Denzel Washington talks Shakespeare. Mourns the loss of Sidney Poitier

If you’re like me, you are probably saddened by the loss of the great American actor, Sidney Poitier. He was part of the original cast of the great American play A Raisin In the Sun, and earned countless accolades for his roles on stage and screen like In the Heat Of the Night, Porgey and Bess, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

In this interview, Poitier’s friend Denzel Washington talks about how Poitier was a beacon, not just for black actors but a gold standard for all actors.

Washington also discusses his role in the film Macbeth, in which he plays the title role. As I mentioned in my Much Ado About Nothing review, Denzel is a consummate performer of Shakespeare and I for one can’t wait to see him as Macbeth. This is nor just because he was an absolute joy in Much Ado, but because Denzel is famous for playing characters that start out as good men become violent and evil in films like Training Day, American Gangster, and Flight. I have high hopes that Denzel’s Macbeth will rank among his greatest performances.

Macbeth is now playing at selected theaters and streaming online on Apple+. I plan to see it and hope that you will too.

Why Mechant Of Venice is the Perfect Play For the Holidays 

The Merchant Of Venice is unquestionably Shakespeare’s most controversial play- it covers such topics as anti-semitism, religious hypocrisy, racism, slavery, and the meaning of justice and mercy. As I have written before, few people read this play in school, but I believe that it has many lessons to teach our children. I also believe its lessons are also very much a part of the Christmas/ Hanukkah/ Kwanza holiday season, and here’s why:

Short summary

Famous quotes

  • All that glitters is not gold.
  • Hath not a Jew Eyes
  • The quality of mercy is not strained

You may very well wonder why this play about greed and prejudice reflects the warm holiday spirit. I would argue that, like cold winter snow, this play emphasizes the importance and the need for compassion, humanity, and generosity because without it society becomes truly frigid.

Merchant Of Venice takes an unflinching look at greed, prejudice, and religious hypocrisy, while at the same time retaining a hope for peace on Earth and goodwill towards men.

One of the best ways I can justify the connection between Merchant and the holidays is by comparing it to the quintessential Christmas story, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In terms of tone, themes and especially characters, these two classics are very close indeed. Shylock is an ancestor of Scrooge- in addition to both being money lenders, both men are miserly, cold, and willing to destroy lives for wealth. Shylock even has a ghost that comes back to haunt him. Shylock mentions a ring that he got from his late wife Leah, similar to how Scrooge lost his only love, Belle. Just as Scrooge is a counterexample of everything that Christmas stands for, Shylock’s greediness, cruelty, and hatred of the people around him make him a figure to avoid, no matter what holiday you celebrate.

Merchant also raises questions about materialism, which we should all consider around the holidays. Shylock especially mentions this in quotes like: “You take my life when you take the means whereby I live.”

The themes of Merchant also reflect a modern multicultural holiday season. In one example which I wrote about before, The Prince Of Morocco has a great speech that calls to mind the concept of kuchijagulia, or self determination, one of the 7 principles of Kwanzaa.

According to the official Kwanza website, kuchijagulia means, “To speak up for oneself,” and Morocco definitely does that:

Mislike me not for my complexion,

The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,

To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.

Bring me the fairest creature northward born,

Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,

And let us make incision for your love,

To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.

I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine

Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear

The best-regarded virgins of our clime

Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,

Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. Merchant Of Venice, Act II, Scene I.

Moracco’s unwillingness to change who he is makes him a model of the kind of pride African Americans celebrate during Kwanza. In addition Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is also very proud of his heritage. His famous quip: “Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe,” expresses perfectly the resilience of the Jewish people, which of course is the central point of Hanukkah.

When it comes to Christmas, Antonio demonstrates a Christ- like self sacrifice, when he lets himself be arrested and nearly killed by Shylock.

Bassanio. Good cheer, Antonio! What, man, courage yet!

▪ The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all, 2045

▪ Ere thou shalt lose for me one drop of blood.

Antonio. I am a tainted wether of the flock,

▪ Meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit

▪ Drops earliest to the ground; and so let me

▪ You cannot better be employ’d, Bassanio, 2050

▪ Than to live still and write mine epitaph.

While Antonio’s actions mirror Christ’s sacrifice. Portia’s famous “The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strained,” speech, goes to the heart of the reason why Christ came to earth; to grant mercy to the sinners who would be damned otherwise

Portia. Do you confess the bond?

Antonio. I do.

Portia. Then must the Jew be merciful.

Shylock. On what compulsion must I? tell me that.

Portia. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, 2125

▪ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

▪ Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

▪ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

▪ ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

▪ The throned monarch better than his crown; 2130

▪ His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

▪ The attribute to awe and majesty,

▪ Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

▪ But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

▪ It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, 2135

▪ It is an attribute to God himself;

▪ And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

▪ When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

▪ Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

▪ That, in the course of justice, none of us 2140

▪ Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

▪ And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

▪ The deeds of mercy. Merchant Of Venice, Act IV Scene I.

