Monday 6 July 2015

The Catholic Shakespeare - a TV documentary

A recommendation for an excellent, detailed, evocative four-part TV documentary - In Search of Shakespeare, by that doyen of British TV historians, Michael Wood:

As well as being just fascinating in general; a specific interest is that Wood takes seriously the thesis that Shakespeare was a secret and secretive Roman Catholic - an idea which lacks direct confirmation, but which is supported by a large amount of impressive indirect evidence.

What I also got from this documentary was confirmation that, for all its unmatched glories, Elizabethan England was a terrible place - suffocating in its religiously-inspired and -excused cruelty and terror.

(When Christian zeal and courage become contaminated by ambition, greed and hatred, then the consequences for human behaviour are horrific. This is why the Apostle Paul was so emphatic that, unless underpinned by love, every other virtue, all system, all perfection of doctrine and devoutness of observance is rendered worthless trash - or worse.)

Which makes all the more remarkable and admirable the unsurpassed excellence, and glorious warmth of human spirit, of Shakespeare and other great writers of that era.



jjbees said...

I can never understand when a person says that they hate Shakespeare...when I read a few of his plays in school, or when I saw film adaptations, it was clear that he felt the human condition to an enormous extent...he understood human folly, virtue, humor, the good and the bad. Most works of art do not have that all-encompassing understanding of human nature that overflows from Shakespeare's work. The man was pure empathy. And on top of that he was/is one of (I would say THE) best writer in the English language, proving that art did not have to be just greek, latin, or french. Chaucer is wonderful, too.

As schools move more towards teaching towards GSCE's and SATs and PISAs and standardized testing, I worry that there won't be room left for simple appreciation of these great human endeavors. Cram school civilization is taking over and it is boring and sad. Even in graduate school, where one would expect intellectual curiosity, there are very few people interested in anything but sports and drinking and craven careerism.

Bruce Charlton said...

jjbees - I agree. But due to the decline in average intelligence/ attention span/ motivation; and the need to include as wide a range of pupils as possible, I would like to see national curricula having Shakespeare for almost-all English-speaking kids - with detailed reading of the plays (line by line discussion of language and meaning and history) but with the amount of text tailored to the ability of the children.

For example, the highly motivated elite should do whole plays - but the majority should do a condensed or abridged version - some of these are excellent: I have watched 1 hour versions of Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream which seemed to include nearly all the 'good bits'. The least-able kids could study, say, three scenes or speeches with parallel crib notes, plot summaries and some background history.

ajb said...

Actors, directors, and stage managers are supposed to read plays. For practically everyone else, they are meant to be watched.

It is a strange practice to force school-aged kids to read Shakespearean plays before they have even seen them (or, indeed, seen them multiple times). The actors provide much of the needed contextual information to get what is going on. Then, sure - what Bruce suggested might work.

Having said this, it is a strange practice to force anyone to read anything, especially when those who are doing the forcing are agents of the state. Furthermore, beautiful literature shouldn't be subjected to compulsory reading - it ought to sell itself.

I still resent being forced to read this, that, or the other thing in school - it nearly destroyed my love of reading. I certainly didn't appreciate Shakespeare when forced to do so.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I agree that it is silly and counter-productive to try and force people to like/ appreciate literature - but that is not what is happening when teaching Shakespeare. The language, history, context are sufficiently unfamiliar that Shakespeare cannot be read without someone learning to read it - usually being *taught* to read it unless the pupil is clever enough to teach themselves. Only after learning it they may, or may not, appreciate it.

pyrrhus said...

My older son read most of Shakespeare on his own after high school, and while majoring in Math in college. His observation was that "Shakespeare IS the English language."

Bruce Charlton said...

@p - Well, yes.For me it is the language of the plays, more than the drama, that I appreciate. At times, Shakespeare's language was so far above and beyond anyone else that it is almost silly.