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Friday, October 20, 2017

Shakespeare & Trigger Warnings

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog article is about things that might offend some people.

I guess it was just a matter of time.

One of the most prestigious universities in the world issued “Trigger Warnings” for Shakespeare.

Students at Cambridge University were warned about "potentially distressing topics" in some of Shakespeare’s plays. Those cautions were written because the students would be exposed to the topics of “sexual violence” and “sexual assault” in Shakspeare’s plays — particularly Titus Andronicus and The Comedy Of Errors.

The matter of “Trigger Warnings” for university students all over the world is not new.

However, to my knowledge this is the first time that such cautions are taken in regards to the Bard.

Last year, several UK universities issued such warnings, for lectures that included these subjects: Christianity, popular culture, history, forensic science, photography, politics and law.

The warnings were given in advance of lectures, in order to allow students the choice whether or not to attend the lecture.

I have some advice for any university students who chose to avoid such subjects, and did not attend the lectures with “disturbing” subject matter — you are literally robbing yourself of a future.

If you believe that you would be disturbed by learning things that challenge you, then you have no future. 

Titus Andronicus
Inszenierung von Holger Hoppla Pester 2009
Wikimedia Commons

It is only by learning about those subjects which have been taught for centuries, by studying the past, what has preceded you, that there is any future for you, or for our civilization.

If you don’t know the past, then the future is closed to you. You are putting yourself in a prison of your own making, and locking away your freedoms.

I am not trying to minimize or marginalize the importance of sexual assault or sexual violence — on the contrary, it is essential to know what that means.

But how do you know what that means, unless you learn more about it?

If you think that avoiding a discussion of these subjects will distress you, and you want to be protected from such violence and threatening language — you are in fact making yourself more vulnerable to such attacks.

How can you enjoy a healthy sexual life, unless you know what to watch out for, and what to avoid?

How can you know what true love is, unless you know how bad, and how dangerous love might be?

True Love is real and it is wonderful. The world is a truly wonderful place. But we should not give our hearts to anyone, and we should always take precautions because the world has its dangers.

I have some advice -- please learn. Knowledge is power.

I have some more advice — read Shakespeare. All of his work, every play and poem.

Titus Andronicus
Landesbühne Niedersachsen Nord, Saison 2004/2005, Regie: Reinhardt Friese
Wikimedia Commons

Hopefully, by reading Shakespeare, you will learn — and not just about his work and his subject matter. No, hopefully by reading Shakespeare, you will come to understand why his work is truly important, and why it is truly vital. I hope you find the real truth in Shakespeare, and not what has been taught to you for the last 400 years.

His writing is not valuable because it is great poetry or great drama or because he created great characters, or because he has a great vocabulary.

Those are the obvious reasons why you should read his work.

No, you should read his work because he offers you advice, for today. He offers you a guide to life, no matter how perplexing it can seem to be.

Yes, you. Yes, today.

With every play and poem, he illuminates a path forward for you and me.

He is interrogating the past, as if he is some sort of detective who happened to come across a crime scene.

He is challenging Hamlet and Lady Macbeth and Juliet and Prince Hal to give him answers — Why did you do what you did? Why did you make so many mistakes, and do such bad things? — for the benefit of all of us.

He asks Hamlet why he couldn’t have done something, anything, to take revenge, without having so many people die. 

From Shakespeare’s inquiry of Hamlet, we learn that being cautious is wise, but being too cautious might lead to great ruin.

He asks Lady Macbeth why she drove her husband to murder and herself to insanity. 

From this we learn that ambition is good, but too much ambition can lead to disaster.

He asks Juliet, and Romeo for that matter, why they couldn’t have been more patient lovers. 

From this we learn that True Love is a wonderfully powerful thing, but too powerful for some people to manage.

He asks Prince Hal why he wastes his time in pubs with low-lifes, when he is meant for greater things. 

We learn that ambition is healthy, and too little ambition is a terrible thing.

There are so many more lessons to be learned, just from those four plays. You could spend the rest of your life reading Shakespeare’s works, and they will always reveal more truth to you over time.

