Tag Archives: Jane Austen

What if Shakespeare Had a Sister Who’d Written His Plays?

Share

250px-Shakespeare

“Excuse me?” I said. “Could you say that again?”

The seventeen-year-old high-school-senior son of my best friend sighed.

Loudly.

“What would have happened if Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father and married his mother?” said Andrew.

“Your English teacher gave you that as an essay exam?”

“Right, and I just don’t understand how I’m supposed to answer that question,” he said.

“You see why I told him to call you?” said my best friend Rebecca, on the extension. “You’re the Shakespeare expert, not me.”

“That’s your essay-exam question?” I said.

“Right,” said her son. “And it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Did you read the play?”

“We read it, discussed it, and saw the movie.”

“Then you know Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle Claudius in Act 1, Scene 1.”

“Of course, I know that,” said Andrew. “He doesn’t kill him till the end of the play.”

“Then your answer is, ‘If Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father, we’d have no play’.”

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet ©

On the extension, my friend started laughing. She said she was going to leave the remainder of the conversation to us and hung up.

Her son was not laughing.

He was sincerely distressed.

“I can’t write, ‘there’d be no play’,” he said. “I’ll get an F.”

“You can write whatever you want,” I said, “because it’s such a stupid question that even people who’ve never read the play can answer it any way they want to and still get an A. Because there will be no wrong answers.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

Hamlet is interesting because we want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle after the ghost of his father tells him that his Uncle Claudius murdered him and married Hamlet’s mother to become King himself,” I told my friend’s son. “We want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he acts guilty seeing a re-enactment of the actual murder in a play written by Hamlet to ‘catch the conscience of the King’. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he catches his Uncle alone at his prayers. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he finds a letter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instructing the King of England to kill Hamlet for Claudius so that Hamlet, who is the heir-apparent, cannot ever become King of Denmark. Why, in fact, Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius until the very last act of the play and then only after Claudius accidentally kills Hamlet’s mother when she drinks the poison intended for Hamlet, and Laertes, who’s challenged Hamlet to a sword-fight, tells Hamlet that he’s been poisoned with the tip of Laertes’ sword by Claudius’ order.”

“So, I was right,” said Andrew, “it is a stupid question.”

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet ©

It’s more than a stupid question for a literature class.

It’s the typical inane “What-If School of Life” question.

What if the dog hadn’t stopped to take a nap while he was racing the hare? What if Julius Caesar hadn’t been killed by the Senators? What if Cleopatra hadn’t deserted Marc Antony and he’d won the last of the Roman Civil Wars? What if the British had won the Revolutionary War? What if the South had won our own Civil War? What if Kennedy had not been assassinated? What if Helen Keller had not caught the disease that made her deaf, dumb, and blind?

All of these questions are totally pointless. Because, as we know, these things did happen, and it is more important to understand why they did happen than to discuss some alternative history or fantasy story that did not occur.

Still, it amazes me the number of people who constantly do this. Not just literature teachers who don’t know anything about analyzing literature, or students who haven’t read the assigned literature but want to talk a lot so they’ll get a good grade. Not just historians or supposed history buffs, either.

Reporters and talk-show hosts do it: What if country singer Dolly Parton hadn’t grown up poor? What if serial killer Ted Bundy hadn’t escaped twice and had been caught sooner? What if FEMA had sent money and trailers to the victims of Hurricane Katrina sooner? What if SuperStorm Sandy had missed New Jersey completely?

Sports announcers do it: What if the receiver had caught the quarterback’s pass? What if the quarterback’s pass hadn’t been intercepted? What if the basketball player had made that last-minute 3-point-basket and won the game? What if the game hadn’t gone into overtime? What if professional cyclist Lance Armstrong’s teammates had never revealed that he illegally doped while winning all those Tour de France races?

In fact, virtually everyone who has nothing important to say about what did, indeed, happen, does it. Sometimes, I think they do it just to hear themselves talk. The problem is, they’re not saying anything interesting.

Mainly because, whether in literature or history or another event in life, those things did happen. So why do they want to discuss fantasy topics when the actual events are so much more pertinent?

I honestly do not know.

My friend Rebecca and I were once teaching Literature for a Saturday Classics Program at a well known and respected University where adult students who had dropped out of college when they were younger did intensive coursework all day long every Saturday for two-three years to finish their college degrees. The literature component was designed so that professors from different fields taught the same work each week from their own perspectives and backgrounds. An anthropology professor discussed the work during the first class of the day, a sociology professor during the next class, a psychology professor during the third class, Rebecca and I during the fourth and fifth classes – as the literature professors.

