Friday, 29 April 2016

As Schoolboys From Their Books

Gloria Castrillon on Teaching “Romeo and Juliet”

I had enjoyed Shakespeare at school, but no more nor less than, for example, The Great Gatsby. I had enjoyed some Shakespeare at university (notably Macbeth taught by Professor Martin Orkin), and had not enjoyed others (King Lear, taught tragically boringly by another professor who shall remain nameless). I only enjoyed Lear after I saw the movie Ran and re-read Lear alone. By 1989, I had decided to abandon the English Literature department (into which I had been accepted for Honours) and move to the African Literature department – a move I was never to regret. I completed my Honours and Masters in African Literature, and there developed a love for Shakespeare that was fed, ironically, by the greats of African literature, whose works spoke back to the English literature they had studied, and forward to the authors they in turn would inspire.

Then, in 1990 and 1991, I was a full-time teacher at a school in the Johannesburg CBD. I was tasked with teaching Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet to matriculants from townships all over the greater Johannesburg area. I was a little mollified by the fact that Romeo and Juliet is as simple a Shakespearean text as Wuthering Heights is a difficult Gothic text. I was determined to make Shakespeare not scary for the students (they told me they were terrified). I was determined they would enjoy it. What I did not expect was how much I would enjoy teaching it to them. The innuendos, the ribaldry, the puns were perfect for a teenage audience. The love story was ideal. The fact that there was a Romeo in Grade 11 and a Juliet in Grade 12 (although they did not love one another) was a synchronicity I could not have asked for.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun

For the week of commemorating Shakespeare’s life and work on this blog, I had asked a friend of mine – a composer and music teacher at Pretoria Boys High School – to contribute a piece to the blog, knowing that he’s something of fan. Rather than write his own bit on what Shakespeare means to him, however, he directed me to Gerald Finzi’s setting of the song from Cymbeline to music.

Beautiful as it is – in my judgement, it’s the finest song in all of Shakespeare – it’s a dark elegy, sung over Imogen by her brothers, who believe her to be dead, returning to “fear no more” as the only consolation in death.

In a critical essay on the play Cymbeline, Harold Bloom has this to say about the song:

“Since the song ‘Fear no more’ is too grand for its context (Imogen merely sleeps), I have no difficulty hearing in it Shakespeare’s own stance toward dying, and regard it as the locus classicus of Shakespeare upon death. The two prime Shakespearean values are personality and love, both equivocal at best, and here, with all else, they come to dust. This poem is a dark comfort, but its extraordinary aesthetic dignity is the only consolation we should seek or find in Shakespeare.”

Thinking Makes It So

Alyssa Vratsanos on Shakespeare and Language

A painting by Alyssa’s favourite post-impressionist, Vincent van Gogh

William Shakespeare: a name so often heard fall casually from the lips of your average intellectual (and certainly pseudo-intellectual) type. Shakespeare is revered in literary circles as some kind of deity, a purveyor of all that is right with English and its literature. Abrasive ignorance, bad grammar, ill manners, American brashness, and general uncouthness are nothing a spot of Hamlet can’t cure.

But only a true enthusiast of the Bard will know that Shakespeare was anything but a traditionalist, let alone a language prescriptivist. He was as linguistically irreverent as Doctor Seuss. The way he used and manipulated the English language is something to behold. Granted, he did a great many phenomenal things with his talents, but for me – as a linguist-in-training – it seems only fitting to commemorate the man with a tribute to his use of language.

To dear England’s finest: A eulogy.

“Bard,” a Sonnet by Tineke W. Harris

To dear England’s finest: A eulogy.
Valiant word-smith and blazer of trails
On stage and screen, a poet prodigy.
William Shakespeare: A teller of tales.

Ancient chronicler, whom all do revere,
Of lovers and princes, and of a Muse
E’er fixed in flaming fire; the Mighty Sphere
With infinite realities infuse.

But what good is the Theatre and its plays
For us these days? What could Hamlet, Henry
And those merry wives tell of modern ways?
(And in Mackers nought but barbarism be…)

The answer’s here: People are “merely players”
Who still act these parts – “little life” slayers.

