Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Note: Undiscovered Country

Enger, Lin. Undiscovered Country. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008.

I've reserved this book for the finale of our series of Book Notes on Literature Inspired by Shakespeare.

Lin Enger's Undiscovered Country transposes the plot of Hamlet to northern Minnesota. It is exquisite. The basic plot structure is present, but Enger has made copious alterations and additions to it—all of them fascinating and significant—and he has played with the characters to a considerable degree as well. Jesse Matson, the Hamlet analogue, has a brother much younger than he is, for example. And, in this telling of the plot, the rumor about the father's death isn't that a serpent stung him: it's that he committed suicide.

The novel is extremely compelling. I found myself completely lost in the story, only occasionally pulling myself out to contemplate its relation to Hamlet. I will need to read it again—and then re-read it—for both pleasure and for study. In fact, I'm thinking of adding it to the syllabus of a course I'm proposing for the spring (the course will be called "Literature Inspired by Shakespeare"). I imagine it provoking considerable discussion.

One passage I enjoyed particularly has the same kind of self-reflexivity of Hamlet itself. In it, Jesse explains to his friend Charlie—who is mostly a Horatio analogue, and who has also (some time earlier) lost a father due to an apparent suicide—that he saw his father's ghost (click on the image to enlarge it):

Undiscovered Country, pages 59-60.

I found it delightful to have this meta-narrative at work in the plot. A paragraph later, Jesse ponders the relationship between his earlier frustration with Hamlet's inaction and his own situation, deepening our appreciation of both:

Undiscovered Country, page 60.

The rest of the novel is filled with similar depth, as well as passages of lyric beauty and emotional complexity. There are also pleasing ambiguities scattered throughout. The possibility of an affair between the Gertrude analogue and the Claudius analogue is raised, explained away, raised again, and finally settled (though I won't tell you in what direction).

My recommendation about Undiscovered Country can be summed up in three words: "Read it now."

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Note: Wyrd Sisters

Prachett, Terry. Wyrd Sisters. London: Corgi, 2005.

In terms of enjoyable Shakespeare-related lunacy, you can do no better than Terry Prachett's Wyrd Sisters. I only learned of Prachett recently: a colleague who knew that I was teaching a course called Literature of Humor recommended him. After the first paragraph, I became quite angry—angry that no one had told me about him before! After the second paragraph, I said, "This author is doing to fantasy literature what Douglas Adams did to science fiction." After the third paragraph, I was rejoicing at the treasure trove of books by Prachett that lay before me.

This volume, which fits in Prachett's Discworld series (see the Wikipedia entry on the subject for more information), provides a humorous take on the Weïrd Sisters, as well as bits and pieces of other Shakespeare plays. It even includes a band of traveling players who contemplate their profession in very enjoyable prose.

Although I was completely ignorant of it, a large slice of the world has reveled in this book for over twenty years. It has been scripted as a play (by Stephen Briggs) and even (in 1997) released as a television mini-series in Britain.

Here's a selection of the opening chapter (click on the image to enlarge it to the level of legibility):

The novel is wacky and ludicrous by turns—and thoroughly enjoyable. Give it a try!

Links: The TV Mini-series at IMDB.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Note: Enter Three Witches

Cooney, Caroline B. Enter Three Witches. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.

Enter Three Witches, a Shakespeare-related young adult novel, offers a compelling and intriguing take on Macbeth. In a series of short vignettes at the beginning of the novel, Cooney establishes and develops her main characters—from that point on, I found it hard to put the book down.

The plot of Shakespeare's Macbeth is conveyed through the eyes of a number of characters, but the chief among them are Lady Mary, the daughter of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, living in the Macbeths' castle; Swin, a servant girl with a brusque exterior that she uses to hide a brusque interior (which, in turn, hides some good qualities); Ildred, a companion to Lady Macbeth and the holder of a secret; and Seyton and Fleance, who reprise their roles from the play and develop in interesting ways through the plot of the novel. Despite the title, the Weïrd Sisters don't take a prominent role. They are present, and they are powerful, but their role in the novel is more incidental than central.

I admire the novel's construction and its author's skill with both plot and language. Lady Mary, overlooked after her father's execution as a traitor, is able to observe many of the key scenes from Shakespeare's play unobserved and to contemplate and to comment on them as she does so. It's a clever device, and it's also cleverly used. The speeches she overhears are mostly modernized prose versions of Shakespeare's speeches (with the notable exception of "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow"), but the modernizing is done with a light touch that does not distract from the plot.

And Cooney doesn't pull any punches with the plot, though much of the violence takes place offstage. It's written for a younger audience, but I imagine that readers younger than eleven or so will be troubled by some elements in the story.

Enter Three Witches is one of the best Shakespeare-related young adult novels I've read recently. I highly recommend it—but don't start it until you have time enough to finish it! It will pull you in and refuse to let you go.

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Bonus Image: Alternate Cover for Enter Three Witches

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Shakespeare at the Grocery Store

Shakespeare, William. King John. Ed. E. A. J. Honigmann. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1981.
While walking through aisle 2B in my local grocery store (Was it 2B? I can't remember), I looked up and spotted the Shakespeare quote pictured above:
"My life, my joy, my food . . . " william shakespeare
I'll be quite honest. I didn't recognize the quotation—until I looked it up—and when I did, I began to wonder about its appropriateness (even though it's not from Titus Andronicus).

The quote comes from King John. Constance, the mother of Arthur, delivers these incredibly sad and moving lines after his death:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure! (III.iv.93-105)
I'm all for incorporating Shakespeare into all aspects of life—even grocery shopping—but the context of the speech is radically different from the store's use of the quote. Constance is bemoaning the fact that her very life, her spirit's joy, her soul's food is gone forever.

On the other hand, the quotation lists things that are important ingredients (sorry—an inadvertent pun, I assure you) to a happy life—while suggesting that the product the store sells is the life and the joy the quote speaks about.

Do you all have any thoughts on the subject or other examples of Shakespeare out of context?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale on DVD!

A Midwinter's Tale [a.k.a. In the Bleak Midwinter. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Richard Briers, Hetta Charnley, Joan Collins, Nicholas Farrell, Mark Hadfield, Gerard Horan, Celia Imrie, Michael Maloney, Jennifer Saunders, Julia Sawalha, and John Sessions. 1995. DVD. CR/WB, 2012.

While preparing an assignment sheet for my Shakespeare and Film class, I discovered that Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale has finally been released on DVD!

I've written about the film multiple times (for one of which, q.v.). But the film has been hard to track down—and it's been exclusively available in VHS. But I was thrilled to discover and I'm thrilled to announce that a DVD of the film has been released. Even though it apparently lacks the usual bells and whistles of the modern DVD, it is available, and that is an enormous step forward.

One of my favorite scenes involves the auditions. Watch this, and then see if you can resist buying the DVD immediately:


Complete kudos to whoever decided that it was time for a DVD release of this magnificent (and magnificently-funny) film.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2016 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest