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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: Shakespeare

Doctor Who in Denmark? David Tennant’s Hamlet

When I was a graduate student, I always had far too much to do in the time, and with the energy, available to me. Yet, since I was a “re-constructed” graduate student (i.e., returned to graduate school after a gap of many years, and eager to put as much into, and to wring as much out of, the experience as humanly possible), I was constantly seeking ways not only to read what needed to be read for class, but also to reflect upon what I had read, so that I could learn from it. Toward the end of my coursework, I took a class on Shakespeare’s history plays, which met (I believe) once a week, in the evening. (I think we covered a play a week.) Many of these plays I had never read before, nor seen performed, so I got into the habit of going to the library one afternoon each week to watch a video of the play assigned for the next class. Fortunately, the University of Dallas’s library possessed the complete collection of the BBC’s televised performances of all of Shakespeare’s plays, so I was able to see well-staged performances with fine, professional actors, who spoke clearly enough for me to follow along in the printed text of the play; watching videos instead of live performances also allowed me to run the tape back to take a closer look at important scenes.

I mention this, first, because it is a useful practice that I can recommend — it helps to connect the fine poetry of Shakespeare’s language with the lively action of a performance and thus to cement the two permanently in the memory, in a way that just reading or just watching (or reading, then watching, or vice versa) does not. (But, of course, nothing can substitute for experiencing a live performance — a good production can light up the play from within in a way that not even the best video-recorded performance can do.) The other reason I bring it up is that I recently decided to re-read Hamlet in light of Chapter 1 of The Wreck of Western Culture (previously mentioned), and thought it would be a good idea to watch a performance of it, preferably one I had not seen before.

David Tennant as Doctor Who
David Tennant as Doctor Who
(with Billie Piper as Rose Tyler)

Given the attention to the play’s textual history that appears in the Oxford World’s Classics edition I’m planning to read, I briefly considered watching the Kenneth Branagh version, which is “unabridged” (not sure if that means it follows the Second Quarto edition) and was critically well-received. But, to tell the truth, I was a bit put off by the fact that Branagh himself plays Hamlet (in bleached blond hair) and by the film’s the extreme length. Happily, I had recently heard that David Tennant had recently done a televised production of Hamlet with the Patrick Stewart and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I found that it was available for download via Graboid. I’ve long thought (well, at least since I got to knowTennant in the role of the good Doctor) that he is a very talented actor (by far, my favorite Doctor Who), so I was interested in seeing him in a dramatic role. Well, what can be more dramatic than Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy?

Rather than write a review of the televised production, I’d like to discuss to what extent, and in what way, the performance enhanced my understanding or appreciation of the text. And, let’s face it, Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps more than those of any other playwright (in English, at any rate) constantly run the risk of being thought of simply as texts — that is, literature — rather than as performed entertainment. This is one of the reasons I always jump at the chance to see a (preferably live) performance, particularly if the play is one seldom performed. A couple of years ago, for instance, I saw my first performance of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline in Chicago, and it completely changed my assessment of the play. It made me see humor and life where there had seemed to be only a kind of dull obscurity.

David Tennant as Hamlet
David Tennant as Hamlet

The text of the play as literature allows for minute attention to its language and structure, but, unlike other kinds of literary works, if a play is only read and not experienced, it remains almost a dead thing, waiting to be dissected by textual and other literary critics. A good performance not only brings the text to life, but illuminates it from within, as it were, giving color, character, and dimension where there had been before a kind of grey flatness. You might think that, conversely, a bad performance could suck the life out of the text, but I don’t think that’s true — although a bad performance might make evident where the text needs a sensitive and intelligent interpretation in order to “work.” (I’m convince that people who are put off of Shakespeare because he’s “boring” and “hard to understand” have simply not yet seen a good performance.) Yet, a bad performance really cannot harm the text, try as it may — I remember seeing a very bad production of Macbeth a couple of years ago and was very frustrated that the actors, director, and designers showed very little understanding of the play, resulting in a maladroit presentation that was, frankly, painful to sit through. Yet I did not blame Shakespeare for writing a turgid, nonsensical play! Rather, I mourned the opportunity that the theatrical company had wasted, to make this wonderfully tense and complex tragedy come to life.