Tineke W. Harris is a Medicine student at the University of the Witwatersrand.


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

And This Gives Life to Thee

Paul Wombo on a Life Encompassed by Shakespeare

“Romeo and Juliet” by Henri Pierre Picou

William Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer of all time. I gladly reassert that he is not only the greatest writer of all time but he also dethrones Houdini as the greatest magician of all time. How else can you describe the act of taking vowels, syllables, adjectives, verbs, and so on to create a living creature that roams through the minds and lives of billions through the ages other than being magic? Shakespeare’s magic has changed my life in the sense that I truly love the English language and also the electrolytic fluidity of the creative mind.

“When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father then both cry.” My father moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo with two children and a new wife to South Africa in 1994. The initial plan was to move to Canada from South Africa but the beauty of South Africa’s infant democracy held a vice grip onto my father’s heart. Deep in the Joburg CBD the Wombo family began to deepen their roots into the soil that was finding fertility after decades of oppression. My father and mother both made so many sacrifices to ensure that we as children went to the best schools and we were brought up in such a way that we would contribute to and partake in the Rainbow Nation. English is held with high esteem in our otherwise French household and this is where my love for English blossomed. My first interaction with Shakespeare was in a cartoon version of Romeo and Juliet on the television when I was six. I did not know it then but it was the beginning of a relationship with Shakespeare that seeped into my whole life.

Something Wicked This Way Comes


We know that Lady Macbeth has had one child or more, or at least has breastfed. Marion Cotillard, as the Thane’s wife, utters the indicative speech in a small, cold, dimly lit church building with the even tone of one speaking in her sleep, in Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, and moves quickly onward to the kind of vicious talk that is closer in tone to the film’s median:

“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”

I’ve always thought that Macbeth was her second husband, and she’d lost her first along with the child she speaks of. Kurzel seems to have taken it as meaning that the Macbeths had had a child together who, since he or she is nowhere to be found during the action, died before the play begins. This infant’s grey corpse fills the screen in the first shot of the film, and marks all that follows in the actions of Macbeth and his Lady with an entirely comprehensible sense of grief.

Such a move is no error in itself, and when adapting Shakespeare – or any literary source, for that matter – for the screen, a director is meant to take self-asserting action, to reign the source material into the pen of his vision for his work. Kurzel does this with cutting and moving parts of the text, departures from convention in his sets and performances, and his motif of slain children, strewn throughout the movie, presumably to echo the loss of the Macbeths’ child. The problem here is that with his radical revisions, Kurzel all but leaves behind Shakespeare and the life with which he infused his most terrifying tragedy, and doesn’t hasten to add much of his own.

Monday, 25 April 2016

We In It Shall Be Remember’d

On “Henry V” and a Shakespearean Mother

As I wrote on Saturday, I asked a few people to contribute pieces to this blog on their own experiences with Shakespeare, for a week of commemorating his life and work, beginning on the 400th anniversary of his death. This short work was sent to me by a friend of mine.

I would not call myself an expert on Shakespeare’s works. In fact, my knowledge is limited to the very basic grounds that we covered in high school. I was first introduced to him when I was thirteen and watched Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. To be honest, the only things that stuck out for me were a young Leonardo DiCaprio’s incredibly good looks and a weird, irrational, and totally unrealistic love story. As I got to high school, we covered the brief history of Shakespeare, “analysed” a few of his sonnets, and read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Othello – the only one of the lot that was mildly entertaining for a 16-year-old who found English class exhausting. An appreciation did, however, start to build when we did Shakespeare In Love as a film study. I was intrigued by Shakespeare’s “perceived” way of life and his influences. I started to become interested – I wanted to know more. I wanted to know which plays were represented and how they influenced the film.

We then, for our matric set work, studied Henry V. I went to a convent where most girls around me detested it. I loved it. It grew to become my favourite Shakespeare and the first of his that I was able to relate to. The lessons of leadership and how to deal with people were very pertinent to me at that particular point of my life. I guess that Is the beauty of Shakespeare. He was, and still is, able to strike a chord with everybody in some way – each person must relate to at least one of his works.

