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Friday, September 22, 2017

Shakespeare DVD & Blu-ray

I don’t think I have ever ranted here on my blog. I am not a ranter by nature.

But I am sick and tired of Shakespeare productions around the world that don’t get filmed.

Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet
(photos by Johan Persson)

Why are actors as acclaimed and influential as Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and many others, not making DVD and Blu-ray versions of their plays?

It’s insulting.

How is it possible that Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet, directed by Branagh, will only be seen by about 3000 people in its three week run?

There is no plan to extend the production, or film it for a wider audience.

So in a world of more than 7 billion people — only 3000 get to see it?

You have got to be kidding me!

How is it possible that Kevin Spacey traveled the world playing Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes, and it is not released on film?

I would love to see Andrew Scott as Hamlet. I would like to own a Blu-ray disc of that production. I would pay good money for it. And I would treasure it forever.

But no. That is not possible.

Why don’t we have a filmed version of Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet -- co-starring the incomparable Judi Dench?

Where are the filmed versions of Ralph Fiennes in his many Shakespeare productions? What about Ben Kingsley? Ian McKellen? And so many more.

Many of the greatest actors of all time, performing the greatest plays of all time, are not preserved for history. That’s shameful.

Ralph Fiennes as Prospero

Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis in Hamlet

There are probably good reasons why these productions don’t get filmed. I am sure there are all sorts of rules and regulations.

I don’t care what the reasons are — these productions must be preserved.

Somehow Shakespeare’s Globe theatre created filmed versions of many of their plays, from 2007 to 2015. I bought almost all of them.

Somehow the Royal Shakespeare Company filmed many productions, going back almost 30 years! I bought almost all of them.

I saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. He was brilliant. I had to go to a theatre to see it broadcast. I went twice, it was so good.

I want to see it again. Today. But no. I can’t. 

That’s insulting.

I think that if you are a global star, a Tom Hiddleston, or a Martin Freeman, you have an obligation to preserve this work, and have a mass audience see it, enjoy it, and treasure it.

Anything less is unacceptable.

If you don’t preserve them, then why do them in the first place? Why wouldn’t you want as wide an audience as possible?

It is quite possible that William Shakespeare himself knew that his plays might survive long after his death, and have a global appeal. 

That might very well be the reason he and his fellow actors named their new theatre The Globe in 1599.

Well, it is 2017 now. Actors, directors, and theatres should realize how much of a global demand there is for Shakespeare.

I would love to find someone out there who could create a Shakespeare Channel — a 24-hour channel that plays taped productions from around the world, by famous and not-so-famous acting companies.

There could even be anchor-men and anchor-women, who could host discussions, and interview artists about their Shakespeare projects.

I think the appetite for such a channel would be enormous. I see this demand through my blog, with its analytics and global insights. The world wants Shakespeare, all the time, and forever. Especially countries like Tunisia in particular, and the Middle East in general.

But until that day, at the very least, I don’t think it is too much to expect actors, directors, and theatres to create taped versions of their Shakespeare productions for DVD and Blu-ray.

I don’t go out of my way to invite you to add comments to any of my blog posts — but here is one time where I would love your feedback.

Who knows — perhaps your responses will inspire these great artists to finally film the productions they make.


Friday, September 15, 2017

No Shakespeare?

I love counterfactual history questions.

What if Germany had won World War II?

What if we had not gone into space, or not landed on the moon?

And the biggest question regarding Shakespeare, to me, is what if Shakespeare had not existed?

What if he had never been born, or had not survived childhood?

The closer you look at his biography, the more you realize that he could have died very young, or in his youth.

He had siblings who died, and he was born during a time of plague.

There was never a guarantee that he would survive for long, or at all.

I do not believe, had he not existed, that someone else would have done what he did, and create the poetry and plays he did.

When you look at his rival playwrights — Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, Robert Greene, and the others — not one of them rises to the level of Shakespeare.

They were all very talented artists, but none of them could capture the imagination of their Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences they way that Shakespeare did.

