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In early February 1964 when the buzz around the scandalous affair between Richard Burton and American screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor was at a fever-pitch, a new Broadway-bound production of Hamlet began to take shape in Toronto under the direction of the already legendary John Gielgud and starring Burton in his third go-round in the title role. Rehearsals with a uniformly accomplished supporting cast of British and American actors – which included such then and later-to-become stage-luminaries as Hume Cronyn, George Rose and John Cullum – proceeded at a speedy clip, though not without distractions prompted by occasional sightings of Ms Taylor. Sources indicate that Burton accepted instruction from Gielgud in an understatedly deferential manner – amicably trading anecdotes with him about fellow stage-legends, Ralph Richardson and ‘Larry’ Olivier – but seldom followed the old master’s directives, much less seemed to work very hard at mastering his lines. Although the cast uniformly evinced respect and admiration for Gielgud – who seemed to know all their parts by heart and could rehearse them backwards and forwards – they also found themselves at sea without a rudder as opening night beckoned, lacking any determinate sense of an overarching concept or sustained interpretive focus for the production itself. Seriously professional to a fault, the cast was often bewildered by the variability of Gielgud’s daily notes and directives, which would require, for example, the actor playing Guildenstern to be meekly obsequious in one scene, aggressively inquisitorial in another, without developing a consistent through-line of interpretation that would render his changes in tone coherent.
As Marlowe has emerged in recent years as early modern England's most modern playwright, Edward II has emerged as his most modern play, not merely because it treats the life and loves, and stages the brutal debasement, of a recognizably (if not exclusively) homosexual monarch, but also because it presents a decidedly direct and demystified portrayal of power politics at work, showing political positions to be little more than transparent extensions of the personal desires and ambitions that motivate them. The passions on display in Edward II, whether they be Edward's all-consuming love for his favourite, Gaveston, or Mortimer Junior's unrestrained hostility to Edward and Gaveston alike, shape and dominate both the private and political behaviour of the play's two primary antagonists, and contribute mightily to the disordered relations in family and state that obtain throughout the play. As such, they paradoxically present themselves as fit objects of audience censure and disapprobation, and as the primary expressive channels of character formation and audience engagement alike.
Much recent scholarship on the early modern period has been devoted to a reconsideration of the viability of applying traditional theories of the relationship between the four vital bodily elements (blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile) and the four “humours” (sanguine or cheerful, choleric, phlegmatic or stolid, and melancholy) to an understanding of what we late moderns tend to construe as psychological states. An excess of one or other of these elements in an individual’s body (say, of yellow or black bile) was thought to produce a humoural imbalance that would make one’s temperament chronically aggressive, on the one hand, chronically melancholy on the other.
Like ghosts we teach a dead religion, build a few more prisons to worship Caesar in, and leave it at that.
We haven't arrived where we live as long as Shakespeare writes our plays.
There can be no starker alternative - or harsher antidote - to the Shakespearian afterlife concocted by the makers of Shakespeare in Love than Edward Bond's Lear, which was first produced in London in 1971 (unless, of course, we include in the mix Bond's later play Bingo, which had its first production in 1973). Though very differently situated, both works are studies in pain: in the social and political pathologies that produce it and the emotional pathologies produced by it. As such, they return us to a period in postwar cultural history when Shakespeare's status as 'our contemporary' was figured very differently than it is today, when a play like King Lear drew to itself correspondences to everything from the Holocaust to philosophical and theological assessments of the absurdity of the human condition and of man's inhumanity to man. Probably the most prominent manifestation of that moment's approach to King Lear is the punishing black-and-white austerity of Peter Brook's 1971 film, which in many ways served to illustrate Jan Kott's influential assessment of the play as Shakespeare's Endgame in Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964).
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