Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Didn’t You Get?

Following up on the Perspective thread, a slightly different spin :

What “high school classic”, that you never read in high school, did you finally get around to reading, only to not see what the big deal was?

I don’t want to talk about what you loved, or how every book you pick up you grok from the first word.  I want to hear about something that modern culture tells you should have meant something to you, and just… didn’t.

Perspective : Catcher in the Rye

We’re a bit of a strange group, we Shakespeare geeks.  We voluntarily seek out and read things that, were we teenagers, our teachers would have had to force us to read, giving us quizzes at every breaking point and asking us all about themes and symbolism.
So having just read Catcher in the Rye 25 odd years after I should have, with no teachers to tell me what it’s about, I find that my perspective has changed. I didn’t love it.  I think it’s a good book, and I can see that it’s trying to tell me … something.  But I’m not sure I fully grasp what.  And, 25 years after the fact, I’m not sure that I can.
Does that make sense?  We’ve often talked about approaches to teaching Shakespeare, and the difference between getting the kids to love it versus telling them to just shut up and do it. But I think there’s a big gap in between those two that isn’t served by that sort of black and white approach. Namely, do you understand it? Do you have questions, do you need help? Most importantly, what does the material mean to you?
As a 40yr old father of 3, Catcher in the Rye to me is an unrealistic, dated story about an annoying 12yr old who has some pretty hefty psych issues, very likely depression and possibly some form of attention deficit disorder.  I didn’t bond with the title character in any way.   I didn’t sympathize with him.  I didn’t get him.
I wonder which is more at fault, the fact that it’s no longer as relevant to me? Or the fact that I didn’t have somebody spoonfeeding it to me?
re: the Shakespeare connection, by the way, we’ll do another post on that one.  I’m not willing to accept that Hamlet gets credit for every angst-ridden teenager with parent issues, unless we want to go all Bloomy and just say that Shakespeare invented the human.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Original Klingon

I’m sure most geeks know that Shakespeare translations have been available in Klingon for years.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard about anyone trying to perform it in Klingon, however.  They’re just doing selections (Hamlet and Much Ado), but still, it could be interesting to watch.  I wonder if they’ll be dressed up in Klingon garb?

By the way:

The company will speak the verse in both English and Klingon with the lines in iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter defines how it is written, not how it is spoken.  If they’re saying that the Klingon translation is also in iambic pentameter I’ll be impressed, but I also expect that it’ll be about as poetic as the typical syllable counting that goes on with most people that any 5-7-5 poem counts as a haiku.

Hamlet House Of Horrors

How about a Rocky Horror Hamlet?  That’s what Chris Barton and the Westminster Theatre Company have put together, and it sounds pretty darned good.

I would write more, but I can’t really do a better job than the reviewer, who calls it “both compelling and exciting, one of the best shows I have seen in a while. “  Go check it out.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pitch The Sequel

Wow, the ideas are just flying fast and furious tonight.
Mark made me think of this one on the “Who Would You Be?” post when he mentions Miranda and Ferdinand getting back to Milan and breaking up once Miranda gets to see just how many people this brave new world really does have in it.
You’re in an elevator with a big time movie producer.  You’ve talked his ear off about what plays you think deserve a movie treatment, but he’s not interested. He wants something original. He ponders aloud whether the market would be there for a Shakespeare sequel.  Without missing a beat you pitch him …. what?
Tell us the play, and give us a concise summary of the sequel.
This has been done before.  I’m pretty sure I remember somebody did a play Fortinbras about the new ruler of Denmark who is now haunted by all the ghosts from the previous play.  (I’m not really counting the movie Hamlet 2.)  Somebody’s also got a book project in the works, not sure if there’s a movie, that follows up Macbeth and ties in the storyline of how Fleance (you know, Banquo’s son? who escaped?) returns to become king.

What One Line Is Quintessential Shakespeare?

I’m posing this question because I saw it come through my search logs and felt like anchoring it in case anybody else comes around looking for it later.

Definition is up to you, I’ll leave this one completely open.  Is it “To be or not to be”? Or is that more cliche than quintessential?

Going To The Well Too Often

I wish I could think of these conversation starters during the day when everybody’s awake and not at 11pm on a Friday night when everybody’s gone for the weekend.

Give your best example of Shakespeare using the same “bit” in multiple plays.  A “bit” is any sequence lengthy enough to be more than coincidence (“Ah me” or “by my troth”, for instance, don’t count).

For instance, having heard it again in Much Ado that makes 3 different times I know Shakespeare used this joke:

“Is that your daughter?” /  “Her mother told me she was.”

Taming of the Shrew. The Tempest (where Prospero says it to his own daughter), and now Much Ado. Possibly more that I just haven’t spotted.

This isn’t just “when does Shakespeare repeat a sequence,” but how often can you find where he does it? Can anybody find something that he repeats more than 3 times?

Who Would You Be?

Here’s another open-ended question for discussion over the weekend.

I remember being at a party once, back in the college days, playing the “If…” game from that book where everybody was asked a hypothetical question and had to give a truthful answer.  The question was, “If you could be another person for a day, who would you be?” The guys chose Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Gates, among others. When it came to my turn I answered, “My brother, because I’ve lived with him all my life and really have no idea what life looks like from his point of view.”  Everybody, my brother included, found that lame.  Oh, well.

So here’s my version of that question : If you could be one Shakespearean character for the duration of the play, who would you be?

I don’t mean play the role – I mean pretend that the play is reality and be that character.  When the play ends, or when you die, you turn back into yourself.

Part two: There’s a couple different ways to approach this. You could either think that you’ll remain aware of who you really are, and basically wear the character like a puppet, trying to change the play the way you want it to go…or you could take more of a backseat and basically just watch how it plays out with no real control, but a better understanding of why certain things happen.


Make sense? For me I can think only in the second sense – it doesn’t make sense for me to think “change the course of the play.”  I’m trying to think of who I’d be, though, because if this were some sort of funky carnival ride I could see myself getting back in line again and again.  Maybe take Jaques for a spin, see what his deal is. I don’t think I’d feel much need to see what Benedick is all about (getting back to earlier Much Ado discussions), though I might take Prospero out for a drive and see once and for all whether he changed his mind or if he was always in complete control of what was going on.

Maybe that’s a spin on the question – which character keeps a secret that you’d like to learn once and for all?  Maybe find out whether Gertrude knew?

Who Else Do You Read?

As I’m working my way through Catcher In The Rye (and not enjoying it) I was struck with a good question for the weekend:

You’re a Shakespeare fan, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.  What other authors, modern or classic, do you or have you read that you feel … how can we say this… give Shakespeare a run for his money? 

What do I mean by that? I’m trying to decide. As I read Salinger I’m trying to find parallels with Shakespeare, in character or theme or plot or something. Not finding much.  So I’m wondering if there’s some author out there that I might read where you could clearly say “Ok, see, this guy is roughly following the tragic hero model, here’s where his flaw becomes his downfall…” That sort of thing.  Am I making sense? Some other author that crafts characters or stories that you’d feel comfortable drawing a comparison to Shakespeare.

I used to work with a guy who was Hemingway Geek to my Shakespeare Geek.  His job was much harder because Hemingway’s work is not in the public domain, so there’s no way that he could just search across the Complete Works like we do.  But we had many conversations about similarities between the two.  Personally I don’t see it, Shakespeare as a playwright was driven by plot and dialogue and Papa Hemingway could write 50 pages about a guy standing in a river by himself catching a fish.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ado! Ado!

So today I got to hang out with Rebel Shakespeare more than ever before.  Not only had they come to my local library, they run a workshop for kids before hand that my 8 and 6yr old daughters attended.  We decided that my 4yr old son was probably just a smidge too young to pay attention for that long.  I also met directors Hannah, who previously I’d only met via Twitter, and Christina.

The workshop was cute, and fun. I’d say mine were the youngest there, but I believe another little 5yr old was snuck in as well – I clearly heard the mother ask several times if she was too young, and then finally she joined.  My two tend to be painfully shy for awhile, but the Rebels were incredibly friendly.  Special thanks to Allison Kurpiel (who was playing Beatrice in this show) who a couple of times took my Elizabeth by the hand and brought her into an activity when she was too shy or frightened to do it on her own.

The best part of the workshop is actually the play walkthru, where the cast clearly says (paraphrased), “Hi, even though I’m Allison, I’ll be playing Beatrice today.  I’m interested in this guy named Benedick, even though I tell everybody I hate him.” Repeat for the entire cast, and then walk through the plot.  I know that for my kids the actual Shakespeare language is going to go right over their heads, so this opportunity to do what I always do – focus on character and plot – is a great idea, especially and obviously when it’s done by the people who are about to put on the show.  After the workshop I asked my kids, “Who is Beatrice? Who is Dogberry?” and they pointed out the appropriate teenagers who’d be playing the roles, telling me their real names in the process.

