Thursday, December 30, 2010

Flashback : May, 2008

Ok, here's a game for anybody that's got nothing better to do than hang out on Shakespeare Geek over New Year's :). I was looking over my year's posts and saw that I made 67 posts in August of this year. Not bad, averaging over 2/day. But then I looked farther back and saw that in May 2008 for some unknown reason I made an insane *72* posts.

Here they all are, on one browsable page.

Many of you may not have even been around back then, so feel free to jump in Ye Olde Time Machine and see what we were talking about two and a half years ago. I like to think the quality of the post topics has gotten better, the site's gone from entirely a "Hey look I found a Shakespeare reference on the Internet!" site to deep and serious discussion about some pretty heavy "What is the essence of what Shakespeare means to us?" topics. I haven't given up on the former, though i have to say that the latter I think is more interesting to me.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year everybody!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let's Talk Twelfth Night

Since we're in that after-Christmas lull, let's talk about Twelfth Night. I have a book on Twelfth Night queued up for review, I'll see if I can get that posted tonight.

Until then, the floor is open. Do Twelfth Night productions ever have anything to do with Christmas? If not, do we have any idea where the name comes from?

What are your thoughts on this one compared to, say, the other popular cross-dressing comedy As You Like It? Is this one light and fluffy, or dark and twisty?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Shakespeare as The Bible

My freshmen roommate in college once told me that if you're having a bad day, or something's troubling you, you could flip open the Bible to a random page, and you'd find your answer.

Over the last couple days we've been hotly debating the underlying message in Shakespeare's works - did he write himself into the plays, or are we just reading ourselves into it? It's certainly true that many people over the years have taken comfort in the wisdom and philosophy they find in the words of Shakespeare, regardless of how and why they got onto the page in the first place.

See where I'm going with this?

We may *want* Shakespeare's works to be some sort of recipe for what it means to be human, his gift to the infinite, a tome where you can, literally, open up to any random page and find the answers to all of your troubles. The Bible, on the other hand, is supposed to be exactly that. It was written, the story goes, by a group of people who *were* being guided by an overseeing force, expressly for the purpose of being just such a book.

So, then, what's the difference?

Each book tells stories of people in situations similar to our own (albeit dated, usually, and often with language we no longer understand and must have translated). We watch as these people react, and then we get together and discuss why they reacted in that way, and whether we would do the same thing.   

So then how come one book is fiction and we assume that any universal message we get out of it must only be our own projection of ourselves into what we want the message to be, while the other is assumed to be true and any messages we find in it were put there for us to find in the first place?

Imagine if it was the other way around.

Welcome Back!

Ok, I'm back. Hope everybody had a nice weekend, whether that meant spending time in church or with Chinese food.

Got a Kindle, so I look forward to reviewing some Kindle Shakespeare versions (already downloaded one that promised "254 plays poems and sonnets" and wanted to see what that math was all about ;)). Maybe I'll read more for pleasure now. I've always wanted to go back and read that Edgar Sawtelle one.

Got no "Shakespeare things", which was a little surprising. Can't remember if I blogged about this but at one point my 6yr old was reading my wife's computer over her shoulder, said "Hamlet!" and my wife said "Shhhhh!" so I thought maybe there was something in the works. I mentioned this to my wife after the fact, and she claimed to have no idea was talking about. So maybe she was contemplating something and changed her mind, who knows.

No Shakespeare content in this post, just saying Hi (I've got a real doozy coming up in the next one!). Feel free to comment at will if you're in the mood. Anybody get any good Shakespeare loot?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, Everybody

Hi Everyone,

Don't expect much traffic over the next couple of days, I'll be pretty tied up with family stuff at least for the rest of the weekend. Feel free to continue all the discussions, I get emails for all of those are read them all :). I've turned off that old "conversations go into moderated mode after N days" thing so you shouldn't need me to approve comments.

Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Here's another idea that came out of the comments. In the latest Tempest movie by Julie Taymor, Caliban is black. What do you think that choice says about the Tempest as allegory for colonialism? (That's not a direct quote, so if Charlene wants to reword her original question, kindly do so). The larger question to me is, what do you look at when you see a Shakespeare production? Do you look for "meta" things like this that speak to the director's vision?

Here's my thoughts : As a general rule? I don't care about that stuff. At all. I go into every production (and really, a good movie as well) thinking of it as a parallel universe into which I get a front row seat. I assume that the people are real. I don't get to ask why Caliban is black in this one any more than I get to ask when I'm 5'7". I just am. Caliban is just black in this universe. No biggie.

Know what I mean? This was always one of the reasons I was concerned for teaching Shakespeare (back to that topic). I follow the homework boards and always cringe when I see questions about how Shakespeare sets the mood or what he uses to symbolize something or why he uses one literary device over another. I'm sure that these are important to understand, but I think that forever living in that space means that you never climb inside the universe he creates, either. It's impossible to do both, you cannot immerse yourself in the experience of two characters, you cannot simultaneously think "Ophelia said" and "Shakespeare had Ophelia say".

Apparently, in The Godfather movies (or maybe just the first one), there are oranges in every scene where somebody dies. That's certtainly one of these "meta" things we're talking about. I couldn't go through all the bad things in my life and say "Hey, wait a second, somebody was always wearing purple!" What I'm wondering is, does knowing this or not knowing this alter your understanding and/or appreciation of the movie? It has a certain degree of interest, sure. It shows up in the "Trivia" bits for the movie. But unless you are a student of film making, is it important for you to know this?

Guest Review : "Contested Will" by James Shapiro

Regular contributor Dr. Carl Atkins sent in this guest review of James Shapiro's "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? ". Mr. Shapiro is also well known for A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.) , his biography of Shakespeare. Dr. Atkins, or "catkins" as he's spotted in the comments, is the author of Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Take it away, Carl:

I was actually pleasantly surprised. It was much more readable than I expected. I had read his "1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare" and found it to be rambling, disjointed, and filled with conjecture, so I was not expecting good things from a book about such a difficult subject. Yet "Contested Will" is, for the most part, tightly written, well structured, straightforward, factual without being too dry, and absorbing. It details the history of the authorship controversy, interestingly laying the blame on one of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars, Edmond Malone. He notes that Malone, frustrated at being unable to uncover any documents to help flesh out the biography he hoped to write about Shakespeare, began to look to the plays for biographical references. This opened the door for anti-Stratfordians to launch their only means of attack.

If the book has any fault it is only in spending a bit too much time detailing the course of the Oxfordian cause. I found myself getting a bit bored by the end of that section. But only a bit.

It is a testament to Shapiro's cool-headedness that he spends two-thirds of the book discussing the (circumstantial) evidence against Shakespeare's authorship and ends with 27 pages debunking it.

What is most impressive is that Shapiro does not come across as someone with an axe to grind, or as a scornful elitist. He actually sounds like someone who is presenting the evidence for all to see. He makes no pretense about what side he is on, but he makes the evidence very clear.

I did not think I would like a book about the authorship question because I do not think it is an important question. But this book is more about understanding the history of the authorship question than about resolving the controversy. That is a more interesting topic. This is a book I would recommend to all interested in Shakespeare. It is fun to read.

Hamlet Is Shakespeare

In another thread, JM wrote "I'd have to "somewhat" disagree, Charlene, since I believe Hamlet to BE Shakespeare. But that's another topic altogether. :) "

Continue. :)


Kicking this up to the top level and out of the comments so people can join in.

The topic is Improvising in Shakespeare's work. Or, more generally, let's call it "going off script", since it doesn't have to be extemporaneous for our purposes. We're talking about when actors, in between their Shakespeare lines, add the occasional words of their own devising.


