Ah, it’s been a while, but it’s time for another instalment in this sad chronicle of inane Shakespeareana.
This one is painful, I have to admit. It’s one thing to have actors spout nonsense, or to get to listen to a once-important historian with no established expertise in the subject; but this time, it’s Nicholas Hytner, the director of Britain’s National Theatre and one of the more prominent Anglophone theatre directors currently working. He may not be one of the greatest Shakespeare directors around (his biggest successes have been West End musicals), but he has a number of significant productions to his name; the only one I can recall seeing is the recent National Theatre Hamlet with Rory Kinnear in the title role — that one featured a very compelling Hamlet surrounded by a messy and occasionally dreadful production (with Claudius as one of the low points). Still. One would expect a high-profile director, and one in as prominent a position as Hytner, to have at least a reasonably sound idea of what he’s talking about.
Unfortunately, if his recent article in the Guardian is a reliable indication, he does not. In fact, the piece is so chock-full of strange claims, mischaracterizations, exaggerations, and ill-informed observations that bullet points are the only way forward:
– The opening line: “A novel can tell you everything you want to know about what it’s trying to say, but plays are by definition incomplete.” So before we even get to Shakespeare, one thing’s already clear: Hytner has no idea how literature works. (He’s not wrong, of course, in saying that plays are incomplete. But so are novels. They’re just differently incomplete.)
– “They are instructions for performance, like musical scores, and they need players to become music.” I am reliably informed that people expert at reading scores can “hear” the music in their heads. One presumes composers can. But of course plays aren’t like musical scores. They are works of literature and can be read as such — have been read as such for many centuries. One can argue that a play read is a very different thing from a play performed; one may prefer a performance of a play to reading it. But the assertion that plays require actors is simply empirically false.
– “Working on Hamlet, Rory Kinnear and I repeatedly found that Shakespeare simply left stuff out – stuff that would have made the play last as long as War and Peace if he’d put it in.” Ooh. Revelation alert! Representations are incomplete. The comparison to Tolstoy seems to imply that plays are more incomplete than novels, that War and Peace is as long as it is because it spells all sorts of things out in tedious detail, whereas plays are much more economical; Shakespeare in particular apparently works largely by implication.
In Hytner’s specific example, what’s absent from the play is a clear sense of what Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship was like before the action of the play begins: “It feels like there’s a missing scene near the start of the play that shows you how they are with each other before things start to go wrong.” Does it really? Does “it” also “feel like there’s a missing scene” that shows you how Claudius and Gertrude were with each other before old Hamlet got it in the ear? Or a scene that reveals the relationship between Hamlet and R&G at Wittenberg? Or one that replicates the exchange between King and Queen in the “Mousetrap,” but with old Hamlet and Gertrude? Or the fight between old Fortinbras and old Hamlet? Or what about the ending of the play — doesn’t that feel awfully incomplete? Does Fortinbras ever find out exactly what Hamlet’s story was? Why wouldn’t Shakespeare tell us?
The answer isn’t, as far as Hytner is concerned, that all forms of representation — from news reports to epic poems — are essentially incomplete (especially on the level of plot elements!). It’s that Hamlet is different — and better! — than other works, especially those awful long novels, because it is incomplete: “The genius of the play, as opposed to, say, War and Peace, is that it implies multitudes as much as it contains them.” Put that in your pipes and smoke it, silly novelists, speller-outers of the literary world.
– And how did Shakespeare manage to rely so much on implication? It’s because unlike all those pedantic novelists, he “was an actor, and he leaves a lot of the work to his actors. The text forces any Hamlet to ask questions, which he answers through the way he delivers it. What did he feel for Ophelia? What does he feel now? What does he want from her? What – within himself and in Denmark – makes it impossible for him to trust himself or trust the world around him? A play’s meaning is conferred on it by the act of playing it. In the way he said ‘I did love you once,’ Kinnear told you in five words what might have taken Tolstoy five chapters.” I’m as fond of actors as anyone. I love the theatre. But Christ, what a load of tosh. More importantly, what a load of tosh about the theatre!
Sure, Shakespeare leaves a lot of work to his actors — and “his” directors, and “his” set designers, and “his” dramaturges, and “his” composers, and “his” audiences. BUT WHAT PLAYWRIGHT DOESN’T? Can you imagine the sheer unmanageable dullness of a play that spelled out all the detail Hytner thinks an actors has to discover? EVERY play forces actors to ask questions and to make choices — that’s what acting is. (Which is also why performing a play is not just an act of interpretation: if it were, then the play would actually contain answers to all those questions somehow, somewhere. More often than not, it doesn’t. Acting then becomes the art of finding common ground between the character the actor is creating and the character as created in the text. That’s collaboration, not interpretation.)