The show itself was your classic Much Ado.  What do I mean by that?  Well, it’s a fairly straightforward sort of story.  Not a great deal of drama, in my opinion.  Claudio is misled into thinking Hero cheated, we find out he was wrong, everybody lives happily ever after.  Meanwhile Beatrice and Benedick do their little dance of finally deciding they love each other.  There were some good parts – I was particularly impressed with the masquerade ball, given that this is a touring production who quite literally does not know the space they’ll be working in until they walk into it that morning. So to get the entire cast into that space in a choreographed dance?  Not bad.

I’ve done enough of these reviews now that my readers should understand, I don’t critique these kids.  They’re doing Shakespeare and they’re taking it seriously, what more can we ask?  Some of them are most likely at their best with the comedies, because it allows them to go over the top with the silly.  As always, Dogberry and his crew were the silliest of the bunch, reading their lines from an upside-down copy of “Law Enforcement for Dummies.”  Verges fell down a bunch, my kids greatly enjoyed that.  Good rule of comedy : fall down, kids laugh. I think Shakespeare invented that.

I realized too late that one of their funniest sequences is Dogberry’s great “Write it down that I am an ass” sequence, and had only a moment to wonder whether we’d be doing that scene in front of a bunch of as-young-as-5-year-olds before it began.  To my relief, I didn’t see any little heads whip around to ask Mommy or Daddy what that word meant.  For my part I covered my 6yr old’s ears, but that was more to get my own laugh than anything else (what with my 8yr old sitting next to me hearing everything anyway).  I had an excuse all ready to go, just in case : That’s what they used to call a donkey in Shakespeare’s time.  He called him a donkey.  Didn’t have to use it.

How about our stars? I already mentioned Allison, whose transformation is wonderful from the sweetheart she is in real life to the standoffish (and somewhat bitchy) Beatrice.  Seth Finkelstein played her Benedick for this performance. As someone previously cast in more outwardly comic roles, this made for an interesting twist on the character. His was a Benedick not really used to getting the girl, and not quite sure what he was supposed to do now that he was in the situation.  This is very different from when you cast your most handsome leading man in the role, and it’s obvious to the audience that Benedick could (and probably does) get any girls he wants.

I wish Rozzie Kopczynski had more to work with as Hero, but there’s really not much for the actress to sink her teeth into (though her big reveal in the last scene I thought came off quite nicely).  In talking to Christine (the touring coordinator) I said, “Someone should give her Viola to work with.”  

“She played her last season,” Christine replied. 

Hey I could be a casting director! :)

Lastly, I was particularly impressed by Joe Boyce as Claudio.  The kid is a natural.   I don’t say that to downplay the performance of any of the other members of the cast, all of whom were doing the best they could.  It’s just that Joe, who I’m told is actually a first year Rebel, had something in his comic timing that nailed everything he was trying to do, both in his physical action as well as how he delivered his lines.  I don’t know much about his story or how he came to the Rebels, but I think he’s got quite a future in this acting stuff if he chooses to pursue it.

My kids later told me that the “the sheriff’s assistant, the guy who fell down” was the funniest part.  They lost the Borachio plot a bit, and asked me on the way home what Duncans were.  This confused me a bit until they said “They kept saying a thousand duncans.”  Oh, ducats.  “That means dollars.  He paid him a thousand dollars.”

Parts of the story clearly stuck, though, as later that evening their Barbie mermaids had a masquerade ball. Even better I heard my 8yr old work a curse into the story, saying that one mermaid was not allowed to come to the party because “No human house shalt thy enter.”  So it looks like both some plot and language may have rubbed off a bit :).  Then again these are kids who named their dolls Regan, Goneril, Miranda and Caliban so long ago that they don’t even remember doing it.

I always love to watch the Rebels do their thing.  If I lived about an hour east of where I do, I’d probably go see all of their shows.  As it is, I find myself wondering what effort it would take to create a branch of my own to expand this great thing that Keri has built.  Everybody should have a program like this to support.

Great show, everybody!  Here’s hoping that Stevens Library becomes as regular stop on your tour!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How About Death Quotes?

It’s easy to find what Shakespeare said on various subjects related to love and romance.  But how about going in a different direction – what are some of your favorite death quotes?

I’m not talking about the “And now I will kill you” sort of stuff, I’m talking about stuff said in mourning, in praise and tribute to the deceased, and so on.  The kind of thing that you might say to a grieving loved one, use in a eulogy, write in a sympathy card, and so on.

Disclaimer : This post is motivated entirely by curiosity, I have no personal crisis for which I need eulogy material.

One of my favorites, from King John:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

I know that the original context is far too heated and angry to be appropriate, but taken by itself  I see this passage as something very comforting.  Switch out that final question mark for a period and it says something completely different.

For something shorter and sweeter, and bordering on cliche, there’s always “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” from Hamlet.

What else?

Which Play Is The Most Romantic?

As I sit here going over edits for my Shakespeare wedding quotes book, I’m left curious which play provided the most romantic quotes.  That’s a fairly arbitrary measure, of course, but it’s an interesting question.
So, here it is : Which play, as Shakespeare wrote it, says the most romantic things?  So if you were about to jump to Romeo and Juliet and the whole killing yourself for love thing, stop and rethink for a moment. You may decide that all that “Did my heart love til now?” and “With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls…” stuff, Romeo and Juliet still wins.  Or maybe not.
From where I sit, As You Like It and Midsummer both have a great deal of stuff to say on the subject of love and romance.  But they’re both … light? About it.  Neither, in my book, expresses the sort of ups-and-downs that come with what love’s really all about.  Don’t get me wrong, Midsummer is damned near perfection from some angles, but half the time the lovers are in the grip of a magic potion and in love with the wrong person.  As You Like It I find just too corny.  Cute, but corny. Life’s not as easy as that one makes it out to be.
I think I’ll put my money on Twelfth Night. I loved the discussion we had on music being the food of love.  Orsino has got some amazing insight about what love’s really all about, and that place where it can actually cause you pain, and yet you still want more of it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Subway Shakespeare

What can I say? I love the idea. Of course I’ve never had to sit through it before, with no control over who does it, what they do, and so on, so maybe it’s somewhat annoying.  If a bunch of guys who looked equally likely to stick a knife in me did it, and then walked around passing a hat like they’d go ahead and take my wallet if I didn’t volunteer it, I might not be so crazy about the idea.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Understanding Shakespeare’s Word Frequencies

I saw this post already about Understanding Shakespeare using data visualization techniques, I’m just not sure how I feel about it.  The play is presented as a grid of word clouds – characters across, acts and scenes down.  The theory is that you can learn about a character’s progression through the play by looking at how their word frequency changes.

Look, for example, at Hamlet.  Tell me what you see?  I can’t see anything enlightening, but maybe I’m missing it.

I think what you could do with this is apply another level of semantic detail to it.  Imagine if you could group all “light” and “dark” words together, and then look at Romeo and Juliet.  Or Macbeth.  Then, I think, you might start to see patterns.  Or what if you could select out and compare usage of “you” versus “thou” in certain interactions between characters?  I’m often told that this is a very important key to their relationships.

There’s a version of this technique that somebody does every year where they do a tag cloud representing the current President’s State of the Union address.  Over time, that’s fascinating. You see how some presidents spent more of their time talking about the Depression and economic issues, then some had to deal with war, Germany, Russia … all the way up to modern times where the word terrorism shows up and never goes away.

I wonder if somebody could do Shakespeare’s usage over time, and see how his own vocabulary expanded.  I think to be valid, though, we’d really need to know when he wrote everything, and I don’t think we can ever really know that.

Web Peer Review

I’m surprised and disappointed that we missed this opportunity when the Shakespeare Quarterly took to the web for peer review. They posted four essays not yet accepted for publication, and then … oh, a “core group of experts” were invited to comment.   

I thought for a minute there that it was actually a big step in the right direction, but now I’m not so sure.

Much Ado

So my kids will be seeing Much Ado About Nothing for the first time on Wednesday.  I’ve told them the story generally, but wanted to write something down that attempted to touch on the major plot points and characters a little more thoroughly.  I was surprised that, while I could find plenty of summaries that walked right through the play front to back, I couldn’t find any that I would actually have a child read.

With that, I whipped this up.  It is literally first draft right from brain to fingers to Microsoft Word.  If I have time I will edit it up a bit, but I was running out of time and wanted to get something written that I could print out and let them read. I sometimes wonder if I should sit down and make a handful of these that I’m actually happy with, and make them available for download for other parents in my situation who want something that a 6yr old could read.

Beatrice and Hero, two young ladies of the city of Messina, were excited to meet their father’s guests. Don Pedro had come home from the war and brought with him two heroes of the battle, Claudio and Benedick. Beatrice had actually known Benedick for a long time, and though she was secretly glad to see him again, she wouldn’t tell anybody. Don Pedro would also be bringing his brother Don John, who had been getting himself into trouble lately and needed to be kept where Don Pedro could keep an eye on him.

When Claudio meets Hero he immediately falls in love, and it is not long before he seeks out her father Leonato to ask for her hand in marriage. Benedick and Beatrice, on the other hand, do nothing but hurl insults back and forth at each other every chance they get. During a costume ball Beatrice even ends up dancing with Benedick without knowing who it is, and she continually but unknowingly insults him to his face.