As far as Titus Andronicus is concerned, it is a bloody play, filled with gruesome violence. Did Shakespeare create the play because he enjoyed violence?

No, he was trying to make it repulsive, in order to educate his audience. He did not want England to suffer from such violence, the kind of brutal warfare, and endless reprisals that characterized the whole of Roman history.

Tamora is one of the most fascinating characters in Shakespeare, who loved strong and intelligent women. 

Tamora is no one's fool. But she makes a fatal mistake, thinking that she knows better than anyone else. She therefore fools herself into thinking that she can defeat her own ambition.

Titus Andronicus
Transversal Theater Company production done in Utrecht, 2012
Wikimedia Commons

Lavinia is the opposite. She is sweet and innocent. She is victimized mercilessly, brutally.

What message is Shakespeare sending us with this character? Don't be innocent, don't be naive.

Therefore, it would seem that Shakespeare's advice to us today is to be not as presumptuous as Tamora, and not as naive as Lavinia.

But the greatest lesson to be found in reading Shakespeare is this: to learn is to be free.

Shakespeare did not write great works because he was afraid of the past, and of disturbing events and people from history. 

No, he was so curious about all of it. He wanted to know it all.

As he learned so much, it gave him a great sense of freedom. He was finally free to understand what was the best in us, by understanding the worst in us.

Only by learning was he able to understand great evil, and also then how to appreciate great good, great beauty, great love.

He began to process it and turn it into plays and poetry. He freed his mind so much, that he wanted to free others. He wanted to free you. Yes, you.

He didn’t want people to be uneducated, and enslaved by ignorance. He wanted people to be emancipated.

I worry today about “Trigger Warnings” because if you avoid disturbing subjects, you will become infantilized.

The more you allow yourself to be treated like a child, dependent on someone else’s care, the more you allow others to take away your freedom, your rights, your abilities.

If you put yourself in someone else’s hands, you deny yourself the opportunity to discover your true potential.

How can you find out if your are gifted, if you are given everything? 

How can you know if you have a musical talent, a literary talent, a talent for science — if you only listen to the music of others, only read books by other people, and only purchase the latest technology made by someone else?

How can you follow a dream, if you only watch others follow theirs?

In the Crito, Socrates thought that the State had the right to punish him however it saw fit, since the State had educated him at great expense.

Socrates was saying that he was not free — the State owned him, and could do whatever it wanted to him.

Socrates imagined that the State was saying to him: “you were … nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave … ?”

The Greek word doulos means child and slave.

Socrates is teaching us that whoever you allow to educate you, they will try to own you.

If you educate yourself, then you become your own person. You own you. 

That is the freedom Socrates wanted for himself, and for anyone. Even you. Yes, you.

Instead of avoiding lectures at university, because of disturbing subject matter, you should attend every lecture, and challenge your teachers. You should not assume that they truly understand what they are teaching.

You should learn to understand what they teach, but you should also keep your own opinions.

As Shakespeare wrote, “To thine own self be true.”

Shakespeare’s plays and poems repeatedly and consistently teach us audience that we should know more — we should be exposed to the good and the bad and the evil, no matter how disturbing — in order to grow up, have minds of our own, and be free.

But don't take my word for it. Find out for yourself. Read some Shakespeare. Please.


David B. Schajer

Friday, October 13, 2017

Shakespeare and Harvey Weinstein

One of the most powerful and influential producers in the history of world cinema is having an unprecedented fall from grace.

Harvey Weinstein, film producer and studio chief, has been accused of many cases, going back 30 years, of predatory sexual assault — including rape.

The allegations against him are so specific, so widespread, and so persuasive, that I find it hard to imagine that he is innocent.

It has all the makings of a Shakespeare tragedy.

Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” and his “black and deep desires” made him run headlong towards disaster and death.

King Lear’s test of love and turned his “crawl toward death” into another dash towards insanity and death.

Perhaps Angelo from Measure for Measure is the most appropriate figure from Shakespeare, to represent the predatory sexual power politics that Harvey Weinstein seems to have employed for decades.

