Bechdellian Shakespeare

This Thursday!

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Readers
Steve Burch
Mark Hughes Cobb
Alanna Fagan
Erin Hildebrand
Mark Hulse
Annie Levy
Bert McLelland
Courtney Parker
Deborah Parker
Mary B. Prondzinski
Will Ramsay
Sarah Scarr
Exa Skinner
Matt Smith
Elizabeth Thiel

Directors
Steve Burch
Mark Hughes Cobb
MK Foster
Nic Helms
Courtney Parker
Deborah Parker

Respondents
Prof. Michelle Dowd, Hudson Strode Program
Zoё Winston, Women and Gender Resource Center

The Bechdel-Wallace test, created in 1985, applies three simple criteria to fictional works:

  1. Does the story have two named female characters
  2. who have a conversation together
  3. about something other than a man?

The test can begin to tell us whether or not women have active roles in that fictional world.

Shakespeare’s plays seldom pass this test. After all, he wrote plays during the English Renaissance, a time when women were forbidden to act. That meant that boys and young men would dress as women to play the women’s roles. Perhaps Shakespeare couldn’t create many female characters because he couldn’t find enough skilled actors to play the parts.

Even so, today we’re left with a body of Shakespeare’s works where women have far fewer voices than men. Can those voices still speak for women’s experiences over four hundred years after they were written? And how can we, as actors, audiences, and readers, make sure that the Cleopatras, Desdemonas, and Margarets are not drowned out by the Octavians, Othellos, and Richards?

Scene and Soliloquy Summaries

Please note, while tonight’s scenes stage only one moment of physical violence — Cleopatra’s suicide — they do contain verbal abuse, descriptions of rape, and accounts of murder and trauma. Shakespeare’s stories depict a wide range of women’s experiences in the Renaissance, and much of that involves violence in all its forms.

Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1

Portia and Nerissa are kicking back, having a cool beverage — metaphorically —  after having gone through elaborate disguise, trickery and insightful wit to bring justice, or perhaps mercy, its kinder cousin, to Venice. Though a good bit of what comes before and after in Merchant is about love and bonds, at this point the friends take a moment to notice the little things, to feel how context can clarify or obscure, and revel in the feeling of grateful relief that comes at the completion of an arduous task. Bonus: Listen for a line Willy Wonka paraphrased.

Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1

In this stellar, much-quoted monologue from a show rich with those, Portia, in disguise as a male legal scholar, has found her strength in being able to speak from behind a mask. It’s not that being in drag made her stronger, but that being a male in the 16th century meant being freer to speak truth to power. Here she connects god to duke to Shylock, to establish the lines that can connect them all. She’s giving Shylock an out, a chance to back off his demand for a pound of flesh, before lowering the justice boom on him.

As You Like It, Act III, Scene 5

Shakespeare predicted “Oh no she di-ent!” 400 years ago, and one of his sharpest-tongued practitioners is Rosalind, with a fire and wit like Beatrice’s, brought out when in guise as Ganymede. Here she’s met with the rustic Phebe, who is being pursued by the equally sheepish Silvio, who longs for Phebe, who has instead cast her eyes on this new dude Ganymede. Where Viola, being lusted after as Cesario, pushes Olivia to reconsider the worthiness of her suitor Orsino, the rougher Rosalind rebukes Phebe, urging her to settle for Silvio.

Richard III, Act 4, Scene 4

Old Queen Margaret, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth lament the deaths of husbands, brothers, and sons from the hand of newly crowned King Richard and Elizabeth learns to her horror Richard’s next victim in her family is to be her daughter. While these women all have names and have lengthy scenes and talk about power and survival, the fact is they all focus on the King and his evil plans. Bechdellian? Perhaps.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2

This is the final scene of Antony and Cleopatra. They have been defeated by a very young Octavian. Antony has already killed himself, and in this scene Cleopatra meticulously stages her own suicide. It is important to keep in mind this is still the Roman Republic – Octavian is not yet the Emperor Augustus. The only royalty in the play is Cleopatra. What is interesting about this final scene is the contrast between Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, in her dealings with Octavian and what is revealed when she speaks about Antony.

Othello, Act IV, Scene 3

Just before this scene, the jealous Othello has made his decision to murder his wife Desdemona, suspecting her of infidelity. Desdemona has intuitions about her coming death, and she and her maid Emilia discuss Othello’s erratic, abusive behavior and the unequal standards society places on men and women’s sexuality. While this scene clearly fails the third step of the Bechdel-Wallace test (the conversation must be about something other than a man), what we see here are two close friends struggling to navigate a world perilous to women.

