Swans Commentary » swans.com September 26, 2011  



Shakespearean Scraps


by Charles Marowitz




(Swans - September 26, 2011)   I despise Hamlet.

He is a fake.

A talker, an analyzer, a rationalizer.

Like the parlor liberal or armchair intellectual, he can describe every facet of every problem, yet never pull his finger out to deal with them.

Is Hamlet a coward, as he himself suggests, or simply a poseur, a frustrated actor who plays the scholar, the courtier and the soldier as an actor (a very bad actor) assumes a variety of roles to which he is not naturally suited.

And why does he keep saying everything twice?

And how can someone talk so pretty in such a rotten country given the sort of work he's got cut out for himself?

You may think he is sensitive, well spoken and erudite fellow, but frankly, he gives me a pain in the arse.


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Whenever I hear that a director is going to "do Shakespeare straight," "without any frills," and "in strict accordance with the text," I know I will shortly fall into a comatose state.


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The Merry Wives of Windsor proves conclusively that when a playwright is handed a commission rather than being allowed to follow his own bent, even as great an artist as Shakespeare can produce drivel. Confronted with a piece of prefabricated claptrap such as Merry Wives, it is almost incumbent upon a director to use the material as a springboard into an original and unrelated piece of art. The best Merry Wives I've ever seen has always been those that thoroughly deracinated the original. The worst, those that foolishly believed there was some inviolable connection between Falstaff and the Henries that spawned him.


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When I asked the pupil who claimed to have an irrepressible zeal for the Bard what her two favorite Shakespearean plays were, she answered Romeo and Juliet.


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The ideal production of The Comedy of Errors would be played by a cast which included Bert Lahr, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Leon Errol, Martha Ray, Cass Dailey, Fannie Brice, Margaret Dumont, Willie Howard, Joe Penner, Ed Wynn, W.C. Fields, Webber & Fields, Olson and Johnson, Abbott & Costello, and the Marx Brothers. Abandoning all pretense at verse-playing and consistent characterization, it would take place on a vaudeville stage with a runway down the front and incorporate every pun, sight-gag, and comic shtick developed over a half century on the Klaw & Erlinager circuit. The play is Shakespeare's equivalent of Molière's Doctor in Spite of Himself, which is also an extended blackout-sketch and clamors to be played in that low comic style which, when essayed by outsized comedians often rake in the highest rewards. Plodding relentlessly through the minutiae of all those mistaken identity shenanigans is a bardolotrous waste of time. Shakespeare knew a good vaudeville show when he saw one, but we, alas, almost never get to see the show that Shakespeare conceived.


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Open Letter To Horatio:

Dear Horatio:

I know the world esteems you a "good friend," but in my opinion you are a rotter. A good friend doesn't let his good friend continually delude himself. A good friends says: you've got everything going for you and if you kill the king and wrest control, everyone will support you, but if you continue to indulge in amateur theatricals and walk around with your head up your arse, you will lose what small dignity you still possess.

You are the most obnoxious Yes Man in the Shakespearean canon. I suspect that at base, you are a careerist. If your loquacious aristocrat school-mate ever gains control of Denmark, your future is assured. (No doubt, you have your eye on the Ministry of Education.) It isn't until the play's final moments that you realize that you've been backing the wrong horse, and I wonder to what extent your passionate wails for the dying prince are a grandstand play to become the new ruler. I loathe your muttering obsequiousness, your "Aye, my lord" and "No, my lord" and "Is't possible, my lord?"

It is no wonder Hamlet thinks so highly of you. You possess the very same fault that cripples him: the inability to permit conviction to give birth to action. You lack the moral gumption that makes a man forsake fruitless intellectual roundabouting for the sharp, straight path of direct action. To say that your "blood and judgment are so well co-mingled that they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger to sound what stop she please" is only another way of saying there is no impulse no matter how demanding that you would not be able to rationalize its reversal and abandonment. Not being "Passion's slave" is one thing, but being so devoid of passion that every rapier-thrust is converted into a pin-prick is just elaborate hypocrisy. It is a fancy way of saying the mind is so much the master of the heart that nothing can be truly felt that is not first truly understood, and since honor is more a matter of the heart than the mind, this is just an exercise for evasion and cowardice.

Lord Hamlet loves you for those very qualities which prove his undoing. Like you, he is "one that suffers all yet suffers nothing" since sufferance that doesn't lead to remedy is suffering nothing. Like you, "he takes Fortune's buffets and rewards with equal thanks." - Fortune deprives him of a kingdom: he makes no move to recover it. Fortune has besmirched the memory of his father and, amidst much breast-beating and verbosity, he accepts the new dispensation. Fortune sends him to England, he goes. Fortune wafts him back, he returns. Fortune has him killed in a duel, and he "defies augury" by walking straight into the trap.

If the old adage is true and one can read people by looking at their friends, then you are an accurate gauge of Hamlet's inadequacies. I have excised you from my adaptation of Hamlet since you simply hang around like an insufferable feed, wasting pedantry on soldiers who couldn't give a damn and making false bravura gestures like drinking from a poisoned goblet that's already been emptied. I hope you will not take this personally, but the fact is that until further notice, your services will no longer be required.


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One of Jacob Adler's greatest successes on the Yiddish stage was The Yiddish King Lear, a Russian-Hebrew version of Shakespeare's family melodrama. An arrogant father cruelly betrayed by his finagling daughters, two of which bring him no-goodnick sons-in-law and the third who refuses to display that show of affection which all Jewish fathers jealously demand of their youngest. The great macher, after immense affluence, is reduced, in Adler's version, to a quavering blind beggar. -- You can call this a despicable piece of shund but, as with so many extrapolations from the canon, the centrifugal soap opera plot is to be found smack-dab in the middle of Shakespeare's epic tragedy. -- Filial ingratitude, domestic squabbles, scheming in-laws, smart arse schlemiels offering their masters pithy advice, altah-cocker seniors having their eyes gouged out, majesty to penury, riches to rags: how could any Jewish audience resist it?


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What we look for in Shakespeare is order, whatever the disonances, we expect them to end in harmony. We collude with Shakespeare in believing that, conflicts and crisis not withstanding, God is in his Heaven and all's right with the world. But if this is what we actually got, Shakespeare would be as negligible as Sir Richard Steele, George Lillo, or any of the other sentimentalists of the late eighteenth century. No, what creates our kinship with Shakespeare is that, in a context in which Order is implied and advertised, we experience chaos and nihilism. It is the grim Beckettian refusal to be hoodwinked by the gloss of life which lies at the heart of Shakespeare. It is that perception that connects up with our own cynicism, our own angst and our own sense of ineluctable tragedy that keeps him alive for us.


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I am reliably informed that the two books one finds in almost every American household are the Bible and the collected works of William Shakespeare. If the theory that King James the First hired Shakespeare to help translate the King James Version is true then Shakespeare could well be the author of both.


"Shakespearean Scraps" is an excerpt from a collection of essays and conversations between Marowitz and the critic Jan Kott as published in Roar of the Canon: Kott and Marowitz On Shakespeare, published by Applause Books & The Hal Leonard Corporation.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 26, 2011