The question then remains: did the David Tennant Hamlet nourish or frustrate my appreciation for the play? So far, I’ve only seen about the first half of the play (through the scene of the play-within-a-play, Act III, scene ii), and I will say that so far I really like Tennant’s performance, transforming the dour, grief-stricken Hamlet of the first scene (in which Tennant will be virtually unrecognizable to Doctor Who fans) into an antic/manic figure more reminiscent of Tennant’s Doctor Who character (although not annoyingly or excessively similar, however). Without a doubt, this is a wonderful performance and a very fine production. I’ll say more about how it shapes my understanding of the play when I have time to go back and finish viewing it (it seems this may be as long as the Branagh film).

Current reading: mystery novels, history, literary criticism et cetera

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, not much writing lately. Here are some of the things I have read, am reading, or will shortly begin, some of which I will shortly be discussing in subsequent posts.

Mysteries

Thanks to a new Half Price Books nearby, I’ve been able to entertain myself reading inexpensive murder mysteries.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
  • Careless in Red, Elizabeth George. One of her Inspector Lynley mysteries which has not yet been turned into an episode of the television series by that name. [finished reading]
  • Last Act in Palmyra, Lindsey Davis. A Marcus Didius Falco mystery that takes place in the Decapolis during the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (see earlier discussion of this Roman mystery series). [finished reading]
  • The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. The first in this charming series, whose detective-protagonist is Botswanan Precious Ramotswe and which has been turned into a movie and TV series on HBO. All of the plots for the first series of TV episodes were taken from this episodic novel, and the series largely captures the charm of the novel. [finished reading]
  • Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, Dorothy Gilman. The second or third in the series, which finds Mrs. Pollifax evading a pre-9/11 Muslim terrorist ring in Morroco. [finished reading]
  • Picture Miss Seeton, Heron Carvic. The first in the Miss Seeton series, about an elderly English art instructor with a penchant for tangling with criminals and then providing clues to crimes through her intuitively/psychically-inspired drawings. The series was begun by Heron Carvic, who wrote 5 Miss Seeton mysteries before his death. The series was later continued by other writers using pseudonyms with the initials H and C (Hampton Charles, Hamilton Crane). I read 8 or ten of the beginning of the series many years ago, and am glad to re-discover Miss Seeton. [finished reading]

Other literature

  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. I fell in love with Ray Bradbury as a kid when I read a story of his in a reader at school, about the magic of a new pair of sneakers — a story, I found out later, that was taken from Dandelion Wine. This book really captures, for me, the beauty of Bradbury’s writing and his talent at capturing the richness and beauty of life. [Currently reading]
  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve not yet started this, so I’m not sure if it should go in the “mystery” category, along with Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. [Planning to read]
  • Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare. An Oxford school edition. I wanted to re-read this after reading John Carroll’s analysis of it in the first chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to re-read]
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare. Oxford edition, with extensive material and discussion of the three extant versions of the play. Another one I wanted to re-read after reading the first chapter of Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to read]

Literary Criticism

  • An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis. While reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I realized that I had never read this (although I’m pretty sure I’ve owned it), so I bought a new copy and got cracking. [finished reading]

History

  • Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson. A compilation of Dawson’s essays,  edited by John J. Mulloy. Organized to give a good overview of Dawson’s work as an historian. I’m reading it one essay at a time. [Currently reading]

Other non-fiction

  • Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological, Gilbert Meilaender. A collection of essays in which Meilaender, an ethicist and theologian (Lutheran, I believe) “[mines] the great works of philosophy, literature, and political theory” for “insights into the human condition.” Until now, I know Meilaender only from his contributions to First Things, but I’m looking forward to reading these essays, and will probably comment on them one by one, as I read them. This is one of two books I chose as my free selections when I renewed my membership in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute‘s Reader’s Club (huge discounts on subsequent purchases during the next twelve months). [Currently reading]
  • The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll. My other free selection from ISI. To counter the prevalent view that the humanism that came in through the Renaissance is to be credited for all the wonders of modern life — individual liberty, modern democracy, prosperity, etc. — Carroll presents an alternative view, namely that  “the West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed” and has destroyed culture in the western(ized) world. [Currently reading]
  • The Apocalypse–Letter by Letter: A Literary Analysis of the Book of Revelation, Steven Paul. This was lent me by a friend, who thought I would appreciate the linguistic precision with which the author analyzes the original Greek of the last book of the Bible (Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation). The author, dying of cancer, wrote this as a series of letters to his brother-in-law, who later compiled the letters into a book for publication. [Planning to read]

I have a feeling I’m leaving out one or two things, but that’s the gist of it. So many books, so little time!