Meanwhile, Don John is bored and looking to stir up some trouble. When he sees the budding romance between Claudio and Hero, Don John tries to sabotage it by spreading the rumor that Hero is in love with Don Pedro. No one believes the story, and it’s not long before everyone begins planning the wedding of Hero and Claudio. Excited that he’s already played matchmaker once, Don Pedro decides that he will cause Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love as well. With the help of Hero and the others, they make sure that Benedick hears them talking of Beatrice’s love for him. Likewise, when they know Beatrice will hear they talk about Benedick’s love for Beatrice. Separately, both of them begin to realize that maybe love is what they’ve felt for each other all along.

Don John has not given up yet, however. One of his workers, Borachio, has his girlfriend dress in Hero’s clothes and meet him in at night near Hero’s house. When Don Pedro and Claudio are walking nearby, they see this strange man with a woman who looks like Hero. Hero is to marry Claudio, so this is one of the worst possible things that Claudio could see.

Claudio is so angry that he doesn’t just call off the wedding, he lets the entire ceremony proceed until it is his time to speak. Then, in front of her family and all her friends, Claudio says that he knows of her unfaithfulness to him and calls her all manner of terrible names. Hero faints, but her father Leonato believes Claudio’s accusations. Beatrice and Benedick believe Hero, and together with the priest they calm Leonato down and convince him that it would be best for everyone to spread the word that Hero has died of grief.

While they work together to save Hero’s honor, Benedick finally tells Beatrice that he loves her. Beatrice seizes on the opportunity and tells him, “If you love me, you’ll do anything for me, right? Good, go kill Claudio.” Benedick does not have to challenge his friend, however, because Hero’s father has already done it. Just before they are about to go through with the duel, the local sheriff Dogberry marches a captured Borachio onstage and explains that he overheard him confessing the entire plan.

Everyone now understands why Claudio said what he did, and Claudio is overwhelmed with guilt. Claudio is the only one who does not know that Hero is actually still alive. He promises to do whatever Leonato asks, as penance for what he put the family through. Leonato says that Claudio must agree to marry his niece (not Beatrice), a woman that Claudio has never seen. Claudio, a man of his word, agrees to this arrangement. Of course, this “other woman” is actually Hero, who surprises Claudio at the altar.

With everyone once again in a marrying mood, the friends get together and pressure Benedick and Beatrice to admit that they are in love and should marry. Claudio shows a poem that Benedick wrote expressing his love for Beatrice, and Hero shows a similar poem that Beatrice wrote about Benedick. Still insulting each other the entire time, Beatrice and Benedick agree to marry.

The “Dying Offstage” Rule

Following up on today’s earlier Mercutio question, here’s one in search of a more specific answer from some of our students of the theatre:

Sometimes characters go out of their way to die offstage, Mercutio being a prime example.  Why?

I’m assuming that there was some sort of structural framework that Shakespeare was following that required this.  Why not have Mercutio die onstage?  I’m guessing there’s a particular reason.

They Have Made Worm’s Meat Of Me

Romeo+Juliet (the one with Leonardo DiCaprio) is playing in the background as I work here in the home office. 

Somebody tell me about Mercutio’s final moments? He is friend to the Montagues, and in his last act defends Romeo’s honor.  Yet his last words are, among other things, “They have made worm’s meat of me” and the more recognizable, “A plague on both your houses.”

In this particular version, Mercutio is wandering offstage alone when he utters the worm’s meat line, as if it is an aside.  That changes it for me.  I think I always thought, if he was saying it to Romeo, that he’d be referring to the Capulets.  But said like that, coupled with the “both houses” line, it seems more that he’s talking about both of them.  As if, in his final moments, he’s wondering “Why did I get in the middle of that?”

I suppose it’s always been there, I mean after all he does clearly say both your houses.  I don’t think it ever fully sunk in for me before, though.  He doesn’t blame Tybalt for killing him, he blames them both for getting him stuck in the middle.

Yes? No?  Has everybody always thought of it like that, and I’m only now getting with the program?

Your Mission : How’d You Do?

Via Twitter I hit up a couple of celebrities (one of whom follow me back!) to see if I could get them to mention Shakespeare on the air (they are both currently on television daily).  I don’t expect much from that one, but hey, you never know what catches people’s attention :).

Had my daughter’s sixth birthday party this weekend, and made sure to tell any parents that would listen about the local Shakespeare show coming to the library this week.

Also, while at the market I made sure to point out the posters to my kids loudly enough that fellow shoppers could hear.  “Look kids, there’s Daddy’s poster for the Shakespeare show at the library this week!”

Who else?  (I know some folks commented on the original Friday post.  Consider this followup a guilt trip for those that read that post and didn’t pimp Shakespeare at all this weekend :))

Double Falsehood : In Case You Were Curious …

The problem is mostly that it’s a terrible play. I’m not saying it wasn’t a decent play at one time or another during its history–I’m quite fond of the Fletcher-Shakespeare collaborations that weren’t ‘discovered’ by Theobald–but it certainly isn’t one now, and probably wasn’t one even when Theobald got his oft-travestied hands on it.

I’m not one of the geeks standing in line to see this “new” “Shakespeare” play (I couldn’t decide which word to stick air quotes around, they’re both equally incorrect :)), but Mad Shakespeare’s got the review. Although the reviewer has praise for the lead actress, the one doesn’t sound like the world’s been missing too much.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Idea : Shakespeare Trading Cards

This has almost certainly been done before, but I’ve never seen them – and that’s saying something, as I actively hunt out this stuff.

How about a set of Shakespeare cards? Just like baseball cards, only every card is a character from the play.  You get some basic stats about who she was and what she’s famous for (or, barring fame, why she’s in the play at all).  There could be tragedy packs and comedy packs, or group by play.

I’m trying to think of a game that you could play with them, to make it interesting, but haven’t come up with anything yet.  I think it would be a really interesting challenge, though, for an artist to come up with a depiction of, oh, every single Shakespearean character.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Your Weekend Mission

<Cue Mission Impossible music>

This week there was much to be said, though perhaps not here, on the subject of Shakespeare’s accessibility.  After all, we’ve been demonstrating it for years, there’s really no bandwagon for us to jump on.

But! Just because I preach to the choir doesn’t mean that the choir can’t go out and do some good deeds.

So, if you’re reading this, here’s your mission :  Bring up Shakespeare. Mention the actual word, at a minimum, somewhere out in the “regular” world where you wouldn’t normally do so (so all you lucky lucky folks who talk about Shakespeare for a living already have got to go find new converts).   Then, report back here with your stories.  Let’s see who has the best story.

Over the last couple days I’ve been blanketing my town with posters for the upcoming Rebel Shakespeare show, Much Ado About Nothing.  I could walk into the random market or Post Office and stick up a poster.  I could say, “Is it ok if I hang up one of my posters here?”

What I say is something more like, “Hi, I was wondering if I could hang up a poster on your community events board?  The library is doing Shakespeare for kids next week.  You like Shakespeare?  It’s one of the comedies. Much Ado About Nothing.”  All while wearing my t-shirt adorned with a big Shakespeare face, so they already saw me coming a mile away ;).

Sometimes it falls on deaf ears.  Sometimes it gets me into a conversation.  Either way, people walk away from the encounter having heard the word Shakespeare. The more people that do it, the more times they’ll hear it.  It’s not a scary word.  It’s a wonderful world, and more people need to hear it more often.

TVO Kids : Playing Shakespeare

Here’s a game for the kids that I’d not seen before, and will be showing my kids this afternoon.  Playing Shakespeare (that name is used so often I can’t really title my posts with it!) is a simple logic game where 6 characters from the plays are pictured, and “Shakespeare” gives you clues like “The person I am thinking of is not in Macbeth.”  You then cross out all the people that he’s not thinking of and reveal the mystery character.

It’s certainly simple, but it’s not for us adults.  It does show a very simple way to integrate Shakespeare into a simple game, though.  Instead of characters like mailman and fireman, the kids get to see Claudius, Romeo, Witches, and so on.  Throughout the game, “Shakespeare” occasionally gives clues and bits of trivia.  After the final character is revealed, something is told about that character and his play.

The only thing that I think they cheaped out on was “Shakespeare” himself.  A fixed image of a young black man, dressed in fancy Elizabethan stage garb (I’m sure there’s a better description than that), is moved back and forth in front of a background. It’s not even animated, his lips don’t move or anything.  They should have punted on that and animated and actual cartoon Shakespeare.  [ Is it racist to point out that they’ve got a black guy playing him?  I think it’s just an inaccuracy worth noting.  I certainly would have said “The woman playing him” if they’d equally inaccurately made him female.]

Other than that, though, it’s cute enough and I can only hope that my kids don’t exhaust all the “facts” in a single day. 

UPDATE:  Don’t forget to hit the “Flip” button on any card to learn the facts it expects you to know.  I was wondering where the base Shakespeare knowledge was expected to come from.

