Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shakespeare and Verlander (whoever that is)

This piece from seems a custom followup to yesterday's article about Majorie Garber's new book, but as far as I can tell they are not related.

Here, Bill James asks why the London of 400 years ago gave us Shakespeare and Marlowe and Jonson, but the Topeka, Kansas of today (a city of roughly the same population) doesn't see to be churning out the literary masters at the same rate. He says that Shakespeare's London fit one of two categories - either it was an act of God, a random clustering of what turned out to be a very unusual amount of talent....or else you take the position that talent is everywhere, and it has more to do with what your environment does to foster that talent.

James chooses B, and goes on to argue that we don't develop great writers in America - we develop sports heroes. But honestly, after a paragraph like the following I'm honestly not sure if he's pulling our leg a little bit:

We are not so good at developing great writers, it is true, but why is this? It is simply because we don't need them. We still have Shakespeare. We still have Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson; their books are still around. We don't genu­inely need more literary geniuses. One can only read so many books in a lifetime. We need new athletes all the time because we need new games every day—fudging just a little on the definition of the word need. We like to have new games every day, and, if we are to have a constant and endless flow of games, we need a constant flow of athletes. We have gotten to be very, very good at developing the same.

I'm going to assume he's joking. I don't even know how to respond to something like "one can only read so many books in a lifetime." Maybe if one spent less time watching "new games every day" one might have more time?

What do you think? Is he serious? He's playing it awfully straight if he is.

How about Lady Macbeth as a man?

Thanks to regular reader Angela for the link!

Alan Cumming, fresh from playing Sebastian in Julie Taymor's Tempest, wants to tackle more Shakespeare. And he's got a doozy of an idea - he wants to try Lady Macbeth:

"I want to do a production of Macbeth where I play Macbeth one night and Lady Macbeth the next - and the girl who plays Lady Macbeth will change around too. I think it's a way at looking at gender, what defines a man."

I like this idea, and I respect him as an actor for even bringing it up. We often hear about giving male roles to women - Helen Mirren's Prospera comes immediately to mind, though we also had a post recently about a gender-bent Hamlet as well. It's not often you hear male actors speak of their desire to tackle a female role.

Also, maybe I'm misunderstanding him, but is he suggesting that the female lead, when he is playing Lady M, would take on Mac? So depending on when you saw the show you'd either see it played straight (ahem), or bent? I think I'd feel obligated to see both versions, if that's the case.

What do you think? I know, I know, no girls in original version, boys plays girls' roles all the time, yadda yadda. I'm not talking about 400 years ago, I'm talking about today, by contemporary expectations and standards, what do you think? What sort of expectations are you going to bring to the show if you know that a man is playing Lady M? If a man were playing Lady M and a woman playing M, which one do you think you'd pay more attention to?

[Admin] Is Your School On The List?

At my day job we do a lot of work with colleges. Yesterday one of the teams here (not mine) released their Top 100 Social Media Colleges list. Since I know there's a wide variety of students and faculty who read the blog, I thought it wouldn't be completely off topic to mention it here, in case you want to check it out and see if your school made the list! If it did, be sure to leave a comment and brag a bit! If it didn't, I know the email addresses of people you can complain to! :)


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Does Literature Still Matter?

Here, of course, that's a rhetorical question. We know the answer. But Marjorie Garber is taking it to the next level in her new book, The Use And Abuse of Literature.

For Garber, of course, literature does matter. "Language does change our world," she writes. "It does make possible what we think and how we think it." Echoing an argument made by the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom, Garber claims for literature a sort of stem cell-like power to generate fresh and new imaginative experiences in those who read it.

The article is short, but it seems that the book will be something of a throwback to the old "two cultures" debate -- should you teach literature or science? Sure, both, but at what ratio? Which is more important?

Readers of this blog may answer that easily, but that's why our language has words like "should" - because what we want is not always the same as what is. How many times a day do I see some form of the question "Why teach Shakespeare? Is Shakespeare still relevant?" In my world everybody would know the answer to that question, and stop asking it.

