Standard Deviants

August 17, 2012 at 12:50 am (Asides, Film Adaptations) (, , , )

I had never heard of the Standard Deviants PBS series, but I saw a disk on Shakespeare’s tragedies available on Netflix and thought I’d give it a try. This video focuses on Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. I found it enjoyable, if not earth-shaking. It’s geared toward kids, and presents everything in a lighthearted, easily accessible way. It looks quite low-budget, but I thought it was well done.

This disk begins with Titus Andronicus, describing Shakespeare’s sources and influences. There is an amusing, but easy-to-follow plot summary of the carnage, and an analysis of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this little-known play. They end it up by describing it as a failure as a tragedy, due to poetic excess and theatrical busyness — cluttered and contrived drama that doesn’t work. And yet, they admit, this play was loved by the Elizabethans — you could consider it the Elizabethan equivalent of today’s slasher flicks. I thought this was quite a cute analogy. I loved this quote:

A bunch of dead bodies lying around on the stage or a severed-head casserole does not a tragedy make.

You gotta laugh at that. Actually, there is quite a lot to laugh at during this discussion of a rather drab play, and I think it would help kids understand the development of Shakespeare’s skill as he moved from the failed tragedy of Titus to the experimental tragedy (with comic elements) of Romeo and Juliet and culminating in the masterpiece… Hamlet.

The discussion of Romeo and Juliet focuses on the beautiful poetry, images of light, and on the great characters. But it points out that the characters are not tragic figures and that the coincidences that result in the unhappy ending are simply plot devices that weaken the dramatic whole of the play… like everything would be cool if only an audience member would yell out “She’s not really dead!” before Romeo drinks the poison. These are not inevitable events, and they “stretch believability to the breaking point.” So, in their analysis, R&J does not represent a great tragedy, but is an interesting experiment by Shakespeare in combining comic characters with comic situations and taking them on a tragic journey. I think this is a great way to explain it to kids.

Hamlet is given more analysis. In addition to the plot summary, they discuss mystery and intrigue (the spying, lack of trust), Hamlet’s character (set in high relief against the other characters who each serve as a foil to Hamlet), philosophy (morality, how to endure suffering, the meaning of death), revenge (a popular theme in Elizabethan theater), and again an analysis of how the play fares as a tragedy (perfection!).

They point out that Hamlet is a “play of questions” and how the entire play is a riddle, with great characters, great dialog, and great ideas — endlessly fascinating. Hamlet changes and grows and audience members each see themselves in different aspects of his character.

I just noticed a local connection… the actor who portrays Hamlet and performs other scenes in this video is KenYatta Rogers, who now teaches at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD and is the contact for their annual WillPower program.

Anyway, this video is not going to provide insight to a Shakespearean scholar or even a college student probably, but I think for a nice general overview, accessible to kids, this does a great job. There is apparently more to the set (another disk on Macbeth, Lear, and Othello, as well as background info on Shakespeare, verse, and Elizabethan theater), but these do not appear to be available on Netflix now. You can get them on Amazon or for 7-day use for $1.99 on YouTube.

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