I have two thoughts on the subject. First, on the subject of "Do we think that Shakespeare's actors improvised?" I answer, "Shakespeare's not here anymore to defend himself." So I have to assume that, when it was live, he had least had the option of going up to an actor afterwards and saying "That was good, keep it" or "Well, that ruined the show, thanks a lot. Don't do it again." Who really knows if the plays were the same night after night? Shakespeare could have constantly been revising. So while the Works as we've come to know them are like Scripture to us, we almost certainly hold the source material in a much higher regard than the creator did.

Second, I think there is an important distinction between a director saying "Ok, in my vision of the play, I'm going to have you do the following...." versus an actor just deciding to say something funny. I've actually just remembered a good example - during the Commonwealth production of Shrew in Boston several years back, I can't remember why exactly but there's a chase scene - some servant who has impersonated someone is now being chased by that man's bodyguards - anyway, he jumps off the stage and into the audience, turns back to the stage (where the bodyguards are approaching), puts his arms up and yells "Wait!! Fourth Wall!" They pause, confused, just long enough for him to head for the hills, before they too jump down and pursue.

I don't recall at the time being pissed off that the director had thrown this in. I remember thinking it was very funny. It was a directorial decision, and showed some purpose.

Now instead compare a hypothetical scene from Macbeth, at the dinner party before Banquo's ghost makes his appearance. The seated guests are all no doubt socializing and talking amongst themselves, and then one of them pipes up loud enough for the audience to hear, "Rectum? Damn near killed him!" and everybody has a big guffaw.

I think I'd be upset about that.

Are my feelings on the subject arbitrary? I honestly don't know. Could be. Could entirely be in the hands of the particular director or actor. If I get the feeling that the director and/or actors have love and respect for the material and are merely trying, in their own way, to present it in the best possible way? I like that. If on the other hand it seems to me like they've taken the "We need to make this better" approach, then I have a problem with that. And I do realize that this is entirely opinion - Julie Taymor could have nothing but the utmost respect for Shakespeare's work, and this is simply her way of expressing it. I have no idea.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tolkien 1, Shakespeare 0

Ok, learn something new every day. You know that scene in J.R.R Tolkien's The Two Towers, when the giant tree-creatures known as Ents march on Saruman's tower? Remind anybody of a certain Scottish play? Coincidence, you say?

Maybe not. From Tolkien's letter #163 to W.H. Auden:

Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called 'Treebeard', from Treebeard's first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading someone else's work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the 'unconscious' for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till 'what really happened' came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of 'Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill': I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. And into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of the 'male' and 'female' attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening.

(Emphasis mine.)

There you go - straight from Tolkien's mouth. Or, pen. I'd provide a link, but unfortunately this comes from a PDF document that I received through .... ummm.....unlinkable means.

You have to admit, though - if we want to pit modern movie special effects against Shakespeare's ability to paint a picture with words....the march of the Ents still rocks.

UPDATED: Found a link, here.

Oh For The Love Of ..... Jack Black, No!

"I'll be the new Hamlet," says Jack Black.

I'm going to assume that he's joking, given the context of the story. His Gulliver's Travels comes out soon (now?) and apparently there's a line in there where he calls himself Shakespeare (at least, that's what my kids keep telling me). So I'm sure that came up during an interview and hence the above quote.

Although it does make me think of a question. Who among modern actors could play the great comedies? What actor working today would we like to see as Feste, Jaques, or Bottom? I deliberately leave Falstaff out of the list, because I think he's a category all to himself.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Let's Write Shakespeare In Love 2

Ok, so I'm sure most of us saw the story, not even worth linking to, that Miramax's business plan for the next couple of years is to make sequels out of all their old hits - including Shakespeare In Love.

This immediately cast fans of the movie into two camps: the "that was an awesome movie and thus if they can capture that awesomeness again it will be even more awesome" camp, and the "You'll never replicate it, it's perfect the way it was, don't ruin it" camp.

The problem with the second camp is that Miramax is going to do it with you or without you, so the best you can hope for is not "don't do it" but "oh god I hope it doesn't suck."

So, here's what I'm thinking. Collectively, the people that hang out here probably know more about, and care more about, the subject of Shakespeare than much of the rest of the world. So, let's write the sequel. Let's put together so many ideas about what it can and should be that Miramax can't help but get wind of it and run with whatever we come up with. (I'll believe that when I see it, of course, but until then it can keep us entertained :)).

So, brainstorm. Let's go, anybody.

I heard three ideas bandied about on Twitter. One involves a midnight mission to steal and reassemble the Globe in the middle of the night. Great scene from history, and a great scene for a movie. But it's not a plot, just an event.

One tries to get Shakespeare as far away from the first movie as possible, projecting him into the Late Romance years, near retirement, having lived out a full life and approaching the end of his career, looking back on memories.

One suggested that even Gwynneth Paltrow's character could be reprised, haunting Shakespeare's vision of all his female leads for the rest of his career.

Maybe tell it through the character of his children? That has huge untapped potential, since we know so little about his relationship to them. Unfortunately the first movie establishes that the Anne Hathaway relationship is a frigid one, so that pretty much slams the door on any romance (unless you attempt a rekindling storyline, but that would be very difficult I think). Perhaps his daughter's marriage to... Thomas Quiney, was it? Wait, no, he was the one that had the scandal. Which daughter had the good marriage, Susannah? I could start to imagine a play about Shakespeare's daughter in love, her famous father cast in something of a secondary role (much, though, like Julius Caesar is to his play, a spectre over the entire production). Ooo, how about a story where his daughter (and son-in-law) conspire to somehow find Gwynneth Paltrow and reunite them? Eh, it's a thought.

Ok, somebody else go.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review : Julie Taymor's Tempest

Well I'm happy to report that I Julie Taymor's The Tempest movie was in fact playing at one theatre in Boston, so I hiked into town to watch it just like I said I would. As Bardfilm put it, the fact that we're seeing more Shakespeare on film these days at all is a major accomplishment and we need to support it.

SPOILER ALERT : This post contains specific details about the movie. So if you really want to be completely surprised by every directorial decision, you probably don't want to read this.

Unfortunately I have to say that this movie had some good, a bunch of bad, and some decisions that were so downright terrible as to be insulting.

Open with a sandcastle, dissolving in the rain. Miranda, who made the castle, sees the storm, sees the ship. Begins running. Then we get the shot of the men on the ship, cutting back periodically to Miranda running. I liked the tempest itself. The sound mix was terrible and you could not hear much of what was said - I'm pretty sure that most of the good lines (like Gonzalo's "acre of dry land" speech, and the "he hath no drowning mark upon him" line) were both cut. But here's the thing - it was a good storm. We see fire, we see waves crashing completely over the boat, we see men going overboard. You watch this brief scene and you think, "This ship is going down, these men are all going to die."

Cut to our first shot of Helen Mirren's Prospera, who is actively controlling the storm. This could have been awesome - at how many spots in Shakespeare's script do you get to say "I think Prospero is actually spellcasting here"? Unfortunately, the spellcasting in this case is Mirren holding her staff over her head and screaming. No words, no ancient incantations, just screaming. Until Miranda stops her.

Here I think an opportunity was missed. I would have loved to see something from Mirren to signify that, until a moment ago, she'd been on some different, magical plane, her entire awareness focused on nothing but the spell she was casting. A few moments of confusion, staring at her child and having to take a moment to come back to reality. After all she was just screaming her head off. Instead we get something more of a "What do you want, child? Mommy's working!" moment. Miranda gets the same look from Prospera that my 6yr old gets from my wife when my wife's trying to talk on the phone.

First real annoyance, though? We get an invented backstory for Prospera. This isn't just a case of swapping out some gender pronouns in the script. No, we actually change the story. Prospera is the *wife* of the Duke, you see. So then when the Duke dies, she signs over control of the dukedom to her brother Antonio. This was troubling to me, because by doing that you split the universe we Shakespeare geeks know, and you move from a gender-bent Prospero (which we can understand, we've all seen gender-altered productions) to "No no, this is a whole different character." Well, then, what do you expect me to do with that? How can I have any expectation about a character you've invented?

