Old Favorites: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

A while back I made a vow to ignore the pulsating mediocrity of our degenerate film industry and embrace film classicism. This hasn’t exactly panned out how I envisioned it, as there’s only so much scratch you can throw around for Criterion Blu-Rays when you have mouths to feed. However, a flash sale enabled me to get my hands on an old favorite: Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth. It goes under the title “Throne of Blood”, and I was first introduced to it in my younger days.

Its plot recreates Macbeth entirely, making only changes in naming and dialogue (Washizu, the Macbeth of this story, copies MacBeth’s first line “So fair and foul a day I have not seen,” pretty fully, though). In the place of Medieval Scotland, we have Spider’s Web Castle, seat of a powerful daimyo (the petty kings of Medieval Japan), which appears at the opening and closing of the film as an ruin with a monument, like Shelley’s Ozymandias. There’s an idea that while the past may be dead and buried, and the things that animated ancient struggles nothing more than vanity and chasing after wind, nevertheless their ghosts still haunt us. The past is past, but it is also prologue, even if we don’t fully understand the story.

Re-setting the Macbeth tale of ambition, regicide, tyranny, and comeuppance in Japan allows the cruel nihilism of the story to find a spiritual home in that country’s Zen and Shinto worldview. Shakespeare’s play ignores Catholicism, letting the Heathen witches dominate the tale, giving Macbeth an oracular doom he is no more able to counteract than Oedipus was. In Throne of Blood, the Three Wierd Sisters become a Single Spirt, a kami that laughs at man in a cosmic sense, a being unto-death. He is not here to corrupt Washizu, to accomplish some chaotic goal. He simply does not care, because there is nothing to care about. Life is to be glorious and short, like the cherry blossom. What else would it be?

Another element of the story is it’s staging. Elements of traditional Noh acting and costuming were brought in. This lends the film a genuinely wierd and primal tone, in keeping with a tale of blood and thunder. Everyone looks like they’re about ready to burst under the strain of struggling. This is especially true of the Lady Macbeth composite, Asaji, who’s makeup renders her visage nearly demonic. She has an expanded role in this production, the constant needle in Washizu’s heart, twisting him to further his ambition. Kill or Be Killed, she wheedles, stoking dead coals of fear into bright bloody deeds. I’ve always considered Lady MacBeth to be all talk, as incapable of using a dagger as she is of conceiving a child. Throne of Blood doesn’t upend that conception as much as illustrate the power of talk, the devilish way rhetoric can get inside our heads. Gorgias would be proud.

The critical hot take is that this is the best film of MacBeth there is. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom said it was the only successful version. I would disagree, as the most recent version with Michael Fassbender has a bold and striking production value, and Fassbender breathes life into the title character better than any version I’ve seen. But Throne of Blood, in cutting the story loose from its usual setting, lets us see the character and drama apart from the obligatory Bardolatrous reverence. That is a great service, worthy of renown.

Shakespeare in Original Pronunciation

Or OP, as they call it.

 

My first impression is that it sounds very Celtic, which is odd, as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and their Norman overlords were none of them Celts. I must be wrong about that, then.

My second is that the lines flow with a musicality that they do not with modern pronunciation, and they aren’t any harder to follow than Shakespeare’s thoughts are anyway. Fascinating stuff.

Thanks to Twentytwowords.

The Oxfordians Done Found Me!

William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623Some time ago, I put up a quick post called “Oxfordians: The Birthers of the Elizabethan Renaissance“, taking on the grammar-school argument of Oxfordians. This has at last earned a reply, from one earlofoxford17. I post it below, intermingled with my responses:

If “grammar school” in Elizabethan England was such a “cradle of serious learning,” and Stratford school, which Shakspere MAY have attended, was the intellectual equal of Harvard, then where are all the works of all the geniuses that were there at the same time? Why isn’t English literature filthy with Shakespeares?

I think you can do better than this. The argument is that someone who went to a 16th-century grammar school could have written Shakespeare’s plays, not that everyone who went there would do so. I can easily reverse the terms of your response: if Harvard, or Oxford, or Cambridge, are such cultural powerhouses, why don’t they graduate a flock of Shakespeares every term? In any case, Shakespeare didn’t learn how to write plays in school. Shakespeare learned to write plays from acting in plays and working on plays with other playwrights. Shakespeare’s real teachers were Kyd (graduate of the Merchant Taylor’s School), and Marlowe (who did go to Cambridge), and the rest of the crew. As MFA’s in Theater did not exist in those days, I can’t imagine where else he would have learned it.

The mystery is that many of the sources that Shakespeare uses were available only as manuscripts, owned by wealthy individuals. How did Shakspere gain entrance to those private libraries without leaving a trace? Why is there no mention by anyone that “Good Will Shakespeare visited my library Tuesday last…”? Why is there no mention of a living breathing Shakespeare until Ben Johnson claims AFTER HIS DEATH to have employed him as an actor?

