Shakespeare in Film – Part 12 – The Merchant of Venice – Olivier’s 1973 Version

The Merchant of Venice is an odd play.  The romance plot line with Portia and Bassanio is decidedly comic but the Shylock story is a revenge story that verges on the bizarre.  Olivier is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Venice.  The story revolves around Antonio, a prosperous merchant whose friend Bassanio is in love with the rich heiress Portia.  Bassanio begs a loan of 3,000 ducats to woo Portia as a nobleman.  Shylock gives Bassanio the money but because of his hatred of Antonio he demands that if the money is not repaid on time Shylock will remove a pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast closest to his heart.  Antonio treats this lightly because he has many merchant ships in route for home that should enrich him many times the 3,000 ducats in cargo value.  But when all his ships are reported lost then the default clause is no longer a joke but a promise of torture and death.

Another subplot has Shylock’s daughter run away from her father and elope with one of Bassanio’s friends, Lorenzo and also convert to Christianity.  It is this insult from his daughter that unhinges Shylock and turns him into a merciless fiend dead set on exacting his pound of flesh.  Luckily for Antonio, Bassanio’s courtship of Portia is successful and when she hears of Antonio’s peril, she tells her new husband that all the funds needed will be available to pay off Antonio’s debt.  But Shylock refuses even thrice the delinquent 3,000 ducats, standing on his contract to extract the pound of flesh he is owed.  Finally, a trial before the Duke of Venice is scheduled.  Portia comes disguised as a learned doctor of the law from Padua with a recommendation to the Duke from Bellario, her lawyer cousin in Padua.  Acting as the judge Portia concedes that the letter of the law allows Shylock to demand his pound of flesh but in a stirring speech she expounds on the “quality of mercy.”  But none of this phases Shylock in the least.  Over and over he refuses the 9,000 ducats and demands his barbaric payment.  Then Portia plays her trump card.  She declares that Shylock can have his pound of flesh.  But not a hair’s weight more or less and without spilling a drop of Antonio’s blood lest Shylock be put to death for it.  Knowing that he is beaten Shylock then asks for the 9,000 ducats but Portia tells him he has already refused that.  Then he asks for his principal back and is equally denied that.  And finally, he is informed that his attempt on the life of a Venetian citizen forfeits his own life and all his fortune.  By an act of mercy, the Duke spares his life and half his fortune with the proviso that Shylock must convert to Christianity and leave his remaining fortune to his daughter and her husband upon Shylock’s death.

After this happy ending there is the usual sexual politics with the disguised Portia demanding as payment from Bassanio for her legal help a ring that she had given him earlier as herself and which he had sworn never to remove.  And when back in her normal appearance she demands to see Bassanio’s ring.  He sadly admits to having given it away.  She produces it and teases him with having spent the night with the doctor of law.  And then there’s a tiff about it that is quickly straightened out when she reveals that she was the doctor of law.  And hilarity ensues.

This is a good production.  It is a good cast and the production values are equally good.  The scenery and costumes are of a Victorian England.  I don’t think this was a particularly good idea but it certainly didn’t harm the story much.  Joan Plowright looked a little too old to be Portia but her acting was everything you’d want for the part.  Jeremy Brett was a good Bassanio and the rest of the supporting cast was very able.  Olivier was very good.  But I was a little let down.  Shylock just isn’t that great a character.  He’s certainly not Hamlet or even Henry V.  He’s doesn’t even have the great villainous lines like Richard III.  A lot of his dialog is odd and melodramatic.  So, for once Olivier is not the main reason for watching this recording.

Plowright has the shining moment.  She gets to recite the quality of mercy speech.  And that alone is worth watching this play.  It is one of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote.  It’s uplifting even for an old deplorable like me.  It almost makes me want to show mercy to my political enemies.  Almost, but not quite.  My conclusion, this is a good version of The Merchant of Venice.

I’ll end with the text of that wonderful speech.

 

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 11 – King Lear – Olivier’s 1983 Version

King Lear is a very strange play to watch.  All of the virtuous characters are banished, disowned or fugitives from justice while all the rest of the characters that aren’t out and out villains are seriously flawed and unable to distinguish good from evil.  There is a continuous downward spiral as the evil characters consolidate their positions and everyone else including the hapless Lear ricochet from one disaster to the next.

I first saw this play back in the 1970s as a Shakespeare in the Park presentation in Central Park with James Earl Jones as Lear.  Some extremely timely thunderstorm activity by Mother Nature made for an exciting performance and I have enjoyed the play since.  But I will admit that the Storm scene is extremely odd to sit through.  Even the actors seem to be slightly at a loss as to how they are supposed to relate to each other during this weird act.