We thought it was an intriguing approach, though Rebecca and I combined our 2 two-hour sessions into 1 four-hour afternoon session since we were both literature professors and wanted the students to lead the discussions themselves. It’s the only way we had ever thought of to ensure that students would actually read the work: make the students themselves lead the discussion for the entire period at least once during the quarter, and grade the rest of the class on their participation in the discussion every single time.

No essays. Just discussion. On the assigned topic. We did it with our college students at our respective universities, who were only 18-22-years-old. We could certainly do the same thing with adult students who, being more mature and having more life experience, would, theoretically, bring even more insight into the literature.

We thought the entire approach to the Classics Program was unique, and it worked well.

Until we got to King Lear.

Geoffrey Rush as Lear, 2016 ©

The first question the student Discussion Leaders asked when they got to our literary analysis component of the program that week was this one: “What if King Lear hadn’t divided his kingdom in Act 1 Scene 1 and told his three daughters that he’d give the largest part of the kingdom to the daughter who said she loved him the most?”

Rebecca, with wide eyes, glanced over at me just a moment before I interrupted the Leaders.

“And what if Shakespeare had a sister who’d actually written the plays?” I said.

The students stared at me, obviously confused.

“That’s an example of how irrelevant your question is because King Lear does divide his kingdom,” I said. “Go on to your next question.”

The Leaders huddled together, whispering, shuffling their papers, flipping through the pages of the play. The rest of the class moved restlessly.

“Go on to your next question,” I said. “Any question. From any part of the play. You don’t have to start with the beginning.”

After several more minutes of whispering and hesitation, one of the Discussion Leaders finally spoke up.

“What if King Lear’s daughter Cordelia hadn’t died?”

“She does die,” I said. “Go on to a legitimate question.”

“What if Cordelia had said she loved her father the way he wanted her to?” said the other leader.

“She doesn’t,” I said. “What are you guys doing? You’ve already been discussing King Lear all day. Talk about anything that hasn’t been answered to your satisfaction so far.”

Derek Jacobi, as Lear and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Cordelia ©

Everyone in the class suddenly became obsessed with their copies of the play, turning pages, apparently taking notes, silent. Silent. Silent. Rebecca and I looked at each other. We both instantly and intuitively knew what was wrong.

“How many of you have not read King Lear ?” I said, and, to our dismay and horror, every hand in the class eventually went up.

“What have you been discussing for the last six hours today?” said Rebecca.

“In Don’s [the anthropologist’s] class, we spent the first hour going around the room telling how our week went…”

“Just today?”

“No, we do that every week.”

“And the second hour of Don’s class?”

“We talk about how our classes are going.”

“What about in Lowell’s [the sociology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.

“We talk about current events.”

“But this is the Classics Program,” I said. “You’re supposed to be discussing the assigned literature from different perspectives.”

Silence.

“What do you discuss in Allen’s [the psychology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.

“How we feel about school,” said one of the students. “As adults.”

“And how we felt about college when we were younger and why we never completed our degrees…”

You get the picture.

Pete Postlethwaite as Lear ©

I told them to start reading King Lear. I didn’t raise my voice, but my displeasure was clear. While they read, Rebecca and I redid the syllabus for our part of the Classics Program, for the remainder of the quarter. They would be discussing King Lear next week. The week following that, we would divide the class period in half, with two hours about one work, and two hours about the other, so that they would remain on schedule with the other teachers and the assigned literature in the program. When we passed out the revised syllabus, the students looked glum.

As soon as we dismissed class that day, all the students went straight to Don, Lowell, and Allen: To complain that we were “forcing” them to read King Lear.

Don, who had originally designed the program, called me and Rebecca in, protesting our approach. We politely but firmly protested his “What-If” approach as unprofessional, un-academic, and unacceptable. Don insisted that we let the students discuss whatever they wanted to discuss.

We offered our immediate resignations.

Don, Lowell, and Allen were all horrified. They wanted us to let the students discuss anything they wanted — except the literature, apparently, but they didn’t want us to resign. Rebecca and I insisted that they could teach the literature themselves since they were going to permit the students to discuss everything but the literature in question. That was when we learned that none of the other three professors had read the literature. Any of it. All quarter long.

And that, plain and simple, was the reason they constantly asked the students “What-If” questions that didn’t have anything to do with what had occurred in the literature, or asked them about things that had to do with their personal lives or with world events every week.

