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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Coriolanus by NT 2014

The video of the National Theatre's version of Coriolanus, directed by Josie Rourke and starring Tom Hiddleston, was the third version of this play I have seen in the past few years. The previous two versions were a movie version directed and starred Ralph Fiennes and STC's production directed by Michael Kahn. Funny how suddenly this play has captured people's interest right around now. I think it's the politics and predict that we shall see a few more productions to emerge of Julius Caesar. These two plays should be staged back to back for anyone interested in politics and, amazingly, remain relevant today.

Also funny that the version I like the most is the STC one rather than the British versions. Hiddleston is just too young to fit the role, no matter how hard he works, and the key turn in the character at the end was not good or convincing, at least in the version that was filmed. The Fiennes version was pretty impressive and had the best Volumnia by Vanessa Redgrave, but the politics sort of confused me --- maybe that was my own fault.

I wonder if, in early 1600, the audience was a lot more predominantly in favor of the militant and dictatorial Coriolanus than people today, especially Americans. The people of 1600 England had never been taught the sacred "democracy" in school. Modern audience are probably a lot more uneasy about the heroic Coriolanus, given how his macho and combative stance contradicts today's social values. But there are many curious contradictions in the play, from femininity dousing masculinity to democracy tempering violent dominance. I wonder if men instinctively side with Coriolanus in his struggle against both democracy and his mother. "Damn women! Damn parliament!" But today's male viewers would probably too polite to say it. By this parallel, Shakespeare seems to make a comparison between democracy and femininity.

Side note: I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by Mark Gatiss playing Menenius. Beautiful timing and shifts in tone.

Coriolanus 2011 (Fiennes)

Coriolanus 2014 (Hiddleston)

Friday, May 23, 2014

GRRM and Shakespeare, Part 4: Iago the Littlefinger

Sometimes I wonder whether the villainy is beside the point. For both Iago and Petyr Baelish, the art of manipulation is the true source of pleasure.

Not very many writers have attempted to reproduce Iago. In the last case of Hercule Poirot ("Curtain"), Agatha Christie made an effort, but the Iago she created, a man whose name I had forgotten and had to look up on wikipedia (it's Norton), left very little impression. His techniques might be described artfully, but the character itself was faceless next to the vicious and mesmerizing Iago. Although not a complete success, Christie ably distilled the genius of Iago --- he extracts his revenge without lifting a finger. He pulls the strings, and others gladly obey without feeling the tug.

As far as I have seen, no character has come as close to Iago as Petyr Baelish, a smallish but rather charming middle-aged man from a barren and dreadful piece of land no one, not even himself, wants. He inspires a sense of awe in us, mixed with horror, revulsion, and a bit of pity, just like Iago. (Iago only wanted a job promotion, damn it.) 

If we were to believe one of the later interpretations of Iago's motive, ie, he is in love with Othello and could not bear to watch Othello love Desdemona, then Petyr Baelish follows a perfect symmetry in A Game of Thrones, Book 1 of the series. Perhaps his revenge is not as perfect as Iago's, because he has not been able to make his love, Catelyn Tully, hate her husband Ned Stark. Nevertheless he is able to smoothly get rid of the pesky romantic rival. I have no doubt that if only the events occurred in a different way --- after all, Baelish couldn't control the progress of the war or Lord Tywin's Campaign of Letters (a term invented by me) --- he would have tried to reunite with his Cat some day soon. 

The awe inspired by both Iago and Baelish is their invisibility, how they move events forward through other people's VOLUNTARY behavior. Their nudges are so subtle as to be undetectable. They plant ideas into someone's head and make him believe the idea to be his own. Iago is no Richard III. He does not need to dirty his own little hands.

A key piece in this art is, as GRRM correctly noted, the lack of apparent motive. Shakespeare stumbled slightly on this one. Iago's motive is indeed pretty weak: My boss has blocked my career success and hurt my feelings, so I have him murder his wife in revenge. Hmm, that's a bit ... mad, especially because career and romance are so not in the same line of thoughts. (OK Iago does try to implicate his professional rival in the process, but the disproportion is still pretty big. What's Desdemona ever done to him?) No wonder Othello never suspected his lies about Desdemona. No wonder a theory of romantic rivalry was concocted to make more sense of Iago's motive.

Norton's motive is nonexistence, although it turns out that motiveless manipulation to inflict pain on others is in fact a real phenomenon among psychopaths.

Petyr Baelish is more successful in this aspect. In some creepy uncomfortable way we can empathize with the rage of the 15-year-old boy, lying there bleeding and watching the girl of his dreams walk away arm in arm with her handsome, tall, and strong fiance from a prominent family. The rage that has never been soothed or released, and has been festering into a gasping black hole in the place where his heart used to be. "I will never let this happen to me again."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

People Who Comment Without Reading

Recently I vented a bit about the cesspool of online comments. Today I saw a commentary on NPR's Web site about people who furiously pass along and madly debate and flame an article without reading it first ("How to Tell Who Hasn't Read the New 'Atlantic' Cover Story by Gene Demby). It is both sad and hilarious.

Normally I would lump it in the category that people don't read such a story because of the fear and shame and anger at the merest mention of the ultimate American Scar (or a wound that continues to fester?), ie, slavery and racism. Unfortunately, it is not just slavery and racism that get furiously and nonsensically debated without thought or reading. Nowadays it is nearly everything. It seems that the majority of online commenters comment just to fill up a void in their own mental and emotional space. The majority of comments have nothing to do with what the commented article says or related issues. Commenting is just a distraction to forget about a widening black hole of loneliness.

