23 July: ‘This wooden O‘ – The Berlin Globe

Home. I’m home, Berlin, but still going to the Globe. The Berlin Globe. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve had our very own Elizabethan theatre, staging open-air shows in a quiet neighbourhood in the north of the city, and in English, too. Well, it’s not really Elizabethan yet. The investor has bought the construction material right off Roland Emmerich after the film Shakespeare author or not film Anonymous (yep, that film), and the space, but is still in the planning-phase, building-wise. I’m excited to see how things are going to look like in the future. As long as I get Shakespeare in English, I’m happy with any kind of theatre.

My mom and I went, and saw Romeo and Juliet, a lively and touching production, largely owing to the portrayal of the young couple. Juliet was a beautifully forward giddy teenager, taking the matter into her own hands. I was intrigued how the role of the Prince morphed into a kind of chorus that was performed by the entire cast, speaking the lines in unison, and holding up strange ragged pieces of metal that fused into a huge Greek-like mask with eyes and mouth. A gem were the teenagers sitting behind me, aged 17 or so. English course, classic. Naturally, the play was too long for them, but they loved the semi-nudity of Romeo and Jules post-wedding night, and they connected wonderfully when Juliet’s parents wanted to kick her out upon refusing to marry Paris. Priceless.

What I didn’t like was changes in the treatment of the text. Romeo and Juliet, as well as Macbeth, Hamlet, and As You Like It, is one of Shakespeare’s plays that I largely know by heart – not that I could spontaneously recite big chunks of it, yet I know it well enough in order to know what’s not in there. And this production has cut passages, perhaps for reasons of time. But why take away Juliet’s gorgeous ‘Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds’? Or Romeo’s first reaction upon seeing Juliet at the party of the Capulets?

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (1.5)

Berlin Romeo collapsed the speech, and simply omitted the Ethiopean reference. I checked the available RJ texts, the Folio and the Quartos of 1597 and 99, and the speech is intact in all of them. So what’s the purpose here? I suspect it’s political correctness. It’s both hard and not hard to argue with this one. The reference is there. Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. Racist and anti-semitic. One might also say, however, that it’s going too far to censor poetry from 400 years ago, and that policing poetical language is essentially misunderstanding literature, equating it with historical documents, and having a strange absolutist world view that knows no cultural and historical relativity. But to offer these objections runs the risk of countenancing racism, and being accused by the especially woke among us who like to point fingers but not to think.

I obviously incline to the latter, believing in humanity’s power to dissociate literature from reality, and to be able to negotiate that which is, with that which is not, but pretends to be. There’s also, perhaps, a difference between an entire play on a group of people, and a local oblique metaphor that encourages interpretation. I feel like retrospective “cleaning” up of stuff that, today, and only today, makes us squirm because we have different sets of beliefs from the past, is a disservice to the cause of being more vigilant and calling out racism. Maybe at the expense of more obvious more life-threatening racism. Such as American prisons, for one.

To erase and make more palatable means also to erase suffering, and change the past with hindsight until it becomes unrecognizable, and we don’t know what was anymore, and what was not. And that’s a task for Big Brother, not the Berlin Globe.

15 July: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

So says Chesterton, that most neglected of 20th century writers. Most neglected, and paradoxically, most prolific, having written 100  (I mean, ONE HUNDRED) books, poems, plays, novels, short stories, 4,000 newspaper essays, and decades of columns. AND he invented Father Brown. Why aren’t we hearing about this guy anymore?

I don’t know. But I do know that I love his aphorisms, and especially the one serving as title for these musings. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. A passionate plea against perfectionism, and “just doing it”.

The phrase actually comes in a somewhat politicized context, that of us nowadays outsourcing any activity to others, that is, professionals, be it sports, cooking, entertainment, childcare, porn. We prefer watching tennis rather than learning it ourselves, go to restaurants, watch Netflix, dump our children in wards at the age of six months, and visit Gentlemen’s Special Interest websites. That’s of course all related to material conditions and capitalist systems of (monetary) exchange: if you don’t earn enough, you can only watch tennis, because a club is too expensive. And anyway, you won’t have time to visit one, since you’re stupidly slaving away in a soul-crushing office. So, I’d take Chesterton’s criticism with a pinch of salt in terms of people’s proclivities, but rather find reasons in the way things are. Still, it’s true, isn’t it, that we prefer having done for us, rather than doing.

Same goes with literary criticism. We read what other people think about a poem before we read it, and have thoughts ourselves. Not always, but often. That’s to do with anxiety about the new, the uncertain, ambiguity. Something you might not understand. But that’s like eating pre-digested food rather than the fresh stuff. Of course, we need both, the poem and the critics (and the monster), but first, surely, we should always pick the delightful wonder of encountering literature itself, shiny and new. Which is not to speak against experts. Goodness, we do need experts in these our days, and we need to listen to them. But we also need to experience ourselves, however bad a job we are doing, to speak with Chesterton.

I feel like that when I start a new project. Amateurish. I’m doing it badly, and I’m producing lots of waste in the wake of my journey towards better understanding, a journey with plenty blind-alleys to be sure, and at the end of it (though it’s endless, of course), a realization that I still know so little. Everything is the snapshot of a moment, even a monograph coming out of three years intensive research. Of making many books there is no end.