I think the biggest reason why Shakespeare was so unusually successful, and why his plays have endured, was because Marlowe and the other playwrights were writing for the London elite. 

They did not write for the public, for the people.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, was the people’s playwright.

It is often noted that Shakespeare did not attend university, as the others had. The point seems to be that his education was not as good as Christopher Marlowe’s, who went to Cambridge.

I am convinced that Shakespeare’s lack of a university education actually benefited him. It made him far more ambitious than the others, and the life lessons he learned were far more valuable than anything in their lectures at Oxford and Cambridge.

Shakespeare’s success was accidental, it was unexpected. He was off everyone’s radar.

Had he gone to university, his home-spun and folksy wisdom, and his priceless and real-world sense of humor would have been beaten out of him. He would have been expected to conform, to fit it, at university. 

Writing plays for the public, and making them laugh, cry, and close their eyes from the horror — none of that was on a university curriculum.

But Shakespeare was a misfit. That is his brilliance, his charm, his greatness.

His greatest artistic creations are characters who don’t conform, who don’t follow the rules, and who always draw outside of the lines — for better or for worse.

Falstaff is the patron saint of misfits. 

Hamlet should be strong and heroic, decisive and brave. But he just can’t. He can’t live up to what we expect him to be. He just can’t be the Prince he should be.

Cleopatra should be regal, composed, divine, and above mundane human and earthly matters. But Antony shatters all of that. She simply loves him way too much for her to behave like a proper divine ruler should.

Even Macbeth. In the beginning, he seems like a competent vassal lord to King Duncan. Then he becomes consumed with ambition, and it leads him on a path of murder and insanity.

All of the great characters are all too human.

Shakespeare was all too human. He embraced it, rather than run from it.

All of the other playwrights ran from their humanity, and wrote plays that were less inspired than his.

And today, as Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed, and interpreted around the world, the plays of his rivals are relatively forgotten.

Had Shakespeare not existed, it is very likely that theatre in the time of Queen Elizabeth would have suffered terribly. As the other playwrights were dying out, from poverty, from drinking too much, from disease, the theatres would have died out, too.

The Queen enjoyed theatre, but preferred animal baiting matches. 

It is doubtful that she would have allowed theatre to prosper had it not been for the popular appeal and success of Shakespeare — and Shakespeare alone.

By the time that King James succeeded Elizabeth, he might have dissolved the playing companies. He preferred masques anyway, and he arguably would have brought theatre into the royal court — and closed up The Globe and other venues.

But they could not close the theatres, because Shakespeare had already changed the game on them.

Not only were most of Shakespeare’s rivals too busy drinking and partying to bother with making a body of work, none of them organized the theatre into anything resembling an industry. 

Shakespeare, with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, organized themselves as sharers in the profits and responsibilities of running a playing company as a for-profit company — not just as a band of actors who served for the benefit of a royal patron.

They made a business out of it. That successful business created competition — and in short order, a theatre industry was born. As far as I know, that was unprecedented in world history.

Queen Elizabeth tried to put the theatres under control. But it only made them more popular.

By the middle of the 1590s, it is doubtful that she could have closed theatres without sparking a city-wide riot. 

By the time that King James arrived in London, in 1603, it was far too late to shut them all down.

Yes, the theatres were shut from 1642 to 1660. But that can’t be attributed one way or the other to Shakespeare, who died 1616.

But, I would argue that if Shakespeare had not so successfully established, and firmly planted theatre in London, over the course of his almost 25 year long stage career, then the theatres would not have reopened in 1660, or at all.

Once the theatres were re-opened, they began to perform Shakespeare’s plays again. It was as if London, and England for that matter, could not live without him.

It was as if once the light of Shakespeare was lit, it could not be snuffed out.

In the decades and centuries since, I think the world as a whole would have been far worse without him, and England in particular would have been far weaker than it turned out to be.

I think even today, the world would be far darker than it already is.

Why? Because he was one of those unlikely miracles that comes along in history. He shined a light on the world and on men and women, in order to teach us more about ourselves than we knew before.