I'll be watching for reviews of this book, I'm curious to see how much discussion it generates.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bloom Lite : Apparently Shakespeare Invented Teenagers

You may have already seen by now this NY Times article entitled How Shakespeare Invented Teenagers:

Yet our whole modern understanding of adolescence is there to be found in this play. Shakespeare essentially created this new category of humanity, and in place of the usual mix of nostalgia and loathing with which we regard adolescents (and adolescence), Shakespeare would have us look at teenagers in a spirit of wonder. He loves his teenagers even as he paints them in all their absurdity and nastiness.

When I first saw this come through I was surprised at how short it was, until I realized that it's just a snippet from the upcoming book "How Shakespeare Changed Everything", by Stephen Marche.

Honestly I read it and skipped it, and I'm only posting here to get a little discussion going since everybody and his uncle Antonio has been linking it. I couldn't help but think, "Didn't we already go through this with Bloom?"

What do you think? Did Shakespeare invent teenagers?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Who is Hazlitt, and did he read the same play I did?

Flipping through my Kindle version of the plays this weekend I tripped over this description of Twelfth Night (found here via Google Books):

This is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's comedies. It is full of sweetness and pleasantry. It is perhaps too good-natured for comedy. It has little satire and no spleen. It aims at the ludicrous rather than the ridiculous. It makes us laugh at the follies of mankind not despise them and still less bear any ill will towards them.

This comes from William Hazlitt, in the early 1800's (the Google copy is dated 1845, and I note with a smile that it is dedicated to Charles Lamb, of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare).

Am I misunderstanding something, or has our understanding of Twelfth Night done something of a one-eighty? I've seen it described as the dark and twistiest of the comedies. Here, Hazlitt claims it has no spleen.

What's going on? Somebody fill us in on this Hazlitt fellow.

UPDATE: From the Wikipedia page, I think I would have quite liked this guy:

His approach was something new. There had been critics of Shakespeare before, but either they were not comprehensive or they were not aimed at the general reading public. As Ralph Wardle put it, before Hazlitt wrote this book, "no one had ever attempted a comprehensive study of all of Shakespeare, play by play, that readers could read and reread with pleasure as a guide to their understanding and appreciation". Somewhat loosely organized, and even rambling, the studies offer personal appreciations of the plays that are unashamedly enthusiastic. Hazlitt does not present a measured account of the plays' strengths and weaknesses, as did Dr. Johnson, or view them in terms of a "mystical" theory, as Hazlitt thought his contemporary A.W. Schlegel did (though he approves of many of Schlegel's judgements and quotes him liberally). Without apology, he addresses his readers as fellow lovers of Shakespeare and shares with them the beauties of what he thought the finest passages of the plays he liked best.

Emphasis mine. But yes, yes, yes.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Theatron : Virtual Theatre Environments

This has potential. I'm not fully sure yet what it is, exactly - a software download, a programming language? But it seems like the end result is 3D representations (such as Second Life) of theatres - including the Globe! Be sure to check out the video on the rightside navigation. I could definitely picture kids in an English class getting to poke around stuff like this, even if it is just playing the YouTube walk through, for those schools that are not quite at the interactive level of having each kid cruise through Second Life on his own.

Ok, What's The Deal With Berowne?

...And by that I mean the spelling of his name. I get that Biron / Berowne are the same person, but what's the story on the change? I actually flipped through a Who's Who book at Borders the other day looking up Berowne, and he wasn't even listed under that name, not even a "See Biron."

To add a little more depth to the question, how about pronunciation? I found this via Google books :

Biron, or Berowne, as it appears in the early copies, is accented on the second syllable and rhymes with "moon".

Really? So those are both pronounced the same way? If I saw Biron I would assume was pronounced more like BYE-run.

Villains, Part Two : Little Villains

Ok, we did "best villain" and, no surprise, Iago killed it. I'm actually surprised that it was such a runaway, I thought Aaron would make a stronger showing.

So, what's the villain landscape look like when we rule out all the big names? I'm curious about the Don John's of Shakespeare's canon. Who is your favorite "villain who's not really much of a villain"? Every time I see Much Ado I can't help but imagine Don John as this sort of Snidely Whiplash character with the big black cape twirling his handlebar mustache. "A wedding??! I must wreck it! Bwahahahaha!"

I suppose Shylock might fall into this category, but it's hard to really see him as the villain, given our modern understanding of his situation. Is Petruchio a villain? Which plays don't have a villain at all? Is there a villain in Midsummer?

