Monologues not by Shakespeare

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Monologues not by Shakespeare. Tr. Marlous Lange Peters. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij International Theatre and Film Books, with Het Vijfde Bedrijf, 2016.
Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)

As the title suggests, this book contains a collection of one-(wo)man plays, or monologues, which were not written by Shakespeare but by contemporary authors, sometimes on their own, sometimes in collaboration, for the Dutch theatre company “Het vijfde bedrijf” (The Fifth Act). They may be “not by Shakespeare,” but most of them quote extensively from Shakespeare’s text, signalled by italics. Besides, they all revolve around one of Shakespeare’s characters. Usually these are the bystanders (Iago being the obvious exception), the minor characters in a tragedy, who are given an interior life of their own. In their foreword, The Fifth Act founders Sarah and Annemarie de Bruijn say that the plays show “what can be read between the lines, or into what Shakespeare, possibly out of pure foolhardiness, never wished to reveal” (9). Except for the longer opening piece, Lady M, a performance of which I wrote about for the Reviewing Shakespeare site, they were all developed for the 2013 The Hague Shakespeare Festival.
Perhaps Shakespeare did indeed withhold some details on the lives of his minor characters; yet on the whole, this collection reads more like ruminations on what Shakespeare’s plays mean to the twenty-first century, in which the peripheral role of a Horatio, a lady-in-waiting to Lady Macbeth, or a Lady Anne from Richard III can no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, some of these characters are metatheatrically aware of being only bit parts. The lady-in-waiting to the Macbeths is even angry with Shakespeare for neglecting her, and for obscuring the important role that (she claims) she played in the tragedy. Tellingly, she ends the play with an exclamation printed in capital letters: “FUCK SHAKESPEARE!” (59). As this quote suggests, the characters’ diction is usually quite modern, and so are their mindsets. Horatio diagnoses his friend Hamlet as “passive aggressive” (136); Lady Anne reveals that her motivation for marrying Richard III was that she believed, in her pride, that she could change him for the better; the speaker of A Lover’s Complaint sounds like a teenager who has been dumped by her boyfriend, yet is unable to get over him; and Albany, at the end of King Lear, looking back on his marriage to Goneril, is a modern-day metro-man who has found, to his amazement, that his gentleness only made his wife despise him and cheat on him. As a result, for all his liberal and pacifist principles, he has come round to the view that “there is more room for nobility on the battlefield than in the marriage bed/More honour to gain by carrying a sword than by placing a ring on a woman’s finger” (79). Gender issues, indeed, are often centre stage, as the characters speculate on essential differences between men and women, or on the causes of attraction between the sexes. Women “would conquer the world were they not so busy plotting against each other,” Albany thinks (62); and Lady Anne traces her own predicament to Richard’s praising her beauty: “What honour is to a man, beauty is to a woman. Each of us is driven by the wish to be desired. And I tell you now: that will never change” (106). Iago’s “motiveless malignity” here is motivated by his obsessive sexual jealousy.
For all their prosaic use of modern colloquial language, at times the texts are also poetic. “Mourning is love that no longer has a home,” Horatio says (119); and the Duchess of York thinks of her womb after the birth of Richard III: “My lap felt like a love nest, two beautiful sons, but when [Richard] wrestled his way out of me, it became a doghouse” (92-93). But there is also comedy, particularly in Lady M, as when the protagonist describes the work she had to do as a scullery maid as a mock-heroic counterpart to the battle fought by Macbeth and Banquo, or when she discusses the menu for the banquet with the audience, giving a full recipe for haggis in the process.
The clash between the modern world and that of Shakespeare is perhaps strongest in the final piece, Lost in Denmark. By turns the actress represents Horatio, telling us his version of the events of Hamlet, and steps out of her role to become the “Performer,” the self-conscious modern theatre maker obsessed with making her work yield a coherent picture and solve the riddle of Hamlet. For that, she uses the devices of the modern world, quoting various facts from Wikipedia related to Hamlet, Horatio, and Denmark. Like a conspiracy theorist, she sees patterns in the most diverse facts and factoids found on the internet: the name of Horatio, the coincidence that Hans Christian Andersen was born in the same year (1805) that Schiller died, and Denmark being “the happiest country in the world” with a “ragged coastline of 7500 kilometres”, where “building sand castles is viewed as antisocial territorial behaviour” (137). These are then aligned with various postcards sent from Helsingør/Elsinore, and with a childhood memory of seeing a beetle desperately trying to save itself from drowning. The performer identifies with detective Sarah Lund from the Danish TV-series The Killing, but it all seems to be in vain, for the more facts are brought to bear on the case, the less convincing the analysis of Horatio’s behaviour seems to become. That is, until the last, shocking personal recollection does draw many, if not all, of the strands together into a coherent whole, and we realise that this is a play about Horatio’s (and the Performer’s) survival guilt: he stood by and watched Hamlet planning his bloody revenge, but failed to intervene. For Horatio, this is a function of his task as “the story teller/the deliverer/the poet/the war photographer/who sees but can not intervene/my only task/is to survive/to declare who [Hamlet] really was” (156). Just how unsatisfactory that position is, becomes clear when we contemplate the modern-day equivalent in the Performer’s life.
All these pieces collectively show how Shakespeare is still relevant to modern life; either because of aspects of his minor characters that he vaguely suggested but failed to make explicit, or simply because we are made aware of aspects of the human condition precisely because Shakespeare, from his early modern world perspective, neglected them. Whether we are interpreting Shakespeare’s meaning, or ourselves meaning by Shakespeare, in Terence Hawkes’s famous phrase, this book reminds us that we still find it hard to do without him.


The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own.

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