I can't really do the whole story at this rate, the post will be 10 pages long. So let's get to the good/bad/awful, shall we?

The good:

Prospera's relationship with Ariel. I loved this. Every interaction between the two shows Ariel at Prospera's shoulder, so close that they'd be rubbing against each other - a confidant and friend, not a servant. Ariel is human, and the same size as Prospera (more on this later). You really got the idea that these two were a team, and when Prospera says "I will miss thee" you know she means it. However, this did not come across as well as it could in the various spots where it could have - especially "Do you love me, master? No?"

Ariel is entirely a special effect. Well, I mean, he's a male actor, in the form of a male actor, for the most part. But he's got a CGI-enhanced white glow about him when he's standing still. And when he's not, he's zipping aerily about, feet never touching the ground. This only makes sense. Ariel can't be just another character like Caliban, there needs to be something other-worldly about him. Her. It. More on this later.

I thought Miranda and Ferdinand were acceptable, at least as far as their delivery went. I saw some reviews that thought the two young actors were out of their league, but honestly I though that they played the role well - they're children, after all, and they're not really major characters in the story. Their entire purpose is to make big sappy doe eyes at each other and tell each other they're the moon and the stars. Ferdinand's *look*, on the other hand, will make you question WTF Prospera is thinking setting her daughter up with this kid. Long hair hanging down in his face, and this really stupid mustache that looks like something a 13yr old could grow. No idea why they gave him that look. Oh, and remember the scene where he sings? Yeah, I didn't think so. More on that later.

The bad:

The movie is mostly special effects - and they are bad special effects. Fans of theatre over film here will have a field day - some things are better left to letting Shakespeare paint the picture. When Ariel speaks of how he sank the ship? It's a very descriptive scene, yes. So did we really need to replay it, showing a giant Poseidon-like Ariel literally flicking the ship back and forth with his fingers while he told the tale, like a child playing with toys in the bath tub? Most of Ariel's special effects are a bit off. Remember, Ariel is basically just a person - but his feet never touch the ground. So several times when he has to leave the scene, there's a special effect of him running across the sky, up into the clouds. Not a swoosh or a blur or anything, a person with legs running away, who just happens to be running up up and away. I thought it looked stupid.

Another weird one? Prospera's cell is something out of an MC Escher painting, for who knows what reason. I mean, yeah, sure, it's a cave carved into the side of a mountain, so of course it's all entirely right angles. Makes sense. ??

Some parts just did not seem well thought out. You know how Trinculo, Stefano and Caliban are delayed on their way to kill Prospero when he lays out all his nice clothes to distract them? Yeah,'s that scene play out when Prospera is a woman? Well, she lays out a bunch of beautiful dresses. And Trinculo and Stefano get all excited ...and dress up in the women's clothes. WTF?

Oh, I said I'd mention this -- Ferdinand sings. For some unknown reason he breaks into the Clown's number from Twelfth Night, the one that contains the big "Journeys end in lovers meeting" line. Had a very weird, Across The Universe vibe to it. I kept thinking I wanted Prospera to roll her eyes and say "Oh, sh_t, he's in a *band*?! This was a bad idea."

Russell Brand. Yeah, what can I say, I hated him. The whole scene on the beach where he climbs under Caliban's blanket and is first discovered by Stefano? That scene was pretty painful to watch, it just did not work on any level. Well, I take that back, Caliban had a great "WTF is going on?!" look throughout the whole thing. And toward the end of the scene, Stefano and Trinculo did manage to give off this really nasty "These aren't just buffoons, they're criminals who are capable of serious harm" vibe that I don't usually see. But Brand's delivery of the material? Well, it's on a different level, I'll say that. It's really and truly like Brand wanted to take it and run with it, do his own thing. Lots of mannerisms added to the character. More on that later.

The so-bad-its-insulting:

Trinculo and Stefano can both be heard quite clearly saying "F_ck." That annoys me on an infinite variety of levels. In both cases it comes out the same way - they are both playing stumbling drunkards, tripping their way across the island, muttering random nothings as they go. And, at one point, one trip merits a very clear "F_ck!" Same thing happens later to Stefano. I can almost imagine how that came about, too. I can just picture Brand being "in character" as he saw it, improvising where he could, and thinking that this is what Trinculo would say when he stubbed his toe. Taymor, who seems to have a thing for curse words (on the Stephen Colbert show she dropped her own F-bomb), says "Go with it. That's an Elizabethan word, it's ok." And then Stefano throws one in as well.

Listen, Jackasses. Don't improvise. If Shakespeare wanted you to curse he would have told you how to do it. You show an amazing amount of disrespect to your source material, and your audience, pulling that nonsense.

Another major problem that I just cannot understand is that Ariel spends the entire movie naked. I heard that he was "digitally neutered", so you won't be seeing any dangly bits, but it looked in many scenes like he was wearing some sort of loin cloth. Every time he turned his back, however, we were treated to a "moon calf" of a different sort, if you know what I'm saying. Ariel's backside is in this play almost as much as Caliban is.

That would be bearable. Maybe. But then, for some completely incomprehensible reason, the director must have said "Hey, can you give Ariel some boobs?" Every now and then, with no particular rhyme or reason, Ariel's rocking maybe a B cup.


I'd heard about this. Warned, is probably a better term. And I went into it thinking "Oh, ok, cool - Ariel is basically both sexes at the same time." Well, no. Ariel's a boy through 99% of the story. When he suddenly develops breasts, absolutely nothing else about his character changes - no facial structure changes, no longer hair, absolutely nothing to indicate that there's any sort of two-sides-of-Ariel thing going on.

Why do this? I've already said, Ariel is a special effect. He flies most places. Spends a bunch of time in the water as well, as a reflection. Why not go with that? Why not just create a character whose entire body is amorphous, so you don't have to deal with the issue? Why not make an entirely androgynous character from top to bottom?

Ok, last one. How hard would you rage if I used the three words "Benny Hill Music"? Maybe this is a Taymor thing, but several of the special effect sequences are done at high speed, and the soundtrack kicks in. It's not true Benny Hill music, but one particular sequence at the end does play out like somebody asked for a newer, updated version of that classic tune to use. It was at this point that my expression was more one of "O R U Effing kidding me??"


My kids aren't seeing this - too much unexplained and unnecessary nudity, and a handful of downright obnoxious and out of place curse words. The acting is fine, the plot fine. The audience I was with, maybe 3 dozen people or so, laughed at a number of the jokes (though many fell flat). I think it's quite possible to make a movie for modern mainstream audiences where people understand what the heck is going on. But this particular interpretation is no "epic masterpiece." I think that the director and actors both seemed to think that this was their movie, and that was their mistake.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Plan For How The Bard Could Rule TV

"My plan for how the Bard could rule TV."

No, it's not my plan - it's Michael Billington's plan. Normally I wouldn't link to a random review of a random production that I had no chance of seeing, but this article is different. Here, the author (Mr. Billington) goes off on the tangent of how exactly to position Shakespeare for the wider television audience:

This suggests there is huge potential for making Shakespeare available to a wider audience. You can, of course, take cameras in to a live performance and show the results on big screens. It has already happened with the National's All's Well That Ends Well and Hamlet, and the same technique will be be used for the Donmar's King Lear on 3 February. I suspect Lear will look sensational in the cinema, since Michael Grandage's chamber production is based on intimate pyschological detail.

But there is surely also room for rethinking stage Shakepeare for TV. If I were a BBC boss, I'd get Goold to adapt his current Romeo and Juliet for the box. It's the most exciting version of the play I've seen in 50 years, and with its key image of fire blazing on the Veronese streets and in the loins of its young lovers, it could set the screen ablaze.

The article is small, but it is part of the Guardian. So if you like the idea, go comment over there and maybe get the idea some attention!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Happens in Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1?

