Thursday, January 31, 2008

Shakespeare's Wife : A Review

But not by me.  This is Germaine Greer's book about Anne Hathaway, and quite frankly I have no interest in reading it.  But the reviewer seemed to like it, and others among my readers may like it as well, so here you go.

It's not that I particularly dislike Greer, or Hathaway.  It's just that this looks like a typical biography. Namely, I expect it'll go something like this:

Everything you know about X is wrong.  Here, let me show you with evidence that I found to support my case while ignoring all the evidence against it.

If one person can write a book that says "26 was an incredibly old age for a woman to be married" and somebody else can write a book that says "26 was the average age for a woman to be married", and both claim to have evidence, which should I believe?  The answer, to me, is that they cancel each other out and I don't pay attention to either.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Books That Make You Dumb

Great example of what you can do with mashups.  These guys looked at the most popular books at every college (according to Facebook), and the average SAT score.  So "Lolita" is popular at schools when an average SAT score over 1300, while "The Color Purple" is popular down at the 850 range.

Our pal "Shakespeare" spans the 1050-1150 range, where he's kept company by A Wrinkle in Time, Anna Karenina, A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby, and others.  Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice also fall in this section, although they both skew higher toward the 1150 mark.

Interestingly Hamlet is called out by itself, and drops 100 points to the 1000-1050 range.

Romeo and Juliet, as Soccer Fans

This video is in Italian (I'm guessing), but there are subtitles.  The premise is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet where they are fans of rival soccer teams.  Not a bad idea.  I guess it'd be funnier if you're local to wherever the film was made and understand the teams involved.

Romeo and Juliet : Mad Libs

Have I linked to something like this before?  I can't remember, but it seems familiar.  Anyway, you know Mad Libs, right?  This is the game where you fill in a name, a verb, an adjective.... and then you read the story you produced.  Only in this case it's Act 4, Scene 5  where the Nurse has found Juliet's lifeless body.

I always thought Mad Libs are funnier if you see the template first, and then deliberately fill in goofy words. 

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why Is Shakespeare So Hard?

I saw this question pop up at the top of my referrer logs yesterday, so I guess it's popular, so I thought it would be fun to make a post out of it and try to answer the question.

My first thought is to answer, "It's self-fulfilling.  Every exposure to Shakespeare you've ever had has been telling you how difficult and boring and irrelevant he is, so naturally from the moment you cracked open the book, you thought "Wow, this is difficult and boring and irrelevant."

Let me put it in perspective.  My daughters, 3 and 5, understand Shakespeare.

Do they understand the words, or the themes?  No, of course not, that'd be silly.  But if I asked one of them to recount for me the story of "the girl on the island" they'd be able to tell me that Miranda lived on the island with her daddy, who could do magic, and there was a fairy named Ariel and a monster named Caliban....and so on.

My point?  People start in on Shakespeare from the wrong end.  They start with Act I, Scene I, line 1, word 1, and say "Hmf, I can't understand it, I'm screwed."   They lose the forest for the trees.

I say work it backwards.  Learn the story, by whatever means necessary.  Learn the characters, understand their feelings and motivations.  And then you'll find that the words are a bit easier to understand.

How do you do that?  Well, subscribe to this blog, for one :).  And I'm only half joking.  I could point you at "No Fear Shakespeare" and any other number of books that attempt to translate Shakespeare's words into more readable modern English, but that's not my point.  My point is that to understand the stories you have to break it down well beyond the words and get to the characters themselves.  Romeo's a horny teenager whose girlfriend won't give it up.  Hamlet's dad died, and he can't stand his stepdad.  King Lear wants to grow old and die in the comfort of knowing his children love him and will take care of him.  There are *people* in there, people.  If you're so busy concentrating on the rhyme scheme and pronunciation of the words, you're making it too hard for yourself.

I could write all day on this subject, but I don't have time here at work :).  Maybe we can get some discussion going in the comments?  Show of hands, how many people out there think that Shakespeare is hard?  How many think it's easy?  Why?

Monday, January 21, 2008

[ADMIN] Shameless Plug for My Day Job

Hi Everybody,

Sorry for the interruption, the next post has nothing to do with Shakespeare. It does, however, have to do with your neighborhood Shakespeare Geek, me.

Over at my real job we've just launched our Facebook application, Connect At College. The idea is to bring social networking to the college planning process and allow students (past, present and future) to choose the schools that interest them, and then compare notes with their friends, ask questions of alumni, stuff like that. These days your "friends" go well beyond the kids you see in the halls every day. Some of them you may have never even met! Going to college together could be that opportunity :).

