Ben Jonson. Rival or friend of Shakespeare? Grumpy old bore or stout moralist? In a typical cop-out, Sheldrake thinks both caricatures are true. Jonson is an awkward playwright at the best of times, but his plays are well worth the seeing. Sheldrake gives you his personal top three.
We seem to spend much of our lives asking whether things are worth it. Are they worth the money, the time, the effort? Are we getting value for money? Is something worth it? And everybody in The Merchant of Venice seems to be asking that kind of question too. Venice itself seems to be all about cost and Belmont seems to be all about value. But is it that simple?
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be leading a seminar at RADA on Measure for Measure. In preparing for that seminar I found myself disagreeing with much of what I said in my own podcast episode on the play. So here I rebut and refute many of my earlier claims. One of the great pleasures of working on Shakespeare is that one’s opinions are seldom allowed to stand still.
It’s difficult to know what, and particularly who, to talk about in Othello. Iago is a distraction, Othello likes to inflate his own sense of himself, whilst Desdemona can seem even less than she is. Which is odd, because the characters too find themselves not quite knowing how to interpret what they see in front of them. Or they misunderstand completely and interpret too easily. Their perspective is awry. And because Shakespeare wants to show us just how easy it is to do that, he makes audience after audience lose their perspective too.
Falstaff will exceed the bounds of whatever box you try to put him in, a truth I found out for myself in the last Short Sheldrake on Shakespeare. I return to complete some unfinished business on this occasion, finishing off some remarks about why Falstaff is so popular in the Henry IV plays and giving some thought to his influence after his off-stage death early in Henry V.
Twelfth Night seems to be everyone’s favourite Shakespeare play. Why is this the case? Could it be something to do with the fact that it is a play about playing? This play is a hymn to the pleasure and virtue of playing and play wins over anti-play, though of course the real motto is that it’s the taking part that counts.
Sir John Falstaff is a river who has burst his banks. He has taken on a life beyond Shakespeare’s plays and become a myth in his own right. Anybody who has a thirst for life is described as Falstaffian, he has had operas written for him, actors at the mature height of their comic powers have repeatedly enjoyed success as this embodiment of festivity and he remains an unassailable favourite with audiences. Is he just very entertaining, or is there more to it than that?