The 1983 version of King Lear starring Laurence Olivier is a British Television production and it is done on a television sound stage and it has the look of a sound stage made to look like a theater stage.  That is not to say that it is badly filmed but rather that it does not have the production values that the budget of a major Hollywood movie can allow.

The cast in addition to Olivier includes some well-known faces.  Lear’s Fool is played by John Hurt.  Leo McKern, who American audiences might know from the British import television series “Rumpole of the Bailey” plays Gloucester.  And if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s spy series “The Avengers” then you would remember Diana Rigg who here plays one of Lear’s evil daughters (Regan).  The rest of the cast is unknown to me but overall, the acting is reasonably good.

In my opinion, you watch this version for Olivier and to a lesser degree John Hurt.  They provide the stand out performances that elevate this above an average television version.  It is sad to see how frail Olivier is here.  He was 75 years old at the time and in extremely poor health.  This was his last attempt at Shakespeare.  But he gives the lines their due.  He allows Lear to make sense to an audience struggling with this bizarre set of characters and circumstances.  He was still a great actor even here at the end of his life.  That is not to say that the performance was perfect, although I believe it had more to do with technical problems of a television production.  During the Storm scene Lear’s voice is difficult to understand over the wind and rain noises.  If the video has captioning then this will not be as big a problem.  Also, some of the staging is a little odd to me.  The torches that were used during some of the scenes look very odd and I assume this was a limitation of the television cameras used to capture the action.

Overall, this is not a masterpiece like Olivier’s Hamlet or even a slick commercial production like Henry V that had a robust budget and a great supporting cast.  This is a modest production with a mixture of greater and lesser talent.  But it is your only chance to see Laurence Olivier as King Lear.  If that interests you then you should see it if it is available to you from whatever source you obtain your movies.

08JUN2020 – Quote of the Day

“I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?”

William Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew)

 

If Camera Girl gets wind of this she’ll probably poison my food.

photog

03JUN2020 – Quote of the Day

Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3, Lines 17-67

 

(WESTMORELAND)

O that we now had here

But one ten thousand of those men in England

That do no work to-day!

 

(KING HENRY V)

What’s he that wishes so?

My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires:

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one man more, methinks, would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made

And crowns for convoy put into his purse:

We would not die in that man’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is called the feast of Crispian:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.

And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember with advantages

What feats he did that day: then shall our names.

Familiar in his mouth as household words

Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,

Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

William Shakespeare

02JUN2020 – Quote of the Day

Richard III, Act I, Scene 1, Lines 1-41

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;

Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;

Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;

And now, instead of mounting barded steeds

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to spy my shadow in the sun

And descant on mine own deformity:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,

By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,

To set my brother Clarence and the king

In deadly hate the one against the other:

And if King Edward be as true and just

As I am subtle, false and treacherous,

This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,

About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’

Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.

Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here

Clarence comes.

 

William Shakespeare

01JUN2020 – Quote of the Day

Hamlet, Act II, Scene II, Lines 308-313

(Hamlet to Guildenstern)

What a piece of work is a man! how

noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving

how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in

apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the

paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence

of dust?

William Shakespeare

31MAY2020 – Quote of the Day

As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, Lines 139-166

(Jaques to Duke Senior)

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare in Film – Part 10 – Richard III – Olivier’s 1955 Version

This is not one of my favorite plays.  Part of that is my allegiance to the House of Lancaster.  Henry IV and Henry V seemed like my kind of guys so I was sorry to see the House of York pry back the crown from their side in Henry VI Parts I, II & III.  But more than that, it’s the spectacle of a monster like Richard crushing the people around him, his family in fact, without any compunction or even much difficulty.  His brothers Edward and George are oblivious to his treachery even as it is being accomplished.  His other enemies are more aware but equally powerless to save themselves from his malice.  He moves from outrage to outrage upping the ante at each stage.  Finally, he assigns a merciless assassin to smother his nine and twelve-year-old nephews with their own pillow to ensure that they never have the chance to revenge themselves on Richard for his usurpation of their father’s crown.  And then there’s the matter of Lady Anne.  She is the widow of the Lancaster heir to the throne, Henry VI’s son Edward.  And it was Richard who killed Edward.  Having Anne agree to wed Richard is the final outrage that just makes the play a bridge too far for me.  I mean, come on! Richard is a hunchbacked, withered armed, monster.  Anne spits in his face and calls him a fiend and then willingly marries him.  This is a tough play to understand.