The application works primarily for high school students, but it's also setup to handle college students past and present who set themselves up as advisors to offer suggestions and answer questions.

Future plans for the app include the opportunity to speak directly with representatives and admissions officers from the colleges themselves. Personally I'm not planning on stopping until we've completely transformed the whole going to college thing. My oldest is 5yrs old right now, so I figure I've got a good 10 years to change the world! :)

Hope you get a chance to check it out! Thanks for indulging me.

- Duane

Friday, January 18, 2008

Help for Rachel

A long time ago I wrote up a tutorial on iambic pentameter over on my other, family blog.  I still periodically get comments on it.  Like today Rachel asked for help with iambic pentameter, and pointed me to a sonnet she'd written:

I wrote back telling her about my new blog and how many this would be a better place to discuss it.  Hi Rachel, I hope you stopped by!

If you're most concerned about the iambic pentameter, your last couplet is probably the closest if you flip a few words:

Forgive me, sir, for sins have I to tell.
Repent or not--condemned am I to hell.

There are times and places where you can get away with bending the natural pronunciation of a word (is it "washed", one syllable, or "wash-ED", two syllables?) but in general you need it to flow pretty naturally.  I liken it to trying to play music without a beat.  You can't really do it, you just end up with a string of notes and nothing holding them together.   Your reader needs to find the flow immediately and not be left struggling for it.

A few years ago I wrote an Elizabethan sonnet for my daughter Elizabeth's first birthday, if you want to check it out:

I'm no poet, but your original question to me was about iambic pentameter, so hopefully that's an example you can work with that's not quite as hard to follow as some of Shakespeare's.  You can clearly see places where I snipped a syllable here or there to fit the form (such as "e'er", one syllable, in place of "ever").

Good luck!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Help! Movie Title Needed

For a presentation we're doing at work, I need the image of a mystery behind a door.  And the first thing that came to my mind is an old movie poster that shows this big dark, mysterious door, and there's light peeking out around all the edges from the other side.  Standing in front of the door is a little kid in his pajamas, like he's trying to decide whether to open it.

Anybody have any idea what I'm talking about?  My first thought was Poltergeist, and others have said that too, but I can't find this image associated with that movie.  That movie is famous for the girl sitting in front of the television screen.

Another thought was Close Encounters, where the door is open and the kid is watching the space ship land, but I don't think that's what I was thinking of.

Anybody know what I'm talking about?  It's killin me!

(My apologies for the offtopic post.  I figured my regular readers will forgive me :))

Would You Rather Do What Now?

Our dear friend Shakespeare makes an appearance as part of a very unusual game of "would you rather"...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Comcast Commercial

Comcast (the US cable provider) is running a new commercial for their "high speed" service that shows two actors performing the death scene from Romeo and Juliet.  The gimmick is they're in a hurry, so they rush through it.    They actually seem to stick to script (I didn't care enough to actually see how accurate they were).  I think it would have been funnier if Juliet actually said "Blah blah, yadda yadda, oh happy dagger...."

Not terribly funny, and I have no smart comments, I just felt obliged to acknowledge it :).

Claymotion Romeo and Juliet

This isn't what I thought it was going to be.  It's Romeo and Juliet, sort of . With space aliens.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Shakespeare's Sonnets : With 300 Years Of Commentary

I recently received a press release for Carl Atkins' new book, Shakespeare's Sonnets : With Three Hundred Years of Commentary.  This isn't just another printing of the collection, this is a hefty volume that attempts to pull together and collate 17 different "scholarly editions" of the sonnets in order to compare the differences between them.

Most interesting to me is that the sonnets are all published with the original spellings and punctuation in tact.  There's even a sample file available weighing in a 78 pages, including all 154 sonnets in their original form (just none of the commentary, that's what the book's for).

If you're a fan of the sonnets and looking for some in depth discussion about, quite literally, every last character Shakespeare wrote, this might be the book for you.  I think I might debate the web page where it says that this is a book for everyone, including those who are getting their first time exposure to the sonnets.  It's hard enough to read Shakespeare without every word being spelled wrong! 

Review : Bill Bryson's Shakespeare, The World As Stage

Right before Christmas a friend asked if I had anything by Bill Bryson in my collection.  I said, "The Walk In The Woods guy?  No."  I knew that he'd done a Shakespeare book, but not much more than that.  So I wasn't surprised when it showed up as a Christmas present.