Explaining Shakespeare

I often open up a word processor and try to bang out some notes on the general topic of what I'd call "explaining Shakespeare." I know that No Fear and For Dummies and Sparknotes have done the subject to death, but I like to humor myself and think that, if I ever find my hook, I could actually add some value to that particular canon.

I get stuck over and over again in the same spot, however. So I thought I'd open up the idea to discussion. Here's my dilemma. When you are attempting to explain a Shakespeare play (let's say Hamlet), how do you do it? Do you describe the chronological events of what's happened / happening? Do you describe it scene by scene? Or do you talk about the characters, and their relationships and motivations?

The easy and done to death answer is to go scene-by-scene. I don't like this, though, for a couple of reasons. Most notably, every production is different. I hate the idea of telling somebody "Ok, in the next scene Polonius is going to send Reynaldo off to spy on Laertes" and then have them go to a production where that doesn't happen. You know what I mean? Most people who want to read a summary of Hamlet aren't necessariy going to then sit down and read the text (except maybe high school students :)). Grown ups who want Shakespeare explained to them want to understand the story, so that if they ever see it they know what's going on.

So then what about chronologically? I like the idea of starting out talking about Hamlet being off at school, and his father dying. I think that this is something that many families today can immediately relate to. But ... then what? How do you go from "Hamlet's dad died" to "Horatio confirms his ghost walking the castle" to "Laertes returns to France" and so on through the play? You can find a way to do it I'm sure, but it's going to seem fairly awkward (since there are places in the play where the timing itself is a little suspect anyway), and the harder you try to make it work, the more you're going away from the story on the stage so that if someone does go see a production, they're just as likely to be lost by what's happening. You've ended up writing an alternative version of Hamlet. A novelization, almost.

Lastly there's the idea of character study. While I love this idea, I love taking Hamlet and just walking through the entire play completely from his point of view, I think that this simultaneously provides the most interesting story while also offering the least immediate value to the audience. Make sense? I don't think my reader wants 400 pages on Hamlet's relationship problems. My reader wants enough information about the story that they will both *understand* it as well as *enjoy* it. Going too deep into each character (and really, how can you not go deeply into each character if we're talking about Hamlet?) is going after a different audience. That's like the second-stage audience, the ones who have already seen and understood and enjoyed Hamlet and now say "I'd like to learn more about these characters."

What to do? How do you explain Shakespeare to somebody in a meaningful and useful way, without resorting to a scene-by-scene translation?

(As I write this, I think I know my answer. I've gone to see Shakespeare with people casually. People who don't know the story. So they ask me, "What's it about?" And I proceed to tell them, to the best of my ability, what I think is a useful description of what they are about to see. What I need to do is record one of those spontaneous explanations, and then write it down, and go from there.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rest In Peace, Katharina : Elizabeth Taylor Has Died

Perhaps it's been a long time coming, and for too long the rumors have been greatly exaggerated, but today we must sadly report that Elizabeth Taylor has died.

As always, we take a look back at the contributions to Shakespeare made by such a fine actress. Everybody knows where this train of thought goes, right? Zeffirelli's Taming of the Shrew, of course. Is this not the definitive cinematic version? To me I think that she'll forever be Kate, chased by Richard Burton's Petruchio while she hurls curses (and furniture, if I recall!) at him.

Interesting : The trivia for this movie says that, unlike Burton, Taylor had no Shakespeare experience when she started. In fact she insisted that her entire first day of shooting be reshot because she wasn't happy with it. Perhaps this has something to do with her coming off of Cleopatra, a legendary flop (and no, not anything to do with the Shakespeare story on the same subject).

Does anyone know if she ever did any other Shakespeare after this? I can't find any. Although, amusingly enough, I see that she gave Marlowe a spin, starring in a version of Doctor Faustus :).

Rest in Peace, Katharina.

UPDATE: For those looking for more, US Magazine had done a recent "25 Things You Don't Know About Me" story with Taylor. I just learned that Richard Burton never won an Oscar?

Villains, Part One : Best Villain

Over on Yahoo Answers there was a question about Edmund's status as a villain. So I went looking through the archives to find one of our many "Best Villain" discussions.... and couldn't find any.

Could it be possible that we've never had that discussion? Let's remedy that.