Why would there be? As a playwright, Didn’t Shakespeare occupy a social position somewhere between a pimp and witch? Isn’t the whole crux of the Oxford theory that Mr. de Vere had to use a stand-in to produce his plays, because for an aristocrat to write for the stage was unseemly? More to the point, does this circumstantial evidence exist for ANY of the Elizabethan playwrights? Is there a “Thomas Kyd was in my library today” or a “I lent Good Ben Jonson my copy of Plautus”? I myself doubt how necessary it would have been for Shakespeare to pour through these valuable texts to write what he did. No one has ever accused Shakespeare of putting too much accurate detail into his plays (Bohemia has a coastline?). He knew the basics and ran with them. Creativity and spirit are what we prize in Shakespeare, not rigid formulations of Classical form, such as Sir Phillip Sydney trafficked in. By the same token, how much real history would Marlowe have needed in order to write Tamberlaine the Great? Recall that the historical person of Timur the Lame was nearly two centuries and half a world away from Marlowe. What sources did he use? Where is the evidence that he had access to them?

The doubt about Stratford springs from the realization that the story of the famous playwrite is not backed by evidence on the ground. Had he written one or two plays we might be able to accept his intangibleness, but the Stratford story demands a very public individual over a considerable period of time.

No, it demands evidence of a playwright at a time when no one particularly cared about playwrights. No one asked Shakespeare what he thought about the Spanish Armada, or whether the Queen ought to marry, or if the Book of Common Prayer was maybe a bit too la-de-da. Shakespeare wrote plays, and people liked them. Expecting his contemporaries to look at him with our historically-dazzled eyes is a bit silly. Which could explain why Ben Jonson thought to mention him later, because he saw Shakespeare’s name vanishing, and thought that unjust. Shakespeare’s works fell right out of fashion in the 17th Century, and only enjoyed a revival in the 18th. We are forced to conclude that Shakespeare did not become SHAKESPEARE until well after his mortal coil was shuffled off.

At a time when paper was rare and used until it was covered, no one thought to save a souvineer of the famous man. Or even record in there diary that they met him…

I’m sorry, I don’t follow this. What does the scarcity of paper have to do with souvineers?

The conclusion is that the name Shakespeare was not famous in his day, but that rocks the Stratford foundation..the story of a fulltime writer /actor /heavy drinker in London at the same time as he was a businessman in Stratford is just not supported by the reams of letters, manuscripts and receipts that would be left behind. But despite no real evidence to support it, the theory is still there, but the emperor has no clothes.

I was given to understand that there was no shortage of evidence on Shakespeare’s business dealings in Stratford. Given that playwrights were paid only a pittance for their work, I don’t see why a man who earns his living one way and lives his dream in another is so wildly implausible. And forgive the repetition, but do you expect this standard of attestation for Shakespeare’s peers? How much evidence is there that explicitly spells out how Thomas Nashe earned a living from writing The Choice of Valentines? Or denotes how Ben Jonson made ends meet? And if the lack of evidence is so damning, consider this: when the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays were published in 1623, both De Vere and Shakespeare were long dead. There was no longer anyone to protect from the truth: de Vere’s son Henry was in prison for mouthing off about Buckingham, so no one would care if his dad’s theatrical activities were finally outed. So why did Hemminges and Condell keep up the lie? Why did Ben Jonson write a poem to preface it? What point had the conspiracy when everyone who could have been hurt by it was dead and buried? Or if they did not know, why did no one come forward? Where is the evidence that anyone in 1623 doubted that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

The Yuletime Haul of Books: Trenches, Emperors, and the Knave Doth Abide

Like a Bandit, I made out. Like a bandit.

“Hand over the Literature and No one Gets Hurt”

The list:

  1. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars – Still reading it, and while i detect clunky moments, when it’s on, it sizzles.
  2. Two Gentlemen of Lebowski – A friend of mine summed it up as “so much more spot-on than necessary.” I concur.
  3. World War One: A Short History – “In four years the world went from 1870 to 1940.” If anyone’s written a better sentence about this cataclysm, I have yet to read it.
  4. Poitiers 732: Charles Martel Turns the Islamic TideThe Dark Ages have always fascinated me. Still working on it, but the expansion of Odo of Aquitaine’s role in the conflict is refreshing.
  5. TiberiusAs part of the ongoing Caligula Project. It’s a quick read, and plausible. I always figured Tiberius got a bum rap, and it was nice to see a veering from Livia as the all-powerful Spider Queen.
  6. Camp of the SaintsControversial books that get translated into English? What’s not to love?
  7. And Another Thing… Well, I asked for it, didn’t I?