Archive for Harold Bloom

Oh, For a Muse of Fire!

Posted in Henry V with tags , , , on 2014/05/01 by mattermind

Henry V, Prologue

Shakespeare wastes no time starting Henry V, an ironic statement since we begin not with the main action, but instead with a prologue.

Why this isn’t a waste has more to do with The Great Conversation, the Agon of the Ages as Harold Bloom calls it, Shakespeare’s claim to fame as one of the immortals of literature that began with humanity’s first attempts at storytelling in the annals of historical memory.

His words are thunderous, ear-splitting, mind-shattering, echoing previous invocations of the muse by Homer, Virgil and Dante – the Cosmic All-Stars.  Mighty company to keep.

When entering such a hallowed hall, best to make one’s presence known straight off by clanging the gong of a familiar meme:

Oh, for a must of fire that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,

Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,

Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment.

Shakespeare twice begs pardon, having tapped into mighty, mythological imagery by invoking the Greek muses, the God of War, and one of the greatest kings in English history.

To rise to the vaunted heights, an aspiring writer needs a magnificent theme.  Shakespeare recognizes he has one here and seizes his opportunity by the throat, announcing to the world from the outset that the playing field has been elevated, his aspirations engaged at the highest levels.

We are invited to become willing participants.  Indeed, he needs our assistance if his words can hope to paint such a sprawling canvas.  We are to lend our aid in imagining the  battlefields, the thunderous hooves of the prancing horses, marching soldiers, bloody battles.

The stage may be a pale imitation.  But in the right hands, and with our active engagement, Shakespeare dares to make a great historic moment come alive.

It’s breathtaking and unforgettable.  And yet the play hasn’t even formally begun.


Put Out the Light, and Then Put Out the Light

Posted in Othello with tags , , on 2014/01/12 by mattermind

My final Othello post will deal with the question of why he kills himself.

I thought I had it figured out when I discovered striking similarities with Oedipus in the Greek Tragedy by Sophocles.  Certainly Shakespeare must have been aware of his great predecessor as evidenced in the lines:

But, oh, vain boast!

Who can control his fate?

That’s a line that Oedipus himself might utter.

Throughout the play, Othello has operated out of ignorance.  Like Oedipus, he has striven to behave honorably and “do his best,” only to discover that good intentions aren’t enough.  Other factors such as destiny or the evil machinations of others play a hand.

When Oedipus discovers that he has unintentionally killed his father and slept with his mother, he blinds himself in a spontaneous act of self-inflicted punishment.

But when Othello learns too late that he has been manipulated by the demidemon Iago, he does not kill himself straight off.  It is nowhere near the rash – and one might argue more heartfelt – act by Oedipus who does not allow reason to catch up with profound regret.

Othello, on the other hand, ponders.  At first, he even behaves like a weasel when he pretends not to know how Desdemona died.  He tells Emilia:

OTHELLO: Why, how should she be murdered?

EMILIA: Alas, who knows?

OTHELLO: You heard her say herself it was not I.

Granted, Othello has rationalized that killing Desdemona was an act of sacrifice and imposed justice rather than murder.

Othello soon clarifies to Emilia that he was the agent of Desdemona’s death.  But the more the circumstances are clarified, the faster the revelations pile on.  Once it becomes clear that the handkerchief served as the crucial link in Othello’s crazed mind, Emilia registers that her husband has in fact been the agent of all the mischief.

At this point, Othello profoundly laments.  He strikes out at Iago and demands an explanation from him, which Iago unmercifully denies him.

We watch as Othello realizes that he has been stripped of everything he once had: honor, reputation, power, place, prestige – and a wife who truly loved him.  “Let them all go,” he tells himself.  And later, referring to himself in the 3rd person: “That’s he that was Othello.”  He knows that his old life is irretrievably gone.  And again: “Where should Othello go?”

What options now remain to him?  Adding insult to profound injury, he must accept that Cassio will take over in Cyprus and that he has been stripped of any title, place or standing in Venice.  He will return as a criminal, if one who committed a crime of the heart.