Anyway, Olivier plays Richard to the hilt.  He is actually comical at certain points in his jocular, two-faced portrayal of the monster.  Olivier has surrounded himself with an all-star cast of Shakespearean professionals.  Cedric Hardwicke is his brother King Edward IV, John Gielgud is his brother George, Duke of Clarence, Ralph Richardson is Duke of Buckingham and Claire Bloom is Lady Anne.  The acting is good.  It’s just that I can’t stomach the plot.  To see evil just dance along while well meaning people are led to the slaughter irks me.  The ending should be consolation enough.  Richard gets his comeuppance and pays the price.  But the play rubs me the wrong way.  It’s the way that good seems to be powerless to resist evil.  It’s almost as if it gives up without a fight.  Oh well.

So, as you can tell I don’t love this play but I recognize that it’s really about me and my way of looking at the world.  I acknowledge that this is a well-acted version of the play and the production is full of nice touches.  The chanting monks, the cinematography of the battle scene, the excellent set design, the skill of the cast.  Olivier’s elocution and mastery of the part demands it be seen.  He gives us a consummate and thoroughgoing villain.  All of it recommends this play to the Shakespeare devotee.  So, I do recommend this version.  It is well done and deserves high praise.

But I’d rather watch Hamlet.  I’d rather watch Henry V.  Richard III rankles me no little bit.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 9 – Henry V – Branagh’s 1989 Version

Sunday, I wrote the review of Olivier’s Henry V.  I watched Branagh’s version that night.  I watched a while ago but I wanted to have it fresh in my mind especially because I would be contrasting it to Olivier’s film.

When Branagh’s movie came out in 1989 it made him a star.  He was a young dynamic character and the world wanted to believe in heroes again.  He was married at the time to Emma Thompson and she played Katherine to his Henry.  They were seen as an exciting couple in Hollywood circles and there was great interest in their films together.  Putting all that aside, people were ready to take a fresh look at Shakespeare.  Branagh adapted the play for the screen and directed himself in the lead.  Branagh was young enough and active enough to make King Harry believable.  The movie was a critical success.

Interestingly, Branagh’s Henry V left in some of the smaller incidents that Olivier omitted.  The three conspirators who planned to assassinate Henry on behalf of the French are duly exposed and condemned.  The hanging of Bardolph, one of Prince Harry’s former companions is a stark reminder that King Henry is a changed man.

But the major thrust of the film of course runs in the same vein as Olivier’s.  And yet there are clear differences in tone and emphasis.  Despite the theme of war Olivier’s play is the more light hearted and optimistic of the two by far.  A good point of comparison is the St Crispin’s Day speech.  When Olivier gives the speech, he exudes confidence and a controlled enthusiasm.  But when Branagh speaks he impresses on the audience the sense of passion and energy he feels.  It’s a rush of adrenaline that he captures in words.

And the action of the play mirrors this same difference.  Olivier’s cinema is typical of what the 1940s would do to portray the late middle ages.  It reminds you of how Hollywood would give us Robin Hood or Ivanhoe.  It was a sunlit world of grassy fields and picturesque castles with banners flapping in the breeze high above the fields.  Branagh gives us explosions, fire, battles in the dead of night and lots and lots of mud.  Mud on the ground, mud on the soldiers and mud on the King.  And he keeps some of the lines on the war that Olivier left out.  When the English besiege the city of Harfleur, Henry harangues the town elders with the horrors that resisting the besiegers would entail if they failed to surrender in advance.  He mentions rape, plunder and the vicious destruction of human life from the youngest infant to the oldest inhabitants.  So, we can see that Branagh has made the more accurate version of the play.  He’s left all the warts in plain sight.

Now in addition to the grittier nature of Branagh’s production it should be said that his handling of the romance between Henry and Katherine is also more naturalistic.  Branagh has an earthier, more openly comical approach to Henry attempting to woo Katherine in terribly halting French.  Olivier’s approach is calmer and more restrained.  So, all in all let’s call Olivier’s a more formal and austere approach to the story and Branagh’s a more naturalistic and emotional version.

How do they compare?  In my opinion they are both excellent films.  And they have different strengths.  I watch the Olivier version when I want to enjoy Olivier’s language.  He is the gold standard, in my book, for what Shakespeare’s dialog should sound like.  No one else makes the text sound real the way he does.

But if I want to see the story of the war, I will watch Branagh’s version.  Branagh and his excellent cast bring the war to life.  By the end of the battle of Agincourt you can feel the exhaustion that the English feel as they struggle to bury their dead.  Even the miraculous victory they’ve won is almost beyond their strength to grasp.  Branagh has done a very fine job of making a Henry V that is faithful to the text and conveys the reality of a King going to war in the Hundred Years War.