Best Villain In Shakespeare. Make your case. Tell us who, and tell us why. Strictly *in context of the play* - not "because you really want to play him" or any meta-stuff. Fair enough? Keep everybody arguing the facts of the case.

Who's it gonna be? Edmund? Iago? Richard III? Aaron?

(It dawns on me that it might be fun to do a post on *all* Shakespeare's villains, like a Rogue's Gallery focusing specifically on the evildoers in all of Shakespeare's works. Hmmmm, yet another idea to put up on the shelf....)

Atlanta's Edward III Controversy

Did Shakespeare write Edward III?

Jeff Watkins, founder and artistic director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, thinks so. And it's crucial to his argument that his group is the only one in America to have produced all 39 of Shakespeare's plays.

Let the debate rage. If you fall back on the classic agreement of plays -- 37 (leaving out Two Noble Kinsmen) -- then there are a number of Shakespeare companies that have achieved this goal. If you count Kinsmen, then the Royal Shakespeare Company (granted, not in America) can raise its hand to make that claim.

Watkins isn't stopping at E3, however, and ye gods one can only hope that he's going for quality and not just quantity -- his group will be doing Double Falsehood (aka Cardenio) as well as Sir Thomas More, which would indeed make him the only company around to have produced 41 of Shakespeare's plays.

Maybe he can just put an asterisk next to Shakespeare(*) like they do in baseball.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hamlet is down!

It's happened again -- this time it was all fun and games over in Ireland until Hamlet almost lost an eye. I'm assuming that this is a freak accident that would have happened with any stage weapon, and not one of these crazy cases where the director insists on using real weapons. What I'm most curious about, though, is this:

The A.P. said that Mr. Madden sustained a cut beneath his eye and collapsed on stage, requiring the theater company’s artistic director, Alan Stanford, to go to the stage and explain to stunned audience members that this was not part of the play: the actor had been injured, and the play could not continue.

Not "the actor could not continue" - the play could not. Isn't it common to have some sort of second for your lead, for situations like this? Or does that only apply if the actor is not able to go on at all?

I suppose a third option is that I'm being heartless, and the cast was unable to go on because they were too distraught at the injury to their Hamlet. Though I remember professional wrestler Owen Hart *dying* on a live pay-per-view event, and the show went on.

Harry Potter Would Do Shakespeare

Face it, Daniel Radcliffe, you'll forever be known as Harry Potter. And I know, it's not terribly newsworthy to hear that he'd "love to do Shakespeare one day". But since he seems intimidated by the idea (he admits that he'd need a lot of direction), I thought it might make for some interesting conversation to ask.... which character for him?

I figure that his name recognition alone at this point would require that he get a fairly lead role, there'll be no Banquo or Benvolio for him. But do we see him as a Romeo? I don't think so. It would be a fun character turn to see him try Iago, but come on, the kid's intimidated by Shakespeare already, do you really want to start him there?

How about Benedick?

The Shakespearification of Jersey Shore?

We've spoken before about that sign of the apocalypse known as Jersey Shore, and what it has to do with Shakespeare.

Well here's the latest link in a chain of events heading us straight for the end of the world - one of the "actors" (I don't know or care what his name is, Vinnie something) is apparently trying to become a "real" actor, and credits his Shakespeare background with giving him a boost.

If you can't bear to click on the link I'll save you the pain - he mentions Shakespeare, they ask him for some, he busts out "Wherefore art thou, Romeo", and one of the hosts says "Yeah, but Juliet says that." I wonder if Vinnie played the girl's role? Whatever would the boys at the gym think!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

When I first started reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, I immediately sat down to write A Hamlet Story. What does it mean when you know that something is supposed to be a Hamlet story? How close will it echo the plot? Will all the characters be there, will the ending be the same?

I think that I've been so long immersed in kid-friendly versions of kid-friendly stories that I'd forgotten that it's possible to do what Wroblewski's done. This entirely new story doesn't just help itself to the "son avenges father's murder" idea and call it a day - it tracks nearly everything, and then some. It answers questions that Hamlet never answered. I loved it.

I know that Bardfilm reviewed this book as well, briefly, and chose not to divulge any of the plot at all. So stop here if you prefer that style of review, because I'm going to give you at least a little bit.