Shakespeare no doubt wrote these characters to reflect the Christian values many people celebrate at Christmas. Meanwhile the play’s comic subplot with Bassanio and Portia teaches Christians about generosity and mercy. As I have written before, the character Bassanio is the moral center of the play, and his journey mirrors many characters in classic Christmas stories who learn about giving and receiving, the true meaning of Christmas.

In Act III, Scene ii, Bassanio participates in the highest stakes Secret Santa gift exchange ever: three boxes of gold, silver, and lead are set before him.

If Bassanio picks the right gift, he will be rich, powerful, and married to a beautiful woman, but the winning box is inscribed with a warning: “Who chooses me must give and hazard all he has.” Bassanio wins the gift auction, which means he may marry the beautiful Portia, but he gives her the choice to marry him or not: https://youtu.be/6IFSMgggS8k

[Music, whilst BASSANIO comments on the caskets to himself]

Bassanio. So may the outward shows be least themselves: 1440

The world is still deceived with ornament.

▪ In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,

▪ But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,

▪ Obscures the show of evil? In religion,

▪ What damned error, but some sober brow 1445

▪ Will bless it and approve it with a text,

▪ Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?

▪ There is no vice so simple but assumes

▪ Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:

▪ How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false 1450
Look on beauty, 1455

▪ And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight;

▪ Which therein works a miracle in nature,

▪ Therefore, thou gaudy gold,

▪ Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;

▪ Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge 1470

▪ ‘Tween man and man: but thou, thou meagre lead,

▪ Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught,

▪ Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence;

▪ And here choose I; joy be the conseque

[Reads] 1500

▪ You that choose not by the view,

▪ Chance as fair and choose as true!

▪ Since this fortune falls to you,

▪ Be content and seek no new,

▪ If you be well pleased with this 1505

▪ And hold your fortune for your bliss,

▪ Turn you where your lady is

▪ And claim her with a loving kiss.

▪ A gentle scroll. Fair lady, by your leave;

▪ I come by note, to give and to receive. 1510

▪ Like one of two contending in a prize,

▪ That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes,

▪ Hearing applause and universal shout,

▪ Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt

▪ Whether these pearls of praise be his or no; 1515

▪ So, thrice fair lady, stand I, even so;

▪ As doubtful whether what I see be true,

▪ Until confirm’d, sign’d, ratified by you. Merchant of Venice Act III, Scene ii.

Like the story The Gift Of the Magi, Bassanio prizes Portia’s love, and is willing to give her all he has in return, which is what separates him from the other suitors. Bassanio also understands it’s not the physical gift that is really the gift, it’s the love that it represents that really matters, which allows him to look past the outward appearance of the lead chest. Having gratitude for the gifts we receive and pledging our love to others is something that everyone should remember at Christmas and all festive occasions.

In Conclusion, it isn’t cheery, and it is not as hopeful as most holiday stories, but in the season when people of all faiths celebrate together, Merchant Of Venice is a great reminder of our shared humanity and how we can show love and mercy to our fellow people.

Resources:
Merchant Of Venice Website: http://www.themerchantinvenice.org

Book– Will in the world by Steven Greenblatt- An amazing analysis of Shakespeare’s life and career. The chapter “Laughter At the Scaffold,” traces the link between Merchant Of Venice and the real life treatment of Jews in the 16th century

Book/ TV- Playing Shakespeare by John Barton.

MovieMerchant Of Venice 2004 Movie starring Al Pacino. I like the way the director films the drama documentary style, using a single handheld camera in most of the shots. Pacino is very good at playing Shylock as a bitter, cynical old man who is trying to survive in a powerful Christian country.

Official Kwanza website: http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/NguzoSaba.shtml

http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/m/lifetimes/plays/the%20merchant%20of%20venice/mershylock.html

Shakespeare on Ghosts

Since Halloween is right around the corner, and since this is a huge topic in Shakespeare, I would like to talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s treatment of the living impaired, specters, spirits, in a word GHOSTS.

Ghosts appear in five Shakespearean plays: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Richard the Third, Macbeth and Cymbeline. In all but one of these plays, and in many other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas, a ghost is a murdered person who needs someone to avenge their deaths. Their function is to warn the hero of the play to revenge their deaths, and/ or to torment their murderers.

Ghosts have been part of western drama almost as long as there have been ghost stories. After all, the Greek and Roman plays that Shakespeare emulated often mention ghosts as warnings from above and below the world is in some kind of chaos. Most of the time, the kind of play in which you see a ghost is a Revenge Tragedy, plays like The Spanish Tragedy, Locrine, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even the Disney movie of The Lion King.