I loved this book.  I really really did.  There are four things that put it over the top for me:

1) It's small.  Just under 200 pages makes it the kind of thing you feel like you can read casually and still actually finish in meaningful time.  Somebody like a Harold Bloom could do 200 pages alone on whether Hamlet said "solid" or "sullied" :).

2) Since it is small, it is brief.  Bryson says in a paragraph or two what others say in a volume or three.  The entire authorship question is wrapped up nicely in a chapter, in which the author even acknowledges that there are well over five thousand books on the topic.

3) It is loaded with facts.   If I'd listed this as #1 it could well have been true for any of the 1000 page tomes the masters have written.  But in this small and entertaining book, Bryson only offers enough fact to make his point, and then he moves on.

4) It is entertaining!  The author manages to thoroughly enjoy his topic, while never tripping over into the fawning "I wish this were true" trap to which so many biographers fall victim.  There are some well known biographies of Shakespeare that take the position, "We don't know much about Shakespeare's life for a fact, but let's pretend it went a little something like this...."  Well, Bryson's book slaps on a "...but, probably not."  He is clearly content with how little we know about Shakespeare.

Mind you, the very nature of this book makes it pretty introductory stuff.  Much like the recent "44 facts you probably didn't know" post from someone else's blog, readers with different levels of exposure to Shakespeare will learn different things.  But I find it hard to believe that there's someone out there who already knew it all.  He dips into word frequency and invention, but never in a boring way  ("Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, ... lonely, leapfrog, zany, well-read, and countless others - including countless!")  He dissects the existing portraits and signatures of Shakespeare, but again, manages to keep it fascinating.  I knew that there are only six known signatures, but I did not know that he spells his name differently every time and that he never spelled it Shakespeare.

It's actually the case that Bryson backs up his arguments with evidence so frequently that when he doesn't, it sticks out like a sore thumb.  "The plays were owned by the company, not the playwright," he writes, "So the fact that Shakespeare makes no mention of them in his will is not unusual." [That is my paraphrase, not a direct quote.]  But I didn't see any evidence cited, which made me question this bit and others.

I could go through the whole book selecting the nuggets I found most fascinating, but that would take me all day and it would take the fun out of the book for you.  There are, however, two major sections that I thought worth mentioning.

The first is about the issue of homosexuality in the sonnets.   It took me a few seconds to digest this sentence, given the emphasis on facts and evidence throughout the book:

The extraordinary fact is that Shakespeare, creator of the tenderest and most moving scenes of heterosexual affection in play after play, became with the sonnets English literary history's sublimest gay poet.

Wh....ummm.....err.....huh?  I think this is the only time in the book Bryson comes out and says "The fact is..." and then attaches that Shakespeare was a gay poet?  Eight pages are devoted to the sonnets and for whom they are written.  The language of those pages is odd, as if every argument against Shakespeare's homosexuality is couched in language like "Discomfort lasted well into the twentieth century.." and "...that [Shakespeare's sexuality] may have been pointed in some wayward direction has caused trouble for admirers ever since."  There are moments when it sounds like Bryson is saying "If you don't think Shakespeare was gay, you're fooling yourself."  I was reminded of my recent reading of Kenneth Burke relative to the question, where he actually used the word "squeamish" (as in, "I don't get squeamish about it").  I'm left wondering just how squeamish Bryson is. It took me a little while to convince myself that by "gay poet" he mean that the relationships expressed in the sonnets were homosexual, and not that Shakespeare himself was.  Not that there's anything wrong with that - I take issue more at the "extraordinary fact" bit of that sentence, when it is anything but.

Lastly comes the authorship question.  Bryson masterfully destroys every argument I've ever heard in a way so amusing and patronizing that it merited applause when I was done.  "So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment -- actually all of it, every bit -- involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact."  Strong words from someone who throughout the book has been so keen to differentiate what we know via evidence from what we wish were true. 

"There's no evidence that Shakespeare owned any books!" is countered with "Then he must not have owned any pants, because there's no evidence of that either!"  Good point :).

Starting with an amusing story about just how nuts Delia Bacon was, Bryson can't help but acknowledge the early contributors to anti-Stratford sentiment, namely the noteworthy J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood Silliman and George Battey.  Love it! 