Don Warrington as Lear ©

Though the students had protested when Rebecca and I changed the syllabus, they discovered that they liked King Lear after they read it. They wanted to discuss the play itself and the characters’ motivations. Same thing happened when we got to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The rest of the quarter, the students began insisting that Don, Lowell, and Allen discuss the literature from the anthropological, sociological, and psychological perspectives — as the Classics Program had been designed. Don, Lowell, and Allen were very unhappy.

The students, however, thrived. They became excited about the works they were reading. They understood why the Classics had interested people for so many centuries. They liked literature, many of them for the first time in their lives. Quite a few of them even switched their majors. To Literature.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet ©

And what happened to Rebecca’s son Andrew with his essay-exam question about Hamlet ?

He wrote an essay on his interpretation of why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father informed Hamlet of Claudius’ murder in order to become King.

Andrew’s teacher was so impressed that she read his essay aloud to the rest of the class, gave him an A+/100%, and re-assigned it to the rest of the class, asking them to come up with their own interpretations — supported by the play, of course — about why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle upon learning the truth of his father’s murder.

Andrew was happy and proud. The teacher never gave that kind of assignment again. The students were annoyed at first: they had to write a second essay, and some of them, no doubt, had not read the play – only watched the film. But Andrew reported that the same thing happened in his class that had occurred in the Classics Program: the students began to like the literature, to discuss it heatedly and in an informed manner, and to continue their discussions during lunch and after school.

Now that’s the kind of intellectual discussions that I find fascinating.

No matter the topic.

Not the What-If-This-Had-Never-Happened kind of discussion.

Why talk about those things when the “why did this, in fact, happen, and what were the consequences of its happening?” talks are more intriguing?

As the narrator says in the film version of Jane Austen’s classic Mansfield Park, “It could have all turned out differently, I suppose, but it didn’t.”

images

updated August 2017

Share

4 Comments

Filed under Actors, Art, Authors, Books, Classics, Film Videos, Memoir, Movies/Films, Music Videos, Music/Song, Reading

How We Know the Dancer from the Dance

Share

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

William Butler Yeats
“Among School Children”

Martha Graham by Max Waldman 1976 ©

Those two beautiful lines at the start of this post conclude William Butler Yeats’ intense recollection of his own childhood and life as he walks “Among School Children,” and when I first read the poem in school and asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” the less than illustrious professor said, almost snarling at my apparent stupidity, “We can’t. Why do you think he wrote that?”

I wondered at the professor’s lack of insight, thinking that, once again, I would be left to my own devices to discover why the poet had written that line as a question, not as a statement.

Since I was used to having my interpretations of literature mocked by classmates and teachers alike, or to having the teachers simply stare at me in bewildered dismay when I asked questions or gave my thoughts on the art, I wasn’t too upset by the professor’s attitude.

Disappointed, but not too surprised or upset. I’d thought college was to be a great place of learning and independent thinking: instead, it seemed to be very much like high school, which bored me unimaginably.

Mikhail Baryshnikov by Max Waldman 1976 ©

So, away I went, ceaselessly pondering how one does, indeed, know the dancer from the dance. It didn’t take me too long to figure it out. Being a great lover of the ballet, and fan of both Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, I already had two dancers and their dances to consider. The answer soon came to me: We know the dancer from the dance only when both dancers perform the same dance: then we can determine the dancer’s skill, interpretation, and talent from the steps of the dance itself.

Rudolph Nureyev by Richard Avedon 1962 ©

Then something else struck me. Every day, virtually all of us compare dancers and their dance. Not Nureyev and Baryshnikov necessarily, but the “dancers” that we see in our everyday lives.

When the starting quarterback is injured and the backup quarterback comes in to finish the game, his playing skills are immediately and punishingly compared to the “original”: sometimes the backup quarterback dances the dance so well, he achieves his own fame. Usually, there’s a reason he’s the backup quarterback, and even if he performs well for a few games, his dance usually falters eventually.

The same thing happened in the 2012 NFL football season with the professional referees, who were on strike and were replaced by amateurs. Everyone, from the players to the fans to the announcers, bemoaned the dreadful incompetence of the substitute referees. They were simply unable to dance the complex professional dance, and all cheered the return of the real dancers.

Natalia Makarova, by Max Waldman 1976 ©

Each time a remake of a film is made, we analyze how the latest actor did the role when placed beside those who came before him. How many times has Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice been made, and how many times has each actor’s performance been analyzed in terms of previous ones?