Originally posted June 2005. That's right, five years ago - this is one of my original posts. Sometimes I like to go back and see how my attitudes and approaches have changed. In this particular case, not too much. I still do believe that step 1 in explaining Shakespeare to people is to tell them the story. I never followed up this post because I didn't have the readership then to get into the discussion, but should we do more of these? Over time we could work through the entire play.

I'm convinced that Shakespeare's work can be downright entertaining if it can be understood. I think that the emphasis on "Memorize first, and never see the movie" really ruins it. Get the story across. Shakespeare wrote real people in real situations, and if you can point this out to the audience and hook them at that level, the language comes easily.

So in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, let's talk about Romeo and Juliet. For the moment just act 1 scene 1 since obviously I can't cover the whole play in one blog post.

Two men, Sampson and Gregory, enter. They're "Capulet", meaning that they are probably some servant of the house. If you want to think in West Side Story terms, imagine them as all members of the same gang. They banter back and forth, making some fairly ancient jokes that you're unlikely to get but might be able to figure out if you were to see it performed. Let's just say that by the time Sampson gets to the line about "thrusting Montague's maidens to the wall" and being cruel when he cuts off their maidenheads, you can take a pretty good guess at what he's talking about.

The real fun comes when Balthazar and Abraham, who are Montagues, wander into the picture. Now thus far Sampson and Gregory have just been full of talk. Sure they've been saying some pretty big things about what they'll do to the Montague men (before doing it to their women), but now here are two of them right in front of them. How do the Capulet men react? Sampson "bites his thumb" at them as they pass by. This isn't really the same obscene gesture now that it was then, so feel free to insert "flips his middle finger." Gets the same point across. He tries to lure the Montagues into starting something.

The next exchange I have seen played for comedy, where both sides are just big talkers, but it's also often played with some serious violence, screamed at the top of lungs. Whatever floats your boat. Either there's some major tension where you just know somebody's about to get hurt, or you come to realize that this has happened dozens of times in the past and both sides are really just acting out their parts.

The Montagues come over and ask, "Did you just bite your thumb at us?"

"I did bite my thumb, " says Sampson.

"Did you bite your thumb at us," asks Abraham again.

Sampson turns to Gregory and asks, "Is the law on my side if I say aye?" Here's the crucial moment. Both want to say that the other started it, neither wants to be the first to draw (or use) a weapon. Gregory correctly answers, "No." If you bit your thumb at him, then you started the fight. Sampson backpeddles, "I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I do bite my thumb, sir!" How snide is that response? "Nope, I was just sitting here with my middle finger up in the air. Wasn't directing at you, I just like to stick it up there and wave it around..."

Gregory steps up and asks of the Montagues, "Do you quarrel?" In other words, "Are you looking to start something?" Is Gregory here actually trying to get the Montagues to walk on by? Not really. You'll see...

"Me?" replies Abraham, "No, not me, I'm not looking at start anything." The Montagues actually come off well, here, and quite possibly would have walked away.

Sampson makes what is ultimately the losing move when he says, "I'm just saying that if you want to start something, I'm standing right here. I serve as good a man as you."

Abraham has him now. "No better?"

Sampson thought he was saying the proper thing in defending the honor of his house, and Abraham has trapped him. If he says "Better", in other words yes, I think that my master Capulet is better than your master Montague, then the fight is on - and Sampson will have started it. But if he says no, Montague is not better than Capulet, then he dishonors his house.

Gregory saves him when he spots some more Capulets coming. "Say better!" he says, knowing that the odds are in their favor. See, I told you that Gregory wasn't trying to avoid the fight. He was just waiting for it to be an unfair fight.

Sampson needs no more prompting. "Yes, better!" he says, and the fight is on.

Enter more representatives from both sides, Benvolio of the Montagues (sort of), and Tybalt of the Capulets. That's a mismatch. Benvolio is the peacemaker, trying to beat down the swords of both sides. Tybalt, on the other hand, sees the fight as a great opportunity and tries to help his side win it. Tybalt, as we quickly learn, is pretty single minded in his hatred of the Montagues. "What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word, As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee: Have at thee, coward!" Those are some pretty strong words given that he just walked in on this argument 3 seconds ago.

Anyway, the fight does not go on long as now the crowds are beginning to gather and the heads of both houses come running out to see what's going on. The Prince provides the law and order here, and gives us our major plot point -- if he catches anybody from either side fighting in the streets again, then they're dead men. ("If ever you disturb our streets again, our lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.") Don't forget this, it's going to become a major problem for our hero Romeo right around Act III, Scene i.

So that's my version of the first scene. It's actually quite entertaining when you see it performed. I highly recommend checking out one of the movies to see it for yourself. The Zeffirelli version is considered the classic, but I say if the Leonardo DiCaprio version is more what floats your boat (lots of screaming in this one, and guns), then go for it and don't pay any attention to the critics.

Apparently, I Do Interviews

So this is interesting. A few weeks back a teacher contacted me and asked whether her Shakespeare class could interview me, videoconference-style, over Skype. They've been trying to make more use of technology in the classroom and stumbled across little ol' me.

As a technologist and a Shakespeareist (? :)), I love that idea and immediately said Sure. Truthfully I know a woman who teaches Romeo and Juliet, local to me, and I've always secretly hoped that one day she'd invite me in to talk to her class. That's never going to happen for a wide variety of reasons, but doing a Skype call? Why not?

Thus far, due to various technology and bureaucracy problems (translated: firewalls are a pain), this project hasn't happened. But it's not dead yet, just dormant until the next semester.

While we wait, though, I wanted to throw that idea out there. If there's any teachers of Shakespeare who'd also like to make use of some technology in their classroom and interview a Shakespeare geek, I'm open to the idea. Contact me. :)

Performance Enhancing

"Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read."

I hear that often. We discuss it, often. For the most part, however, I've been a defender of Shakespeare-as-literature. It's simple reality that most people, in their entire lives, will not have the opportunity to experience most of Shakespeare. And even when they do, they will at best be seeing one particular company's vision of Shakespeare. You need to see multiple versions to begin to get an idea of the whole. could just pick up a copy of the Complete Works and read what Shakespeare wrote. Nothing's stopping you. I flinch when people suggest that the way to interpret the opening quote is "Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read - so go see it performed, don't read it." Argh argh mother fricking argh. No no no. The proper interpretation for me has always been - "Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not merely read - so don't *just* read it. See it performed at every opportunity, and read to fill in the gaps."

But I've had an epiphany. I'm changing my interpretation, and it goes a little something like this.

"Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read. SO PERFORM IT, DAMNIT."

I would love to live in a world where every child, from the time they can sit still for a story, knows the stories of Shakespeare like they know the stories of Cinderella and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. The problem has always been that not every child will grow up to be an actor. Most, in fact, won't. So it is unfair to say that unless you perform it, you will never get it. Most won't ever perform it, therefore most won't ever get it? Unacceptable.

But who says that perform must mean "become a professional actor" or even "join the school play"? Three Steps, right now off the top of my head, so that everybody can perform Shakespeare, wherever you are, whenever you are:

1) Say it out loud. If you do not ever hear the words you will never fully internalize the words.

2) Stand up. You are not reading a novel, you are speaking an actor's lines. When you speak, you move. Therefore when your actor speaks, you move.

3) Interact. Shakespeare's got plenty of soliloquies and sonnets, so if you've really got no Shakespeare geek friends you're not out of luck. But, seriously, if you bust out some Shakespeare and then somebody in your immediate vicinity follows up with the next line? Spontaneous freaking Shakespeare?? I swear to god I don't know how you don't sleep with that person immediately. Ok, well, maybe that's unrealistic. A bit. But I can't promise it wouldn't cross my mind. ;)

I'm long out of school and never been an actor. I say Shakespeare, out loud, any and every chance I get. I only wish that I knew more, and that I had more opportunities. My confidence is not always perfect - every time there is a "toasting" opportunity I secretly wish for someone to turn to me and say "How about some Shakespeare?" but I never step up and just do it. I'll work on that.