Angelo offers Isabella, a novice nun, to spare the life of her brother if she has sex with him.

By the end of the play, Angelo is punished, but the punishment does not fit the crime — perhaps a caution to us today, that we should not let the Angelos of the world get away with their criminal acts and abuses of power.

There is an irony in the fact that this film producer who made the most popular and most beloved film about Shakespeare, and who produced and/or distributed other film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, is himself destroyed by desires that Shakespeare recognized so well.

Mr. Weinstein produced and/or distributed Prospero’s Books starring John Gielgud, Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, Love’s Labour’s Lost by Kenneth Branagh, and Coriolanus by Ralph Fiennes.

Arguably the most enduringly popular film he ever produced is Shakespeare In Love, which of course he also shepherded to the stage as a play.

I have a love/hate relationship with that film. I enjoy it as entertainment, as a romantic film fantasy of Shakespeare.

But I hate the fact that it is has such a dominant and outsize influence on our understanding of Shakespeare.

It is a great film. But it is terrible Shakespeare.

And as much as I dislike the film, I do think that a sequel should in fact be made.

Mr. Weinstein announced in late 2013 that a sequel was planned. But now, what with this growing scandal, and the possible dissolution of Mr. Weinstein’s company, I doubt that a sequel will ever be made.

That is horrible. Another film should be made, regardless of whether he is involved or not.

Ultimately, I think Mr. Weinstein did not heed the Bard’s most basic lesson of, which Shakespeare adopted primarily from the Bible — if you test God, you will suffer the consequences.

The Macbeths, the Lears, and the Angelos of this world all put their own ambition, and gluttonous desires ahead of God. 

Shakespeare knew that when King Saul, King David, for example, put their desires ahead of God, they would face ruin.

Shakespeare knew that Aeschylus’ character Orestes got more than he bargained for, when his one and only ambition was to commit a crime against a woman — he wanted to murder his own mother!

But the Greek gods gave Orestes more than he bargained for. 

Vengeful spirits, the Furies, chase him off stage and spend the next few years hunting him, until he is brought to justice.

Mr. Weinstein spent much of his career building power and influence, and apparently used that as a weapon.

He tempted fate. He tested God. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and apparently Mr. Weinstein scorned many many women.

In a 2015 survey of the acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards, Harvey Weinstein was thanked more times than God.

God was in sixth place. 

Meryl Streep accepted an award and joked that Harvey Weinstein was “God” — and he laughed. 

If Mr. Weinstein is punished, as anyone should be for such depravity, I suspect the rest of his life will be an endless torment of lawsuits and jail sentences.

It looks like the Furies will chase him off stage, and hunt him for years, until he faces justice.

David B. Schajer

Friday, October 6, 2017

Anthony Hopkins as King Lear

I just heard the great news about Anthony Hopkins as King Lear — how exciting!

I can’t wait to see it. Directed by Richard Eyre, it is filming soon, and will be broadcast for BBC2 and Amazon in 2018.

It is not every day that an actor of his magnitude and talent takes on Shakespeare.

Anthony Hopkins
at the Tuscana Sun Festival, 2009
Wikimedia Commons

The list of other cast members is very impressive.

Emma Thompson will play Goneril, Emily Watson will play Regan, and Florence Pugh will play Cordelia.

Jim Broadbent will play Gloucester, with Andrew Scott as his son Edgar. 

Jim Carter will play Kent, and Christopher Eccleston will play Oswald.

I am mostly pleased with the cast, especially Hopkins as Lear, Broadbent as Gloucester, and Jim Carter as Kent. Those are truly inspired choices!

I am eager to see Andrew Scott and Emily Watson. They are great actors, and I am excited to see them do some Shakespeare.

However, my biggest disappointment is Emma Thompson. 

I once admired her as an actress, especially her work with Kenneth Branagh in Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Her writing and acting in Sense and Sensibility was just incredible.

But since then, I have grown less and less enamored of her as an actress.