The most potent example of a Shakespearean ghost is definitely the ghost of Hamlet’s father. I actually played this role and, rumor has it, so did Shakespeare himself! Hamlet’s father appears as a ghost two months after his death, and soon after his brother Claudius marries his widow Gertrude. The ghost’s purpose in the play is to get his son’s attention so that he can correct the terrible regicide that Claudius committed, allowing the Ghost to Rest In Peace.

Shakespeare describes the ghost as a pale, sorrowful figure, dressed in full armor. The ghost only speaks to his son in the play, and he begins with a strange and terrifying description of the afterlife:

Ghost: I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand on end

Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood Hamlet Act I, Scene v.

Many scholars believe that the tormenting realm of fire that the ghost describes is actually Purgatory, an old Catholic concept that explains where the souls of the dead go if they are neither evil enough for Hell, or good enough for Heaven. It’s also the place where people go who didn’t confess their sins before death, which was the ghost’s fate since Claudius poisoned him while sleeping.

Though neither Hamlet nor his father explicitly say it, there is a strong implication that Hamlet must avenge his father by killing Claudius, which will presumably release the Ghost from Purgatory allowing it to ascend to Heaven.

Some suggest that the ghost is a manifestation of Hamlet’s superego:

Ernest Jones in his book Hamlet And Oedipusbelieved Hamlet had an unresolved Oedipus complex and couldn’t bring himself to revenge because Claudius had achieved the very goals Hamlet himself secretly desires to kill his father and marry his mother

Faced with his guilt and lack of moral integrity Hamlet could have created a supernatural superego to spur him to revenge. As Freud describes it, the superego

The superego is the ethical component of the personality and provides the moral standards by which the ego operates. The superego’s criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions form a person’s conscience, and its positive aspirations and ideals represent one’s idealized self-image, or “ego ideal.”

In essence, since (in Jones’ view), Hamlet is too morally corrupt to be an effective avenger for his father, Hamlet imagines the ghost to help justify his revenge to himself. This is of course, only one way of interpreting the ghost and Hamlet as a whole. There is no right or wrong interpretation for any of Shakespeare’s characters, but it is a testament to Shakespeare’s genius that, 400 years after his own death, his ghostly writings helped inspire one the architects of modern psychology.

Ghosts Of Torment

The ghost of Banquo in Macbeth and the ghosts that plague Richard the Third the night before his battle help quicken the murderous kings’ his downward spiral. Macbeth becomes more and more paranoid, and therefore easier for his foes to defeat.

When Julius Caesar’s Ghost appears to Brutus, he does so the night before his final battle- the battle of Philippi, where Brutus was defeated and committed suicide.

When Richard III sees the ghosts of all the people he murdered, it not only terrifies him, it splits his soul in half! According to Sir Thomas More, Richard couldn’t sleep the night before his final battle at Bosworth Field. Shakespeare gives Richard a strange soliloquy where the ghosts awaken his conscience and awaken him from a fearful dream:

[The Ghosts vanish]

[KING RICHARD III starts out of his dream]

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester). Give me another horse: bind up my wounds.

Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft! I did but dream.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:

Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?

Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good

That I myself have done unto myself?

O, no! alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself!

I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree

Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;

And if I die, no soul shall pity me:

Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself

Find in myself no pity to myself? Richard III, Act V, Scene iii.

In these plays, the ghosts are a form of spectral punishment; the punishment of a guilty Conscience.

Shakespearean Friendly Ghosts

The only friendly Shakespearean ghosts appear in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline and these ghosts are the that appear before the God Jupiter to plead for their descendant, Posthumous Leonidas. They beg Jupiter, the most powerful Roman god to end Posthumous’ suffering.

Like the witches in Macbeth, ghosts in Shakespeare are mysterious and sometimes frightening – they are sort of a mirror for how we see ourselves, our lives, and our hopes to be remembered after death; the final words Hamlet’s father utters before disappearing into the morning mist are: “Adieu, adieu, remember me.”

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please consider signing up for my Outschool class: “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I perform live as the ghost of William Shakespeare and tell the story of Macbeth in an entertaining and spooky way.

For More Information:

https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/ghosts-in-shakespeare

https://www.bard.org/study-guides/ghosts-witches-and-shakespeare

Animated Richard III, 20:00 the ghosts appear:

References:

Greenblatt, Steven Hamlet In Purgatory 2001. Princeton University Press. Link: file:///Users/jrycik/Downloads/Hamlet-in-Purgatory-Princeton-Classics.pdf

Jones, Earnest, Hamlet and Oedipus.

https://people.ucsc.edu/~vktonay/migrated/psyc179d/HamletOedipus.pdf

Open Source Shakespeare, Cymbeline:

https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=cymbeline&Act=5&Scene=4&Scope=scene&LineHighlight=3243#3243

http://www.markedbyteachers.com/gcse/english/which-version-of-the-hamlet-ghost-scene-act-1-scene-5-was-the-most-effective-and-why.html

Pearlman, E. Hamlet: Critical Essays: The Invention Of the Ghost. https://books.google.com/books?id=jdfWAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=ghost+that+shrieked+hamlet+revenge&source=bl&ots=KY68gIrh2V&sig=MjEr2NxLQ7T4c2xW1QscrmdeMkc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiR5o6M4I_XAhUK0oMKHQIJBeAQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=ghost%20that%20shrieked%20hamlet%20revenge&f=false

https://www.shmoop.com/hamlet/ghost.html

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/456606.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A3f62aed88fb9e9b9a8f8e462186ff95c

O Fortuna!

