August 26, 2003

Shakespeare

"So what's the difference between a comedy and a tragedy?"

"In Shakespeare, a comedy ends with everybody getting married. A tragedy ends with everybody getting killed--except for one character left alive to explain what happened and say some closing words."

"Everybody?"

"Remember Measure for Measure? Four--count 'em--four marriages at the end: Lucio to the unnamed tart, the Duke to the heroine, Claudio to what's-her-name, the pregnant one, and Angelo to Marianna."

"And in a tragedy?"

"Think of Hamlet. Everyone's dead at the end. Everyone with a line. Except Horatio."

"Everyone?"

"Well, Fortinbras survives to show up after the slaughter. And Horatio survives. But Polonius... Ophelia... Laertes... Rosencranz... Guildenstern... the King... the Queen... Hamlet himself... Generally, if you have more than a hundred lines in a Shakespearean tragedy, you're dead at the end. Hamlet is a more bloodthirsty and violent spectacle than Reservoir Dogs. There is nothing that Quentin Tarantino could teach William Shakespeare."

Posted by DeLong at August 26, 2003 09:10 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Well, most of the tragedies are considerably less bloodthirsty than Hamlet. In Othello, for instance, only Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia are killed. Even Iago lives through it. In Lear, you have Edgar, Albany, and Kent all alive at the end. Macbeth leaves you with Malcolm and Macduff (and the witches, and a bunch of frequently about thanes of this and that). A fair number of folks are alive at the end of Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet (and maybe Titus Andronicus, which I haven't read) are rather unique in that pretty much all the major characters are dead.

Posted by: John on August 26, 2003 09:33 PM

My God, has anyone else ever read "Titus Andronicus"? It was obviously Shakespeare's attempt to do an EC horror comic: it should have been called "Tales From Ye Crypt". The gruesomeness of the plot is mitigated only by its sheer idiocy (although there is one moment toward the end when Titus suddenly sounds like Lear).

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on August 27, 2003 01:00 AM

"There is nothing that Quentin Tarantino could teach William Shakespeare."

There is, however, quite a bit Quentin Tarantino could learn from William Shakespeare.

Posted by: Beldar on August 27, 2003 06:33 AM

It's true that "Titus" seems like a comic horror show if you compare it to mature Shakespeare, but if you compare it to the kind of stuff that was popular before Shakespeare, it's a considerable advance in dramatic poetry. (Try reading "Cambyses" some time.) It's instructive to remember that Shakespeare's competition wasn't just Marlowe and Jonson, it was bear-baiting. And some of the bears were more famous than most of the playwrights.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on August 27, 2003 07:57 AM

Jeffrey Kramer writes:

> It's instructive to remember that Shakespeare's
> competition wasn't just Marlowe and Jonson, it was bear-
> baiting. And some of the bears were more famous than
> most of the playwrights.

Well-put. But here are Quentin Tarantino's notes on your post:

# bear-baiting playwrights, Shakespeare blood sport in
# Titus Andronicus

Tarantino turns down the concept himself, but a friend of his pitches the idea to Paramount as follows:

@ It's "Dead Poet's Society" meets "Gladiator" or "Fight
@ Club". Will Smith is an up-and-coming poet Will Shakes
@ who finds himself in a poetry jam where the losers are
@ thrown to wild bears while the crowd cheers...for the
@ bears. He escapes with his life, but has to win back his
@ dignity and slay the self-styled Emperor of Slam, Robin
@ Williams. Soundtrack by Sheryl Crowe.

Posted by: Jonathan King on August 27, 2003 09:21 AM

"There is nothing that Quentin Tarantino could teach William Shakespeare."

A bit of an unnecessary jibe at one of today's more interesting filmmakers. After all, there is nothing that ANYONE could teach WIlliam Shakespeare...

Posted by: Jimbo on August 27, 2003 10:02 AM

Romeo and Juliet follows the classic comic plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl outwit unfeeling parents. Boy finds girl and -- okay, bad example.

Posted by: jda on August 27, 2003 01:00 PM

Romeo and Juliet follows the classic comic plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl outwit unfeeling parents. Boy finds girl and -- okay, bad example.

Posted by: jda on August 27, 2003 01:05 PM

So what's the difference between a comedy and a tragedy?
~~

Departing a bit from the stage...

"Life is a tragedy seen close up, a comedy in long shot."
-- Chaplin

"Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel."
-- Walpole

Posted by: Jim Glass on August 27, 2003 01:06 PM

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when
you walk into an open sewer and die." -- Mel Brooks

Posted by: Jimbo on August 27, 2003 01:51 PM

>> It's true that "Titus" seems like a comic horror show if you compare it to mature Shakespeare, but if you compare it to the kind of stuff that was popular before Shakespeare, it's a considerable advance in dramatic poetry <<

The play is a comedy. Shakespeare never stops punning, even in the most "gruesome" of scenes, such as those where characters are killed and fed to each other. Consider also the way he gives his variously dismembered characters lines like:

"Come, brother, take a head / And in this hand the other I will bear. / Lavinia, thou shalt be employ'd: these arms! / Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth."

And apart from its humour, the play seems pretty substandard as an example of a good early Renaissance revenge tragedy. It certainly comes nowhere near Webster's "Duchess of Malfi", for instance, which came out only three years later. At least I can't think of a single line in Titus which can even hope to compete with something like Webster's: "Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust / Like diamonds we are cut by our own dust".

