Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Shakespeare Apocrypha - A Knack to Know a Knave

This was the final play on my list, so I feel a sense of completion. (Though there is one more that I didn't have on there; a play titled Double Falsehood, which is said to be an adaptation of the lost play Cardenio. So I'll probably have to read that too, just to be thorough.)

This one was a morality play, and it was quite short. The title looks quite Shakespearean, but apart from that it's fairly far removed. The claim is that a few passages were reworked by Shakespeare. I guess it's possible, but to be honest I don't quite see it. The entire thing seemed a world away to me.

The title refers to a character in the play called Honesty. He's someone that literally has the knack of spotting knaves and ne'er-do-wells, and spends the play catching out immoral characters. Who all get their comeuppance at the play's end.

Like the play Thomas of Woodstock it's quite preachy and concerned with the common good. In fact, the term flatterer, which I liked so much, even pops up in it.

As I mentioned when I reviewed that play I really like the social conscience of these works, but at the same time they do tend to be quite stilted and one dimensional. It was also another play that was very easy to understand and digest. So I'm now beginning to wonder if this is because these plays are less arty. Rather than my original instinct; which was that they were perhaps misdated or forged in some way.

When we read Shakespeare at the age of fourteen at school for the first time it's often very difficult to grasp. Not only are many of the words unfamiliar, but even the use of the language can be hard to penetrate. We're left baffled and unimpressed. "What the hell is this?!". However, if someone handed this morality play to my fourteen year old self I'm sure it would have been much, much easier to fathom.

It's very plain and straightforward.

Again though, is this because it's closer to modern English. Or is it more a case that it's just more dull and basic. Just as the meaning in a wordy, sophisticated poem can be hard to decipher in comparison to a common limerick.

Anyhow, it's now ticked off the list. So once I get Double Falsehood ticked off as well I can then start ticking off the dozen or so plays from the Shakespeare cannon proper that I've still yet to read. I did try listening to a performance of King Lear last night, thinking I could take a little short cut and forego having to read every single one. I just couldn't stomach it though. It was an all star cast, but I just hate how overdramatic these performances of Shakespeare are.

This brings me back to where I first started all this in a way. With my contention that Shakespeare plays weren't originally performed in the way they're performed now. I think I probably mentioned this on one of my first blog posts a decade or so back. I think these plays should be performed with a much more natural and understated style.

I remember my first introduction to Shakespeare back at school, reading plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. I didn't like it at all. Part of this was that I was just too young to understand most of it. However, a large part was also due to having to watch the various productions we were shown at school. The tights and the pretentiousness of it all. It just seemed horrendous.

This stood in stark contrast to everything else, where the film or TV version usually amplified my interest. The BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I gave a nod to not so long ago particularly made an impression on me. Though being a boy I feigned that I was completely unmoved and unimpressed. (I'm only watching it because I have to 😠). I had too much energy to sit and fully invest in books back then, so the screen versions were an easy and useful window into literature that might overwise have bypassed me.

Seeing Shakespeare performed though. That didn't win me over at all.

It was only a good few years later when I was about twenty that my attitude changed. I was forced to read a Shakespeare play thanks to a college course I was on (Much Ado About Nothing if I recall correctly). Though this time I had the fortune to read it as homework. On my own - on my own terms.

I remember reading it - far from the tights and the capes - and thinking; "Wow, this is just like a British sitcom." Stripped back that was how it read to me. Of course parts were a little opaque because of the language and the lack of reference points, but still, it had that same understated wit to it. It was to some extent the culture I'd grew up with. Carry On movies. British sitcoms with their earthy humour ..and at times pathos - but never too much. That wordy teasing and banter common in British culture. It was much more familiar than I ever would've imagined.

So gradually I started reading more works, whilst continuing to eschew any performances of them. (Though to be fair I have seen a few decent, bearable ones over the last eighteen years or so). Consequently even before I came across the apocrypha plays I had this sense that Shakespeare had been misrepresented somewhat.

As I mentioned in the Merry Wives post of last month, time has a way of misrepresenting things. There I used the example of the Beatles, and how they've went from being considered "pop" in the 60's to being considered "high taste" fifty years later. With people now dressing up and performing their back-catalogue, much like how people climb on stage to act out Shakespeare. In fact, Elvis impersonators would perhaps be an even better example.

Yes, they're dressed like Elvis. Yes, they're singing the same songs ..but they're not Elvis.

It's just not the same.

Returning to the sitcom comparison I imagine it would be much like someone performing a much loved TV show from our era in say a hundred years time. Let's take a classic like Only Fools and Horses. Imagine someone getting on stage and performing Del Boy's famous lines, but doing it in a very dramatic and over-expressive way. Without David Jason's down-to-earth relatable charm.

It would just be silly.

Also, finally, there are actually quite a lot of scenes in Shakespeare where characters comically mangle and mispronounce foreign languages. This is not at all unlike Del Boy with his famous French phrases. I imagine it was probably acted in much the same way at the time too, but people would never really make this comparison today. TV is common and lowbrow. Shakespeare is "highbrow". How can you compare these things?

And that is the problem.

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