You know what they say, Be the change you want to see in the world. Don't dream it, be it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What Do We Expect Students To Get, Exactly?

While we fight it out over on that other thread over whether Romeo & Juliet is the best way to introduce Shakespeare, let me start a different thread on a similar topic. What, exactly, do we think that these kids are getting out of Shakespeare? More optimistically, what are we hoping that they get? Is it just for entertainment value? The history lesson? Simply for the accomplishment so they can say they've experienced Shakespeare?

This is the question that comes to mind when I hear the occasional teacher say that they've done King Lear at the high school level. I believe completely that teenagers can read the play, answer test questions on it, write essays about it, and even perform it. But do they *get* it? *Can* they get it?

One reason that Romeo & Juliet is defended as a good choice is that it's about similar ages experiencing similar issues - first love, hormones, etc... not to mention violence, and dirty jokes. After all, what are Romeo and Juliet if not horny teenagers? You could have many relevant conversations that start with "You're in love with someone your parents would not approve of. What do you do?"

On a related note I've often explained Hamlet to people this way: "Hamlet is the story of a kid whose father is out of the picture, and then his mom married a guy that he doesn't get along with. Gee, you think there's any high school kids out there that might be able to relate to that story?" Personally I was more like a freshman in college before I got into the whole "Wow, yeah, I see what Hamlet was saying...." existential phase, but I suppose that could happen at the high school level, too.

But Lear? How do *most people*, let alone teenagers who haven't yet experienced most of their lives, get Lear? I think I'm just barely beginning to appreciate the scope of Lear, and that only because a) I've got children of my own and b) my parents are at that age where every conversation eventually comes around to "...and here's what we're going to leave you when we're gone, we won't be around forever you know."

For me, personally, I like to ask "Having read/understood/absorbed/internalized this play, is my life different?" For Comedy of Errors? Nah, not really. For Hamlet, or Lear, or even The Tempest or Midsummer? Most definitely.

Am I aiming too high? Do we teach Shakespeare to change students' lives, or just to put that checkmark next to their name saying we did it?

Romeo and Juliet : The War


Spotted this new Stan Lee project on IO9's list (posted previously). I don't know if I'm just getting more into comics lately, but it looks cool. Don't miss the character sketches. Somebody want to tell them there's a typo in Montague's name? :) Benvolio looks pretty badass for a peacemaker.

The Late Night Double Feature Shakespeare Show

Oh, well, Merry Christmas to me!

IO9 has put up one of the most comprehensive lists of Shakespeare in science fiction and fantasy that I've yet seen.

35 different entries, depending on how you count : 11 books, 12 movies, 9 tv shows/series, and 3 comics.

I've only heard about 21 of them (which gives me lots of new books to read after Christmas!), and personally experienced about 10 of them.

Some of the choices are cheating - like putting Gnomeo and Juliet and Henry 5, two movies that aren't even out yet, onto a list of "coolest Shakespeare riffs". Or more than a handful of one-off appearances in 1970's tv shows (including Fantasy Island and I Dream Of Jeannie. What, no Love Boat?) Like most of these lists it really ends up being "as many as we could think of", and then they just tack on some adjective to make it interesting in the title.

DISCLAIMER : If you're not up on your geek news, note that IO9 is part of Gawker Media, who recently lost their entire password database to hackers. This is important information to consider before registering to post comments. The existing problem is fixed (they say), but what exactly does that mean, given how easily it was hacked in the first place? I think, reluctantly, I consider Gawker sites to be "read only" now.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What Would You Teach? (The Romeo And Juliet Dilemma)

As we've just confirmed, Romeo and Juliet remains most students' introduction to Shakespeare (at least in the US, assuming approximately a 9th grade / 14yr old introduction). The problem, as many have also pointed out, is that Romeo and Juliet has got a crazy amount of sex references in it, and typically a high school teacher (again, at least in the US) is severely constrained in exactly how far he or she can go in explaining these things. Lastly there's also the question of whether Romeo and Juliet is the best example of Shakespeare's work to start with. Maybe being a teenager has changed since I was a teenager, but the thought of re-enacting the balcony scene with some random girl from class was always to be met with "Oh god no not that I hate that don't make me do that" feelings.

So then, here's the question : Should it be changed? Assume the following : You must introduce Shakespeare to United States school children in a way that could be accepted as national curriculum (i.e, we can't talk about special case "let them pick their own" situations, we need to actually pick one). When do you introduce it (roughly what age), and what play do you start with? Why? Do you teach it as history, as literature, or as drama? I fully expect "a combination of all three" answers, so let me rephrase that - assuming that Drama, Literature and History are different departments taught by different teachers, who will be teaching Shakespeare? To set a baseline let us also assume that the students would be required to read the play, have some degree of homework associated with the play, and be able to pass some form of test demonstrating their knowledge of the play. This is primarily to rule out the "I took my kids to see The Tempest when they were 3 years old!" argument. I will not try to argue that my kids "know Shakespeare" until they have experienced it to at least this level.

Keep in mind the realities of the situation - there will most likely be a bell-curve of students, some of whom excel, some of whom just can't seem to get it, and a whole bunch in the middle who may or may not care at all. Any play that has any level of performance involved should take into consideration roles for both boys and girls (or at least, have a plan for how to deal with this).

If you want to defend Romeo and Juliet as still the best choice, feel free.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Shakespeare's Porn

Who was Giulio Romano, and why does he merit a mention in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale ("a piece many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano")?

Apparently Romano's work known as the I Modi ("the positions") depicts a series of 16 explicit sexual positions. The work was handed around, soon becoming a wood cut and going on to be a best seller in Europe where the likes of Ben Jonson apparently got a look at it. Did Jonson perhaps invite his friend Shakespeare over to have a look at his dirty book?

Where Are You?

A comment from Ed made me realize that I don't have a good picture of where everybody is. So, I'm asking. Where are you?

Me? I'm in Massachusetts, north of Boston. So I do get to see the occasional local show, but even though there's all kinds of Shakespeare going on in and around Boston I do not often get in to see it.

High School Shakespeare : Results!

I want to thank everybody for participating in the "What Shakespeare Did You Read In High School?" thread, I got a great deal of detailed responses. Because of the informal nature of the question and the variety of the answers (does "performed it" count as read it? does "read selections from" count? What about home schooling?) I can't really make statistical judgement on the results. But here's some interesting bullet points:

  • Romeo and Juliet is still a favorite, with the large majority of responders saying that they either read or teach it, normally as the first play (i.e. 9th grade, or even earlier)

  • Second place, somewhat surprisingly, appears to go to Macbeth. I don't really know why that is, but Macbeth gets nearly as much recognition as Romeo and Juliet.

  • Hamlet and Julius Caesar split the difference for the next two great tragedies, with Othello pulling up in the #5 spot.

  • There was some love for Lear, Titus and Antony & Cleopatra, but those don't even registered compared to the "Big Five".

  • Many people said that senior was split between several plays. I'm not really sure how you devote an entire year to R&J but only half a year to Hamlet, but I suppose we'll chalk it up to most of that freshman time being spent learning about Shakespeare as a topic in general.

  • Among the comedies, Midsummer wins handily (though still read/taught only about 1/3rd as frequently as the great tragedies).

  • Behind Midsummer comes, in order, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Shrew.

  • Props to the one school that's apparently still teaching Merchant of Venice as required reading!

Discuss. I think that Julius Caesar is so popular because of the tie-ins to the student of ancient Roman history, also going on at roughly that grade level. Hamlet seems obvious to me as an example of just how great Shakespeare can be (I think that teaching Lear to teenagers is a bit of a disservice, actually, as they haven't got nearly the life experience to understand it. Familiarize them with it, sure, but I wouldn't expect most (note, I say most, not all) of them to actually "get" it). I truly don't get the Macbeth thing, though. It's got a history tie-in, sure, but I don't recall that being the major point of discussion. I would have thought that Othello would come next.