There is little punishment that Venice could inflict which would exceed the toll he has already exacted upon himself.  Othello professes that it will be Desdemona’s innocent look that casts him from heaven to hell.  And yet in guilt he invites the just wrath of the afterworld, bellowing:

O cursed, cursed slave!

Whip me, ye devils,

From the possession of this heavenly sight!

Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,

Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!

So where does that leave us?

It was then that I read this explanation from Harold Bloom:

Rather than survive in a diminished guise, and with the eternal torment of knowing that he has been led by Iago’s treacheries and persuasions to destroy his wholly innocent and blameless wife, he passes a judgment upon himself that he fears that Venice will not pass, because he still could be very useful to Venice; he condemns himself to execution, and he executes himself. And in doing so, he recovers a certain quality of tragic dignity.

I find this a compelling argument but ultimately unsatisfying.  For while I believe that the rational part of Othello might come to this conclusion, the passionate part chooses suicide for a different reason that can be summed up by the following lines:

I kissed the ere I killed thee.  No way but this,

Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

These are not the words of a Stoic statesman or a husband rationalizing himself to suicide.  Othello may have soberly contemplated the terms of his newfound criminal status and outlook back in Venice.  But he commits the act from the aptness of its poetic justice, thrusting himself by his own hand within Dante’s Inferno in which every sin has a commensurate punishment and each dreadful act its own metaphorical fulfillment.

Othello has indeed tried and found himself guilty – not by an inner logical criminal court, but by the devastating inevitability of the completion of the arc of love within his heart.

What Ho? No Watch? No Passage? Murder! Murder!

Posted in Movie Reviews, Othello with tags , , , on 2014/01/12 by mattermind

I spent the weekend watching (and ruminating upon) three notable adaptations of Othello: The Orson Welles version from 1952, the Laurence Olivier version from 1965, and the Kenneth Branagh (Oliver Parker) version from 1995.  I hope you’ll forebear if I skipped the modernization from 2001.

What I discovered won’t be earth-shattering news for those who cry foul whenever a beloved book or play is “translated” for the screen.  Movies are a different medium – I understand that.  But the more you know and love the underlying material, the more unbearable the cuts, alterations and interpretations become.

This is especially true for what would today be unthinkable: the use of blackface makeup to allow white men (Welles, Olivier) to play the part of a black man.  Was the role of Iago not good enough?  Were no males of dark skin color available?  Why not cast boys as women?  Would that be possible – or desirable – too?  What may have been standard practices will no longer do today,  and can’t help but induce groans and grimaces, regardless of the quality of performance.

That said, the cast in the 1965 production is superb and comes closest to rendering the Shakespeare we read in the text.  I can imagine that Olivier’s interpretive skills must be the only thing keeping it relevant, managing somehow to outweigh the revulsion at seeing him in black makeup.

On par is the almost unforgivable CUT in quintessential dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia at the end of Act IV.

When I said that I ruminated upon these movies, I mean over decisions such as that one, since it’s a profound – and profoundly moving – Shakespearean proto-feminist statement from the early 17th century that belongs both thematically and contextually to the play.  Can it be that lines Shakespeare penned nearly four centuries earlier were too shocking, too scandalous to be shown to the public in 1965?  Blood, lust, revenge and sword fights were a-ok, but a bold exchange between two women over equal rights was too hot to handle?  I must be careful here though, because I have no idea what the justifications were for the choice.  Whatever they were, they must have been compelling.   We mourn their dreadful loss.

But then other little things irk too, such as Emilia dying on the floor rather than on the bed next to Desdemona.  Isn’t her placement crucial to render sense of Lodovico’s line:

O Spartan dog…

Look on the tragic loading of this bed.

Am I quibbling over small matters?  I think not.

If you’re going to line-edit Shakespeare – Shakespeare! – then make damned sure you pick the right lines to fiddle with.  That’s no easy task, granted.  But if it’s more than you can handle, don’t bother.  Read the play a dozen times and read it a dozen more.  Make sure there are compelling reasons why this and not that.  Go ahead, interpret.  But please don’t eviscerate crucial moments because you are pulling threads from a precious fabric that will come entirely undone.