I’m wondering if this could be turned into a card game of some sort?  The idea of character cards with ‘stats’ like what play they were in, and major plot points, could make a great deck.  But what could the rules of the game be?

I suppose you could pair up the cards (either as marriages/couples, or murderer/victim) and then treat it like any other “find the pairs” game.  Got any Juliets?

Casting Shakespeare Greats

On the subject of Kenneth Branagh playing Sir Laurence Olivier, an anonymous poster asks what modern actor might be case to play Sir John Gielgud.

Good question, and a potentially fun game.  Pick your favorite “Shakespeare Great” and suggest who might play him (or her) in the appropriate movie.  Barrymore?  Burton?  Booth?  Why do so many great Hamlets have B names? :)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Branagh Singularity!

This can’t be a good idea, I’m pretty sure the universe will explode.

Kenneth Branagh, who we know and love for his Hamlet (among others), who one generation of geeks knows as Professor Lockhart from Harry Potter and a different generation will soon know from his Thor, is scheduled next to play …

Sir Laurence Olivier.

Yes, the man who set the bar for modern interpretation of Hamlet will be playing the man who set the bar for interpreting Hamlet a lifetime ago.  Literally – Branagh was born in 1960, Olivier’s Hamlet was made in 1948.

The movie, unfortunately, is not anything to do with Hamlet.  My Week With Marilyn will tell the story of Olivier’s time with Marilyn Monroe on the set of 1957’s The Princess And The Showgirl.  Still, I imagine somebody could sneak in some Shakespeare references.

I wonder what Branagh’s thinking? How cool would it be to play Olivier?

Why Remake Shakespeare?

It seems these days that we don’t so much make new movies, we just remake old ones.  Here’s one list of 25 or so remakes either coming or already here, and there are plenty more depending on how you count.

Is the same true with Shakespeare?  The man was involved in 38ish plays, all public domain, that most people will argue represent the foundation of English literature.  Yet we keep making Macbeth/Lear/Hamlet/Dream over and over again.  Why?

Is it an issue with moviemakers? Is it part of their pattern to find what works and just keep doing it?  Why take a chance on Cymbeline if you can get Al Pacino signed on for Merchant again?

Or, to tie this in to the Timon thread, is it an issue with the source material?  Is it simply the case that some of the plays are harder (if not impossible) to make a good movie out of?

I’m very curious to see how Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus does when it comes out.  But if it succeeds will that be due more to the all-star cast, to the fact they’ve already attached “Hurt Locker” imagery to it to capitalize on a known quantity, or because the source material is that strong?  For that matter, does it matter?  Should we just call it a good thing that we get another mainstream movie of a, for better or worse, lesser known play?  Whatever puts the butts in the seats, I always say.  Waiting to hear “So, did you see Coriolanus yet?” come out of a random stranger’s mouth.

Defending Timon

For those readers who don’t cruise the comments, reader Ren has been on something of a friendly crusade to promote the lesser-known Shakespeare play Timon of Athens.  I thought it would be fun to shine to spotlight a bit and give us all an education in why Timon has gotten a bad rap, and why we should revisit.

Some foundation for you to work with, Ren:

A google search of “Timon of Athens” returns 369,000 results.  Comparatively, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” returns 21 million.   (In Timon’s defense, “Pericles Prince of Tyre” only rings up 72,000 hits.)

According to Amazon, there are 10x as many books on Hamlet as there are on Timon.

IMDB does claim that somebody made a Timon movie in 2009, though no meaningful details about popularity, release dates or box office are available.  Before that there was a TV adaptation in 1981, almost 30 years ago.  Macbeth?  50+ hits, and that’s just for title match.  And that includes one last year, two this year and one next year.

Clearly the world has missed out on this hidden gem.  Enlighten.  (And please take this challenge in the light-hearted manner it is intended, I’m not trying to be argumentative about it.  I’m genuinely curious to shed some light on a play that I’m clearly not alone in not knowing enough about.)

Inmates Adapting Shakespeare

Wabash Valley Correctional Institute is not the first facility to have the prisoners interact with Shakespeare, but they’re the first that I know of who are writing their own adaptations.

Instead of just staging the original play, they read through the text (in this case, Taming of the Shrew) with the program coordinator before going off to work on their own adaptation.  Here the play is used to teach about the problem of domestic violence (the inmates were even partnered with women from another facility so they could get both sides of the issue).  The new play is then performed.

I find this intriguing.  I mean, I don’t think Shakespeare had domestic violence in mind when he wrote the play (it is a comedy, after all), so this is surely a case of making Shakespeare say what you wish he said.  But still, if it works, is it a bad thing?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

All Are Welcome

Apparently at the ISC (International Shakespeare Conference) last week, there was much ado about what to do with Shakespeare in an online, connected, social world.  All I can say to that is, welcome to the party, what took you so long?

I don’t expect that the argument is a new one, it’s just the scale that is changing.  Who is entitled to talk about Shakespeare?  Should that pleasure be limited to the academics who’ve spent their lives researching the topic?  Or can any ill-informed so-and-so with a blog start making stuff up?  (Thanks to Mark Kubus at Blogging Shakespeare for ‘ill-informed so-and-so’ :))

It should be obvious what side of this discussion I’m on.  I secretly hope that somewhere during that closed-door discussion, my name came up :).  I don’t even really care which side of the argument, either. I’d just like to believe that when people actually talk about Shakespeare for a living they know how to do things like google “Shakespeare blog” and follow a couple of links.  I do know that suddenly got inquiries from very important people during the conference…

What troubles me is this sudden new movement, even from places like the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, to make Shakespeare more accessible.  Where ya been?  Seriously.  There are plenty of people out here doing their best to make it accessible without you.  The very fact that you think you control access to begin with is rather upsetting. It does a disservice to Shakespeare and his work.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite happy to have everybody coming around to the right side of the argument, I just wish that there was a little more acknowledgement to how accessible Shakespeare has already become, and the efforts its taken to get him this far.  It kills me that Blogging Shakespeare contains no blogroll or other links to Shakespeare blogs in any prominent matter, and I’m begging them to change that.

Everybody is welcome to discuss Shakespeare in this forum that I and others have created, whether you’ve got academic cred or not.  The folks that are currently discussing how to make Shakespeare more accessible?  Can’t say the same thing.  I even asked whether I could have access to a particular paper that was presented re: Shakespeare and Twitter, and was told it’s not public.  Fair enough, but the very fact that I have access up the chain to even ask the right people says volumes about how far we’ve come toward accessibility, at least in one direction. Now we have to fix the system so that either the answer becomes “Yes”, or even better, I don’t have to ask – it just shows up in my blog feeds because they voluntarily make it public.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Exhausting Sonnet 29?

Great article by Paul Edmondson over at Blogging Shakespeare with a simple premise : get a group of people together to talk about just one sonnet, in this case sonnet 29, for an hour.  What happens? Can you still learn something new every time?  To steal from the closing sentiment of the article, can you exhaust it?  Or will it merely exhaust you (temporarily)?

We talk about sonnet 29 frequently here.  Once Rufus Wainwright put it to music I found it easier to memorize, which in turn caused me to pay more attention to the emotional power behind the words.  I’ve since added it to my wedding book for its potential in that arena as well.

I started to do my own analysis here, but that’s not really fair to the original post.  Go check it out.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Which Is The Easiest Play?

There’s many reasons why people can claim that Shakespeare is hard to understand.  First, there’s vocabulary. It’s not really as bad as people make it out to be, but some plays certainly make heavier use of archaic/obsolete words than others.  Expressions that no longer have context, on the other hand, are a big problem.  Jokes that would have gone over huge with Shakespeare’s crowd that no longer make sense without a little training.  That’s a problem.

And then there’s all the offstage stuff that happens.  When somebody walks on stage and explains about a war that’s going on, dropping names left and right about who did what to do, it’s easy for a modern user to get lost because they didn’t see it.  They don’t know who those people are.

With that in mind I ask, what’s the easiest play? You can define it however you like (given the rough framework I provided), but I’m not just looking for most popular.  You might think Lear is easy, from certain angles.  It’s deep, absolutely. But hard to follow? I don’t know about that. 

I’m wondering which of the plays have all the action taking place on stage (so there’s no need to exposition about what we can’t see), while relying on relatively simple vocabulary that a modern audience could easily follow.

Motivation : Whenever I make my wife come see Shakespeare with me, and she brings a friend along for company, I typically explain the plot of the show before we go so they’re not lost.  At intermission I refresh the details of the story now that they’ve seen some characters, and answer any questions. Inevitably at the end they’ll say, “I did understand it – but thanks to what you told us in the beginning.  I’m not sure I would have followed it without that.”  I’m wondering what the best candidates are for a play that they would be most likely to follow, without me having to walk them through it.  I think that creates a barrier to truly feeling like you’re enjoying the work, if you need a middle man to translate for you.

He’s Here! Branagh’s Hamlet, Blu-ray Edition

Ok, how many people knew who I was talking about when I teased this one a few days ago?

