In his own order

Last week I got into a debate over the virtues of the new project to rewrite Shakespeare. This is being done by novelists who are taking the plays, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale and working the text over in their own ways. It is for publication in 2016 for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Far from seeing anything wrong in this project I think in the hands of the writers so far engaged it will be a stimulating exercise. It will reveal our era’s view of the texts, as language, and as social documents. This is true in at least two of the plays, and as Howard Jacobson said of his intended job with The Merchant of Venice there are various layers in that play to peel which were not apparent to the writer, or the audience, at the time the play was written.

The debate, if it can be called that, was not on the project but over the reverence, or otherwise, of even doing such a thing. My interlocutor was of the view that the works were immortal and that any modernisation was a kind of travesty. Revamping, or whatever it is, can be just meddling – it’s something directors do with plays to show they have a rare insight, but does not often reward the audience.

While the text is paramount some adjustments can be justified as beneficial to the work. A blanket statement that no one has reason to touch the texts, especially when society has changed so much in its attitudes, is obscurantist.

The Merchant of Venice despite some good construction, and certainly two of the most memorable speeches in all of the plays, hinges on a plot twist of such banality as to negate its effect because the plotting seals Shylock’s fate for any easy – and unlikely – ending to satisfy a chauvinistic Christian audience. It demands that the audience accept that Shylock did not know contracts and was outwitted on a technicality, which, as a trader he would have foreseen all too well. His oversight then leads to his abject degradation. It is unjustified and offensive, both to the character and to a contemporary audience which has seen so many police and legal procedural dramas that it can easily see through Shakespeare’s lazy plotting.

The conversation on this play and others was left unfinished. It did not, as occurred in Russia this week, resolve for the worse. That disagreement was over a dispute about Kant. Which argument of Kant’s led to such a bitter fight has not been revealed but I feel a connection here as two of the stories in Nine Avenues were inspired by Kant.

That two men feel such passion about the moral, or perhaps it was the epistemological arguments, of the philosopher that they let their fists do the talking. It’s something that Norman Mailer might have approved of and says a lot about the country. Maybe they were reliving a Dostoevskian episode as characters by that writer are given to demonstrate their moral courage by producing pistols and declaring high-minded, if slightly witless, things about the meaning of life. Whatever the reason it shows more soul than if they were arguing over the strikers of Dynamo Moscow compared to CSKA Moscow.

Guy Cranswick
17th September 2013


Tony Two-Times

Early in the movie Goodfellas, Henry Hill introduces his associates in a pushing shot through a club and one of the men, Jimmy Two-Times, is shown rising from a chair saying,” I’m gonna go get the paper, get the papers”. Henry tells us that he’s called Jimmy Two-Times because he says everything twice which rather hammers the point when we’ve already seen and heard him do it.

Jimmy Two-Times has been an echo in the past five weeks, as the democratic process has rumbled on and the habits of main contestants has become more evident. Like many echoes it wasn’t quite clear where and why he should come up and now of all times; Jimmy Two-Times is a character in movie, and only a minor one, too.

Then it began to dawn on me. The two men who have put themselves before the public speak a form of language which relies more on insistent repetition than qualified reasoning. This linguistic style is similar to the type that teachers of very small children might use to make their commands utterly clear. “Everyone stand in line and be quiet – in a line and be quiet.” Or, “Have your milk first and then go out to play. Milk first – then play.”

Those small examples illustrate where public political rhetoric has sunk. The simplicity and almost imperative form means it’s quite easy for the average five year old to comprehend what the adults are saying. Fiscal and defense policy along with tax credit alterations are so much easier to grasp this way than in the long and wordy grown-up way.

This phenomenon may be an indication of where political discourse is heading, where marketing and social media are changing the articulation of ideas. It might even have wider implications as perhaps another sign of the deterioration of educational standards and decay of a literate society. There may be some wider causes for further analysis but the principal one is the media, specifically TV, which demands a 3 second edit and the main message condensed into a brand message – a brand message being the sine qua non of the media.

Although common it seems that no one really likes this habit; the print media ridicule it, the public are frustrated by it, and, as an extreme form of reductionism it often becomes unintelligent. There is however, nothing to be done, politicians and the media coexist in a parasitical state and no person or party can change it.

The dreadful consequence is that one of its best practitioners is the heir apparent, the one most likely to carry his fortunes to high office. Tony Two-Times is a master of the emphatic repetition. Where this form of verbal underlining might be used in the accomplished speaker to mark a resonant phrase, an image – even a metaphor – but when Tony Two-Times gets hold of it, it’s a dead phrase flogged into an imperative. When spoken it twitches with life on a grinning mouth and then falls utterly dead again, only to be resuscitated by the TV media as willing accomplices as they broadcast the key brand message of that day.

This is what Newspeak became.

Guy Cranswick
5th September 2013