Most absurd, however, is not the idea that Shakespeare is unique in leaving work to be done. It’s the notion that any actor’s delivery of the line “I did love you once” could conceivably communicate the answers to all those questions as clearly and explicitly as five chapters of prose might. Whether an actor actually needs to understand all the issues Hytner lists clearly and needs to make specific choices about all of them before he can deliver Hamlet’s line “properly” is open for debate (I frankly doubt it), but it strikes me as obviously preposterous to claim that all those ideas, understandings, and choices can then be crammed into and communicated through the delivery of a single line. That’s not how acting works; that’s not how language works; that’s not how listening works.
Having compared and contrasted Shakespeare with Tolstoy and having established the vast superiority of performed plays over novels, Hytner moves on to celebrate the superior ability of actors to interpret plays — an effort in which people of my ilk become his straw men.
– His opening salvo is a nice little anecdote about David Calder’s take on Polonius’s tedious bits of advice for his son. In Calder’s reading of the lines, Hytner says, “to thine own self be true” became a mournful moment of self-reflection, of Polonius’s realization that he himself has failed to live up that ideal. That’s a nice rehearsal moment. It’s certainly an interesting take on the character. I don’t think there’s anything in the text of Hamlet to back it up, but who cares: it makes for an intriguing and rarely-seen version of the character, and that, as far as I’m concerned, is all that matters in a performance. But what Calder was doing was not an “interpretation” of “Shakespeare” at all. Instead, his choice serves as an illustration of what I argued earlier: that a performance doesn’t simply interpret a play, far less translates a playtext into a different format, but builds its own work of art out of the text. Whether Calder’s Polonius is in Shakespeare’s play “as written” or nor doesn’t matter; what matters is whether Calder’s Polonius works within the context of Hytner’s production of Hamlet.
– This is not how Hytner sees it, though. He thinks what Calder provided him was an “insight into Shakespeare.” Some insight, it turns out: “I knew immediately that the Calder Polonius had helped Claudius assassinate the old king, and was tortured by his own treachery. I started to think that the old king was probably a disaster for Denmark, that – like Richard II – he had to go.” “Knowledge” has a different meaning to Hytner than to me. Again, though: good for him. If that’s how he wants to refashion Hamlet, why not? I don’t recall noticing any of that logic in the production, but I must have been distracted.
But it turns out that Hytner isn’t interested in creating his own Hamlet. Kind of astonishingly, he believes “knowing” and “thinking” these things is the same as interpreting the play: “This was the real Shakespeare: an actor who provides for other actors a myriad of ways of telling his stories and of being his characters. His intuitive openness to interpretation is mistaken for complexity. His relish for ambiguity is taken as a challenge to those who would pin him down. But they are functions of his calling: he writes plays.”
I frankly have no idea whatsoever what half of this means. Is complexity now a bad word? Is Hytner saying Shakespeare is really simple, as long as you understand that you have to make up half the story — and that you should do that, because that’s “interpretation”? That Shakespeare, although not “complex” (because that’s bad), did like “ambiguity” (which is good?) — but that we shouldn’t think of that ambiguity as a challenge? And that when an actor confronts all the questions he may have about Hamlet and Ophelia, he is not “pinning” Shakespeare “down,” although he is, presumably, as far as Hytner is concerned, reducing Shakespeare’s “ambiguity”? And finally, how do we know that Shakespeare’s “openness to interpretation” was “intuitive” rather than hard-won?
– There follow two paragraphs of guff about Hytner often not understanding Shakespeare’s language himself, and about verse speaking (he writes that he likes actors “who speak Shakespeare as if it is their first language,” because only non-native speakers of languages have a habit of drawing attention to their language; tell that to Shakespeare…). Then a paragraph turning on the extremely problematic claim that Leontes in The Winter’s Tale “stops making sense to the audience when he stops making sense to himself,” which, as I read the play, is about as wrong-headed a claim as I can readily think of (it quite precisely reverses the logic of Leontes’ discourse).
– Then he says something marginally sensible about modernizing bits of Shakespeare to help modern audiences with comprehension, but apparently that’s only 1% of the text: “I don’t want to overdo this: 99% of the original text does just fine. But it’s all of it provisional in the sense that it’s waiting to be completed by its actors.” What “just fine” means is very much debatable, but never mind: we’re back on track, back to the subject of actors making the text complete.