Christopher Plummer, No!

No more Shakespeare for Christopher Plummer, says Christopher Plummer.


“I’ve already played all the great Shakespearean roles that fit my age except for Falstaff and I don't want to wear all that f--- padding," insisted the Montreal-born actor who turns 81 on Dec. 13.

While it's sad to see the great actors step aside, you can't argue with the reality of it. The man's Romeo days are past. And it looks like he's had his share of Lear and Prospero. Maybe he doesn't want to spend his days doing Lord Capulet. (The article does point out that Plummer is still very active, and will be moving on to some O'Neill, Shaw, Ibsen and the Greeks.)

Interesting - he's doing The Tempest on stage right now, and I see a "tv movie" credit for The Tempest in IMDB. Will this be a a filmed version of his performance, much like McKellen/Stewart/Tennant before him? That would be highly cool.

I think modern audiences would agree that his greatest Shakespearean role was that of General Chang in Star Trek VI : The Undiscovered Country. :)

On a more serious note, which Harry Potter character do you think he should have played?

Julie Taymor on The Colbert Report

Do not miss the latest episode of Stephen Colbert's show where he interviews director Julie Taymor almost entirely about The Tempest. I was a little upset when I saw the TV Guide and she was billed strictly as the director of that ridiculous Spiderman musical, but as far as I can tell Colbert did not mention Spiderman at all.


"That's how I like my Shakespeare - on fire."

"So it seems like a cross between Lost, and Harry Potter."

"That's what I say, modernize the language! Don't say thou, say you! Don't say orisons, say prayers. Don't say zounds, say holy sh_t!"

I was excited for the Kill Shakespeare guys (maker of the comic book where all of Shakespeare's greatest characters go on a quest to find their creator) because Taymor mentioned them on the show. But then she proceeds to say that it's a modern translation and give it a literal thumbs down (and I do mean that, she physically made the thumbs down gesture on national television). That had to hurt a bit. But then, who knows? Maybe the audience that they're going for is precisely the group that would say "Oh, thank god, it's not in the original Shakespeare language."

Interesting twist : Taymor does say that a major part of the story changes when Prospera is a mom and not a dad. With a dad, the entrance of Ferdinand is all about "You're not good enough to take my little girl away." But with a mom, she says, it's a completely different relationship and all about how mom knows exactly what her daughter is feeling. Should be interesting to see how that plays out on film.

Right before the show, a tv-commercial played for The Tempest. Seriously, I was shaking as I watched it. I called in the kids and replayed it 3 times. I can not remember the last time I got to witness a mainstream Shakespeare event like this. Heck, the last (and only!) time I saw a Shakespeare movie in the theatre it was Mel Gibson's Hamlet back in 1990 - and we had to argue with the manager that night because he said there weren't enough people in the theatre to show it.

I don't need it to be a good movie. I'm more than thrilled enough to hear people talking about it, and to imagine a parade of people who start with "Let's go to the movies" as their first plan, and "What should we see?" as the second. Those people, even if they don't choose to go, will at least have the opportunity to see it listed and say "Well there's a showing of The Tempest at 7:15, I heard it's like Lost meets Harry Potter. And it's got that drunk guy who married Katy Perry in it."

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Harry Potter is Shakespeare

When the latest Harry Potter movie opened and there were people lined up around the block to see the midnight show, I joked that I should have gone up and down the line telling them that they were a week early, Julie Taymor's The Tempest by William Shakespeare didn't open for another month.

I wonder, though, what a generation of Harry Potter fans would think if they realized that nearly every major actor in the Harry Potter movies is also a well-known Shakespearean?

There are so many, I don't even know where to start.

Professor McGonagall / Maggie Smith - Played Desdemona (from Othello), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Portia (Merchant of Venice), and the Duchess of York (Richard III) before Harry Potter ever came along. And, on top of that? Not only did she play the *voice* of Rosaline in a production of Romeo and Juliet (normally Rosaline does not appear in the play), she's part of the voice talent for Gnomeo and Juliet as well!

I'm just getting started!

Madame Pomfrey / Gemma Jones had her own turn at Portia in Merchant of Venice.

Professor Trelawney / Emma Thompson - Once married to Shakespeare workaholic Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson can be seen in her husband's Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V .

Professor Snape / Alan Rickman - Famous for that voice of his, one of Rickman's first film roles was Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Always the bad guy, it seems.

Sirius Black / Gary Oldman - Dear Sirius gets a special mention on this list for playing half the lead in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which if you're not familiar is something of a "behind the scenes" retelling of Hamlet, and a pretty amazing piece of movie making.

Bellatrix Lestrange / Helena Bonham Carter We also have the woman who killed Sirius. Ms. Carter was Ophelia to Mel Gibson's Hamlet, and Olivia in Twelfth Night (thank you, commenter, for reminding me of this major character!)

Professor Gilderoy Lockhart / Kenneth Branagh - You may not even remember Branagh's role, since he appeared only in the Chamber of Secrets movie. But his presence in the Shakespeare world is undeniable: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Love's Labour's Lost. His 4-hour full-text Hamlet has assured that generations to come will study his contributions to the field.

Voldemort / Ralph Fiennes - He who must not be named is currently wrapping up production on Coriolanus, one of the most rarely filmed Shakespeare plays.

What about Dumbledore? Unfortunately the Harry Potter franchise was not graced with the presence of Sir Ian McKellen, who was busy playing a different wizard. Although he did show up long enough to make Harry Potter nervous. No, Dumbledore was actually played by two different actors - Richard Harris, until his death in 2002, and Michael Gambon in the following movies. Although a long time member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Harris did not perform Shakespeare in any movies that I can locate (though he did play in a television series called "Caesar", this had nothing to do with the Shakespeare play). Michael Gambon as well was a regular at the RSC, playing King Lear, Othello, and Mark Anthony.

So the next time somebody wants to engage you in conversation about how awesome the acting is in the latest Harry Potter movie, don't roll your eyes. Instead, ask if they want to rent a movie that Sirius Black made with that dude Pumpkin from Pulp Fiction. Or see if they want to go wait in line with you for Voldemort's next movie.

UPDATED: I know that we can't ever make this list complete, and I didn't try to get every single person, but we can't forget Barty Crouch / David Tennant.  I mean come on, the man is Hamlet!

UPDATED AGAIN : Added Helena Bonham Carter after being reminded in the comments. I can't do this for every single update, but I am particularly interested in any actors that have performed Shakespeare on film where you might actually have a chance to see it. If Harry Potter fans do show up and do want to see their favorite characters in Shakespeare roles, I'd like to be able to point them to movie titles they could potentially seek out.

Review : Wayward Macbeth

What is the magical spell that Orson Welles legendary "Voodoo Macbeth" holds over us? It was neither the first nor the only production of its kind, and yet 75 years later this the one that we go back to as one of the best examples of what a visionary director can do with Shakespeare. Ironically there's talk of someone actually doing "Welles' Voodoo Macbeth" again, as something of an homage. Not really sure how I feel about that. Newstok's own essay in the collection refers to these as "re-do Macbeths."

Anyway that brings us to Weyward Macbeth : Intersections of Race an Performance, edited by Scott Newstok. Scott was one of the first authors (editor, to be more specific) to have enough faith in my fledgling little site to send me a copy of his book, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, for review. I had no idea who Kenneth Burke was at the time, and said as much, but I must have done something right because Scott's kept in touch over the years.

When Scott offered me a review copy of his latest, my first reaction was "Oh, like Voodoo Macbeth." Scott said that reactions such as mine, this believe that the universe of what we'll call "racial Shakespeare" began with Welles, was really a motivating factor for the book's existence. Who paved the way for Welles' vision? What's happened in the 75 years since? Time neither started nor stopped in 1936, and there's plenty to talk about on both sides of this particular (though monumentous) event in Macbeth history.