What is more lonely than talking right past each other on and on, never once locking eyes or hearing each other?

Friday, May 16, 2014

GRRM and Shakespeare, Part 3: Knight's Honour

(Note: Must spell it with a "u" to find it in the Shakespearean text.)

Jaime Lannister knows all about the downfall of this "honor" business. It didn't suit his personal code --- to keep his oath and obey King Aerys was to let the city burn to the ground and kill his father; to protect the weak (or at least not murder an 8-year-old boy) is to let his whole family get their heads lopped off. But he tried sometimes to varying degree of success.

Sandor Clegane knows a thing or two about knight's code. "I like dogs better than knights." and "Knights are for killing... Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold. Let them have their sers." His lines (from the novels) are the angriest rebuke to the hypocrisy of the medieval concept of chivalry expressed.

I searched my memory for any representation of medieval chivalry in Shakespeare's plays but basically failed. Perhaps our modern notion of chivalry is more derived from the nineteenth century Romantic poets (mostly English), starting with Walter Scott, than from the actual medieval reality and ideas. Even the "heroes" in Shakespeare's historical plays are of dubious moral code, and the men almost NEVER rescued or protected any women. On the contrary, plenty of Shakespearean women rescued themselves and their men and more. It's perhaps surprising how little the "mainstream" values and traditions made it into the plays.

Anyway, when I heard the following lines uttered by Sir Jack Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1, I laughed --

Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no; or
an arm? no; or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

What is honour? A WORD! Doesn't that blow you away?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

GRRM and Shakespeare, Part 2: An Ungrateful Public

I was going for family problems, but considering the timing of episode 406 of the TV series, I thought I'd throw this one in.

Late in A Storm of Swords, Tyrion Lannister went on trial for the murder of King Joffrey, his nephew, which is indisputably inspired by the homicidal Richard III in Shakespeare's eponymous play. During the trial, Tyrion declared bitterly to the ungrateful people of King's Landing that he wished he had let their enemy sacked the city, rather than risking his neck to save it, only to be publicly humiliated and condemned for a crime he had not commit.

Subsequently, Tyrion fled King's Landing and sought to join his family's enemy, Queen Daenerys Targaryen, in the east. The last we heard (in leaked chapters from Book 6, The Winds of Winter), he at least made it into the Second Sons mercenary army who apparently were loyal to Daenerys.

An immediate comparison can be made to Coriolanus. In that play, Roman General Caius Marcius Coriolanus defeated Rome's enemy with unspeakable bravery and brutality. Upon his return, the people of Rome first embraced him as a hero, but then quickly turned on him in his political campaign to win a seat in the senate. Already of misanthropic tendencies, Coriolanus raged against the ungrateful Romans. He was banished from Rome and found refuge among his former enemies. He led them to attack Rome. The desperate Roman leadership came to regret their treatment of Coriolanus and sent his mother and wife to beg him for peace. Coriolanus was persuaded by his mother and forced his former enemy/now ally to abandon their plans to conquer Rome. Rome was saved. Coriolanus was killed for his betrayal.

Obviously, Tyrion Lannister and Coriolanus are the opposite in physical stature, strength, and warrior quality. Nevertheless both saved their cities heroically and were banished by the people they had saved. Both were embittered by this betrayal and returned the favor with their own betrayal. There are so many rounds of betrayal I can hardly keep track.

A similar theme is conveyed in Timon of Athens, which I have not seen or read beyond a synopsis. The misanthropic bitterness over people's ingratitude is the same.

Monday, May 12, 2014

GRRM and Shakespeare, Part 1: Prophecies

Inspired by the illuminating History Behind Game of Thrones blog, I thought I'd jot down some notes about Shakespearean references in A Song of Ice and Fire series.

1. Prophecies.

The ASOIAF series have made extensive uses of prophecies and riddles to hint at future events, but with enough opacity to prevent readers to uncover their meaning. Several characters have been involved in this fortune-telling business, including Prince Rhaegar, Bran Stark, Patchface, Melisandre, Mirri Maz Duur, Quaithe, the Undying Ones, Grand Maester Marwyn, the maegi in Cersei's childhood ... GRRM makes the point over and over that prophecies are unreliable and unknowable until the events predicted actually occur. So far he's told some extremely intricate and uninterpretable ones that have or have not unfolded.

There is no doubt GRRM has adapted elements of "Richard III" into his series. The play weaves layers of intricate curses. The most prominent one is of course Queen Margaret, who is so good at cursing her enemies that at one point Queen Elizabeth Woodville asked her to teach her how to curse more effectively. But it doesn't end there. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, told his brother, King Edward IV, that he will be killed by someone with the name starting with G. Edward believes it to be his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and therefore drowns him in a tub of wine, forgetting that Gloucester also starts with G.

Prophecies and riddles play an even larger role in Macbeth. We got three witches to deliver them. The witches' predictions not only lay out the story but directly drive characters' behavior that cause the predictions to come true. This approach is what GRRM has taken with Melisandre's visions, in which she not only predicts but act upon the realization of her predictions. 

Of course, curses and prophecies are a common device in theater since the days of ancient Greek plays, with the most famous example being Oedipus Rex. Nevertheless the whiff of Shakespeare is unmistakable. 

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