And her hatred of England really bothers me. 

Last year, she referred to England as a “tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, I mean really, a cake-filled, misery laden, grey old island.”

I don’t get involved in politics, or political debate. I don’t hate “luvvies” — but to insult England like that is just unacceptable.

I think the fact that she does not appreciate England, has had an impact on her career. I can’t remember the last time I saw her in a role where she really shined.

What also concerns me about this production is the creative choice to set the play “in a fictional version of the present day, with Sir Anthony's Lear presiding over a totalitarian military dictatorship in England.”


Not only is this a uninspired choice, and a sure way to make the play even more depressing than it already can be, but it is also plain wrong.

To make the England in the time of King Lear like a totalitarian state is to fundamentally misinterpret the play.

It is a complete mistake to portray King Lear as a tyrant.

If you want to set Macbeth in a Scotland that resembles a militaristic dictatorship, that makes sense. Ralph Fiennes made Coriolanus in a similar setting. That makes sense.

You could even set Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet in a totalitarian state.

But King Lear? It makes no sense.

Last year, I saw Simon Russell Beale as King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes, for the National Theatre. It also set the play in an England that resembled Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania.

That production depicted King Lear like a tyrant from the very beginning.

I wrote a review of that production -- here.

The problem with depicting Lear as a tyrant from the start is that it destroys the entire tragedy of the play.

The tragedy of the play is the fact that King Lear was a good man, a good king, for the entirety of his reign — until that fateful decision to divide England between his daughters.

He was good enough to raise at least one truly good daughter, Cordelia, who does truly love him.

He was not good enough to have kept his other daughters from becoming monsters. But can we really lay the blame for his bad daughters solely at his feet? No, we can’t.

King Lear was so good that he even got a man like Kent, a truly good man and a truly faithful servant, to serve him and love him.

I could go on, but you get the point.

If the character of Lear starts the play as a tyrant, then it robs Cordelia and Kent, and others, of their responses and their plotlines.

The whole play centers around the fact that King Lear, a great king, has made a very bad and short-sighted decision, and stubbornly does not understand that the kingdom he worked so hard to create and command, can become very rotten, very fast.

King Lear misunderstands power. It is elusive. He had it, and as soon as he tried to divide it, it explodes. The more he tries to correct his mistake, he makes matters worse.

He is a great king who has made the worst decision in his reign — and once it is made, everything falls apart.

As I wrote in my review of the National Theatre’s version last year: “If Lear is a tyrant, then it turns the entire play upside down and turns it inside out. It makes Lear a bad guy, and everyone who was bad is now good.”

If Lear is a tyrant, a military dictator, then we should be rooting for Goneril and Regan! We should hope that King Lear dies as soon as possible!

We should hate Cordelia for loving him, and we should hope that she will die, too!

If Lear is bad, then we should hope that Kent never gets to him, and helps him. We should hope that Kent fails.

All of those characters, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar and Edmund etc. -- all of them become an incredible waste of our time, when we are impatient to see Lear the tyrant die. 

If Lear is depicted as a bad or as a dictator, then it is no longer a tragedy — it is theatre of the absurd.

If the purpose of this new King Lear, directed by Richard Eyre, is to score some political points against England, England as it is today, then I won’t watch more than five minutes of this new production.

England was great. England is great. I expect it to be great for a very long time.

England is not only great in spite of bad monarchs, but also because of them. For every bad monarch, there were men and women who fought back, and defied them.

Without that push and pull, we would not have so many of the freedoms we enjoy today.

England has survived so much turmoil, from within and from without, that it has created such a vibrant and incredible culture -- and the culture that emerged from England has become the world's dominant culture. 

I think this TV production should make it lavishly colorful and sumptuously designed, in an England as heart-breakingly beautiful as possible. 

It would demonstrate that England’s remarkable, important, and proud history of the monarchy was not always glorious, did not always have a happy ending, and that even the best of monarchs can damage what was so good about it.

That would be a fairer and far more accurate depiction of England’s history. 

It would also hew much closer to what Shakespeare was really after, when he originally wrote this play.