Titus Andronicus, Act II, Scenes 3-4

Tamora, conquered Queen of the Goths, and Lavinia, her archenemy’s daughter, meet in an isolated and dark forest.  While her sons look on, Tamora seeks revenge on Lavinia’s family for the humiliation she suffered at the hand of Lavinia’s father, Titus Andronicus.  Ultimately, Tamora’s sons enact her revenge by raping and mutilating Lavinia.  While no physical violence occurs onstage in our scene, the language is some of the most graphically violent in Shakespeare’s works. Two named women engage in a power struggle using the weapons they know best: unadulterated violence and womanly virtue.  While the topic of their conversation is not a man, men’s actions have propelled them toward this life-or-death moment of confrontation.  Men weave through the action of this scene silently and seamlessly – does it pass the test?

Shakesfilm: Richard Burton’s 1964 *Hamlet*

On Monday, August 22nd, at Tuscaloosa’s Bama Theatre, the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies presents Richard Burton’s 1964 *Hamlet,* the first film in our Shakespeare in Film Series for 2016-17. Film starts at 7:30pm, and the concession stand will be open.Free and open to the public!

For more information about the film, visit:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Burton%27s_Hamlet

For information on upcoming films, visit:
http://english.ua.edu/grad/strode/films

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This is actually Burton playing Hamlet in 1953, but the photo was too good to pass up. See: http://arenapal.blogspot.com/2014/07/richard-burton-more-rare-images-revealed.html

Love’s Labour’s Lost, next week!

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Back for its 14th season, Tuscaloosa’s The Rude Mechanicals will present Shakespeare’s comedy “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” 8 p.m. each night, June 1-4, in The Park at Manderson Landing; in case of rain, the show will move indoors to the Allen Bales Theatre, Rowand-Johnson Hall on the UA campus.

Free admission. Live pre-show music begins at 7:30 p.m.

Patrons should bring blankets, chairs or other seating material. For more, call 348-0343.

The Facebook Event

Lucky Number Seven

It’s hard to believe the life that Improbable Fictions has had thus far: twenty five separate staged readings since 2010, covering Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Euripides, Elizabeth Cary, and Terry Pratchett, readings that have drawn on actors and audience members from the University of Alabama and the community of Tuscaloosa. It’s my pleasure today to announce a few details about the seventh season of IF. (Wait a moment, I’m quickly checking my math…yes, SEVENTH SEASON).

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Wednesday, October 7th, 2015, 7:30pm at the Tuscaloosa Cultural Arts Center (here) IF will present Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, adapted by Alaina Jobe Pangburn and myself back in 2010. You can find the script here (Helms.Jobe.Twelfth Night Script, Aug 2015), and if you’re interested in participating you can reach me at nrhelms@ua.edu. Hopefully this time around I’ll just be directing and won’t have to play Orsino as well!

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015, also at the CAC at 7:30pm, IF will present Shakes’ Hamlet, adapted and directed by Jacob Crawford, whom you can reach at jcrawford1@crimson.ua.edu.

We’re also working on a reading of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine in December and a possible performance at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in October. Details will be announced when I have them!

~nrhelms

Strode presents Love’s Labour’s Lost

The Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies presents its final film of the 2014-15 Shakespeare Film Series, Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 Love’s Labour’s Lost. Free and open to the public.

The Facebook Event

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Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare

The King of Navarre and his three attendant lords make a pact to forswear women for three years so that they can steep themselves in academic pursuits. Almost immediately, the Princess of France arrives on a mission from her father, accompanied (of course) by three attendant ladies. We all know where this is going. Each man falls in love with a different woman but keeps his love a secret, until a scene when each man, thinking he’s alone, confesses his love by reading a sonnet out loud. Realizing what has happened, the men break their vows and agree to pursue their women, who do not allow themselves to be won so easily. Love’s Labour’s Lost contains many of the tropes of Shakespearean comedy: wooing lovers, mixed-up letters, bawdy puns, secondary characters who serve as foils and comic relief, and the promise of marriage. More than that, it is a play about language, containing more rhymed verses and new words than any other play in Shakespeare’s canon. It plays with poetic form and delights in linguistic excess while also mocking characters like the Spanish Don Armado, whose attempts at verbal brilliance fail miserably and hilariously. The play’s ending differs from other comedies by moving toward marriage but suspending it after news arrives that the King of France has died. The couples will separate for a year, as the women return to France and force the men to renew their vows of chastity. What happens next remains unknown: records survive of a Shakespeare play called Love’s Labour’s Won, but it has never been found.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Kenneth Branagh (2000)