He then dissects the contenders one at a time.  Bacon?  There's no link between Bacon and theatre in any way, shape, or form, other than Bacon's own attacks on the pasttime as "frivolous and lightweight."   Oxford? He had his own company of players and yet wrote for the competition?  He was so sneaky that he wrote in puns ("hate from Hate away") about his pseudonym's wife?  Oh, and he died 10 years before he could have written The Tempest and Macbeth.  Marlowe, who "had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn't too dead to work"?  This case, Bryson notes, at least had "a kind of loopy charm."

He even acknowledges the Mary Sidney argument, of which I'm familiar after getting a chance to rea d Robin P. Williams' book, Sweet Swan of Avon.  Bryson acknowledges all the obvious family connections that Sidney had to Shakespeare, but then concludes, "All that is missing to connect her with Shakespeare is anything to connect her with Shakespeare."  I'm not sure that's quite fair, but maybe that's just sympathy for Ms. Williams' coming through.

If I go on much longer my review will be longer than the book and I'll end up spoiling all the good parts.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy, for everything I said above.  It is not overly imaginative.  It never strays far from the evidence, even when that evidence is potentially dull and boring (like Shakespeare's habit of never paying his taxes).  The writing keeps it entertaining, and that's what drives a reader to finish a book.  It shouldn't be a chore, it should be a treat . This one was.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

My Kingdom for Spellcheck

If I haven't mentioned it, my dayjob involves writing software that helps high school kids get into college.  During the testing just yesterday, this little exchange occurred:

"Once more into the breech!"

"Once more into the pants?"


"You spelled breach wrong.  Breech, breeches...I couldn't resist the pants joke."

"Oh.  I swear I thought you were making a completely different commentary on the value of getting into college."


Full disclosure - I'm actually the one that spelled breech wrong :).  My bad.

Macbeth, Sponsored by Dove Liquid Soap

You know it has to be from The Onion.  Good stuff.

"And in the crucial scene, Lady MacBeth gets this spot off the back of her hand immediately, and spends the rest of the scene telling the audience how much she likes the new grapefruit scent."

Othello And Son

Actually, "Sanford and Son do Othello."  Who remembers this show from the 1970s, starring Redd Foxx as the title character, and his son Lamont?  Lived in a junk yard?  Used to grab his chest in mock heartattack at least once per episode and shout "This is the big one!"

Well in this episode, Lamont is taking acting classes and will play....Othello.  It's a weird performance.  Gives off this sort of Richard Pryor vibe (and I feel racist even saying that, for some reason).  And the audience is laughing during it.   This is part 1 of 3, and if you look in the related section you can find all 3 parts.  In part 2 the dad comes home and finds out what's going on.  Best line of the episode?  "This is the big one, Elizabeth!  I'm coming to join ya honey!  Our son is in the house choking a white woman!"

It's hard now to look at clips from 1970s television shows.  Look at the pimp outfits.  Listen to the dialogue  ("If I'm lying I'm flying and my momma's home crying?????").  Does anybody think that the black guy playing Othello rather than Hamlet or Romeo is a coincidence?  I don't.    Don't miss the bit of dialogue at the end of the first part where Lamont says that he's interested in all the arts, namely "acting, directing, and tap dancing."  Wow.

There were times when these shows were groundbreaking.  There was famous episode of All In The Family where Sammy David Jr kissed Archie Bunker right on the lips.  Or in The Jeffersons, where George Jefferson (a black man, if you're unfamiliar with the show) gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation(?) to a white supremacist.  These days that episode would end with everybody happy.  The actual show ended with him saying, "You should have let me die." 

They were certainly a sign of the times, I'll give them that.  I want to see Huggy Bear do Richard III.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Shakespeare Sketchcast

Not bad!

44 Things You May Have Known About Shakespeare

I quite like this link, since the 44 things listed typically come with links and graphics backing them up, and in general have several 'things' in each item.

By my count, I only knew about 19 of them, so I'm happy to have learned quite a bit.  I wonder at some of them - I've never seen evidence about the whole "second best bed thing was customary because guests got the best bed" (#43) argument, for instance.    But others, like the reference to Edmund Ironside (#21) were completely new to me.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare

Scott Newstok, editor of Kenneth Burke On Shakespeare, asked if I would review his book.  This would be a challenge, and I said as much.  I'm no academic, I'm a computer geek.  To put it simply, I have no idea who Kenneth Burke was.  His wikipedia page contains only a single passing reference to Shakespeare (as "lifelong interpreter", whatever that means), and all the other reviews on Amazon I found said things like "I learned who he was when my roommate in graduate school introduced me to him."  No help there!  But with that understanding I agreed to take a look at Scott's book.