A TV production like that would be remembered, and treasured forever.

It would be a real shame if this production was as dark and as gloomy as it appears it might be. 

It would be a shame to waste so much great talent, and so much effort, to make a dreary and cold King Lear. 

If it is a joyless and political scolding, I doubt it will be remembered for long.

David B. Schajer

Friday, September 29, 2017

Shakespeare and Women

Is Taming of the Shrew an anti-feminist play?

Was Shakespeare a sexist? A misogynist?

Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day
Shakespeare Globe 2012

A new production in Chicago seeks to “save” the play by performing it with an all-female cast.

The play is “certainly anti-feminist” according to the female director of this particular production. 

She has set the play in 1919, in order to include the suffragette movement, and the vote to allow women to vote.

If you read the Wikipedia entry on the play, you get a summary of the feminist criticism of the play, and the question of misogyny in the play.

George Bernard Shaw (whom some consider to be England’s greatest playwright, after Shakespeare) found the play “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility.”

There has been a great deal of critical writing about Shakespeare from a feminist point of view.

It would be impossible to evaluate all of it, especially in a blog post.

I would just like to ask some questions.

Was Shakespeare a sexist — did he discriminate against women, or diminish them in his plays, as if women were inferior to men?

Worse, was he a misogynist? Did he hate women?

A case could be made for sexism or misogyny across all of his plays. 

But if it he was so rampantly and clearly discriminating against, and hating women, I doubt the plays would have endured for as long as they have.

In the abovementioned article about the Chicago production, it mentions how by the middle of the 19th century, there were women’s theatre groups performing Shakespeare’s plays. By the 1940s, there were three of them in Chicago alone: the Hull House Shakespeare Club, Argyle Park Portia Club and Shakespeare Club of Chicago.

I doubt those women’s groups would have existed at all, had any of the women truly believed that Shakespeare was prejudiced against, or hated, women.

Is Hamlet a sexist or misogynistic play? Macbeth? King Lear? Midsummer? As You Like It?

All of those plays have powerful, important and significant female characters.

I can’t imagine those plays without Queen Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Helena and Titania, Rosalind — and many more.

I don’t think Shakespeare could have imagined those plays without those female roles — roles that are as significant and integral to the story as the male roles.

All of those female characters are strong and capable women — but all of them also possess flaws. All of them suffer in some way. Some of them even die because of their faults.

The exact same thing can be said of the male characters. The men are flawed, too. Some of them die because of their faults.

So, how could Shakespeare have written so many complex, fascinating, and all-too-human female characters — and then somehow have made Kate an insult to women?

How did he succeed so often, with over 30 plays, and then failed so miserably with this one single play?

Or did he really fail with Taming of the Shrew?

Is it possible that we don’t understand the play? 

We could be excused for doing so. His plays are very old. 

After re-opening the theatres (which were closed from 1649-1660) Shakespeare’s plays were considered “old-fashioned” and “dull” — and the language was considered “dated.”

So, within 60 years of their original performances, the plays had lost their original meaning.

How much meaning have they lost in 400 years?

What if our understanding of Taming of the Shrew is so inhibited by our modern thinking that we can’t appreciate what Shakespeare was really trying to express?

After all, Shaw said that the play was “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility.” 

He was seeing the play 300 years after it was written, and judging it against plays that were written in London circa 1900.

For what it’s worth, I think there is a lot more to Shaw’s views on Shakespeare. 

I think Shaw was intensely frustrated by his lack of insight regarding Shakespeare, and was forever feeling diminished by Shakespeare’s greatness.

Shaw even wrote a short puppet play in which he and Shakespeare box each other! Truth is stranger than fiction.

What if we are too modern to understand Shakespeare?

If we are presumably so much more superior to him and his contemporaries — as far as our social and sexual mores — then why do we return to his plays over and over again?

Why do so many actresses aspire to perform Cleopatra, Ophelia, Juliet, etc?

It begs the question — are we truly superior to him? Or do we return to him and his work because he does in fact still have so much to teach us?

