“Journeys end in lovers meeting”

Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Admittedly, I have just got back from the most amazing English Lit. trip to Stratford-on-Avon , but since I started this blog post before I left, I might as well finish it off first! This post will be about another of the Shakespeare Uncovered series on BBC4; this time the episode entitled ‘Joely Richardson on Shakespeare’s Women’, although this title is slightly misleading, since the programme is mainly on the comic heroines and especially focuses on Rosalind from ‘As You Like It’ and Viola from ‘Twelfth Night’. However, of course, there was plenty of information to plunder!

From the off, Richardson made it clear that she felt that the comic heroines drive the plots of all Shakespeare’s comedies; think of Katherina in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Beatrice in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and the two aformentioned. Howeverm it is not simply enough to state this, but to look at why this is unsual and what these characters are like. Shakespeare had an extraordinary sympathy for his female characters: “One of the things that’s fabulous about Shakespeare is how he understands…the psychology of women” Professor Marjorie Garber. We must also examine the content of Shakespeare’s comedies to understand why women played such a central part in them (and consider that it was thirteen years after Shakespeare’s death before the first women appeared on stage in England – and this was in a French company and they were, according to Thomas Brande “hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted from the stage!”). Professor Jonathan Bate talked of the main themes of comedy during the episode: “In terms of thinking what it is to be human, what it is to live in society and above all what it’s like to live in personal relationships…the comedy is the place where Shakespeare really works that out in a profound way.” Indeed, most of Shakespeare’s comedies are built around the theme of love in all its manifestations. Love, in fact, is the soul of most Shakespearean comedy, and for many, this shows why women are so vital to them; love for a man is just part of his life, but for a woman it is her whole life.

The programme also elaborated on a contested part of Shakespeare’s life: his time with his family; as Germaine Greer said “What’s special about Shakespeare is the poetry. To expect him to be a nice bloke might be pushing it.” However, despite his apparent disinterest in life in Stratford with his wife, Anne Hathaway and three children, Susannah and twins Judith and Hamnet, he clearly thought about his family  to a reasonable extent, since he shows a bigger interest in twins than any other writer of the time. What is also interesting is that his only son, Hamnet, died around five years before ‘Twelfth Night’ was written, and the theme of the loss of a brother is demonstrated in both Viola and Olivia, both of whom are mourning at the beginning of the play. The climax of the play is Viola being reunited with her twin brother Sebastian and in creating this end Shakespeare may have been concocting his own fantasy of family harmony restored.

Much of the programme Richardson explored the history of ‘Twelfth Night’ and what I found interesting was how the sub-plot of Malvolio and

“Remember who commended thy yellow stockings . . . And wished to see thee cross-gartered” (‘Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4)

the yellow stockings was always considered the funniest part of ‘Twelfth Night’. “Shakespeare’s imagination was so fertile that he could never resist weaving many different elements into each play, so there are some examples where a sub-plot, ostensibly brought on just for comic relief almost takes over the play itself” Professor Jonathan Bate. Indeed, one of the first silent films ever was ‘Twelfth Night’ (1910) with Charles Kent as Malvolio and in Charles I’s edition of Shakespeare’s collected works has ‘Twelfth Night’ crossed out, and in it’s place ‘Malvolio’. This shows how much Malvolio and his sub-plot, involving the famous yellow stockings, stole the show in most of the early performances.

Moving on to ‘As You Like It’ and Rosalind; one of the biggest roles in all the Shakespearean canon even though it would have been played by an apprentice. And yet Rosalind isn’t merely ‘a woman’. She is strong, independent, witty and intelligent, yet she is not ‘every woman’. In fact, most of the academics on the programme agreed that Rosalind is her own woman, and through her behaviour she subverts the idea, which was strong in the Renassaince, that men and women were different creatures. Joely Richardson conducted an interview with her mother, Vanessa Regrave, and they came to the conclusion that: “Within every Shakespearean heroine role are the seeds for any performance of an actress that we’ve ever seen in any role.”

So by the end of the episode I felt that ‘Twelfth Night’ had been explored in great depth, although I would have liked a little more on ‘As You Like It’ (saying this, I had just finished ‘1599’ James Shapiro which goes into great depth on ‘As You Like It’, so I probably didn’t take as many of the notes down as they were already in that book). Still, it has made me think again about which characters to examine in close detail, and how perhaps, instead of looking at ‘Henry V’ and ‘Richard III’, I could do some analysis on Rosalind and Cleopatra, since I’m already doing ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ at school, and both are strong, independent woman who know how to get there own way, but one is in a comedy and one a tragedy…? Feel free to comment and tell me what you think about this!

I’ll leave you with Richardson’s closing speech of the episode, and I’ll hopefully be back to write more soon:

“At the heart of these plays is something we can all relate to. One person trying to love another; it’s got to be the oldest story of all. But it’s never been more beautifully told than by Shakespeare.”

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