This is the story of the Sawtelle family, and more specifically the "Sawtelle dogs". For generations the family has bred dogs that are unlike any other in the world. Nobody can explain why, exactly - not even the Sawtelles. But you know it when you see it.

The story starts out pretty far removed from anything resembling Hamlet, which confused me. A grandfather here, a soldier over there, a miscarriage scattered in for good measure. With every character I found myself asking, "Now, is that Hamlet? Hamlet's father? Laertes?" It was like reading one of those books that retells Romeo and Juliet, only several generations prior. *Eventually* you find a character you recognize, and then everything else falls into place. So it is with this one. One character walks in, one unmistakably named character, and the lightbulb goes on. Oh, I see, now the entire family tree is laid out for me. I love it.

Wroblewski's creativity doesn't stop there. I find myself surprised by what I'm about to say, given his source material, but it's like he adds another dimension to Hamlet.


The Sawtelle family raises dogs, as I mentioned. Special dogs. In fact, not only does Edgar speak to the dogs, it is made quite clear that the dogs understand what he's talking about. So the dogs are characters in the story, and you may easily discover that Laertes is actually canine. (* He's not. I'm not giving anything away.)

Second, The story is told from multiple points of view. Edgar tells some. But then turn the page and it's his mother's turn to tell the same portion of the story. Think about that, oh ye Hamlet fans. For how many years have we yearned to know what exactly Gertrude was thinking? Why she went with Claudius? Or, for that matter, what exactly Claudius was thinking? What was his relationship with his brother? This is where the parallel universe comes in. We don't get to know what Shakespeare's Gertrude was thinking, but at least we'll get a glimpse into the mind of Wroblewski's doppleganger for her.

Combine all these things and you get something whose sum is greater than its parts. It is Hamlet, plus parts of Hamlet we always wanted. Plus completely original things. When you feel something, you have no idea if you should give credit to Shakespeare for starting it, or Wroblewski for the way he tells it.

There is a part, in any good production of Romeo and Juliet (bear with me), where you know beyond a shadow of a doubt what is going to happen, and yet you're still on the edge of your chair muttering Oh god, oh god, hurry, get there faster.... That's why it is genius. Shakespeare started out the story by saying "See those two? They're going to die." And before two-hours' stage traffic is complete you manage to feel so much for them that, once you remember again that they're doomed, you desperately want that not to be true.

Such was the case with this book. I started it wondering whether there was even an Ophelia character in the story. Once I discovered the answer to my question, all I can say is I know what the phrase "hit me like a ton of bricks" means now. Who knows, you may spot it immediately. You may have your own moments. The book is full of them, and that's the great part.

How does it end? Does it have the same body count? How pray tell does the story of murder among Danish nobles play out in a modern story? You don't just run around killing each other during duels, after all. And I'm not saying. :)

Highly, highly recommended. Nobody sent me a copy of this one, I sought it out as one of the first books to put on my Kindle.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Shakespeare GeekDad

Why I love what I do:

When putting my 4yr old to bed he informed me that we would be playing "a guessing game." Normally this is a superhero guessing game, which consists of him saying things like "I'm thinking of a good guy who wears blue and red with an S on his chest," and I have to guess Superman.

Anyway, tonight he says, "A Shakespeare guessing game."

"Oh, honey, we can't play that," I tell him. "You don't know enough Shakespeare characters. I can tell you a Shakespeare story, though." I'm thinking I'll tell him a quick version of Midsummer or something equally 4yr-old-going-to-bed-safe.

So I tuck him into bed, curl up next to him, and ask what story he wants. He tells me, "A story with Hamlet, and Shakespeare..."

"...wait, you want Shakespeare *in* the story?"

"Yes. And... what else characters did Shakespeare write?"

"Well," I say, realizing now that I'm going to have to improvise, "There was Oberon King of the Fairies, and Puck his faithful assistant."

"Ok," he decides, "A story with Hamlet, Shakespeare, Oberon and Puck."

Oh, wonderful.

"And in the story, Hamlet has to say 'To be or not to be.' Twice."

Great. So, we begin...

