Fever to the Form
The inevitable has happened; I have reached the stage in my university career at which I feel compelled to write a blog post affected by something I heard in a lecture hall, between sending off copious snapchats to all those friends I definitely have and going through the photos of me and said definitely-existent friends on my phone… My apologies. I should warn now that it was a lecture on the nature of theatricality in Shakespeare’s work, so any of you hoping to hear some cutting edge insights from a lecturer at the zenith of his field’s research should look away now (and also probably lower your expectations a little, at this rate your future girl/boyfriend is going to face an unfair struggle to keep your interest).
The idea that caught my attention was that what set Shakespeare’s works apart from his contemporaries’, was that he veered away from natural theatrical form – ie: actors giving a realistic or artistic portrayal of conversations/interactions/fights etc – towards a more literary approach to script-writing. When Noel Gallagher described Shakespeare as ‘fucking gibberish’, he wasn’t completely 100% unjustified; the conversations in Shakespearean plays don’t resemble the way real human beings act at all. In Titus Andronicus, Marcus stumbles upon Lavinia, his niece, who has had her tongue and hands cut off. How does he react? He goes off on this fucking long speech about how sorry he is that she’s been mutilated, and goes so far as to describe her injuries in poetic detail. For the love of God, don’t tell her how ‘ a crimson river of warm blood, Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind, Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips’, do something about it you pretentious twat!
Moments like this might seem like a grievous lack of logic on Shakespeare’s part, if one judges his plays as attempts at basic theatre. However this would be a mistake; it is part of the nature of Shakespeare’s form that his plays use speech to give commentary on the plays’ events and themes in a poetic sense; even the stupidest characters talk in a way that mere simpletons such as you and I would find impossible to pull off without preparation. The most flattering way of looking at these kind of discrepancies is to consider Shakespeare’s works functioning both as plays and as dialogues (such as those by Plato) which use characters to put across grand ideas in a – relatively – digestible manner. In simpler terms: pay for a story and get some philosophy for free alongside it.
What struck me about this idea is that it applies to so many other forms of popular arts in the 21st century. The particular example that struck me when browsing Reddit (aaaaand there goes my last shred of faux-journalistic dignity) was a trailer for the film adaptation of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars. Having read the book I can say this; don’t take your girlfriend to see this film, the rivers of tears she sheds may likely cause death by dehydration. Anyway the immediate issue the trailer put forward (helpfully highlighted by Reddit user u/arabesque91) was that some of the character’s lines just didn’t sound right coming out of the mouths of a real life teenager. The book gives a convincing and thought-provoking insight into love and death through the eyes of a teenager, crystallising reactions to both perfectly into commentary that reads like the choice cuts of a diary, but on screen some of the lines just don’t seem like things actual teenagers would spontaneously say.
This is the struggle that all scriptwriters face; one’s treatises and conceptual speeches may flow beautifully on paper, but when thrown into the stark light of cinema they need to sound like something someone might actually say. You stop a film dead in its tracks when a previously credible character suddenly turns around and delivers a perfect monologue summing up the message of the film. This is perfectly fine when it comes to children’s films which anchor themselves in the rejection of reality (timely-2014-example: The Lego Movie), but such corniness is out of place adult films evaluated by realism. I personally find that the films which really excite me are those which weave their messages and observations into the fabric of the story.
My timely-2014-example of this working perfectly is the beautiful new Spike Jonze film Her, a near-future science fiction tale of a man who falls in love with his computer’s sentient AI operating system (like siri, but with genius level intellect, emotions and Scarlett Johansson’s inexplicably enticing voice). Her‘s world, events and characters are all completely believable, pushing just ever so slightly at the imagination, at just the right angle so as to invigorate one to stop and think about what they’re watching. The film doesn’t end with a speech about what love, identity or a relationship is, even if the implications of its plot beg these questions, it just naturally inspires the viewer to see them in a new light.
Shakespeare drew audiences of hundreds into the Globe theatre with promises of shock and laughter, and as they stood entranced he subtly nudged them to think about large, complex ideas that affect everyone. 500 years later, the greatest film-makers face the challenge of doing the same for audiences of millions, the potential of which one can only imagine would have electrified Shakespeare. Please do comment below with any films you personally find achieve this best, be they obvious or unexpected.