– And here’s where Hytner turns to his current production of Othello and the question of Iago. I’ll just quote the whole lot:
It has often been noted that Iago’s “motiveless malignancy” in fact comes, in his soliloquies, with a superfluity of motives, as if he himself has difficulty locating the source of his depravity. What Shakespeare has done, of course, is to pay his fellow actor the compliment of trusting him to complete Iago for himself. He provides the actor with a solid enough starting point: Iago is consumed by the promotion of Cassio. But thereafter, the play works overtime not to lock Iago down, and seems to invite the actor to allow himself to be surprised by what happens to Iago: a man driven by envy and hatred, who isn’t fully in control of what happens next (as none of us is), to whom the action of the play occurs spontaneously – as life happens to all of us.
The desire of literary critics over four centuries to solve Iago as if he were a puzzle seems to me to be missing the point. The solution is the actor. The playwright writes from the premise that the dots can’t be joined on the page, and writes with the confidence of an actor who knows that, if they are any good, his colleagues will do the rest of the job for him. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, and what he knew was that he had no idea who Iago or Cleopatra – or even Snug the Joiner – were going to turn out to be.
So much to say, so little time and patience. First of all, the biggest and most hollow straw man: the idea that literary critics have spent the past 400 years trying to solve Iago, dumbly unaware that only actors can do that. Sure, there have been such critical efforts. But the notion of Iago’s “motiveless malignity” isn’t exactly new. Coleridge coined it nearly two-hundred years ago. He also noted the over-abundance of motives — in the same sentence, in fact (“The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity–how awful!”). Coleridge no more treated Iago as a puzzle than an actor might: his answer was that all the various reasons he states for his actions are basically rationalizations covering a deeper resentment: “Iago … is represented as now assigning one, and then another, and again a third, motive for his conduct, all alike the mere fictions of his own restless nature, distempered by a keen sense of his intellectual superiority, and haunted by the love of exerting power, on those especially who are his superiors in practical and moral excellence.” What Coleridge was doing, in the early 19th century, is what a contemporary actor trained in a particular mode of psychological realism would also do: discover the subtext. That’s not solving a puzzle; the contradiction remain in place as contradictions. In fact, they matter and are significant precisely because they are contradictory, since that signals that the coherent driving force lies elsewhere. It’s one way of reading the text, and one way of thinking about the character, and its an approach shared by some actors and some critics.
Personally, I prefer to think of Shakespeare as a dramatist who writes characters, not real people — Hytner may call Iago a “man,” I prefer thinking of him as a figure. Thus I would prefer to think of the process of “acting” Iago not as a process of “completion” that resolves the puzzle, but as one that highlights the character’s puzzling construction, that leaves Iago baffling, and frightening because he’s so baffling. That’s a matter of preference, but I would note that this “literary critic” at least is considerably more interested in keeping the puzzle in place than the theatre director who accuses my sort of trying to solve Iago. It may also be worth noting that not only was the concept of Iago as a “motiveless Malignity” coined by a poet writing as a literary critic, it’s also recently been readdressed under the broader term of Shakespeare’s “strategic opacity” by Stephen Greenblatt — and those are only two examples representative of the many critics who have discussed and developed the notion that Shakespeare is a writer who relies on various strategies of elusiveness. This is not an insight alien to literary scholars.
Beyond all that, though, I’m truly perplexed to learn just how boring Hytner wants Shakespeare’s play to be once it’s “completed.” Filling in the gaps in Hamlet by inventing an elaborate backstory for Polonius and then compressing it, diamond-like in clarity and splendour, into an actor’s flinch at least had the virtue of eccentricity. His response to the gaps left by Iago’s explanations is breathtakingly pat: shit happens. Seriously? The Shorter Hytner: Iago does what he does, how and when he does it, because, well, “life happens to all of us.” Iago’s just like you and me, man. He’s a leaf on the wind: watch how he soars.
I have no doubt that Rory Kinnear’s Iago will be vastly more interesting than this aggressively bland vision promises, but what’s clear after this article is that Nicholas Hytner won’t deserve any credit for that. The funny thing is that Hytner seems entirely unconscious of the fact that he is guilty of the very error with which he charges literary critics: he, too, thinks he has solved Iago. The problem isn’t so much that he’s just wrong about what literary critics do. Nor is it his apparent unawareness of what he himself is doing. Those are issues, and they’re vexing, but so be it. The problem also isn’t that his “solution” misreads the play (it may or may not). The real problem, the thing that makes this article a very poor effort from a directorial perspective, is simply that his solution is so very boring. “Life happens to all of us” is just about the dullest premise for a production of Othello I can imagine. It’s the opposite of Hytner’s delirious Hamlet-principle of compressing a world of ideas and stories into a shiny little shrug or a diamond-like five-word sentence: instead of what Iago is in the text, a wealth of fascinating contradictions and hyperactive speech-making, of maddening hints and unsettling puzzles, all Hytner offers us here is a Hallmarky, prosaic lump of coal. Puzzle solved.
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