One-Minute Book Reviews

March 14, 2015

‘Understanding Shakespeare’ on DVD – World-Class Analysis

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 pm
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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.

April 9, 2008

Out, Damn’d Ferrari! Father Doesn’t Know Best in Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Hail falls on the family of a modern Thane of Cawdor

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. By Liza Campbell. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 323 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A Charmed Life is a high-class version of that deathless series in the Star, “Stars Without Make-up.” Instead of mascara-free actresses, this memoir gives us sobriety-free Scottish aristocrats.

At the age of 30, Hugh Campbell inherited the title of Thane of Cawdor and vast wealth that included two stately homes, four ruined castles and a hundred thousand acres of land. He promptly moved his wife and children from their estate in Wales to the family seat, Cawdor Castle, in the Scottish Highlands. The new home became his Dunsinane, or so it appears from A Charmed Life.

Hugh Campbell seems to have had a self-destructive romantic streak long before the move to Cawdor threw it into ionospheric relief. As the idea of free love had spread in the 1960s, he went “haywire with the frontrunners,” his daughter Liza writes:

“He dressed like a Restoration buck, wearing scarlet velvet jackets with black frogging, floppy cuffs and outsize buckles on his belts and shoes, the heels of which were covered in red patent leather to match the jacket.”

At Cawdor, the new thane devolved into an alcoholic, cocaine-addicted, serial adulterer who drove away his sainted first wife and deprived his son his birthright, his daughter says. He also smashed up a fleet of Jaguars and, insisting that the cause of his accidents lay in their faulty design, took to driving a lime-green Ferrari. His widow, his second wife, has disputed some of this in the British media. And Campbell sinks into pop-psychological goop when she tries to explain her father’s pathology: She says that when her paternal grandfather broke his wife’s toe, “he showed his son that physical abuse was an option” – as though there weren’t men who have seen such force without resorting to it or who resort to it without having seen it.

But Campbell is better reporter than analyst of her family’s woes, and she describes an offbeat cast of friends and relatives with a flair that occasionally resembles Nancy Mitford’s in Love in a Cold Climate. A friend of her grandfather’s preferred ferns to toilet paper and, when he traveled south from his Scottish palace, “took along a suitcase packed with bracken fronds, since London hotels were unable to cater for this particular requirement.” An aunt met her husband at Oxford “where he would wander through the quads in a top hat with a pet mouse that ran round the brim.”

Such vivid glimpses of a vanishing world help to make this book more than another memoir of an imploding family. So do Campbell’s wit, sharp observations on life and refusal to tack on the artificially upbeat ending of so many American memoirs of family turbulence. Her chilling comment on a hunting accident that left a farmer’s teenage son with terrible groin injuries sums up a theme of this book:

“It was my first realization that something profound and permanent can happen in an instant and, worse, never be undone. It took a while to realize that life doesn’t deliver a single such instance, but an endless series of them.”

Best line: “Of all the things drummed into us, the only ones with any application to the modern world were the importance of being polite to strangers, and a sketchy knowledge of trees.”

Worst line: “Something that is seldom acknowledged is how incredibly common addiction is – maybe as high as one in three.” Don’t they get Oprah in the U.K.?

Published: October 2007

Read an excerpt at

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 23, 2008

Easter at Cawdor Kirk – Quote of the Day From Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

Filed under: Memoirs,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:23 pm
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Liza Campbell, daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor, writes of living with the ghosts of Banquo and others in her engaging memoir A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $24.95) In this passage she describes attending Sunday services at Cawdor Kirk, a stone church built by the 12th Thane, with her family:

“The minister’s sermon was as unedited as it was stern, typically commencing, ‘This week I was inspired to put pen to paper on the subject of babbling fools …’ followed by a pause as he glowered at us all over the top of his spectacles. A reading would follow that was most likely about Lot’s wife, or Job and his malignant ulcers. The Presbyterian God was a dour one who must have thought up the rainbows while he had a temperature and was not feeling quite himself. The songs we sang were all willfully obscure works from forgotten backwaters of the hymn book….

“In keeping with Presbyterian tradition, communion was taken once a year only, at Easter, when we could look forward to a hunk of real bread and some port. The service would finish off with the congregation stumbling through that cheery foot-tapper ‘By the Light of burrrning Martyrs, Christ thy bloody steps we trace’, with my father singing it in a basso profundo that sounded like heavy furniture being dragged across the floor. In a pew at right angles to ours, Mrs. King from the laundry at Cawdor would make no effort to sing. Ever. She would wave to us gaily while popping a succession of hard-boiled sweets into her mouth and spend the rest of her time flattening out and folding up the cellophane wrappers – as if she could never fully relax from her laundress’s habits.”

Some of my ancestors are buried in the kirkyard of Cawdor Kirk, shown in a picture that does not come from A Charmed Life. Campbell was the last person born at Cawdor Castle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda (text and church photo). All rights reserved.

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