For those wondering, I love Baz Luhrman’s Romeo, so I’m not averse to either modernization or stylization.  I’m smitten by Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing as well.  But there are certain limits that, when crossed, will push me straight over the edge.

Oliver Parker, in his 1995 adaptation starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago simply won’t do.  Sure, Branagh is deft with Shakespearean dialogue and Fishburne certainly looks the part, smoldering in his slow-boil portrayal of Othello.  Yet at the same time, the gravity of the tragedy is entirely missing – maybe because of the soft-core porn flashbacks and soundtrack playing cloyingly beneath crucial passages of dialogue.

One critic noted that over half of Shakespeare’s words were cut for that adaptation.  For me, I could almost survive those cruel cuts.  But somebody had to make a mockery by having Othello and Desdemona consummate their relationship in graphic physical terms.  Shakespeare notably left that open – not because he was a prude (he absolutely was not) but because the ambiguity adds a further wedge for Iago to insert his poison.

Othello asserts that he has lost his physical passion.  Desdemona confesses that she fell in love with his mind.  At various points when the relationship could be sexual, it gets interrupted by surrounding events that contribute to Othello’s mounting frustrations.

A few critics have pointed out that consummation undermines any doubts in Desdemona’s fidelity.  Othello would experience her virginity as a fact and know firsthand the ardor of her devotion in the most intimate terms possible.  Othello would then have the physical evidence he lacks and needs to outweigh his wavering mind.  Iago’s flimsy circumstantial evidence would have no dry tinder with which to catch flame.

There are other odd interpretive decisions, some of which work, while others end up far too distracting.  While I can understand breaking long scenes or soliloquies into smaller, more digestible pieces or staging a scene on the beach or in a stable or armory, I cannot fathom why others are interpolated, manufactured out of wholecloth and inserted as if Shakespeare had written them or left holes that needed filling by more qualified artists.

This, ultimately, is my quarrel with Orson Welles. While Citizen Kane is the work of an undisputed genius, Othello comes across as the overreach of a bombastic ego, adding scenes, deleting scenes, obliterating dialogue, fabricating narration out of thin air.  You can get away with doing almost anything to Shakespeare but please don’t dice him into baby food for me.

These are just my opinions, of course, and many people, perhaps the majority, will disagree.  That’s as it should be.

But as I post these reviews, I take comfort from a review of 1995 Othello by Roger Ebert, who mentions that Harold Bloom holds the texts of Shakepeare so sacred that he cannot bear either filmed or staged versions, but prefers to hear them spoken instead.  I suppose I follow in his footsteps, then, when I confess that this rings true and close to home.

Every edition of a Shakespeare adaptation ought to come with a warning label stating: THE ORIGINAL WILL ALWAYS BE BEST.

A Horned Man’s a Monster and a Beast

Posted in Othello with tags , , , , , , on 2014/01/05 by mattermind


Othello, Act IV

I may end up breaking this into two posts, so please bear with me.  But since each is related to the other, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to bring them together without making this entry too long.  We shall see.

Throughout the play, the terms DEVIL and HELL have occurred on numerous occasions, too many to be a mere accident by so careful a writer as Shakespeare.  I believe it may have to do with an intent on Shakespeare’s part to address the very nature of evil – which in itself may explain why he wraps the tale around the metaphorical character of Othello.

I say Othello, in the way that Moby Dick revolves around Ahab and not the whale, for the whale stands as a symbol against which Ahab’s diabolical nature is revealed.  It seems to me that Shakespeare wants to toy with the audience, provide it hints and suggestions, dangle tantalizing possibilities only to snatch them away again and tease, “Not so fast. The issues simmering in my play are anything but simple.”  You might even say, not as easy as black and white.

