On the anniversary of what we can say for certain was Shakespeare’s death, 23rd April, The Mortal Bath presents a brief yet helpful guide to some of the Immortal Bard’s greatest works.
“Beware the Ides of March”, said the soothsayer, to confusion in Caesar’s train. This cryptic and seemingly inconsequential message means little to a man poised on the verge of wresting total control of Rome’s cutthroat world of salad dressings. Unfortunately, within the leafy confines of the Capitol, feelings of dislike for Caesar run high as his ambitions grow. During Rome’s fine-dining contest ‘A Dish for the Gods’, Caesar falls victim to assassination. The conspiracy is led by his closest friend Bluto, who bludgeons him to death with a can of spinach.
Also known as Otello, and William Tello in the Swiss version, this tragedy explores some of Elizabethan Britain’s fanciful and often frankly bollocks notions of race. Brabantio’s famous description of Othello as a ‘base Moor/ black enough of blackness that may suffer/ therein or may not a burned hotness’ remains powerful and undiminished centuries later despite being utterly incomprehensible. The plot of the play concerns a luckless general in the Venetian cavalry, recently returned from manoeuvres with the Swiss Navy. Othello falls prey to the machinations of Iago, who resents him for having more consonants in his name. Through a series of diabolical intrigues, and diabolical audience asides, Iago implicates Othello’s wife, Desmonddecker, in an affair with Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. Othello slays his wife for playing the trumpet in his bed. Cassio has the last laugh as he lends his name to a range of cheap electrical products.
The Merchant of Venice
Shy Lock and his brothers Chubb and Mortice aim to utterly control the slatted blinds market in Italy. In a complex sequence of financial shenanigans, he loans Antonio, who owns a fleet of ships, 3,000 ducats to secure Bassoonio a wife, but insists on forfeiture of the loan being paid in ‘a pound of flesh’. In addition to the problems created by these ambiguous terms, in the event the pound of flesh is devalued in the wake of strikes by dockers and the ongoing Eurozone crisis. Shylock eventually leaves Venice when his Porsche is impounded following a successful counter-lawsuit. Critical arguments regarding Shakespeare’s apparently heavy-handed anti-Semitism have led many to suggest that The Merchant of Venice is better categorised as a ‘problem play’ than a comedy. Yet it was of course the success of this farce that led Shakespeare to compose ‘Good Morning Copenhagen!’, a screwball effort that fell foul of the compositors and was rendered virtually unrecognisable as the unplayable, unwatchable, dour four hour text marathon ‘Hamlet’.
What to say: “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
What not to say: “What’s up doge?”
Timon of Athens
Generations have been charmed by this tale of a lowly meerkat, who fights prejudice to rise to a prominent role in the democratic Greek ekklesia. This play is also noted for introducing the word ‘simples’ to the English language.
Antony and Cleopatra
One of Shakespeare’s more mature works, this is one of a grouping known in the canon as “conjunction plays,” along with Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida and Titus and Ronicus. The famous couple in this story meet during a time of great tension for Rome; Marc Antony has left his wife, Jennylopia, and has taken up with Cleopatra in Egypt, to the dismay of his fellow Triumvirs Octavius and Lepidus. Lepidus in particular seethes with resentment, although this may be due partially to his having the same name as a virulent skin disorder. It is only a matter of time before Cleopatra and Antony’s relationship collapses under public scrutiny; on Antony’s death, Cleopatra drifts into a bizarre twilight world of insanity, marketing her own perfume, Asp, with which she later drinks herself to death. It is difficult to have any sympathy for the character of Enobarbus, whose name is remembered to this day as a constituent ingredient of Diet Coke. He is viewed as a bridge between the Egyptian and Roman worlds, finally dying when trampled by a cohort taking a shortcut back from Actium. Shakespeare was unapologetic about any of this. ‘I do but write ’em as I do see ’em,’ he told his wife, Anne of Green Gables.
This brief, yet helpful, guide to Shakespeare has been in my files for a long while. I’ve actually lost the hand-written original, which I’m sure had several other works in it, but that’s Shakespeare for you. There’ll be a Quarto and Folio edition.
As well as Shakeymas, I was inspired to dust it off by some holiday homework submitted by a Year 8 class I teach. Asked to research and write about three Shakespearean villains, they all went straight to Google and put in ‘shakespeare villains’. Then they all went to either toptenz.net or Shakespeare Online for their lists of baddies. The top two search results. Then they all picked the goriest sounding villains.
I know all this because a) I checked and b) they all copied virtually the same three sections word for word. Still, at least I got to do a stern address about the difference between creative use of resources and plagiarism. So yes. I do hope that unchecked reference to the aforegoing gets someone’s knuckles rapped for being a lazy sod.