Opportunity Rocks

“Rock the Kasbah”

This 2015 comedy directed by Barry Levinson – unjustly maligned by critics, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of only 8% – stars Bill Murray as Richie Lanz, a has-been rock tour manager who fancies himself a visionary agent/manager. With an understated tone and yet surprisingly controlled and well-tuned style, Levinson presents an enchanting romance, loosely adapted from a true story reproduced in the 2009 documentary Afghan Star, featuring the struggles of a driven rock ’n’ roll soul in the stark deserts of Afghanistan, condemned by the liberal consensus as imperialist and loutish as it imposes western values and culture on the marginalised citizens of war-torn Middle Eastern countries, and lambasted by conservatives as a thoughtless critique of American interventionist foreign policy. Obviously both can’t be right and, in my view, neither side is.

Levinson is neither aiming at a political critique with his film – at least, not a critique on the usual partisan issues thrashed out nearly daily in the press – but nor are politics and political ideas far from the centre of his thoughts here. The only other Levinson film I’ve seen was Rain Man, which I found nowhere near as subtle and artful and pleasurable as this one, and either of the two may have been the accident in his work, or he has simply developed since 1988. Rock the Kasbah manages to be beautifully self-aware, in a way that is neither distastefully arch nor depressingly cynical, and Levinson manages both his camera and his extraordinarily talented cast to delightful effect. Murray’s markedly creased face, and Levinson’s almost tender filming of it, yields a touchingly sympathetic portrait both of the enduring rock ’n’ roll spirit and of western lassitude.

Thorough Brush, Thorough Briar

John Greenop on The Fairies of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

“The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Joseph Noel Paton

It didn’t take me long to decide on a topic relating to Shakespeare – I find the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream incredibly fascinating. I remember playing the Sims 2 as a child. In the game there was a place called Veronaville, and in this town, the developers had placed Sims with the modern likeness of Shakespeare’s characters.

In one house we had Titania, Oberon, Puck, and Bottom. Titania and Oberon were the parents, Puck was portrayed as a red-haired teenager and Bottom was a tanned little girl. This got me interested in these fairies, and I have always like mythology and folklore. I shall, in a few words, discuss my feelings on the main fairies in the play.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Laurnelle Beukes on The Tempest

The words from the mind of Shakespeare are undeniably beautiful. At least this is my own opinion. I am far from an expert on the English playwright and in comparison to my brother, when it comes to reading his works, I am merely a dabbler. However, that which I have experienced has produced a kind of mixed reaction.

On the one end as I’ve mentioned in my opening line I find the use of language and the stringing of words to be mesmerising. I’ve often caught myself reading a page or two out loud just for the pure joy of hearing the nearly foreign speech pirouette off my tongue as if reading from an arcane book hidden for centuries.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His Son

A Four-Century Legacy

A painting by Theodore Chasseriau: Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath

We live in a world of Shakespeare. Which is not to say that we’re governed by laws and housed in systems that he hatched, nor that our world is the one he’d like to have lived in or have seen come to pass. Rather, we live in a world of which our very comprehension and observation was substantially and irreversibly altered by Shakespeare’s work. Since Shakespeare, fiction can not only evoke a life and characters a person, but one’s life – entire life, that is, and not only the apparent biographical details – can be revealed and enlarged, and a person – a real human figure, and not only a character with a name and backstory and good dialogue – can be made to seem real and living in all but the flesh. And through this radical revolution of literature and of consciousness, Shakespeare’s own name has come to be an emblem of that revolution and of the art of literature itself.

I missed the opportunity on this day – the feast day of St George, the patron saint of England – two years ago to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare – England’s preeminent luminary, along with Elizabeth I and King Arthur – in the modest county of Warwickshire in the West Midlands of England. But today is the 400th anniversary of his death, and I’ve been poring over sonnets, soliloquies, and salacious misattributions in quietly exuberant commemoration. William Shakespeare and Emily Brontë were my first loves in literature – and the works of both enjoy far more of my admiration and adoration than 11 years ago, when I first encountered them – but the Bard must ultimately triumph over the Yorkshirewoman, in eminence as well as in the height of artistic achievement, despite Brontë having one of the greatest creative minds to have composed in English.