British actor-director Kenneth Branagh is generally credited with ushering in a new era of Shakespeare films in the 1990s. Beginning with 1989’s Henry V, Branagh envisioned himself as the Laurence Olivier of the modern era, but with a twist. Branagh became famous for his casting of both notable British stage and film actors (including himself, Emma Thomson, Adrian Lester, and Richard Briers) and Hollywood actors (including Robin Williams, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Alicia Silverstone, and Matthew Lillard), and his films strive to popularize Shakespeare’s plays for contemporary audiences. His Much Ado About Nothing (1993) earned critical and commercial success, while his “uncut” four-hour Hamlet (1996) was a star-studded tour de force. With Love’s Labour’s Lost, Branagh took a risk. How would he translate Shakespeare’s play about language and wordplay to the screen, when the play itself was rarely performed on stage before the mid-twentieth century and is one of Shakespeare’s least well known? The answer is a 1930s-era musical comedy that includes music by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter and showy song and dance numbers by its non-musical theater stars, with the exception of Nathan Lane, whose Costard reminds everyone that “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Critics and audiences were generally unimpressed and the film failed at the box office, but there is much to delight in here. Sure, the film is cheesy and imperfect, the musical numbers aren’t perfectly polished, and only about a third of Shakespeare’s words survive, but the film’s use of song and dance and the sheer absurdity of many scenes remind us of the joy and wordplay highlighted by the play. Beneath the razzle-dazzle, Branagh keeps the dark undercurrent of Shakespeare’s play with newsreels of European conflict and an ending that reminds viewers that loss is a part of life and that love must sometimes wait.

~Dr. Natalie Loper

Hamlet tonight!

We’ve had some good press recently for tonight’s performance of Hamlet. Check out the articles in The Crimson White and The Tuscaloosa News. You don’t want to miss the show! Remember, it’s free and open to the public, and seats are available on a first come first seated basis. There will be a merchandise table in the lobby selling large programs.

Join us!

Revised Hamlet Poster March 1 8.5x11

Dec 16th’s Shakesfilm: To Be or Not To Be

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This year the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies begins a Shakespeare on Film series at the Bama Theatre in downtown Tuscaloosa. All films are free and open to the public. We’ve scheduled a range of films, some you’ve no doubt seen and loved, others you’ve not. Next up is To Be or Not to Be, a serious comedy starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, shot during World War II. Please enjoy for the first time or again! And please let your students know about this series!!!

Here is the remaining line-up:

* December 16, 2014: Strode Film Series – To Be Or Not to Be
* January 19, 2015: Strode Film Series – West Side Story
* February 16, 2015: Strode Film Series – Deliver Us From Eva
* March 11, 2015: Strode Film Series – Forbidden Planet
* April 27, 2015: Strode Film Series – Love’s Labour’s Lost

All films start at 7:30pm, and are free and open to the public.

Brett Chatham’s program notes for this film are included below.

Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Any discussion of To Be or Not to Be must consider the comedy within its historical context. The film began production in the fall of 1941, wrapped a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and began showing in theaters in the spring of 1942. The official position of the United States had changed dramatically since the film’s conception, but Lubitsch and his cast and crew defended their work. Contemporary critics, however, were quite offended—and understandably so. The film made light of a most serious threat; in the thick of World War II, American audiences were hardly ready to laugh at any zany Nazis. Even several generations removed, we may still find some of the films famous lines in bad taste. For example, a recurring gag—“So, they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt?!”—seems especially uneasy in light of what we now know of the Holocaust’s horrors. (At the time, the Allies knew almost nothing of Hitler’s death camps.) Yet we laugh at the speakers’ uneasiness rather than our own; both the real and the fake Colonel Ehrhardts carry on conversations worse than they carry out orders. Similarly, the line that most offended audiences then—“What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland”—was only meant to deflate “that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura.” Lubitsch certainly understood the implications of such provocative jokes but contended he never meant to dismiss or minimize the Nazi invasion of Poland: “What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology.” The film encourages us to be ever vigilant against man’s capacity for evil but careful not to give such “ridiculous” ideas too much credibility in themselves. When we retreat from ridiculing our enemies, we empower them. As a Jewish German-American émigré, Lubitsch had a more personal connection than most to the events unfolding in Europe, but he understood the war effort required fighting off the field as well on. And he could give the enemy quite a beating with his vaudevillian shtick.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (~1600) and The Merchant of Venice (~1597)

