Iago was a voyeur and other perspectives on Shakespeare’s tragedies
Understanding Shakespeare Series. Four-pack DVD set: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet. With Shakespeare scholars Michael J. B. Allen, A. R. Braunmuller, and Suzanne Collier. Cerebellum Corporation, 4 hours, varied prices.
By Janice Harayda
Wouldn’t it be great if you could watch Shakespeare’s plays in the company of experts who explained as you went along the meaning of scenes you might misinterpret? In fact, you can.
Each DVD in the Understanding Shakespeare series contains an abbreviated version of a tragedy — Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello or Romeo and Juliet — in the form of key scenes starring classically trained actors in costume on barebones sets. After you watch a scene, a moderator and three internationally known scholars discuss the meaning of important lines and how they fit into the plot and themes. Why does Shakespeare call Romeo and Juliet a pair of “star-cross’d lovers”? (This is a play about predestination.) What is Macbeth “about”? (In part, a power-mad man egged on by his wife.) Why does Iago urge Othello to strangle Desdemona in her bed instead of poisoning her? (He’s “a voyeur” in a play about sexual jealousy.) The engaging back-and-forth between enacted scenes and analysis by experts sets this series apart from videos about Shakespeare that give one professor’s perspective or comment on undepicted scenes — an experience that, if you don’t know a play, can be a bit like listening to play-by-play commentary on a Super Bowl you haven’t seen.
At times the panelists make points that may be familiar to anyone who has taken a class in the Bard. But these articulate scholars find an appealing middle ground between the twin evils of dumbing-down and pedantry — none more so than the brilliant Michael Allen, the distinguished UCLA humanities professor, whose clarity and breadth of knowledge suggest why he has earned many honors for his teaching and scholarship.
One-Minute Book Reviews has brief reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by the professional critic Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda for more commentary on books.
© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.