Hamlet_BD_Book I’m happy and grateful to report that Warner Brothers contacted me and asked if I could review the new release of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, new on Blu-ray DVD (official release date Tuesday August 17, 2010).  “I don’t have a Blu-ray player,” I responded.  “Can I get some for giveaway?”  Sure enough I’ve now got two, count ‘em, *2* brandy new, hot-off-the-presses, before-he-directed-Thor, Kenneth Branagh Hamlet’s.  It’s not even like I can keep them for myself, because I’m not kidding, I don’t have a player for these bad boys!

I don’t expect that any regular readers will need a synopsis of this one, but they kinda sorta requested that I make this a mandatory part of the post.  So:

“Hamlet has the kind of power, energy and excitement that movies can truly exploit,” award-winning actor/director Kenneth Branagh says.  In this first-ever full-text film of William Shakespeare’s greatest work, the power surges through every scene. The timeless tale of murder, corruptions and revenge is reset in an opulent 19th-century world, using sprawling Blenheim Palace as Elsinore and staging much of the action in shimmering mirrored and gold-filled interiors. The energy is electrifying, due to a luminous cast. The excitement of the Bard’s words and an adventurous filmmaking style lift the story from its often shadowy ambience to fully-lit pageantry and rage.

Ok, so, on to the good stuff.  How can you be one of the lucky ones to “Own it on Blu-ray”?

Starting now (Sunday, August 15);

1) Follow me on Twitter if you haven’t already. I need to be able to message you back if you win.

2) Send the following message via Twitter: 

Free DVD Giveaway: Enter to Win Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, New on Blu-ray! http://bit.ly/cbyNil @ShakespeareGeek #BlurayHamlet

3) Two winners will be chosen by midnight (Eastern time) on Tuesday, August 17 (to coincide with the official release date).  This is a quick one, people, so don’t delay!

00316507 4) Winners must be in the continental United States.  Sorry, but these are sitting on my desk and I’ve got to pay the shipping out of my pocket.  I couldn’t even really tell you what region these are anyway, and I know the international folks would need to know that.

5) Your friendly neighborhood Shakespeare Geek reserves the right, if necessary, to extend or alter the rules if I’ve somehow written up a condition that is either a) impossible to fulfill or b) results in ambiguity that would wreck the integrity of the contest.

Get started!  Seriously, somebody’s got to take these off my hand and then convince me to get a Blu-ray player!  I hear in high-def you can really see the melancholy in all it’s glorious detail ;)

Of course, for those that want to skip the gambling and just add to their collection, you can own it on Blu-ray anytime (well, after Tuesday) you like!

Friday, August 13, 2010

What, Midsummer Again?

We ended up with something of a quality theme this week, so I’ve got one more to round it out.  

Could you watch Hamlet 30 times?  Or any play?  I expect you probably could.  Because it’s different every time, and we’re all fascinated by what each new production will bring to the table.

Say that a really awesome cable network is running a different version of Midsummer, every night for a week (or more).  If you’re like me, you try to catch them all (assuming, of course, that you haven’t seen them all already to the point where you’re bored.  Humor me.) 

Now what if they’re showing the exact same version every day for a week?  How many times do you watch?

Thought exercises like this are tricky in the days of “buy the DVD”, but hopefully you get my point.  Shakespeare’s words are frozen in time, but performance is not.  Thus we have an infinite variety to go enjoy.  But what if you took a single performance and froze it in time? How would it stand up?

This is not a Shakespeare specific question, of course.  You may have The Godfather, or Lord of the Rings, on DVD sitting in your collection right now. And we’ll all agree those are very good movies.  But when’s the last time you watched them?  What made you stop?  When did you decide you’d had enough?

Wish To Know More?

Which play do you wish you knew more about?  

That doesn’t necessarily mean least staged, or least popular.  You may not care in the least about Timon of Athens, for instance.  I mean for you, personally, which play do you wish you knew more about?

For me, at least at the top of the list, is Richard III.  I just have very little experience with it.  I’ve read it once upon a time, like I read all the others.  But I’ve never seen a production, live or on film, and I think that if I went about plugging the many gaps in my Shakespeare experience, that’s probably the biggest one.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

He’s Coming …

So I get a call last week from a big movie studio.  They’ve got a new DVD release coming up next week and wanted to know if I’d like a review copy. I said that I would not be able to do the review (for reasons I will unveil later), but since I love you people so much I immediately asked for, and got,  giveaway copies.

The only catch is I can’t tell you what it is until next week.

So … watch this space!

Is Shakespeare Better Now?

Continuing our discussion on the nature of quality, what do you think about the idea of quality over time?

Specifically is Shakespeare “better” now, 400 years after the fact, than when he first wrote it? We know what would happen if a person from today jumped into a time machine and went back to watch an original.  He’d come into it with all sorts of preconceptions about the inherent genius of the work.  But what about the other way?  What if someone only familiar with Shakespeare’s original jumped in a time machine, and basically skipped those centuries we’ve had to build him up in our minds?  Then what?

How much of the quality lies in the source material itself, and how much do we bring to it?  Is it at all possible to guess at a ratio? Which direction does it swing?

Come On In and Cover Shakespeare

Here’s an idea that just hit me over in the bad Shakespeare thread:

All Shakespeare performance is cover songs.  Discuss.

Think about it.  Somebody writes the lyrics to a song, and the music.  Somebody else comes along later and performs their version of it.  Maybe they change it up, maybe they try and stay true to the original as best they can.  Maybe it’s worse than the original, maybe it’s even better.  Maybe it’s just … different.  But there’s no doubt that everybody listening understands, “Ok, wait, is he actually doing Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time?”  Whether you like the original or not, and whether you like this version or not, are entirely subjective.

Isn’t Shakespeare in the exact same situation, save one important caveat?  He gave us the words, and if you know how to read them, he gave us the “music”, for lack of a better term.  Then it’s up to who comes along later to decide how true they’ll stay to the original, what they’ll keep and what they’ll change, how they’ll “make it their own” to steal an American Idolism.

The caveat? Surely somebody knows what I’m going to say.  For any given cover song, chances are almost perfect that we have an original.  That is simply not true with Shakespeare.  Nobody today gets to see what it looked like originally.  Even the best recreations only get half way there, because we didn’t live when Shakespeare did. It’s like trying to listen to songs from the 1960’s today, if you weren’t there.  You can research history all you like, but Neil Young’s “Four dead in Ohio” song just can’t possibly be the same if you weren’t alive to wake up the next morning and read that in the papers.

This, in turn, makes me think of another post on the subject of quality, that maybe I’ll have time for later today, I’m not sure.  I think we’re getting pretty metaphysical here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Praise for Slings & Arrows

I first discovered this show back in August 2005, but missed it because I didn’t have the Sundance Channel.

I got to watch it for real in February 2008.

I’m now, as I mentioned, watching it again.  It’s being shown on the Ovation Network, if your cable provider offers that channel.  They’re currently in the third and final season, though, so your best move might still be the DVD set.

In short? The setting is a Shakespeare theatre company, tackling one of the great plays each season – Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear.  Each has its own issues (Hamlet played by the up and coming Hollywood actor who only wants it for the screen cred, a Macbeth portrayed by someone who’s played it so often he no longer takes direction, and so on…)  There is a back story that reads much like a soap opera.  The director is crazy, haunted by the ghost of his former director, for instance.

It might well be the best “show about Shakespeare” ever put to television. Every episode is loaded with opportunities to discuss Shakespeare.  Just this moment, as I sit here watching a King Lear scene, the actor playing Lear goes off on a screaming tirade that his daughters are not showing proper respect for the verse. During the Hamlet season they discuss details like whether Gertrude may have killed Ophelia.  You can watch every episode a dozen times and find a dozen things to talk about each time.  The crime is that the show only lasted 3 seasons, and 6 episode seasons at that.

If you’ve seen the show, what was your favorite season?  Convince those that haven’t that they simply must by the DVD right now.

Is Midsummer A Critique of Queen Elizabeth?

Spotted via Twitter, I had to dig a little bit to get to this interview with Helen Hackett on the subject of Queen Elizabeth.  Definitely check it out for the bits on Spenser’s Faerie Queen, but stay for the Shakespeare.  Here, have a taste:

Once you start thinking about this it is quite obvious – you have Titania the Fairy Queen who is infatuated with an ass. Well, you can’t think about the Fairy Queen without thinking about Elizabeth because of Spenser. Titania is made to be a slave to lust, a comical figure, her powers are mocked and she is brought back under the authority of a husband. That is implied to be the norm.

The connection might be obvious, but I guess I never thought about it.  The way Hackett paints the picture, nobody was happy with Elizabeth at the time (she’d not had an heir, for instance) and Shakespeare was being pretty blatant in his criticism.

Fan, Or Geek?

