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.
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?
The BBC has had its ups and downs with Shakespeare. One insufficiently well-known up was its series of Shakespeare adaptations broadcast in 2005. In this episode, Sheldrake reviews the set of four ninety-minute adaptations featuring such actors as James McAvoy, Billie Piper, Damian Lewis, Keeley Hawes, Rufus Sewell, Imelda Staunton and Jonny Vegas that would coincidentally make a great Christmas present for the Shakespeare enthusiast.
This is not the first time genre has been used as a critical tool for understanding Shakespeare’s process and plays, but Sheldrake – never one to dismiss an idea merely because it has been heard before – draws together some big ideas about comedy and tragedy and shows the way that Shakespeare messes about with them.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not a play many people have read. Though were they to read it, they might think they have, because it reads like an anthology of Shakespeare in the 1590s. Sheldrake takes the opportunity to hold the mirror up to comedy by reading in parallel with Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It, along the way outlining some rules of the Shakespearean world.
Shakespeare nicked stuff from everywhere; prose narratives, history books, other plays. Sheldrake rattles through a few of the old chestnuts and a few of the lesser-known borrowings, showing Shakespeare as a great adapter of stories.
In a resumption of normal service that is perhaps not quite the triumphant return he would like, Sheldrake confesses himself drawn more to the ideas of Measure for Measure than its drama. The discussions of Virtue and Justice in the play are strikingly front and centre, and the social aspects of these philosophical ideas form the matter of this episode. Dodging the comedy/dark comedy/tragicomedy/problem play debate, Sheldrake gives you Measure for Measure; a play about the nature of society.
A very great number of Shakespeare performances in Britain are conducted by amateur companies. People gathering together to do Shakespeare for fun. The open-air festival is a particularly popular brand of this. Sheldrake has been involved with the Pendley Shakespeare Festival for some time, and from this year’s Festival he uncovers the meanings of Shakespeare that emerge in these kinds of events.
Testing the patience of listeners once again by talking about someone who isn’t Shakespeare, Sheldrake investigates the peculiar career of John Marston; satirist, dramatist, tragicomedian. He had some great successes, then there was a bit of a lean patch, then he appears to have thrown in the towel. Why? In one word – tragicomedy.
As social politics continue to change with gathering speed, works of literature have to catch up or fall by the wayside. The plays of Shakespeare, written in a very different age from our own, must be scrutinised. Does this play, a notorious battle of the sexes, pass the test? Sheldrake thinks so.
Form is almost absent from the modern critical radar, which has put Love’s Labour’s Lost on the back burner. In a courageous rear-guard action, Sheldrake tries to demonstrate the formal beauty of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and explains why that formal beauty matters.