Today, June 24rth, is the ancient Roman festival of Fortuna, the goddess of luck and worldly fortunes. I’ve chosen to use this opportunity to explain a little bit about the concept of Fortune, which Shakespeare uses frequently in his tragedies. But first, a short musical interlude:

Does this song sound familiar? You’ve probably heard it underscored in hundreds of commercials, TV shows, maybe even in concerts, it’s a song composed by composer Carl Orff called “O Fortuna.”

The Roman goddess Fortuna
The Roman goddess Fortuna with her wheel and orb.

In Roman mythology, Fortuna was the goddess of luck, wealth, and fertility. If you listen to the lyrics of the song above, you can see that for centuries, people chose to represent Fortune as a fickle, changeable, and irresponsible goddess. Unfortunately, one of the reasons she’s personified as a woman is the long-held prejudice that women are weak, have frequent changes of mind and mood, and can’t commit to one person, (a view of women that I and Shakespeare believe to not be true). However, based on his writing he does seem to think Fortune fits these characteristics:

“I am Fortune’s fool” –Romeo and Juliet

O fortune, fortune! all men call thee fickle:                If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him.   That is renown’d for faith? Be fickle, fortune; For then, I hope, thou wilt not keep him long, But send him back. –Romeo and Juliet

“When Fortune means to men most good,           She looks upon them with a threatening eye.” King John

Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,       

In general synod ‘take away her power;       

Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,           

And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,        

As low as to the fiends! -Hamlet

In Dante’s Inferno, Fortuna lives in the Underworld with Plutus the god of gold, helping to distribute the god’s wealth to people above ground. In the Middle ages she was an explanation for why some people have good luck, some have bad, and why luck frequently changes.

The Wheel of Fortune. 

Fortuna’s most recognizable symbol is her wheel; the symbol of how luck can change; just when you think your life is perfect, the wheel turns and you find yourself on the bottom. Frequently in tragedy when things go wrong, the characters blame Fortune, such as when the Lord of Kent finds himself put in the stocks like a common thief and gripes: “Fortune good night, smile once more, turn thy wheel,” King Lear, Act II, Scene ii. And yes, the real game show was partially inspired by the goddess’ most famous symbol.

Fortuna In Tragedies

Shakespeare mentions fortune over 500 times in his plays and frequently in his tragedies. Characters in Shakespearean tragedy frequently single out Fortuna as the cause of their unhappiness and curse her as a liar and a strumpet. In a Christian society, it was a lot more appealing to blame a pagan goddess than a loving, Christian god, (which would probably be considered blasphemous). Now you see why she has become a popular scapegoat for misfortune in tragedy. At the same time, all tragedy raises questions about the nature of free will; how much of bad fortune is the result of fate, and how much is a direct result of the character’s bad choices? Edmund in King Lear laughs at the notion of any kind of fate, and accuses all of humanity of shirking responsibility in this speech:

EDMUND

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! (King Lear, Act I, Scene ii).

At the same time, the audience also knows that Edmund was cursed by Fortune from the beginning, since he is the illegitimate child of the Duke of Gloucester, which might prove exactly the opposite point of his speech. He may act like he is absolute in his free will, but his behavior and his violent end suggests otherwise. So when characters curse Fortune or Fortuna in Shakespeare’s plays, take a look at the language they use to characterize this abstract concept. The way we think about luck or fate helps shape our perspective of our own lives, and therefore how playwrights depict this mysterious goddess helps us see the possibilities of human choice, and maybe help us make better choices than the tragic men who slander her in these plays!

For more insight into this topic: Click here to listen to my podcast about this week’s post:
https://www.buzzsprout.com/45002/284936-the-shakespearean-student-episode-6-o-fortuna

For Further Reading:

  1. Brittanica.com: Fortuna: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Fortuna-Roman-goddess
  2. Internet Shakespeare Editions: Fortuna in Medieval Drama: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/drama/early%20tragedies/medievaltragedy.html#boethius 
  3. Encyclopedia Mythica: Fortune: http://pantheon.org/areas/mythology/europe/roman/articles.html
  4. The Obscure Goddess Online Dictionary: http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/fortuna.html