Yesterday I was speaking with someone who said, “Shakespeare fans, or as you call them, geeks.”
I don’t think it’s quite that easy.  I think there’s a difference, I’m just not sure I can explain it.   I know plenty of Red Sox fans, for example, but I’ve never heard some one call themselves a Red Sox Geek.
From where I sit it goes something like this.  A Shakespeare fan knows that there’s Shakespeare on Boston Common, so he goes to see the show.  Likes it, maybe talks about it over dinner with the friends that came with.  A geek wears his Shakespeare t-shirt with a joke very few people will get, live tweets the show, looks for other “geeks” in the audience to bond with (like those that brought Othello to Othello?), and goes home afterward to get on the blogs and talk about the show, and any other topics that come up tangentially, as long as the conversation will continue.
Maybe the distinction lies there, in social circle?  I could be a Shakespeare fan entirely by myself.  I don’t need to hang out with other Shakespeare fans.  I can just read it, see it, like it.  Done.  But I’m not like that, I’m a geek about it.  I needed an outlet for my love of the subject, and when I couldn’t find one, I made one.  And what I’ve found in the intervening years is that fellow geeks have flocked here for the same reasons.
Or, getting back to the sports thing I mentioned earlier, perhaps there is still some level of academic association with the term, confused so often with “nerd” as it is.  Star Wars geek, math geek, theatre geek.  Since I’m clearly on this side o the line I can’t really speak to the other side – anybody want to step up and proclaim themselves a marathon geek or a weightlifting geek?
What do you folks think?  When asked, in the real world, are you a fan or a geek? How would you explain it?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is There Such A Thing As Bad Shakespeare?

This oughtta be good for some discussion.  What, exactly, is “bad Shakespeare”?  If you saw 6yr old children attempting Henry V, would you call it bad?  What about prisoners behind bars, or juvenile delinquents, or any other situation where it’s to be performed by people who are not actors by trade?  What about a good actor who does a less than stellar job?

Here’s my thinking.  The only way that it’s bad is when it doesn’t show appropriate respect for the source material.  If your production is attempting to do a good job, then by definition I think you’re on the positive side of the scale because even if the words aren’t coming out of your mouth properly, you know that you want them to, you are striving to make that happen, and that’s a good thing.  But if you’re phoning it in, and you couldn’t care less whether you’re reciting Lear or the phone book, that’s where I think I have a problem.

Make sense?  I will be disappointed with a production not because of its quality, but because of its effort (or lack thereof).

I’m tempted now to apply this reasoning to movie version of the play like Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet, or Al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice, but it’s not that easy since I don’t know rationale that went into some directorial decisions.  Did they really think they were doing Shakespeare justice in some of their choices?  Or did they think that the source material needed a serious overhaul to make it better?  I can say I didn’t like Hawke’s Hamlet (I’ve not seen Pacino’s Merchant, only read reviews), but I couldn’t necessarily call it “bad Shakespeare” unless I sat down with the man himself and got his opinion on why he did what he did. 

Yes, I Smothered Myself With A Pillow. Why?

If you came here from Google looking for the actual Shakespeare Pillow, sorry for the confusion. You'll want to go here for the nice version with the love quotes, or here for the "naughty" version. Enjoy!

Am I the only one that sees a bit of a plot hole in the final scene of Othello?  Othello strangles Desdemona in her bed.  It’s very important for him not to leave any marks.  It’s often done by smothering her with a pillow.
But, when Emilia (why didn’t somebody tell me I was spelling her name wrong?) comes in and finds her still alive, Desdemona replies “Nobody,” has done this,  “I myself.” 
Does Emilia not then ponder, at least for a moment, “How did you smother yourself with a pillow?”
How else is the death scene handled? I’d like to talk about the Boston production I just saw, because I think there was one good thing and one bad one, but I don’t want to put in any spoilers yet.
Or is this part of it?  That Emilia never believes it, she knows exactly what happened?  I suppose that’s the most logical assumption, but if that were the case you’d think Emilia’s reaction would be more immediate, and they wouldn’t go through that whole “I have to report the truth as she told it to me” nonsense if she knows different.  Unless Emilia’s afraid of Othello as well.  But I never think of her as physically afraid of the men around her. 

Monday, August 09, 2010

They Were Just Like Us! Who Knew?

It’s always fun when we get to point at Shakespeare’s work, some 400 years old at this point, and show evidence of truths back then that are still true today.  There were plenty of things in Othello last night that qualified, but one of my favorites was here:


Indeed! ay, indeed: discern'st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?
Honest, my lord!
Honest! ay, honest.
My lord, for aught I know.
What dost thou think?
Think, my lord!

Think, my lord!
By heaven, he echoes me,
As if there were some monster in his thought
Too hideous to be shown.

I love it.  That whole “You don’t want to answer the question so you just repeat the question back at the person” thing?  You probably do it yourself on a regular basis. You’ve certainly seen it spelled out on any random television sitcom.  Yet here’s Othello calling Iago out on that exact behavior, centuries ago.

Shakespeare Smack Talk

“Shakespeare Insults” is one of the most popular Shakespeare-related topics out there.  The problem is that most of those sites are, in fact, just random phrase generators that result in funny-sounding insults that never actually were used in Shakespeare’s works.

Last night during Othello I heard one that I don’t think I can call an insult, but it certainly goes under the banner of good “smack talk”.  Othello is listening to Cassio talk about Desdemona (so he thinks).  Where Cassio cannot hear him Othello says, “O, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw it to.”


Who talks the best game in the works of Shakespeare? 

Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare Othello 2010 Boston Common

To date I’ve seen Commshakes’ productions of Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors … and now, Othello.

Best one yet.

First let me get a few geeky things out of the way.  The group behind us actually brought a game of Othello, winning serious geek points (Othello at Othello, yes?)  I thought about it, posted it on Twitter, but was unable to find a set in time.  I told these people that, and the lady told me, “Amazon.  Two weeks ago.  I’ve been planning for this.”  She seriously needs to hang out here, because that is one major Shakespeare geek.

On with the show.  I find that I’m always disappointed with Iago in the opening scenes, and I think I know why.  In theory I build him up like some sort of demonic sociopath, and I expect a Charles Manson or Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs sort of figure.  When he inevitably is not I immediately think, “Oh, I don’t like this guy.”  But then he grows on me. 

Othello, on the other hand, I loved.  He’s … perfect.  Sweeps on stage, never loses control over anything.  When they tell him “Desdemona’s father is looking for you!” he calmly goes to look for him, because he knows he’s done nothing wrong.  When he’s basically put on trial for using witchcraft against Desdemona, he again says with absolutely certainty,  “Go ask her yourself.”  He is almost inhuman in this, like “No one is really like that.”  You almost want to see him crumble, just a bit.  Maybe not as much as happens, but just a little.

Before we introduce Desdemona, a word about the setting.  I was trying to place exactly what time frame they were going for, and I think it was WWII.  At first I was thinking they had a sort of Casablanca look about them, and afterwards when we were discussing the show the movie LA Confidential came up.  So imagine this as Desdemona enters, done up like something out of a Lana Turner movie – nicely dressed in a suit, hair swept back under a tiny hat.  Later during a dinner scene she’ll be dressed in a shiny gold evening gown.  I’m painting the best picture I can, here, people.  Work with me. :)

So this Desdemona is … well, she’s a woman. I think with the whole “stolen from her father” thing, Desdemona’s often thought of in an Ophelia-like “this is just a child” sort of way.  Not here.  Here Desdemona is a grown woman who stands up to her father.  Interesting choice.

One of the great things about Othello is that it’s so directly connected to human emotional response.  See that guy there? Yeah, he’s mad at the black guy.  So he’s gonna get that other guy drunk, because he knows that when that dude gets drunk he gets violent.  Cool, that guy got in a fight, now the black guy is pissed off and just fired him.  So he’s gonna go to his boss’s wife and try to get his job back, and the villain guy is going to use that to make the boss think his wife is cheating on him.  There’s not a great deal of politics (although the bits about war and geography and who’s been sent where are a little tricky to follow).  Basically you get to see this guy at the top of the world brought down by his supposedly honest and trustworthy right hand man, Iago.

I wonder if it was this production in particular doing something deliberate, but I never really noticed how much Shakespeare pounds us over the head with a hammer in this one.  It seems like every character, every time, referred to “honest Iago.”  It practically became a running joke, the more villainous he got and the more the people around him got so stupid, saying “Oh, Iago! Someone surely must have been whispering in Othello’s ear to turn him against me!  Since you’re so honest and trustworthy go figure out who could have done such a thing!”  There are many instances where you pretty much feel like everybody else on stage is stupid.  The scene where Iago doesn’t want to say Cassio slept with Desdemona, which then turns into “Welll….I shouldn’t say anything, but he had this dream where he said I love you Desdemona, and then he threw his leg over mine, and kissed me full on the mouth ….” The audience was laughing pretty hard at that.  How could Othello have been so stupid?