To Be or Not to Be takes its title from the best-known soliloquy in Shakespeare. Indeed, that first line is so associated with its author that its very utterance elicits more thought of theatricality than mortality. Here, as he contemplates being and nothingness, Hamlet appears to be thinking aloud to himself, but privy to those thoughts are King Claudius and his counselor Polonius, both hiding onstage. The audience knows this, and perhaps the Prince does as well. Hamlet seems ever aware of his role as an actor—at the Danish court and even, self-referentially, on the English stage. As such, “To be or not to be” explores not only existence but artifice, appearance, acting. Shakespeare wrote several plays about his art, particularly concerned with how the theater both reflects and affects life. (Consider Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, the aptly named The Mousetrap, in which the Prince hopes to catch the King’s conscience by staging the King’s crime.) Hamlet must act to save his own life, avenge his father’s, and end his usurping uncle’s, but he is much better suited to soliloquizing. To Be or Not to Be features actors who transform the European theater of World War II into an improvisational black farce, impersonating Nazis to save the Polish underground. In the film, the titular speech signals romantic rendezvous, arranged by a star actress while her “Hamlet” husband is occupied onstage, but another Shakespearean monologue, delivered on three separate occasions by a mere “spear-carrier,” actually plays a more prominent part in the plot: Shylock’s so-called Rialto speech—“Hath not a Jew eyes?”—from The Merchant of Venice. This more poignant speech signals changes in how the Polish actors view their relationships to one another and to their foreign occupiers. The troupe must identify with the enemy well enough to fool them. Merchant examines similar tensions of identification. Though Merchant is much less about theatricality than Hamlet, the earlier play’s themes still resonate strongly in the film, pointedly so considering the anti-Semitism of both settings, places hostile to their displaced populace. Ultimately, the question becomes whether to belong or not to belong.

10 Things I Love About This Film

Here’s what Dr. Natalie Loper had to say about 10 Things I Hate About You, the first film in the Strode series this fall.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

10 Things I Hate About You is an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, which is one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies and remains one of his most popular. This popularity troubles many people, fearful that the play’s treatment of women is inappropriate in the 21st century. They do have a point, since the play participates in a long tradition of anti-feminist literature, including folk tales, ballads, and puppet shows in which unruly women are bullied, humiliated, and even beaten into submission. In Shakespeare’s England, women who did not conform to social norms—who scolded their husbands, disobeyed their fathers, or were a nuisance to their neighbors—could be forced to wear a metal bridle with a bit between their teeth, pulled through town on the back of a horse-drawn cart, or strapped to a “cucking stool” and dunked in a river until they agreed to be quiet. Church homilies and English laws upheld the rights of husbands to govern their wives. Pamphlets advised husbands on how to tame their wives, often using methods used to tame hawks for hunting, and Shrew shows Petruchio using them, too. Shakespeare’s Kate is described as a shrew and a scold; she flies into rages, hits people, and throws things. Only one man, Petruchio of Padua, is up to the challenge of marrying her, and by the end of the play, Kate seems to have been reformed; she submits to her husband’s will and advises other women to do the same. Her sister, Bianca, changes, too. At the beginning of the play, she is the model woman: quiet and submissive, she publicly defers to her father’s authority. Privately, however, she slyly manipulates her three suitors and her father in order to marry the man she desires. Is Shakespeare using popular stereotypes about women to entertain people, to reinforce social norms, or to critique a misogynistic culture? The debate has yet to be decided.

10 Things I Hate About You, directed by Gil Junger (1999)

10 Things I Hate About You stars Julia Stiles as Kat Stratford, an unruly teenager who would rather read Sylvia Plath and listen to Riot Grrrl music than attend what she calls “antiquated mating ritual[s]” such as keg parties and her high school’s prom. This causes a problem for her younger sister Bianca (played by Larisa Oleynik), who wants to be popular and date popular boys. The problem? Their father has decreed that Bianca can’t date unless Kat does. Luckily, Bianca has two suitors who scheme to get around this rule: nerdy new kid Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) provides the brains, while pretty-boy Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan) provides the money. Their goal is to convince the mysterious and scary Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to date Kat. The results of this scheme have divided critics nearly as much as Shakespeare’s play has. Some people applaud the film for how it updates Shakespeare’s play: Kat’s reputation as a shrew stems from her feminist ideals, and the film is seen as a journey of self-discovery rather than a forced submission to social norms. Others think the film offers a restrictive view of feminism and claim that Kat’s transformation is no less disturbing than Kate’s because it perpetuates gender stereotypes and upholds the status quo. Even so, the film remains a popular 1990s teen film, and it contains many elements of the genre: distinct high school cliques, adults whose authority is questionable but nonetheless maintained, and teens who struggle to balance competing desires for autonomy, acceptance, and approval from their peers, parents, and teachers.

~Dr. Natalie Loper