Bard in the Botanics

To “Bard in the Botanics” on Thursday night to see The Merchant of Venice.  Party of four.  We went with some apprehension.  Outdoor Shakespeare in Regent’s Park, circa 22 degrees Celsius, is one thing; Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens, circa 16C (we were that lucky) dropping to 12 as the night wore on, quite another.  It says a lot for the players, and the people of Glasgow, that this event, especially this dire “summer”, is so popular.  It was a full “house” and as the play progressed, the noise of the traffic on Great Western Road, and the kids in the park, seemed to recede, and by the time of the great courtroom scene (“I will have my bond!”) you could have heard a pin drop.

It strikes me that The Merchant of Venice has rather an operatic quality.  If the unfolding of the plot is like recitative, then the great set piece speeches are like arias.  It reminds me of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.  The plots have similar elements of absurdity.  In the play, two women go into disguise and dupe their lovers; in the opera, two men go into disguise and dupe their lovers.  In both play and opera, things get out of hand.  There’s a tension in both works between elements of opera buffa, and matters of profound seriousness.  Everything is ambiguous, and ambivalent.

Since we are dealing in pairs of pairs, it seems to me that Shakespeare and Mozart share a quality which is the exact antithesis of a quality shared by Beethoven and Dickens.  Beethoven and Dickens wear their hearts on their sleeves.  They are profoundly involved, human, and humane.  Both have huge, indomitable personalities.  So, of course, do Shakespeare and Mozart; and they also have incredibly high spirits.  Yet there is also a quality of separation, of detachment, sometimes even bordering on indifference.  In Act 1 of Cosi, the men say farewell to their ladies, and supposedly leave for the wars, in music of heartbreaking poignancy.  In reality they are going undercover to pose as strangers and woo their lovers – they even swap the car keys – and expose their fickleness, all for a bet.  I don’t know if Beethoven heard Cosi but I think he must have found Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto unconscionable.  After all, Beethoven’s opera is Fidelio – the clue is in the name.  There’s Ludwig, massive genius that he is, struggling away with his deafness and his sturm und drang, endlessly working away honing and rehoning themes in his sketch books; while Wolfgang effortlessly turns out another piece of sublime perfection to a tawdry and risqué text.  When the first subject of the piano sonata K545, beloved of all aspiring young pianists, recapitulates in F major, it sounds like a toy music box, as if Mozart is saying, “You admire these baubles?  Well, you’re welcome.  Here’s another.”  Mozart has this trick of starting a piece with a call to attention in the form of a few unremarkable chords repeated in an unremarkable rhythm.  Then his next phrase completely undermines you, the way Salieri was undermined by the adagio from The Gran Partita for 13 wind instruments K 361, in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus.

I get the same sense of detachment in Shakespeare.  I can imagine him dashing off the St Crispin’s Day speech for Henry V, and saying to Anne Hathaway, “Are you moved by that?  Does it stir you?  Doesn’t do anything for me!”  You can never tell what Shakespeare is thinking.  Beethoven is a character in his own music, but Shakespeare is invisible in his own plays. Yet he clearly loved music.  As Lorenzo said to Jessica on Thursday night:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!

Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears.  Soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony…

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

The motions of his spirit are dull as night,

And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted.  Mark the music.        

Here’s another odd thing about Shakespeare.  He retired.  He wrote The Tempest in 1611, and then nothing for five years.  He just hung out in Stratford, chilling.   I reckon Shakespeare went a bit fey in the end.

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

I mean, what was he on?

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