Speaking of Othello, he deteriorates nicely.  His perfectly tailored uniform becomes unbuttoned, his tie crooked.  He no longer stands at attention. He repeats himself, he stutters.  One of my favorite scenes comes after Iago has planted the idea of Desdemona’s infidelity in Othello’s mind, and an increasingly crazed Othello pulls a gun on his “ancient”, saying (in appropriately Shakespearean terms), “You show me proof, motherf*cker. You call my wife a whore? You plant this idea in my head to drive me nuts? You bring me proof or you die.”  Othello is not stupid, and that’s part of the point. He knows what he’s been told, and that it is not proof.  But when he confronts Desdemona and she can’t produce the handkerchief?  That, in his mind, is proof.

The big death scene was pretty scary, as expected. It’s always weird when Desdemona seems to start the scene so calmly.  “Why are you planning to kill me, husband? What did I do?”  But by the time he actually means to go through with it she’s screaming and begging for her life.  It’s pretty terrifying.  In this particular production (is it really a spoiler when talking about Shakespeare?) it takes a little while for her to go down, we’ll just say.  There’s a lot more that goes on than just some smothering with a pillow.

I like the ending for the action – Amelia spills the details, Iago kills her and escapes, Othello kills himself.  I do not like all the talking, the emphasis on “We’re gonna torture you later, ok?  You there, don’t forget to torture that guy.  Trust us, we’re gonna torture him.”  Iago’s “I’ll never speak again” line I find hard to pull off.  This is one of those moments where he should be something other than human.  I prefer to go away thinking no, no amount of torture will make him talk.  When he speaks in the same tones he’s spoken throughout the play he sounds like he’ll crack as soon as they’re off stage.

Since Carl mentioned the other day that the last lines of Othello are his favorite, I was waiting for them specifically.  He’s right, it’s a very good ending.  That whole scene is intriguing to me, because here you’ve got a guy who killed his wife, thinking that he was in the right to do so, now surrounded by armed soldiers and having just discovered that he was completely wrong.  So once again he does the “right” thing, and suicides.  I like that part of the ending.  As always with Shakespeare there’s the cleanup bits (“Don’t forget to torture that guy!”) which I think are always just a bit anti-climactic.

Best thing about a play like this is that afterwards we got to discuss it.  We talked about whether it’s a play about racism or not.  Iago never comes out and says “I hate him because he’s black”, but man there’s certainly some racially-charged language in there.  Someone refers to Othello as old “thick-lips”, among other things, and when Iago and Roderigo first wake Brabantio they’re making some pretty obscene beast references. 

Great show.  One of my favorites, by far, for many reasons.  I hope they do some more biggies in the coming years.

Has It Got Much Shakespeare In It?

...or Lobster Thermidor a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and with a fried egg on top and Shakespeare.
Have you got anything without Shakespeare?
Well, there's Shakespeare egg sausage and Shakespeare, that's not got much Shakespeare in it.
I don't want ANY Shakespeare!
Why can't she have egg bacon Shakespeare and sausage?
With apologies to Monty Python, the question on the table is “What’s your favorite movie with Shakespeare in it?”
I do not mean movie versions of Shakespeare plays, like Branagh’s Hamlet.  Nor do I mean movies based on Shakespeare, like Ten Things I Hate About You.
I thought about this one after seeing Prince of Players, about the Booth family.  It’s a regular movie about regular people, who just happen to be famous Shakespeareans.  So it’s got a good amount of Shakespeare in it, without being specifically a Shakespeare movie.
Make sense?

Shakespeare Baseball Card

New reader Ken sent me this link to the Shakespeare Trading Card (can you really call it a baseball card?) that’s part of the 2010 Topps Allen and Ginter set known as “World’s Wordsmiths”.

There’s not a whole bunch of content to talk about, so go check it out and pay the $4 if you simply must have one.  I do like, though, how they write about the “almost 200 surviving works” of our Stratford man.  I guess they’re counting every individual sonnet as a separate thing?  Would have been cooler if the back had actual stats like a baseball player – date of birth, number of plays, number of sonnets, words invented, number of children, etc…

Thanks, Ken!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

End of Civilization. Shakespeare. Disagree?

I’ve told this story before, but this time I want to turn it into a discussion.

Eons ago, when I was working at the supermarket during my college-ish years (that’d be circa 1988-1994 for anybody that wants specifics), I got into a discussion about Shakespeare with one of the ladies that worked with me, who I think was an English teacher in a past life.  I asked her what she thought of Shakespeare, or whether she was a fan, or what her favorite play was … I can’t remember the question.  But I’ve always remembered the answer:

I think that if the entirety of human civilization were to end tomorrow, and only one book survived that might show whatever comes next what once was, that book should be King Lear.

High praise.  But do you agree? Let’s put that out there as our sci-fi hypothesis.  Mankind?  Wiped out.  Maybe some of us blasted off on a rocket and came back around again a few thousand years later, or maybe it’s the aliens coming to see how exactly we blew ourselves up. They’re picking through the rubble, and they find a book.  What book?  Shakespeare?  If not Shakespeare, then who?

Hold your horses, before everybody jumps in with “Bible!” I will extend the question – are you picking a book that is supposed to represent human civilization the way it *was*, good and bad? Or the way you wish it was? Do you see this as an opportunity for a historical record of what was, or a recipe book for how to change the future?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Who’s Copying Who, Here?

I swear I did not see this article on 20 Classic Closing Lines from Literature when I posted Best Ending Lines.  Who knows, maybe they stole my idea? :)

Anyway, what’s interesting about this article is that Mr. Shakespeare *does* appear on the list for a change.  Before looking, anybody want to guess?

Because you’ll never guess.  I never would have.  I still don’t understand why they picked the one they did.

(True story, I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was in second grade.  I was in the hospital for a period of time, and a well-meaning aunt knew I liked to read. So she brought me some books.  One of them happened to be Hemingway.  <shrug>  Not claiming I understood it, just that I read it.  Guy goes fishing, and it takes him so long and out so far to get the actual fish that by the time he gets home all the other fish have eaten it, right? Something like that. ;))

Introducing …

When we read a play, it’s easy to forget how much knowledge this grants us.  One big example is the names of the characters.  The script may say “Enter Iago” and then Iago begins speaking, but how and when does the audience realize that this guy who just walked onstage is named Iago?

It’s not Shakespeare’s problem, it’s every playwright’s problem.  Arguably it’s the problem of every writer of fiction, except for those I suppose that write their story from the perspective of an all-knowing third party (what’s that called, again?)

What I’m wondering is, what tricks did Shakespeare use to accomplish this?  How long can you find between the time a character appears on stage, and is given a name?  Spear-carriers don’t count, of course.

I thought of this while watching Othello.  Enter Roderigo, who on his second like addresses Iago directly.  But then Roderigo is not called by name until several exchanges later.  If the audience misses it the first time they’re given the pretty obvious one when he shouts to Brabantio, “Do you know my voice? It’s me, Roderigo!”

In Hamlet it takes Francisco and Bernardo all of 7 lines to call each other by name.  Bernardo then tells the audience that Horatio and Marcellus should be around any moment, and then they enter.

Romeo and Juliet’s interesting – Gregory is called by name in the opening line (by Sampson), but Sampson is actually never referred to by name at all.

You get the idea, I hope, of what I’m getting at.  As a playwright do you think Shakespeare consciously thought, “Ok, how and when will I communicate the name of this character to the audience?” or did it just sort of fall out naturally, and however it happened that’s what stuck? We speak so often of him as an immortal poetic genius who planned out every beat of every meter, but what about the more trivial but necessary stuff?

Love Quotes by Shakespeare

UPDATED September, 2010 - My new book, Hear My Soul Speak : Wedding Quotations from Shakespeare, is available now!

While working on my wedding book I’ve compiled and organized something like 150 “love quotes” by Shakespeare.  This was harder than it might seem, especially if you google the appropriate terms and discover dozens upon dozens of quote databases dedicated to the subject.  The problem is that most of them simply search the works for words like “love” and then say “Aha, a love quote!”
That’s not really good enough, is it?  I don’t expect that people searching for love quotes want to see something like “The course of true love never did run smooth.”  True, it’s a love quote. By Shakespeare.  But it’s not exactly romantic.
To balance out this trend I’d like to anchor some “love quotes” here, compiled by we fans of the bard who’ll pick only the best of the best.  Quality, people.  Not quantity.
Personally I like those quotes that are in a form where someone could say it to someone else.  The romantic stuff. Like these:

“I will swear I love thee infinitely.”  - Henry IV Part 1
“I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.” – Much Ado About Nothing
“I would not wish any companion in the world but you.” – The Tempest
“Sweet, above thought I love thee.” – Troilus and Cressida
“I do love nothing in the world so well as you.” – Much Ado About Nothing
(Long time fans will know that I had that first one engraved on an infinity bracelet for my wife).  I particularly like that Tempest one because the word love is nowhere to be found. So simple text searching won’t do it, you actually have to pay attention to what’s being said.
On the topic of love in general, there’s a couple I like just as well:
“If music be the food of love, play on.” – Twelfth Night
“Love is a spirit all compact of fire.” – Venus and Adonis
Anybody else got some favorites?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Shakespeare In The Park Boston Common 2010

I have been truly criminally remiss in not pimping the holy heck out of Commonwealth Shakespeare’s production of Othello, now running for free on Boston Common.  The show had a bumpy time of it last year, losing their rich sponsors (thank goodness, they were ruining it) and going it on their own.  I’m very glad to have them back for another year, doubly so that they’re tackling one of the great tragedies!
I haven’t seen the show yet, we’re planning on going this weekend (Sunday, August 8).  I’ll be the one in the Mercutio Drew First shirt. ;)  If you see me, stop by and say hi!
Last year I bought a cool black hooded sweatshirt while I was at the show, and I’m upset that I’ve apparently lost it.  Speaking of which, when you go, remember to support the group by buying stuff.  It’s a free show but that doesn’t mean it didn’t cost anything to produce.  Put some money in the hat when it comes around.  Buy merchandise.  Every bit helps.  Let’s keep free Shakespeare on the Common going for our children to take their children.
UPDATE:  Review posted.  Loved it!