Shakespeare helped shine a light that helped guide England through some of the darkest times in history — not the least of which was the potential invasion by Germany during World War II. 

Sir Laurence Olivier as King Henry the Fifth was one of the greatest symbols of English pride and defiance in the face of Hitler and Nazi oppression.

We are very fortunate that the light that is Shakespeare is still shining today, and he has become a source of light that illuminates and unifies the whole world. 

There are not enough people or things that truly unite us in our humanity. 

His plays and poetry do.

I like to think that he somehow knew that his work would live on long after his death, and what he was doing would have a global impact — especially since he named his theatre The Globe.

I like to think that he chose that name for the theatre because he could, in his vast and brilliant mind, imagine a future world where people were far more free and happy than the one in which he lived — and that he would play some small, but critical, part in helping it get there.


David B. Schajer

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Shakespeare and 'Rule, Brittania!'

"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

I came across an article that sheds new light on the origins of the England’s great anthem, "Rule, Brittania!"

You would think that this song had nothing to do with Shakespeare and his contemporaries. 

However, the story of how and why the song was created illuminates what Shakespeare was doing with his plays.

Here's the link to the article that I found -- here.

I love this song, with its defiant, strong and proud love of England.

But I never knew the real origin of the song. I thought it was a very rousing piece of music to inspire Englishmen to love their country.

No, it was much more than that. It was a song of revolt.

It was a declaration to all men, including King George II, that Englishmen would not and should not give up its fight for freedom.

King George II

The historian, Oliver Cox, discovered letters written by people who were the first audience who heard this song performed in 1740.

This first audience understood the song as a political message to the king, and his Prime Minister, who were in the audience.

The song was commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales — who was the heir to the throne.

Frederick, Prince of Wales

Frederick was not very close to his father, King George, and did not support his government.

Frederick used the song to express the position that England should take a much stronger stand against the nation's enemies, primarily Spain.  

The song was a "call to arms" and a "rallying cry" — to use the British Royal Navy to project power on the seas.

Frederick wanted the song to share his "vision" of his father as "a new type of King".

The song was part of a masque entitled Alfred, based on Alfred the Great’s battles against the Viking invaders.

Here is the entire song, as it was originally written:

When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown'd,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

Here is a great video with the song -- I especially love the crowds singing along:

What is interesting to me about this episode from 1740, is that it so closely resembles the situation, in the 1590s, between Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Queen Elizabeth.

Essex was one of many people who competed to become Elizabeth's heir, and her government broke into two rival factions.

Just as Prince Frederick also wanted this song to serve his interests as far as inheriting the throne, Essex commissioned Shakespeare to write plays to advance his claim to Elizabeth's throne.

Frederick clearly wanted his father to change and become a new kind of king. If his father would not change, then Frederick would be the change that he believed England needed.

If King George could not become as great as King Alfred, then Frederick would be.

Essex's plays with Shakespeare also offer London's audiences a choice between Elizabeth and Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Shakespeare's Henry V play is the clearest parallel to Frederick’s Alfred masque. 

In the 1590s, as England continued to face threat of invasion by Spain, Essex wanted this particular play to offer Elizabeth an opportunity to be a new kind of monarch.

If she did not project power, with her land and naval forces, and properly protect England against Spain, and live up to the image of King Henry V, then Essex would be more than happy to take her place.

Shakespeare's Henry V play was also a call to arms and a rallying cry —  Englishman faced enslavement if Spain did succeed in conquering England.

Essex and Shakespeare, and the men who were members of that faction, had very similar fears, hopes, and dreams as Frederick and the men of his faction who designed this Alfred masque. 

Both factions wanted England to be free, and wanted England to be strong in a way that it was not at the time.

I like to think that Frederick knew who and what Essex, Shakespeare, and that faction were about, in regards to Queen Elizabeth.

I like to think that Frederick drew inspiration from Essex’s and Shakespeare’s example.

I like to think that as long as England exists, there are people like them who will defend it and keep England safe and strong — and who will keep their fellow Englishmen free from those who would enslave them.


David B. Schajer