Reading Shakespeare in Nigeria

I’ve was in Nigeria again the last ten days. It’s not exactly a place for a holiday so when Susan was working in the week I was working hard on the Shakespearean Territories project. I’ve been combining reading plays I didn’t know well – such as Troilus and Cressida and The Two Noble Kinsmen – with more detailed work on ones I knew I would be using for this project.

The first of these was Henry V, which I wanted to analyse in terms of the legal complexities over the claiming of France. This is the discussion of the Salic law, which prevents inheritance through the female line, but the play hinges on the lands to which this applies. If to France, then Henry cannot lay claim to it; if to lands to the east in modern day Germany his advisors say he has a right to the crown of France. I’ve been working almost exclusively on the two scenes of the first Act, leaving the much better known passages aside. There are all sorts of complexities in the first two scenes, concerning why the clergy are urging Henry to France, rather than to take their own ‘temporal lands’, and the threat at home from the Scots. The parallels to Edward III – a play now generally thought to contain at least parts written by Shakespeare – are telling. A reasonably substantial section of a chapter is taking shape on these questions. I also re-read and took notes on the three parts of Henry VI, and am trying to work out how an analysis of these will work in the chapter on the English histories.

I also have a lot of notes on Antony and Cleopatra. These fall into two areas: the parts that talk about the triumvirate, and the tripartite division of the world; and the military conflict at land and sea. In the first, there is all sorts of interesting architectural, military, geometric, cartographic and other language used to discuss the world. The second opens up questions of the different kinds of military power held by Sextus Pompeius, Antony and Octavian. The nautical language is especially vivid.

I don’t think I will do much with The Two Noble Kinsmen, though there are some interesting passages concerning banishment, one seeming throwaway remark that might act as an effective counter-balance to some other claims I make, and a strong passage near the beginning about the importance of burial rites. That echoes Sophocles’ Antigone, not merely in the question of the internment of a body, but also because it is Creon who forbids the burial. I’m not sure what I will do with Troilus and Cressida. One of the audience comments following the Coriolanus paper at Edinburgh was that the bodies in this play, were sexualised in a way that in Coriolanus they tend not to be. It’s a remarkable play with all sorts of imagery of bodies, animals, disease, eating and consumption. There are some interesting comments on calculation and arithmetic that I might do something with.

I also watched some films that relate to the reading and writing I did on this project before I left – Akiro Kurasawa’s Throne of Blood and Trevor Nunn’s version of Macbeth with Ian McLellan and Judi Dench; and the version of Othello with Eamonn Walker and Tim McInnerny. Over a much longer period I’ve also been watching some of the films of the BBC Shakespeare collection filmed in the 1970s and 1980s. While some of these haven’t aged well there are some plays here that I don’t think are otherwise available on film and it’s fun to see some well-known actors much younger.

Now back in the UK and very conscious that a new term is just around the corner, so I’ll have to shift gears somewhat. But I do have a draft book proposal for this project, and plan to submit that before teaching starts.

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