In the fourth act, I hear a Bach fugue in my head, a profusion of voices and meanings that clash and clang into the purest music in the world.  Small wonder that Harold Bloom raves.  I too howl at the moon, tickled by such shadings of wit and wisdom while Shakespeare’s characters speak at me from all directions.  Good, bad, right, wrong.  Who is to blame?  What is to be done?  Why should such problems as this one exist?

There used to be a popular cultural meme that went: “The Devil made me do it.”  It seems like Iago is such a miscreant who might utter such a line in his defense, even as he counsels others that their fate lies in their own hands.  Such twists and turns that even such a character as Desdemona, the purest lady and true tragic center of the play, does not present herself as a simple snow-white Disney princess.  Not because she has sinned, the thought of which she hardly can conceive.  But because she feels a guilt and a doom as if she had, as if the mere presentment of death were deserved for some reason, even if she can’t come up with why.

Is it because she didn’t listen to her father’s counsel?  Because she abandoned all in her love of Othello?  She states in no uncertain language that she lacks regret for her choice and loves Othello despite his relentless fury.

And what are we to make of that rage?  I love, love, love how Shakespeare subtly inserts clever backstory into Act IV that makes Iago all the more complex.  Here we discover that Iago himself has suspected his own wife of having slept with Othello behind his back.  What a tremendous “aha” moment this is, for we realize that in exactly the same manner that Iago has used jealousy to corrupt Othello, he too was corrupted by somebody else, either a knave like himself or his own suspicious nature.

Might this be how the Devil operates?  How evil propagates itself from Eve’s first bite of the apple to this very day?  It is a poison working its dark arts from one corrupted soul to the next unsuspecting victim, much like a zombie or vampire whose bite transforms the recipient  into one of its own kind.

This may be the key that unlocks how I can feel so little for Othello, yet my heart yearns and breaks for Desdemona.  Othello does not need hard evidence of his wife’s alleged crime to work up the passion for a revenge that would strangle his beloved in their own bed – and leave his loyal lieutenant to the devious devices of Iago.  Where is the trust and compassion?

And yet, for Desdemona, she loves Othello even in his fits of unjust rage, considers herself to be guilty of a crime she cannot name, and allows herself to go willingly to a demise she can foresee but not forestall.  OMG – here is your heroic heart and center of the play.

As for the dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia, the connected bit I had thought perhaps to save for another day: I invite you to read this short, two-person dialogue as further, shattering proof of how in total command Shakespeare is not only of plot and character, but of the overarching, underlying, and through-lining theme.

Books and movies are commonly divided into those driven by plot and those driven by character.  Many an action movie presents moviegoers a cast so paper-thin as to hardly remain memorable at all.  For that reason, people still cite Lethal Weapon and Die Hard as exceptions to the typical, mind-numbing, CGI bombast.  Shoot shoot, explode.  Kiss kiss, bang bang.

On the other hand, character-driven pieces make us think of Masterpiece Theater, the BBC and movies we were forced to watch in grade school, novels that win prestigious prizes but serve only as functional doorstops and hefty paperweights long after we buy them.  Must it always come down to a choice between Dan Brown or Jonathan Franzen?  Might it not be possible to marry the best of both worlds?

I suspect that herein lies a great deal of the reason why Shakespeare remains now forevermore the greatest single writer humanity has ever witnessed.  For if he doesn’t, take this tiny, quiet scene between Emilia and Desdemona and find me a better one.  Find one even close.  And then find one hiding in a twisted story about love and lust, betrayal, revenge and murder.  You want character?  Check.  Action?  Check!  Theme?  Check, and mate.

What’s going on in the mind of Emilia as she answers the heartfelt queries of her mistress?  Desdemona can’t conceive of a woman anywhere who would do the things that her own husband accuses her of.  Emilia, the wife of Iago, can.  What these two reveal – and suggest – about the nature of women, of evil, of betrayal – and of human motivation in general – is so mind-bending that you could squeeze War & Peace within these same slender pages and make it the concluding scene from Othello, Act IV.

Call me a disciple of Mr. Bloom, fine.  But I really do believe that Shakespeare is that good.