In addition to her dance as Lizzie in Pride & Prejudice, Keira Knightley danced in the remake of Anna Karenina (at least 18 film versions have been made, starring everyone from Greta Garbo to Vivien Leigh, and seven television adaptations), and many viewers compare each new Anna Karenina’s dance to those that came before, as this montage shows.

Meryl Streep, originally trained as an operatic singer, out-danced the original singers in ABBA when she performed “The Winner Takes it All” (in one take) for Mama Mia, stunning the writers of the song with her dance.

Each actor who dances the role of Batman is compared to all those before him; Heath Ledger’s dance of Joker from the Batman franchise is considered the epitome of that particular dance.

Each performer who dances the role of James Bond is compared to Sean Connery’s signature dance. Dickens’ Christmas Carol has been danced countless times, on stage, for television, and for film, and each dancer’s dance is unique. For Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, Gary Oldman wins my vote for his dance of this role, and not for the special effects. For Herman Melville’s famous Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick, Gregory Peck, though a fine dancer, was simply too young when he danced that role, so Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of that dance is incomparably better.

Each history/biography of Custer and his Battle at the Little BigHorn is analyzed not so much for its own value as for how well the dancer interprets this dance compared to all the Custer histories and biographies that are already available. The same is true for those who dance the histories of Marie Antoinette, Julius Caesar, Spartacus, Napoleon, King Henry VIII or any of his six wives.

In short, in all sorts of “theaters,” we compare the dancers and the dance in order to determine who performs a particular dance best.

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Surprisingly, almost 40 years after that first professor said, “you can’t tell the dancer from the dance,” a song brought me around to this speculation again: Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” one of the best “break-up” songs ever written.

Originally written and performed by Goyte, a Belgian-Australian musician/singer/songwriter named Wouter De Backer (Goyte, pronounced “Go-tee-ay,” is derived from the French “Gauthier,” the French equivalent of “Walter” or “Wouter”). Goyte’s song “Somebody That I Used to Know,” featuring Kimbra, has not only been awarded “Single of the Year” (ARIA Awards 2011) but has been danced, seriously and in parody, by many others.

I first became aware of Goyte’s song from Walk off the Earth’s cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Their dance, revolving around all five of them playing the same instrument at the same time while singing the song, has received almost 140 million hits and won them an appearance (performance) on “Ellen.”

(The female singer of Walk off the Earth said it took them 26 takes to get this dance right for the Tube’s video, since any time any one of them made a faux pas, they had to start over from the beginning: they performed it live on “Ellen” flawlessly.)

Then came The Waffle Stompers’  dance of Walk off the Earth’s cover dance of Goyte’s original dance, this time involving a ukelele and a guy doing the girl’s part. Yes, a dance of a dance of a dance. Convoluted, amusing, or fascinating? You decide.

Other amateur dancers quickly arose, filling the Tube with their dances of “Somebody That I used to Know.” Some are mildly entertaining, some rather dull, some simply uninspired, some quite clever. Matthias Harris does it a capella. Even old-fashioned computers joined this dance (I first saw this version on Guy Bergstrom’s Red Pen of Doom). Incredible talent went into this version of the dance but, while it left me intellectually impressed, it didn’t move me emotionally.

Red Pen of Doom also introduced me to the Star Wars parody of the song, which is a bit different because the dancer does the same steps as Goyte in his original video, and merely changes the words which accompany the dance. Though entertaining if you’re a Star Wars or George Lucas fan, and can get all the allusions, I found the dance itself is uninspiring.

But between the time I first posted this blog (2012) and when I updated it (2017), a Minions version of Goyte’s song had appeared.

Of course, one parody leads to another, as one cover does to another, as each dancer tries to out-dance the original dancer, Goyte. So, we not only compare each dancer who does the same dance in order to “know the dancer from the dance”, but many of us try the dance ourselves.

I know which version of Goyte’s dance I prefer, and which dancer I believe dances “Somebody that I used to Know” best. But SadieDoggie and our Gang of Seven Rescue Cats wouldn’t let me finish this blog until I included their favorite version of the dance: (Dogtye, featuring Katra).

What say you, my Lovelies? Any dances that you prefer be performed by a particular dancer? Let me know in comments.

updated Aug 2017

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Share

2 Comments

Filed under Actors, Art, Authors, Books, Classics, Film Videos, Movies/Films, Music Videos, Reading