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Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Norton Library) Paperback – October 17, 1974
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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As a french learner of english I was at first very disconcerted by the very strong "American accent" of the reader but became accustomed to it. So far, I have listen three times to it and shall needs many more times to remember exactly what is said.
Harold BLOOM doesn't appreciate the analysis in this book very much because he sees them as the main cause for all the "politically re-interpreted performances of the plays" (for example the famous Richard III film with Ian MacKELLEN). When I listen to Shakespeare it is for the beauty of the language and the very "articulate" way in which all the most inner-feelings are expressed. It is not to see or to hear something about racism, antisemitism and so on.
If this book had some "bad influence" on the way Shakespeare is performed today, it is obviously not the fault of this book, but that of the film and theater directors.
I strongly recommend reading this book because "an horizontal analysis" of similar plays is made, where their themes are compared. As a reader (and listener, and spectator) of Shakespeare I have come to a stage where I need something beyond the mere understanding of the individual plays but rather a more "global approach", to use a fashionable expression. This book and those by Harold BLOOM and Marjorie GARBER are just perfect for that purpose.
Let me summarize Kott’s “discovery”.
Kott suggests that if one wishes to experience in Shakespeare’s plays our contemporary world, one should start with the History Plays, particularly with “Richard II” and “Richard III”. According to Kott, in the History Plays it is easy to recognize a very dark force in the cruel and unstoppable historical cycles. The existence of this force constitutes the main element of Kott’s “discovery”. Each cycle is represented by a legitimate ruler who drags behind him a long chain of crimes. The ruler murders his enemies, then his former allies. Afterwards, he rejects the feudal lords who helped him reach the crown. He follows with the execution of potential successors and pretenders to the crown. But he is not able to execute them all. From banishment a young prince returns, who is a son, grandson, or brother of those murdered, to defend the violated law. The young prince personifies the hope for a new order and justice. The rejected lords gather around him. But, again, every step to power continues to be marked by murder, violence, treachery. And so, when the new prince finds himself near the throne, he drags behind him the chain of his crimes. When he assumes the crown, he is hated just as his predecessor was. He has killed his enemies, now he will kill former allies. In other words, the wheel has turned a full circle. A new chapter opens: a new historical tragedy.
Kott refers to this vicious circle as the working of the Grand Mechanism. He implies that this Grand Mechanism is the driving force of our lives and is behind each of Shakespeare’s play. Accordingly, Hamlet is simply a born conspirator; “to be” means for Hamlet to revenge his father and to assassinate the King; while “not to be” means – to give up the fight. The Grand Mechanism is even more brutal in “Macbeth”. In “King Lear” this world of ours is in a complete decay. In “Antony and Cleopatra”, the Grand Mechanism cannot be stopped neither by dignity nor love; the heroes, like big animals, are caught in a cage; the cage is getting smaller and smaller, and they writhe more and more violently. In “Coriolanus”, the Grand Mechanism becomes more ironic and tragic. “The Tempest” confirms that the presence of the Grand Mechanism cannot be overcome even by magic or intuitive wisdom.
In summary, Kott tries to convince us that Shakespeare shows us the nature of our world through our history. And this history is just sheer madness from which there is no escape. The only exceptions are occasional escapades into animal bestiality and eroticism. The only way to have some fun is to spend time in dark forests with devils, lamias and witches - just like the fairy kingdom described in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. According to Kott, the forest of the fairy kingdom is inhabited by toothless and shaking old men and women, their mouths wet with saliva, busy procuring a monster to entertain their Queen. Of course, this monster must be credited with the strongest sexual potency of all quadrupeds, and it is supposed to have the longest and hardest phallus. According to Kott, it is the experience of this sort of bestiality that makes “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the most modern and revealing of Shakespeare’s plays. Apparently, such experiences are another manifestation of the Grand Mechanism at work. It is in this grand vision of madness and bestiality that Kott sees Shakespeare as our contemporary and most modern writer.
Who on earth would take seriously Kott’s account of Shakespeare???
It seems that quite a few so-called “most innovative modern theatre directors” have made their artistic fame by following Kott’s transmogrification of Shakespeare. They have “modernized” Shakespeare by, among other things, parading on the theatre stages Bottom’s phallus in different shapes and sizes.
No wonder that Puck could not resist his famous observation: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Written in plain, but elegant prose, these essays reveal a darker Shakespeare than most commentators admit. Kott was a fighter in the Polish resistance and assumes Shakespeare must have had knowledge of political repression and loss of freedom.
The best of the essays deal with the History plays. Kott argues that all of the History plays are about power and use the metaphor of a staircase. A king is shown to be weak or unjust, a usurper claws his way to the top and then must remove all rivals, and then is toppled by another. Different plays show different pieces of this process. Lear views the staircase from the way down. Richard III is about his joyful ascent up the staircase. The various Henry's (and Richard II and King John) show its endless cycle.
The essay on Richard III must have been the inspiration behind the interpretation used by the recent movie version with Ian McKellum.
The essay about Othello concentrates on the evil power of Iago. Is there an wonder why Iago is silent in the end? According to Kott, it is because his worldview has won.
The essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream challenges the normal interpretations that this is a happy comedy about confused love. According to Kott, the play is really about the animosity and power struggle behind love, and rather than loving, the characters really compete with one another.