A quick scan of the book shows that it is truly dedicated to the academic crowd that wants more information about Burke's work.  Over 1/3rd of the book's 300 pages are dedicated to Appendices and Notes of various sorts, as well as a hefty index.  That's not counting the liberal footnotes throughout the book.  There is no biography to speak of, other than a token "About the author" paragraph on the last page.  The introduction goes into great detail about *what* he analyzed, and why and how.  But never do I get any sort of biographical sense of the man and why Shakespeare came into his life at all.

In my research I learned that Burke is most famous for his essays (the book is divided into 13 such essays) on Othello and King Lear, so I figured I'd start there.  Not so much.  I can't understand a word that man is saying.  "Iago As Katharma", the Othello piece begins.  As what?  On the next page I'm to learn that "katharma" is a Greek word meaning "that which is thrown away in cleansing."  That is but one example.  One essay is entitled "Socio-anagogic interpretation of Venus and Adonis."  Yeah, good luck with that.  Maybe those are the kinds of things to make a graduate student sit up and take notice, but they make my eyes glaze over.

On recommendation, though, I checked out a very different essay called "Anthony In Behalf of the Play."  This one I found fascinating.  In it, Burke writes in the voice of Anthony the character, explaining his purpose in the play as a whole.  I learned quickly that this was apparently Burke's common theme, focusing on the "meta play" and delving into why it did what it did, what a given scene or character was supposed to invoke in the audience.  So as Anthony he explains to the audience that his job is to help the audience figure out what they're supposed to feel.  Is Caesar a good guy, or a bad guy?  He's the title character, after all.  Cassius and the conspirators have taken great pains to show how horrible Caesar is, and yet, Cassius and crew are bad guys.  So what should you, the audience, be thinking right now?  I, as Anthony, will walk you through it.  Anthony becomes in Burke's words a "plot substitute" for Caesar.  Since Anthony is a good guy, we will emotionally attach ourselves to him in Caesar's absence.

The great thing about this essay is that it totally makes sense, it flows naturally, and I could easily see an English professor doing exactly such a thing to explain the play to his class.   I immediately started looking for other such casual essays in the book.   The introductory chapter, entitled "Shakespeare Was What?" was a similar treat to read, although not quite as easy to follow.  I love, for example, how the opening like from Burke is to say right off, "Look, I'm not going to read Shakespeare's private life into his work.  I can't find any evidence of it, and even if there were, surely he punched it up a bit anyway."  He even dives right into the question of homosexuality, claiming that he's not at all squeamish about it.  (It also did not go unnoticed by me that Burke makes a connection between Shakespeare and  Boolean algebra in regard to the invention of computers :).  As a computer geek I immediately spotted that. :))

One last thing. The Notes section is quite fun to read.  These are the brief explanatory comments added by the editor where it was necessary to clarify what Burke meant.  I actually learned what "socio-anagogic" means!  Apparently Burke made that word up.  But, I also learned that Christopher Marlowe was an English playwright and poet.  Really?  In this book, about this subject, we needed a comment about who Christopher Marlowe was?  And that's the line we get?   I suppose it makes sense in the overall structure.  I mean, a comment by Burke that just says "the celestial and bookish imagery of Marlowe" merits some note about who he's talking about.  I'm just used to the sort of book that would just go ahead and make a Marlowe comment right there inline.


In the end, I can't change my original position - I am not the audience for this book.  It's not the kind of thing I can read cover to cover, and I don't ever see myself confidently speaking on Burke and his writing.  It has, however, introduced me to the topic.  And I did learn some things.  From other reviews that I've read (mostly to get references to Burke's body of work), this particular compilation is different in its inclusion of those more casual essays that I found so fascinating.   I'm left wondering if an entire book could have been made out of the ones like that, or if those were the only ones Burke did.  For that matter, perhaps a more dedicated student of this stuff doesn't see the same distinction I do, and reads the Othello piece with the same appreciation that I read the Anthony one.

I think that the sheer breadth of content that Scott has managed to pack into this reasonably sized paperback (I carry it in my backpack) is very impressive.  Just because I'm not as familiar with the topic doesn't mean I can't appreciate the work that's gone into it.  If you're looking for a single volume that cuts across a a wide sampling of everything Burke had to say on the subject of Shakespeare, this one might be worth checking out.