Shakspere Society of Philadelphia
Maybe not the first, but the oldest Shakespeare club in America or possibly even the world, has kept minutes for over a hundred fifty years.
MEETING OF THE SHAKSPERE SOCIETY OF PHILADELPHIA AT THE FRANKLIN INN CLUB, DECEMBER 12, 2001:
Dean Wagner in the chair. Other members present Ake, Bartlett, Binnion, Bornemann, Cheston, Di Stefano, Dobson, Dunn, Dupee, Fallon, Griffin, Hopkinson, Madeira, O' Malley, Peck, Rivinus. Guest: J. Goldstein.
We were very happy to welcome to our midst the president of the Franklin Inn Club, Jonathan Goldstein, who read the words of the Bard with vigor and commented crisply and thoughtfully on the fifth act of Antony and Cleopatra. He welcomed us and assured us of the members' pleasure at our regular use of their clubhouse. Jonathan has found a number of old Shakespeare texts in the library of the Franklin Inn Club that evidently have been left here at various times by members of the Society, and he has kindly donated or sent back to their place of origin these copies of the Bard's plays.
A member pointed out to us that beginning on December 23, thee will be versions of some of Shakspere's most famous plays presented on TV on the ITV cable network. The descriptions in print of the plots of these versions look like a bad joke, but if they arouse serious interest in the work of the Bard among a few of the young who might see these telecasts, Honi Soit qui mal y sense.
Mr. Griffin told us that he had recently had lunch with his Princeton classmate, our great good friend, and fellow member Roland Frye and that the Vice Dean emeritus had announced that he was "alive and well and living in Strafford." Secretary for Meetings Mr. Di Stefano asked that all those who had changed addresses recently would let him know promptly.
A member told us of his visit to a recent production of Macbeth at the Shakspere theater at the Folger Library (the scholar J.Q. Adams' version of the Globe in smaller dimensions, designed a half-century ago), with Huey Long's Louisiana as the setting, and the witches as political appointees assigned the task of vote counting. No report of hanging chads was forthcoming. Another member saw a recent production of Hamlet at the Shakspere Theater of Washington, enjoyed the work of Wallace Acton as Hamlet, but commented on the jarring nature of the introduction of modern rifles and soldiers' helmets adorning the armies in the battle scenes at the end of the play.
We commenced our reading of Antony and Cleopatra at the beginning of the long final scene, Act Five, Scene Two. Cleopatra confronts Caesar and negotiates to save her life. She first speaks to her courtiers about her readiness to kill herself rather than be humiliated, to do that great deed "which shackles accidents and bolts up change," in her wonderfully eloquent summary of the Roman stoic philosophy which guided Brutus and Cassius at the end of their lives. Antony, we were reminded, had told her that she should trust only Proculeius, but he in fact betrays her. Dolabella is her only trustworthy friend among the Romans, as in Plutarch, Shakspere's source. Cleopatra wants the throne of Egypt to descend to her sons; Caesar agrees, but in fact, Dolabella tells her, he intends to lead her captive to Rome to show off in a triumphal procession. We wonder if she will be able to kill herself before this humiliation which she has feared occurs.
A member commented on the jarring combination in Cleo. of eloquent nobility and her attempts to cling to Egyptian treasure for herself or her children. Members remarked on her usual duplicity here, wanting to keep power and to please others. She sees that Caesar is lying and trying to exploit her. Another member declared that Cleopatra never struggled with a moral question, in contrast to Antony, a more impressive figure.
Cleopatra prepares herself for death in a scene with a bizarrely comic element, the clown who brings her the poison asp that kills her. The Vice Dean commented on the appropriateness of a comic touch at this point, since her death is also her victory over Caesar. But of course cheek by jowl with farce we find some of the most gloriously moving language ever written in English. Iras tells the Queen, "Finish, good lady; the bright day is done,/And we are for the dark." Does any other minor character in Shakspere speak so eloquently in so few words? Cleo. thinks with vivid disgust of an adolescent boy (which, in fact, the actor of this part was in 1607) parodying her in the Roman theater: "I shall see/Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I' the posture of a whore." When she is ready to face death, she declares herself "marble-constant, now the fleeting moon/Is no planet of mine." She dresses ceremonially for death: "Give me my robe, put on my crown: I have/Immortal longings in me. husband, I come/ Now to that name my courage prove my title! In a wonderful coup de theatre underlined by the Vice Dean, her companion Charmian reaches over to straighten Cleopatra's crown as she dies: "Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies/ A lass unparallel'd. Your crown's awry:/I' ll mend it, and go play."
Cleopatra is eloquent and brave at the end, but she betrays Antony perhaps three times earlier in the play. Members puzzled over her motives: to keep Antony's love and also protect her power, and her sons' a chance to inherit power? Does love of Antony or of self dominate her? A member had the good luck to see Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench perform the parts of A and C in England in 1987. "They bring out the worst in each other," this member thinks of A and C, and Antony is the more important of the two, but both are sympathetic to the audience in contrast to the obnoxious, egotistical prig Caesar! A and C, others concluded, must be seen as a pair, not separated so that one can be blamed more than the other for the fall of both.
We turned to a few comments on our next play for study, Measure for Measure. A member recalled that Roland Frye had worked on the play when writing his doctoral thesis, after discovering that in a copy of the First Folio in the library of the Escorial in Spain, a part of the text of the play had been excised by a reader evidently appalled that the Duke would have the effrontery to take on a disguise and play the false part of a Catholic priest.
The Vice Dean reminded us that Measure for Measure is not a love story but an "Un-love story" where political power is the chief focus: corrupt authority both denies love and tries to force sexual compliance by threat.
Our next meeting will be January 9, 2002. We will begin our reading of Measure for Measure at that time.
Respectfully submitted, Robert G. Peck, Secretary for Minutes