"Once upon a time there lived a prince named Hamlet. Hamlet was very sad, moping around the castle all day, because this new king - King Claudius - had taken over the thrown. Hamlet's dad used to be king, but King Claudius threw him in the dungeon and made himself king. Hamlet was not very happy about this, but you just don't walk up to a king and say Hey dude, that's not cool - because if you do that, then he throws you in the dungeon too.

So, Hamlet is out walking the castle grounds trying to decide what do when he bumps into William Shakespeare. "Who art thou?" Hamlet asks.

"I am Shakespeare," Shakespeare said. "I wrote this story."

"Well then if thou didst write mine story," said Hamlet, "Tell me how to get rid of King Claudius and put my dad back on the throne!"

Pulling a pen and paper from his pocket, Shakespeare began to write.


Out of nowhere appeared Oberon, King of the Fairies, and his faithful servant Puck.

"TO BE OR NOT TO BE!" exclaimed Hamlet. "WHO ART THOU?"

"I am Oberon, King of the Fairies," said Oberon, King of the Fairies. "And this is my faithful assistant, Puck."

"Dost thou know how to rid my kingdom of evil King Claudius?"

Oberon thought for a moment, then whispered in Puck's ear.

*ZOOM* In a blink, Puck was gone. Faster than Flash. Almost as fast as Superman.

And, just like that, *ZOOM* he was back again, holding a purple flower.

"TO BE OR NOT TO BE AGAIN!" cried Hamlet, "Where didst thou go so fast?"

Oberon handed the purple flower to Hamlet. "This flower," said Oberon, "Is quite magical. Have your King Claudius merely smell it, and he will fall into a deep sleep. Once he is sleeping, you can take him far away from the kingdom and restore your father to the throne."

Taking the flower, Hamlet went back into the castle. He first bumped into his mother, Gertrude. "Hamlet!" she said, opening her arms to hug him, "You look so much happier today! What a beautiful flower, may I smell it?"

"No!" said Hamlet. " it for King Claudius."

"That's very nice of you," said Hamlet's mother. "The king is in his office."

Sure enough, Hamlet found Claudius in his office huddled over his paperwork. "What?" asked Claudius, when he saw Hamlet. Claudius didn't trust Hamlet very much.

"Brought you a flower!" said Hamlet. "Smell it."

"Not right now," said Claudius, "Just leave it on the desk."

Leaving it on the desk, Hamlet left. Claudius returned to his paperwork. Soon, though, Claudius raised his arms to stretch and take a little break. Spying the flower, he picked it up to smell it.

*THUNK* He fell asleep so hard and so fast that his head smacked right into the paperwork he'd just been working on.

Once they could hear him snoring, Hamlet snuck into Claudius' office with his friend Horatio. Together they brought Claudius' sleeping form outside, tossed him over a horse's back, and set the horse walking on the road out of Denmark. He was never heard from again.

With King Claudius safely out of the picture, Hamlet went down to the dungeon and unlocked his father, who was restored to the throne. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Mini Macbeth

Haven't told a kid story in awhile. Turns out my 4yr old boy may be the biggest geeklet of them all.

Over the weekend, he was trying to figure out when he had school again. "Do I have school today?"

"No," I said, this being Saturday, "not today."

Him: "Tomorrow?"

Me: "Nope, not tomorrow either."

Him: "Tomorrow and tomorrow?" That's his way of saying "two days from now."

Me: "Not quite. One more day." He actually has Monday off as well as Sunday.

Him: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?"

Me:"Creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time."

Him: "....What?"

Me: "Macbeth. That's a line from Macbeth you just recited."

Him: "....ELIZABETH!" His sister is seated next to him at the breakfast table. "When I said Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow THAT WAS FROM MACBETH!"

He's also gotten into the habit of making his elders feel stupid. The other day he runs up to his grandmother (my wife's mother) and says, "To be or not to be, Gammie! Do you know who said that?"

"Was it Macbeth?" she asks.

"No, Gammie, it wasn't *Macbeth*," he says, "It was Hamlet!" And then runs off. He does this to his preschool teachers as well.

Drive-by 4yr old Shakespeare. I couldn't be more proud.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Puzzle Contest Over

Hi Everybody,

Just quick note to say that my puzzle book contest has ended, and winners have been notified. Please remember to check your email if you did enter, I'd hate for your winning confirmation to end up in the spam bucket.

