaw?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

     Shakespeare, to me, has always been about the great tragedies. Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet, I’ve read, re-read, heard and watched so many times and in so many different settings. But until now, I never got around to reading any of his comedies. Probably because I thought they could never match up to his tragedies or even the epic historicals. After all, when we think Shakespeare we don’t really think ‘funny guy’, do we? But this is where I was very wrong.  Shakespeare really is a funny guy and he can do tongue-in-cheek as well as slapstick equally well.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all kinds of funny.

     Theseus, the Duke of Athens is to marry Hippolyta, the Amazonian queen and celebrations are underway. Not everyone is celebrating though; there are lovers in turmoil. In a nutshell, Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander.  Both couples end up in the woods outside Athens that night. Now the woods also happen to be where a group of workmen are practicing for a play they plan to stage before the Duke and his bride.  Add to that, Oberon the king of fairies and his queen Titania are having a spat. An angry Oberon instructs his servant Puck to sprinkle a magic potion over Titania’s eyelids which will make her fall in love with the first living thing she sees. Puck is also to sprinkle the potion on Demetrius so that he may love Helena. But Puck, unfortunately, gets his victims all mixed up with the result that now Demetrius and Lysander both love Helena, nobody loves Hermia and Titania loves an actor who has the head of an ass. As you can imagine, much confusion ensues.

     Now, I know all this sounds like a lot to take in, but I promise you, it isn’t. There is a lot happening in the play and never a dull moment but there was never a point when I didn’t understand who was who or what was going on. This is largely because Shakespeare gives each character a very distinct and unmistakable identity. The way each of them talks and behaves is so unique that you find yourself following along very smoothly. The comedy element is surprisingly modern, by which I mean, that it is still funny, even to an audience fed on a regular diet of stand up acts and sitcoms. I especially like the final scenes where the tragic play-within-the-play is being performed to great comic effect. I love the tongue-in-cheek comments of Demetrius, Theseus and Lysander.

   A Midsummer Night’s Dream is really a comment on the absolutely irrational and insane emotion that is love. All the characters are doing things they know to be crazy, all in the name of love. Speaking of her unrequited love for Demetrius, Helena laments:
Things base and vile, folding no quantity,    
  Love can transpose to form and dignity:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,

     Helena loves a man who loves another, Titania (albeit under the influence of the potion) loves a man who looks like an ass. Centuries later, people are still falling in love with the wrong ones, willfully blind to their flaws and all this without any assistance from Oberon or his magic juice.  Therein lays the enduring appeal of Shakespeare. Beneath all the kings and fairies and magic and long-winded verses, his stories are really about human frailties. Now that, never changes, and so, Shakespeare remains relevant and his stories continue to strike a chord.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Classics Challenge January Prompt

So here's how (I think) this works: Every month Katherine puts up a bunch of questions for us to answer on our blogs about the classic we are currently reading or have just finished reading. Just like you would do in any blog hop. Only here, there are three different levels of questions to choose from, based on how much of the book you have read. This month's focus is on the Author. I picked Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as my first classic. I'm almost done reading it but I'm going to stick with the level 1 questions because this is after all Shakespeare Reading Month and I'll probably be going on about him quite a bit in the days to come so i'll start easy here. I'm sure Shakespeare is an auspicious start  to my blogging in 2012.

Who is the author? 
William Shakespeare

What do they look like?

Where did they live?

Stratford-upon-Avon was where he was born and raised. He spent his short retirement here and eventually died here. Most of his working life,however, was spent  in London.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

What does their handwriting look like?
Although no substantiated documents in his handwriting have survived, here is what his signature (is supposed to have) looked like.

What are some of the other novels they've written? 

Phew! that would be a long list. Shakespeare has written 38 plays154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. Some of his most famous play's are Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear.

What is an interesting and random fact about their life?

Shakespeare never published any of his plays. All of his plays were published after his death.

My post about A Midsummer Night's Dream should be up in a couple of days. I hope you'll drop in then.