Jersey Shore Meets Shakespeare?

Don’t ask me how I found this, but I’m glad I did.  Somebody with a stronger constitution than I has done a satire of Jersey Shore in iambic pentameter.

Unfortunately it stops just when it’s getting good (the author says in the comments that he was getting a headache, and I believe it).  Maybe a surge in traffic (and some comments) will motivate him to grab the Excedrin and bang out a longer piece?

Best Ending Lines?

Ok, best opening lines was fun, now let’s do best ending.  I don’t think I’ll stick with “ending line”, that might be a bit tricky to pull off.  Might not always work as just a single line, in other words.
Here’s the rules :

  • Must be the actual ending.  Work backwards from the definite end of the play.  You can take as much of the last scene as you want, but it has to include the actual end.  So, in other words, I can’t have the big fight scene in Macbeth, I’d be restricted to Malcolm’s final speech, which isn’t nearly as interesting.
  • “Best”, for the purposes of this game, has more to do with particularly memorable or poetic aspects of the actual words.  Not because the scene was particularly cool.
Romeo and Juliet’s got a good contender with the Prince’s line, “For never was a story of more woe Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Puck, of course, knocks it out of the park for Midsummer.  His whole closing speech, from “If we shadows have offended” all the way through to “Robin shall restore amends” is note perfect.
I think this category is interesting because it brings up those opportunities where we think Shakespeare should have ended, but didn’t.  The obvious case there being Hamlet, where “The rest is silence” has been the closing line for many a film version, but in the script Shakespeare has Horatio and Fortinbras go on for a few dozen more lines.

UPDATE: Did everybody see this?  Digg.com picked up a story that Gunaxin did on 20 best closing lines - days after we decided to do it :).  I wish I could figure out how to get some of that Digg traffic, I'm tellin ya!

Hamlet’s Hit Points

I’m not quite sure what to do with this offering from a site called Game Playwright, which in itself seems highly cool to me:

In these pages, you’ll find definitions of nine critical story beats. You’ll read about the relationships between those beats. You’ll also find complete analyses of three stories you know already—Hamlet, Casablanca, and Dr. No—to show you how the system works.

Written with roleplayers in mind, Hamlet’s Hit Points is an indispensable tool for understanding stories, in games and everywhere else.

I’ve often brainstormed on the ideas of using Shakespeare’s characters as fodder for computer games of various sorts, so this fascinates me.  In my version, computer AI has developed to a high enough degree that you could essentially “seed” your Hamlets and Ophelias and watch the play (the plot, at least) run through on its own sort of auto pilot.  Then insert the player character and watch to see how he can disrupt the proceedings.

This book looks like it’s geared toward game designers, but it seems like the sort of thing any random Shakespeare geek might be fascinated by.


[ Spotted via Steve’s Gamer Blog ]

Wickedness and Vice, Money and Ale

Good article for catching up on what’s been found at the Shoreditch dig.  Interesting finds so far include money boxes, lots of mugs, and parts of the wall and courtyard.


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Question : Weddings in Shakespeare?

Ok, crew.  Maybe this is lazy but I like to think of it as research. :)  I need a list of the plays that have the most positive messages about marriage.  Does that make sense?  They don’t have to have a wedding in them (most of the plays don’t, at least not on stage), but anything “pro-wedding” counts.

For instance I’ve got Much Ado, As You Like It, Midsummer.  But also The Tempest, because of Prospero’s conjuring of spirits to bless Miranda and Ferdinand.  Taming of the Shrew is debatably “pro marriage”, but I’m counting it.

I would not on the other hand count something like Hamlet – technically the marriage between Gertrude and Claudius is a plot point, but I wouldn’t exactly call it “pro”.  You know, what with Hamlet shouting “We will have no more marriages!” and all that.

Which others? I want to make sure I’m not missing any.

Best Opening Line?

So I saw this Entertainment Weekly article about 2o Classic Opening Lines in Books.  For the curious, it stretches 20 pages for 20 lines, includes Harry Potter and does not include Orwell, Camus or Kafka.

Of course there’s no Shakespeare, since it’s always up in the air whether someone counts his work among “books”.

So I thought we’d do our own.  What were Shakespeare’s best opening lines?

I suppose Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” might be the most infamous, given how frequently it is misquoted.

I like Romeo and Juliet’s “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Not just because it’s one of the greatest story introductions ever, but because it contains an important clue that most modern adapters seem to forget : both alike in dignity.  Everybody always wants to tell the story along racial or economic lines, putting a gigantic obstacle between the two young lovers and hitting the audience over the head with “Here’s why they can’t be together.”  I don’t think by “ancient grudge” Shakespeare meant reparations for slavery.

Who else has ideas?

Monday, August 02, 2010

Eight Years for Destroying History


When we first speculated what Raymond Scott might get as punishment for being in possession of the stolen First Folio, I don’t think any of us guessed eight years – but that’s what he’s getting.

Know what makes me sad?  The title page was cut out of this one in a sad, amateurish attempt to “disguise” it.  What, exactly, happened to that page? You think somebody’s got it framed in a collection someplace? Or you think the genius just crumbled it up and threw it in the trash?

Edwin Booth : Prince of Players

Last week I set my TV to start recording stuff with Shakespeare in it. I was amused to see Vincent Price’s “Theatre of Blood” come up, looking forward to that one.

But first we have Prince of Players, a 1955 movie about the Booth family.  You know, as in John Wilkes Booth.  The dude who shot Lincoln?

We here at the site know that the Booth family were quite famous as Shakespearean actors, so the premise of this movie is fascinating.  We know what eventually happens, of course.  It’s like getting the back story.  Why does John go down the path he does? What of his brother Edwin?

The movie is more accurately the story of Edwin, played by none other than Richard Burton who had his own bits of Shakespearean fame.  We see Edwin grow up on the road with his father, Junius Brutus, memorizing lines while he was supposed to be sleeping or doing his homework. It was young Edwin who had to go drag his drunken father out of the local saloon so he could play Lear, or his famous Richard III.

Flash to the Booth home life where we meet John, the apparent heir to the throne as he runs through the house doing scenes with his father while Edwin settles up the accounting books with his older sister.  We soon learn, however, that Edwin is a much, much better actor than John.  They can both do the lines and do them well, but it is clear to everyone that Edwin is the new king.

This movie has an amazing amount of Shakespeare in it.  These days it seems like we either get a movie version of a Shakespeare play, or we get a movie based on a Shakespeare play, but nobody thinks that today’s audiences can sit through too much Shakespeare in the middle of their show.  Fifty years ago, however, movie makers had more respect for their audiences attention spans (and perhaps the audiences deserved it a bit more than today’s do).  We get to see very large amounts of Richard Burton’s Richard III, Romeo, and Hamlet.

The actual story, though perhaps a bit melodramatic, is still excellent and entertaining.  Edwin marries (his Juliet, actually) and has a child.  When his wife becomes ill and can no longer attend performances, he demands that her box remain empty, which angers the theatre owners who “could sell it 50x over.”  “You have the greatest Hamlet of our generation on your stage,” Booth’s manager responds, “If he wants that box to remain empty, it remains empty.”

What of his more infamous brother John? We see him, enough. Early on it looks as if he too will have a career in the theatre, but it’s clear that the critics prefer his brother. Somehow, perhaps for purposes only of the story, this translates into John’s preference for the South over the North.  I believe it was because he blamed the critics in the North, who preferred Edwin, for killing his own career. 

Edwin tries to rescue his brother from the bad influences he falls in with, including a generous offer to share the stage (“One night you would play Laertes to my Hamlet, the next I would be Laertes to your Hamlet. Then Iago, and Othello.”) that, 150 years later, would have Shakespeare geeks salivating over the prospect.  But just like any Shakespearean tragedy we know how this ends, we know what will happen to John and that Edwin will not be able to save him.


Unfortunately it appears that this movie is not available on DVD at the moment, so you have to keep an eye out for it in the TV Guide.  I believe I found it on the FOX Movie Channel, in case you get that.  Definitely recommended.  Been a long time since a movie from the 50’s kept my interest like that.