When I received the book, a collection of essays on the subject, I did just like I did with the Burke book - I flipped around the contents to find somewhere I felt like I could dive in. I looked to see where Welles and voodoo showed up, and was intrigued to see the first essay about Welles on page 83, 9 essays in. What, then, came first? I see that essay #8 is entitled Before Welles: A 1935 Boston Production. Coming from Massachusetts, I'm intrigued. I pick that one. 1935? Like, the year before? Why have we never heard of that one?

This production did not go for an exotic locale, though it was indeed an "all negro" cast (that is the term used in the essay). Other than that it was intended to be staged largely as Shakespeare wrote it, specifically because the director believed strongly in presenting the talent and range of his black actors. (This to me sounds like something of a snipe at Welles' production which gained its legendary status precisely for its staging and its direction, and almost nothing is ever said of the actors themselves.)

Did Welles get wind of this production? That would, as the essay understates, "prove an important complication of the Welles legend." I'll say. He always claimed that his wife gave him the idea. But what credit would be due if he got the idea from seeing (or at least hearing about) a previous, similar production?

The book is full of small little fascinating selections like this. Flip toward the front of the book and you can read stories of Frederick Douglass using passages from Macbeth in 1875. Do not miss the picture of Ira Aldridge, a black man, portraying Macbeth in 1830.

Or flip toward the end and maybe head right for the sure-to-raise-eyebrows "ObaMacbeth" essay which goes straight for Barack Obama. After mentioning that Obama's campaign never invoked Macbeth, the essay author Richard Burt spots a Newsweek story that broke out the footage from Welles' production and basically called upon Obama to bring about a progressive revolution to the National Endowment for the Arts.

With 26 essays spanning over 200 pages, there is a massive amount of information here about the history of interpreting the Scottish play. An excellent and thought-provoking collection from Scott Newstok once again, and I'm pleased that I get the opportunity to have projects such as these cross my desk.

The Seven Least-Controversial Disclosures on WikiLeaks

Bardfilm has been swept up in the recent WikiLeaks debate, and he claims to have found several “revelations” that aren’t really that revelatory.

The Seven Least-Controversial Disclosures on WikiLeaks:

1. Hal, as he claimed he would do, banished Plump Jack Falstaff.

2. Macbeth murdered Duncan. And Sleep.

3. Brutus was one of the conspirators against Julius Caesar, dealing a serious blow to Caesar's own highly controversial "lean and hungry" conspirator profiling program.

4. Richard III was, at one point at least, desperate for equine transportation of some sort.

5. A rose, by any other name, actually would smell as sweet.

6. Desdemona was faithful to Othello.

7. The works attributed to Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-on-Avon, were written by . . . Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-on-Avon.

Our thanks for this guest post to kj, the author of Bardfilm. Thanks, too, from kj to Shakespeare Geek, who edited some of the above to give them greater clarity and greater hilarity.

Bardfilm is a blog that comments on films, plays, and other matters related to Shakespeare.

What Shakespeare Did You Read In High School?

I always assume that Romeo & Juliet is still the most popular, but I have nothing to back that up except my own experience which is now pretty old :). I also have no true appreciation of the breadth of plays that some teachers choose.

So, enlighten me. Whether you teach high school, you're in high school, or like me high school is a distant memory, what plays did you read? The more you remember, the better. I'm trying to develop a spectrum from most commonly read all the way down to never read, so it's equally important that we learn which plays *arent* being taught. If you're a teacher, a little extra info on frequency ("I've taught Hamlet every year for 20 years but this is the first year we're doing All's Well That Ends Well") would help as well.

I remember reading: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello and Taming of the Shrew. I think I can also include Richard II, the Henry plays, and Troilus and Cressida - but truthfully I can't remember whether I read those in high school or early in college. Maybe Midsummer?

Who else? If you're a teacher and know teachers in other schools, please take a moment to forward along this post. The more information, the better!


Shakespeare Married Here

At least four different Stratford-on-Avon churches claim to be the place where William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, but now we may finally know for sure. All Saints Church in Billesley has been awarded a grant to research the subject and try to determine the answer once and for all.

Although actually if we read a little more, I think that the writer of this article may have stretched it a bit:

No parish registers survive from that time to prove the theory one way or the other. There is, however, stronger evidence to suggest that Shakespeare's granddaughter was married at Billesley.

Unless they've got some historical "Granddaughters always got married in the same church their grandfather got married in, don't you know that?" argument, I think this is more a case of the church getting a boatload of money to become a better tourist attraction. There still won't be any proof about which of the churches has the best claim, this one will just be able to make that claim in more ways because they've got more money.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Shakespeare Never Went To College

Hamlet did, though. I'm not sure what Laertes was going back to France for, but it could have been school. And then there's the three "scholars" in Love's Labour's Lost.

My question is this - how frequently did Shakespeare create characters who were students, and do we think that his depiction of those characters (or his failure to do so) had anything to do with his own experience or lack thereof?

This is indeed a variation on the "If Shakespeare never went to Venice how did he describe Venice so accurately?" question. I thought it might be a little change of pace.

Geeklet Pun

So my girls are at dance class last night and I'm driving around doing errands with my son, who is 4. (Sorry I always feel the need to mention that but you never know when somebody's reading for the first time ;)). Anyway, I'm waiting at a red light to take a left, when I see an ambulance coming in my rear view mirror. "Daddy has to get out of the way of the ambulance," I say.

"Where is the ambulance going?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say, "Maybe somebody is hurt."

"Is it coming to me?" he asks.

"No," I say, "You're not hurt. It's not coming to you."

"Not to me," he says. "Hey, to me or not to me!"

"That is the question," I finish.

"No Daddy," he corrects me, "I didn't say to *be* or not to *be*, I'm saying to *me* or not to *me*. It only *sounds* like Shakespeare."

I don't want my children to grow up too fast, of course, but man I can't wait until they actually get to study this stuff for real. I'm dying to see how it turns out.

Russell Brand MTVifies Shakespeare For Us

Can we say I called this one? Back in August, on the subject of Taymor's Tempest, I wrote in the comments: "I'm even more excited by that one, and hope that Russell Brand does not end up getting top billing. No matter how popular he may be with the MTV crowd, it is not the Trinculo show."

So, here's a link where Russell Brand tells us that Shakespeare is like Eminem, or Li'l Wayne, because he's got "good flow":

In the movie, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Julie Taymor, Russell plays the jester Trinculo. "I love the humour, there are some funny bits in this movie I think," he told reporters.
It's the "I think" at the end that pains me the most, really. I know he's just using it as verbal punctuation, like a "do you know what I'm saying?" sort of thing. But it's funnier to read it my way where he pauses after "movie". "There are some funny bits in this movie.....I think."

For the morbidly curious, here's a bit of the ol' Slim Shady that Brand might be comparing our beloved Bard to:

"Slim Shady, I'm sick of him
Look at him, walkin around grabbin his you-know-what
Flippin the you-know-who," "Yeah, but he's so cute though!"
Yeah, I probably got a couple of screws up in my head loose
But no worse, than what's goin on in your parents' bedrooms
Sometimes, I wanna get on TV and just let loose, but can't
but it's cool for Tom Green to hump a dead moose...
I'll give him points for "hump a dead moose," I'm sure that Shakespeare was just kicking himself that he didn't think of that first. Although what Othello says to Brabantio about his daughter ("you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you'll have your nephews neigh to you;") is pretty close.

Don't get me wrong, I happen to like Eminem in general, and have several of his songs in my regular playlist. He does indeed have "good flow". But there comes a point where you're basically comparing anybody that's good at rhyming to Shakespeare, and it doesn't always work. It's like knowing how to bust out 5-7-5 patterns and saying you're a haiku master. There's more to it than that, damnit.

Not Great Literature?

