February 20, 2009

F5 #3: The Bard

Usually it goes in the other order, but after extolling the virtues of Arnold Schwarzenegger action movies last week, I'm going to go from the ridiculous to the sublime, and sing the praises of William Shakespeare this week.

I didn't start by liking Shakespeare. What self-respecting student does? For at least the first few years of high school, studying Shakespeare is almost an exercise in missing the point. It's all about character and plot and iambic pentameter and dénouement - and while I certainly understand the need to teach how the literature is put together, the fact that Shakespeare was a playwright, writing plays that had actual stories to tell, got left out. Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

That changed in Grade 12 English. After 3 years of studying the Bard's fair-to-middling plays, like Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night or The Taming of the Shrew, we finally got to read the Mother of All Plays: Hamlet. And I mean read: for about a week of class, all we did was read the entire play out loud and talk about the story. Then, in my last year, we studied not merely one, but three whole plays: Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello. So in my last semester of high school, I got exposed to more of Shakespeare's great plays than in the first three years put together. Did it not occur to the powers-that-be in their infinite wisdom that it ought to be the other way around? Get the kids hooked with the greats, I say, and then let them sink their teeth into the less worthy stuff.

So despite getting consistently high marks in English, dating a literature major, and generally being a sponge for all sorts of good books, I really didn't leave high school with a positive impression of William Shakespeare and his works. Three years in engineering school wasn't exactly conducive to drama appreciation, either.

But that changed when I turned the page in my academic calendar and transferred from the Faculty of Engineering to the Faculty of English, mainly due to two factors.

In my first year as an artsie, I took the usual Survey of English Literature course, and studied something new: Henry IV parts I and II. Throughout high school, we'd looked at tragedy and comedy, but never Shakespeare' historical plays. But in my next semester, I took the introductory course in literary criticism, and the textbook, Criticism: Major Statements edited by Charles Kaplan, focused on the study of Hamlet from multiple perspectives. Coincidentally, Hamlet was running just up the highway at the Stratford Festival, although I didn't get the opportunity to go, unfortunately. I just hadn't realized until that point that there was so much depth to a single play.

Then, in the summer of 1995, I just happened to catch a showing of Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing on PBS. Branagh has probably done more than anyone else to revive the performance of Shakespeare on film - starting, of course, with his excellent Henry V and culminating in the "eternal" Hamlet. Much Ado is the ultimate in Shakespearean weirdness: a heroine named Hero, a villain without a motive, and thanks to the casting of Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves, two brothers, one black and one white. If anything, it looks like Branagh just called up a bunch of his buddies and said, "Hey, let's film some Shakespeare for fun" - and as a result, it's just as much fun to watch as it must have been to perform. Besides, it was my first introduction to (besides Branagh) Washington, Emma Thompson, and Kate Beckinsale.

That, I think, was the moment of my conversion from Shakespeare-hater to Shakespeare-lover. Certainly I was ready to enjoy the course in early Shakespeare that I took in my next term at school. Good thing, too, because the laconic pace of study in high school could hardly have prepared me for a Shakespeare a week for ten freakin' weeks! But at least most of it was new to me: A Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and that magnificent bastard Richard III, to name a few.

But Shakespeare was a playwright, and the best way to appreciate his work is in performance. I've seen Shakespeare performed on stage a few times, but my medium of choice is film. My favourite movie of one of Shakespeare's plays is Kenneth Branagh's 1996 magnum opus, Hamlet. I'm watching it as I write this. The Bard's longest work is rarely performed in its entirety; this film, clocking in at over four hours, is a rare exception. It features a cast of stars: Branagh in the starring role, Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Julie Christie as Gertrude. Kate Winslet also keeps her clothes on long enough to play Ophelia. Set in the 19th century and filmed on 70mm film like an old epic, Hamlet is absolutely gorgeous to watch: almost a perfect film. It's a crime that it took over a decade for a DVD to be available. A close runner-up is Ian McKellen's 1995 Fascist-inspired interpretation of Richard III, set in the 1930s (rather anachronistically, but who cares?) and climaxing in the Battle of Bosworth Field, relocated to the ruins of the Battersea Power Station.

In 1997, I tried to read the entire Shakespeare canon at the rate of one a week: alternating comedy, tragedy, and history. I think I did fairly well: about a dozen before I moved on to something else. It's been 12 years, and it is high time to try that trick again.

In the meantime, though, I've still got another three hours of Branagh to get through before the library wants their DVD back.