Good meter AND technologically savvy! Hear hear!

Posted by: trevelyan on August 28, 2003 01:44 AM

"Good meter AND technologically savvy! Hear hear!"

Pfui. There's an extra syllable in the first line.


Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on August 28, 2003 03:31 AM

Trevelyan;

"Titus" is usually dated to the early 1590s (it was registered in 1594); Webster's plays were considerably later, with "Duchess" usually dated around 1611 (that is, after Shakespeare's retirement). Webster was born in 1580; you may remember that in "Shakespeare in Love" he's shown as a street urchin hanging around the theatre and amusing himself feeding live rats to cats. The age, at least, would be about right. Maybe the hobby too.

But that is a great line from "Duchess." You can gather a substantial collection of "famous last words" just from the lines given in that play to the dying characters, ranging from the lofty ("Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength / Must pull down heaven upon me"--the Duchess speaking to the man who is about to strangle her) to the short and sweet ("I go, I know not whither").

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on August 28, 2003 03:59 AM

Thanks for the correction on the date Jeffrey... you're right.

Posted by: trevelyan on August 28, 2003 08:05 AM

On the subject of Titus Andronicus, I encourage those who haven't checked it out yet to rent or buy Julie Taymor's "Titus," which is a very good film made from a very difficult play.

Well worth the 162 minute running time, and very likely much easier to digest than the play itself. Harry Lennix and Anthony Hopkins are stunning as Aaron and Titus Andronicus.

Posted by: J.Goodwin on August 28, 2003 10:57 AM

Given that the climax involves Titus cooking people in a pie, Hopkins would seem to be a classic case of type-casting.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on August 28, 2003 06:49 PM

"It's instructive to remember that Shakespeare's competition wasn't just Marlowe and Jonson, it was bear-baiting. And some of the bears were more famous than most of the playwrights."

If "Titus" is any indication, some of the bears would also have been better at writing plays than some of the playwrights.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on August 29, 2003 03:04 AM

'If "Titus" is any indication, some of the bears would also have been better at writing plays than some of the playwrights.'

I must insist that "Titus" would not even be long-listed for the Elizabethan equivalent of the Bulwer-Lyton prize. If you want to look at something that would make the short list, here's a sample from "Cambyses, King of Persia".

[Background: Praxaspes, counselor to King Cambyses, warns the King that he is drinking too much. Cambyses, outraged by this accusation, demands that Praxaspes bring his young son before him. Cambyses will aim an arrow at his heart; if he has a steady enough hand to shoot straight, that will prove that Cambyses is not drinking too much.]

PRAXASPES:
O mighty King, your grace’s behest with sorrow I have scanned,
And brought my child from mother's knee before you to appear,
And she thereof no whit doth know that he in place is here.
KING:
Set him up, my mark to be, I will shoot at his heart.
PRAXASPES:
I beseech your grace not so to do. Set this pretense apart.
Farewell, my dear and loving babe; Come, kiss thy father dear.
A grievous sight to me it is to see thee slain even here.
Is this the gain now from the King for giving counsel good—
Before my face with such despite to spill my son's heart-blood?
O heavy day to me this is, and mother in like case.
CHILD: O father, father, wipe your face;
I see the tears run from your eye.
Alas, dear father, why do you cry ?
My mother is at home sewing of a band.
KING: Before me as a mark now let him stand;
I will shoot at him my mind to fulfill.
CHILD: Alas, alas, father, will you me kill ?
Good master King, do not shoot at me; my mother loves me best of all.

[Cambyses shoots. The boy falls down dead.]

KING: I have dispatched him. Down he doth fall.
As right as a line his heart I have hit.
Nay, thou shalt see, Praxaspes, stranger news yet.
My knight, with speed his heart cut out and give it unto me.
KNIGHT: It shall be done, O mighty King, with all celerity.

[The knight brings back the boy’s heart]

KNIGHT: Here is the heart, according to your grace's behest.
KING:
Behold, Praxaspes, thy son's own heart. O, how well the same was hit.
After this wine to do this deed I thought it very fit.
Esteem thou mayst right well thereby no drunkard is the king
That in the midst of all his cups could do this valiant thing.
My lord and knight, on me attend. To palace we will go,
And leave him here to take his son when we are gone him fro.

[Exeunt all but Praxaspes. Enter MOTHER.]

MOTHER:
Alas, alas, I do hear tell the King hath killed my son.
If it be so, woe worth the deed that ever it was done.
It is even so. My lord I see, how by him he doth weep.
What meant I that from hands of him this child I did not keep ?
O blissful babe! O joy of womb! Heart's comfort and delight!
For counsel given unto the King is this thy just requite?
O heavy day and doleful time, these mourning tunes to make!
With blubb'red eyes into mine arms from earth I will thee take
And wrap thee in mine apron white. But, O my heavy heart!
The spiteful pangs that it sustains would make it in two to part,
The death of this my son to see. Oh heavy mother now,
That from thy sweet and sug'red joy to sorrow so shouldst bow!
What grief in womb did I retain before I did thee see!
Yet at last, when smart was gone, what joy wert thou to me!


From there it gets worse....

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on August 29, 2003 07:30 AM
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