Right now, I’m just reading articles about brackets, I’m reading around topics of punctuation, and typography. That’s all very well and relevant, but I’m not reading the texts themselves. I’m scared of them. I’m scared I’m missing meanings and allusions, so I don’t even start in the first place. I’m scared of not having world-changing thoughts while reading. I shouldn’t be. And I know I’m not really, once I actually open Sidney or Wroth, (re)discovering their crazy way with words. Anything worth doing – reading – is worth doing badly. With time, less so.

7 July: ‘Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves!’

Publishing takes a long, long, very long time. A chapter on rhetoric and dance in Shakespeare for the Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Dance was my first publishing deal, as it were. I pitched an abstract in July 2014 if memory serves right, just going into my second PhD year. The thing was written exactly 2 years later when finishing the thesis, and was published, guess when, this year. 2019. Five years in the making, it had better be good! Same story (slightly) different name: The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Music. I’m tweaking a small part of one of my PhD chapters on musical repetition in Shakespeare’s plays, exploring how sounds and music (the sound of music?) contributes to senses of identity, be it local, national, or otherwise.

The field of sound studies engages with such questions, for example mapping soundscapes, that is, what can be heard in a particular place at a particular time. I’m writing this sitting at the open window, for instance, so I can hear, the occasional ding dong of the bell of the church at the end of our street, the cars below, the tram, sometimes people chatting, a plane flying by. If I was sitting in my garden, the story would be totally different. Or a library. A café. Another country, say Iran, where I’d be hearing the wonderful call for prayer five times a day. The concept of soundscapes and the practice of documenting sounds (in whatever way, e.g. through recordings, or maps, or diagrams such as these below) stems from ecologists Schafer and Truax, and has been taken over by lots of other disciplines, including urban planning, biology, literature, history.

‘How noisy is your neighbourhood?’ -map.

Regarding the early modern period, Bruce Smith writes so creatively about sounds and identity in his seminal The Acoustic World of Early Modern England. Just think about church bells signalling the boundaries of parishes, street cries in particular parts of London, or ballads travelling up and down the country in the aural memory of people. This, of course, also pertains to foreign sounds as when travellers brought new music books from the continent, and new melodies in their ears and mouths. Imagine a young man (or, more rarely, woman), having just returned from a trip to the Low Lands, walking along the street and whistling a tune that’s all the rage over there. That tune may be picked up by someone with a good ear, a composer, of notated music like William Byrd, or more casual unscripted music like a ballad singer. New words, in English, are being mapped to existing sounds, and there you go: musical intermingling beyond the boundaries of nations, languages, or social classes. Remember Philip Sidney being moved by a scurvy old ballad singer upon hearing ‘Chevy Chase’ in the streets? Something understood between the lowest of the low, and the highest of the high. Music, with its immediacy and magical emotional touching, is capable of doing that.

So. What about Shakespeare and musical ideas of identity, of nationhood? Uses of music in the theatre are hard to track, and we have to re-construct creatively what could have been there. You can consider the kind of playhouse for instance (more singing going on in the indoor playhouses because the boy-actors were more highly trained singers), you can consider the documented presence of professional musicians who might have played in the theatres too, there are cultural habits such as offering a flourish when a king enters, and there are cues in the texts that we have, although these will very often be on the slim side. ‘A song.’ Or ‘Musick’. Sometimes, lots of times, actually, there are quotations of songs, or a character breaks into fully-fledged singing. Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook is a great start to research that.

Falstaff, for example, is full of music. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, just before he is cozened by the two ladies, Falstaff, waiting for his supposed mistress in the park, mentions the most English song imaginable. ‘Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves;’ hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation’. ‘Greensleeves’, a ballad probably going back to the times of Henry VIII, signals Englishness, local culture, perhaps nostalgia to a recent past. It fits this play, Shakespeare’s only comedy set at home, in England. To drop a reference to that ballad is a memory trigger in the mind of the audience who remembers moments when they themselves sung or heard ‘Greensleeves’, something which evokes warm fuzzy memories of home.

But Falstaff, perhaps depending on the different theatrical genre, is also European. Here’s an example from 2 Henry IV:

Falstaff: Well now you have done me right.

Silence: Doe me right and dub me knight, Samingo, Isn’t not so?

Falstaff: ‘Tis so.

Silence: Is’t so? Why then, say an old man can do somewhat.  (5.3)

Samingo is an elision of Sir Mingo, that is, Sieur or Monsieur Mingo (or Domingo), a widely current ballad from the end of the sixteenth century. Silence’s memory has latched onto the jingly feel of the song’s line, the catchy internal rhyme of ‘doe me right and dub me knight’, and it’s an even more felicitous choice since the ballad is a drinking song on  braggadocio Monsieur Mingo. Does that remind us of another showy offy supposedly knighted drunkard? Well, actually, the melody to the Domingo ballad probably comes from a 1570 Franco-Flemish songbook by the famous Orlando de Lassus, tracing something like the aural trajectory that I’ve described above. How English is that song then? How English are the sounds that Shakespeare’s characters and the playgoers are hearing? Perhaps sound negotiates senses of self and senses of community that are more porous than other media, and that foster more generous understandings of one’s place in the world and towards others. What that has to do with potatoes? No idea. Suggestions welcome!

Check out this sound capturing project by the British Library. Love the thought of a sound library! Although catching something as fleeting seems absurd, somehow…