Ok, here's an interesting question. I've mentioned that I hang out on Yahoo! Answers recently, answering many homework-like questions as they interest me. I ignore the blatant copy-and-paste ones and go after the more interesting ones like "Who is the more sympathetic character, Hermia or Helena?" or "Why does the messenger initially lie to Macduff about what's happened to his family?"

So a question came up about Iago being the villain in Othello. That's all fine and good, but check out the ranting answer somebody posted, which I thought would make for good discussion. I'm not plagiarizing here, I'm providing a link to the original - we just can't have a discussion about his answer on that forum. Maybe he'll see us and come visit :)

Shakespeare wrote some plays that rise to the level of great literature, such as "Hamlet" and "King Lear." But "Othello" is not one of his "great literature" plays. It is melodrama, pure and simple.

That opening soliloquy of Iago makes that clear. It is also shown by how easily the supposed great general, Othello, is duped by Iago.

Why then do so many teachers and professors try to teach "Othello" as great literature? They are just following in what their teachers and professors did. They aren't thinking for themselves. Like Othello, they have been duped.
There's more to his answer, but I've snipped the Shakespeare-relevant bit. Thoughts?

Monday, December 06, 2010

McKellen's Hamlet

Ok, how have I been on the net most of my life and never seen this? Sir Ian McKellen's theatrical scrapbook is online, complete with photos, original touring dates, and words from Sir Ian himself. 1972.

On the first night of Hamlet at the Nottingham Playhouse last week, Robert Chetwyn, the director, went into the lavatory and heard his production being dismissed as "damned teenage twaddle". Ian McKellen, who is 30 and plays Hamlet, was pleased to be thought of as a teenager. After the third performance about 100 young people stood shouting and clapping their approval and this pleased Mr. McKellen even more. "It looks as if we have a controversial Hamlet, he said. "Now we will have to be ready for the national critics not liking it".


2010 Guide to Gifts for the Shakespeare Geek : DVD

Whether you're a casual fan of Shakespeare's work, an ardent follower, or even a student of the theatre, there's something on DVD for everyone. Enjoy.

The Casual / Beginner Fan

  • 10 Things I Hate About You
    This popular teen movie (that brought us a young Heath Ledger, and later spawned its own television series) put the "literate teen comedy" on the map. Based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things is a great way to get any teenager convinced that they like the story before you drop the S-bomb and tell them who wrote the original. If it's a hit you can followup with She's the Man, a modern version of Shakespeare's popular cross-dressing romantic comedy Twelfth Night.
  • Romeo + Juliet
    If you enjoyed Leo DiCaprio in Inception and can't get enough of him, don't forget that he too had a go at Shakespeare, starring with Claire Danes in this 1996 Baz Luhrmann production. Dedicated Shakespeare fans either love or hate this one, but it's hard to deny the success it had in introducing Shakespeare to an MTV audience. I love this movie so much that every time I'm channel surfing and see it playing, I try to show it to my kids - and then I realize that my kids are 8, 6 and 4 and that it's way, way too violent for them and I have to change the channel again.  For lighter fare that's still in that same "Hey! I know that actor!" category we have Much Ado About Nothing (1993) starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.
  • Shakespeare in Love
    When Shakespeare in Love won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999, two things were guaranteed. First, that it would live forever in Oscar trivia books as the movie that beat Saving Private Ryan (and is widely considered, by many non-Shakespeare-geeks, as the least-deserving winner of all time).  Second, that star Gwynneth Paltrow would forever haunt my newsfilters because now she's never written of anywhere without referring to her as "Gwynneth Paltrow, Academy-award-winning Shakespeare in Love actress ...."  Still, this movie proved that you can create a film about Shakespeare's life (regardless of how authentic it may have been) and achieve critical and popular success.  It helped that this one was written by Tom Stoppard, who is well-known in Shakespeare circles for paying proper respect to his source material.  Speaking of Stoppard...
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
    Most people who've heard of Tom Stoppard know him from this work of genius that tells the story of Hamlet behind the scenes, from the eyes of minor characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You'll be amazed at how such a simple idea (periodically the cast of Hamlet wanders in while performing a scene, and then exits) can still spawn such creativity.  Don't be misled - this is not Hamlet. This is entirely its own movie. If anyone's capable of writing a companion work to Hamlet, it's Stoppard.

The Serious Fan

  • Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (Now in Bluray!)
    Generations of high school students learned Hamlet by watching the 1940's version starring Laurence Olivier.  That is, until Kenneth Branagh came along and did something previously unheard of - he filmed a "full text" Hamlet.  Most Shakespeare productions are cut, sometimes drastically, to keep running times manageable.  Branagh's Hamlet? Four hours.  And now in Bluray high definition!  You may not always agree with Branagh's directing choices, but he's most definitely carved out his place in the history of Shakespeare on film. "What are we watching for movie night?" your friends will ask, "All the Lord of the Rings movies?  All 6 Star Wars episodes?"  "Nope," you'll tell them, "Hamlet. And there were 3 Star Wars movies. Shut up."
  • Great Performances: David Tennant's Hamlet
    Shakespeare geeks know that there is no single Hamlet (or Lear, or Macbeth).  It's all in the performance, and each is different. When an exciting new production comes along it's like our Christmas - something new and exciting to see every single time. Once upon a time your only chance to see one of these productions was to get lucky enough to catch it live, but the Great Performances series on DVD now brings these destined-to-be-classics home to you.  David Tennant was known to modern audiences primarily for his Dr. Who before he tackled Hamlet, and the excitement among both audiences was tremendous. I even live-tweeted the show when it was first on television.
  • Great Performances: Sir Patrick Stewart's Macbeth
    He may be Professor Xavier or Jean Luc Picard to you, but he's also one of the great Shakespeareans of our time. You'll also see him tackling evil Uncle Claudius in David Tennant's Hamlet, but if you want Stewart in the lead role you'll want his Macbeth.  This performance is so new, in fact, that you'll need to get on a list and pre-order - it's not out until January. So the Shakespeare Geek in your life may need to get a "Coming Soon" note in his stocking this year.
  • Great Performances: Sir Ian McKellen's King Lear
    I didn't intend to lay these choices out in good/better/best order, though I suppose one might look at it that way (Tennant the newcomer, Stewart the seasoned professional, McKellen the master). King Lear is considered the Mt. Everest of Shakespeare's work, and actors do not enter into it lightly. Having already been Hamlet and Macbeth, it was only a matter of time before one of our greatest living actors put his own personal mark on Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece. How can this not be a part of any Shakespeare Geek's collection?

Students of Shakespeare

  • Playing Shakespeare
    Now imagine the likes of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley (and numerous others) as students, listening intently at the feet of their mentor some 30 years ago.  What sort of individual could command that level of respect from that kind of acting megastar audience?  The one and only John Barton, legendary director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for more than 40 years. Even if you never plan to get up on a stage (I, for one, do not) it is still simply mind-boggling to watch the process.  I've read the words on the page, and I've seen actors perform those same words.  But this is the first time I've seen the middle, where an entire work of Shakespeare is broken all the way down into the beats of a line and then built back up again into something beautiful. I got this boxset for Christmas last year and it's one of the most amazing pieces of "Shakespeare stuff" I own.  There's nothing quite like it. 
  • Acting Shakespeare
    Full disclosure - this is the only item on the list that I've not personally seen.  I just covet it, badly :).  Ian McKellen gets a fair share of screen time in the previously discussed Playing Shakespeare, but no matter how much we love him, that wasn't his show.  Acting Shakespeare is exactly what would happen if it was his show. Imagine Sir Ian McKellen - Magneto, Gandalf, Lear - 30 years ago (1982), not only performing selections from Shakespeare but telling you about them. How to play it, why to play it a certain way, funny stories associated with this one particular time ... It sounds, from everything I've heard, like an amazing companion piece to Barton's Playing Shakespeare, and I can't wait to add it to my collection.