Does anyone seriously think that the roles written for women today, for stage and screen, are superior to the roles that Shakespeare wrote for women?

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock
Shakespeare Globe 2016

What I have discovered as I study Shakespeare, was that he was famous for defying expectations. 

He wrote a play about a Jewish moneylender at a time when Englishmen reviled Jews, who were mostly exiled from England.

But for some reason, Shakespeare made Shylock the most compelling character in the play. Shylock is the hero!

Not long ago, I established that Shakespeare created the Jewish moneylender to represent himself, William Shakespeare.

Yes, Shakespeare = Shylock.

David Harewood as Othello
National Theatre 1997

He also wrote a play about a Moorish general at a time when Englishmen reviled and feared such Moors, Africans, non-whites, and non-Christians — or any such aliens.

But for some reason, Shakespeare made Othello the hero! The villain is a white Christian man!

Why would Shakespeare present Iago, who resembled the men in Shakespeare’s audience, as a villain? Why was he alienating his male audience? 

Because that was the whole reason for the play — he was making his audience feel sympathy for Othello, the alien.

Shakespeare loved such baiting and switching. He loved challenging the pre-conceived notions and prejudices of his audience. He did it all the time.

Was an Elizabethan audience really expecting to see a teenage girl on stage as eloquent, as moving, and as self-possessed as Juliet? 

Ellie Kendrick as Juliet
Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo
Shakespeare Globe 2009

I think it is far likelier that Shakespeare’s original audiences expected to see a teenage girl who foolishly fell in love, and faced tragic consequences.

As such, the play (that the audience expected) would have been a cautionary tale, a stern lesson to all young women not to behave foolishly.

But Juliet, as Shakespeare wrote her, is no one’s fool.

In fact, it is Romeo who proclaims that he is “fortune’s fool!”

Shakespeare’s original audience probably was quite surprised to see this Juliet. They related to her even more, precisely because she was a headstrong and smart girl who was not entirely responsible for falling in love.

If and when you fall in love, whose fault is it? 

Therefore, since we can't blame her for falling in love, how can we blame her as entirely responsible for her death?

Shakespeare’s presented a Juliet who was as human and as fallible as we all are. Therefore, before we judge Juliet or blame her for her flaws, we should first take a good look in a mirror.

What if he wrote Taming of the Shrew, and hoped to get an audience full of misogynists — only to pull the rug out from under them?

What if his precise motive, in writing the play, was to make women-hating men change their mind, and treat the women in their lives better?

Also, what if he was actually endorsing shrews? What if he was saying that there is a greatness in being a shrew? 

What if Shakespeare liked strong women, the stronger the better? What if he was encouraging women in the audience to speak their minds with more force and clarity?

What if Taming of the Shrew is not an aberration — what if it is not the one fully sexist and misogynistic play in Shakespeare’s otherwise unblemished career?

What if it is a celebration of strong women?

What if, in order to demonstrate how strong Kate is, she needs an opponent who is worthy of her?

Yes, Kate and Petruchio fight. But is it a fair fight?

No one likes an uneven match. We don’t hope to see two weaklings in a boxing ring. Does anyone watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians hoping to see them all get along — or do we hope to see them squabble?

Occasionally, we all like knock-down, drag-out fights — especially when the opponents are evenly matched, and equally formidable.

Petruchio may be a sexist pig — but by the end of the play, he is as much tamed as she is.

After all, they do end up married. They are the most happily married of all the characters in the play.

Also, what if Kate has become a shrew because there are no good men in Padua?

What if, with all his faults, Petruchio is actually the only decent man among them — and the only man worthy of Kate’s kiss?

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, 1967

I urge you to read the play again, and see another production of the play. The Shakespeare Globe version is excellent and even-handed.

As we read it again, or see it again, instead of judging the play on our own modern terms, why don’t we give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt?

It is entirely possible that Shakespeare was a sexist, and even a misogynist. 

But what if his plays were his way of rising above his own faults, and transcending the prejudice of his day?


David B. Schajer