Everyone who played got the right answer ("Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." - Caliban, The Tempest), so all three books were distributed at random among the winning entries. I guess I made the puzzle too easy? Watch out for next time!

Thanks to everybody for playing. I hope to have more giveaways soon.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Last Chance to Enter!

Just a reminder that end of today marks the close of my Pocket Posh Shakespeare Puzzles Giveaway, so enter now if you haven't already! I'm giving away 3 books, one of which is even set aside for someone who does *not* solve the puzzle correctly - so don't let that stop you! (Hint hint giant hint, everybody who has entered thus far has solved the puzzle, I guess I made it too easy. But what that means is that if you haven't entered yet you could deliberately tank your solution and actually improve your odds of getting a book! )

Sir Laurence Olivier as Orlando, in As You Like It, in 1937

I love when I find things. I had no idea that Sir Laurence Olivier's first Shakespearean role was Orlando in As You Like It. I think there's probably a debate about that claim - do we mean his first filmed role? - but either way, thanks Amazon!

I absolutely love some of the perspective that time brings (this being 1937!):

* Sir Laurence is listed as nothing more than "with Laurence Olivier", among others. Not even a starring role.

* The "treatment suggested by" J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Barrie died in 1937, so I'm not sure whether this movie came out while he was still alive or if that credit was in honor of his contribution.

Unfortunately, the 2 minute free preview is all credits, we don't get to see Olivier at all. I think I'll probably rent this, I'm just going to avoid it for now because I'm at work and if I do hit the button I won't be able to stop myself from watching it at my desk :).

Gonzo Shakespeare, and Steve Jobs' Dream

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad2 last week, all the demos were about art and video and music, and how they were using technology to put all this creative power into the hands of everyone. He even had a great quote on the subject:

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. And, nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.

Why it took me until now to click with that, I have no idea.

Let's talk about what this means for Shakespeare.

This new device has two cameras, right? Front and back-facing? Great. I challenge my geeks out there to produce some Shakespeare on an iPad2. Just imagine Hamlet from the point of the view of Hamlet. When he's talking to Claudius? He's holding up the iPad and filming Claudius. When he's performing a soliloquy? Use the other camera, and speak into it like you're on a webcam.

Or who knows, maybe it doesn't have to be entirely in first person - maybe Claudius and Polonius are holding the camera when they spy on Hamlet and Ophelia - and you can hear, rather than see, them commenting on the scene. Imagine what you could do with special effects. Imagine how to do the ghost scenes. The possibilities are *amazing*.   

Now distribute it online, so that people are playing it using almost the exact same medium with which is was created. Brings a whole new meaning to the idea of immersive experience, I'd say.

Somebody make this. Everyone who says that film and theatre are forever two entirely different beasts, this is your challenge to produce a third form that bridges the two.

You *know* that this is going to happen. The questions are entirely Who? and When? Tell me why the answers can't be "Us" and "Now."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Big Bully Ghosts

Spotted on Yahoo! Answers : What did Shakespeare have to say about bullying in Hamlet, Act I?

I thought it an interesting question. I don't think that Shakespeare was trying to make any particular statement on that subject. I think that "bullying" as we know it is a pretty new name for what's a pretty old concept. Hasn't the big and powerful guy always forced his will upon the littler guy, regardless of what you call it?

But part of the fun is in finding today's issues in Shakespeare's work, we know that. So who are the bullies in Hamlet?

I saw a production once where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were big skinhead dudes, like soccer hooligans, who made it perfectly clear that if Hamlet didn't do what they wanted, he was in for a beating. I've always remembered that "Where is Polonius?" interrogation scene, because every time Claudius asked it, one of them bodily threw Hamlet across the stage.

What about the ghost itself? Isn't there a case to be made that Hamlet's only taken on this act of revenge because the ghost made him do it?

Then of course there's Ophelia's relationship with her brother and father. I wouldn't say that Laertes is a bully, but Polonius certainly can be. Laertes' "Watch out for Hamlet" is Polonius "I forbid you to see him."


Oh No! The Marketers Have Gotten Shakespeare!

[UPDATED - Sorry if you saw the original, blank, post. ]

At a recent marketing and branding conference, "Chief Content Officer -- and Shakespearean scholar" Brad Berens got up to speak about Shakespeare and branding:

Aside from all the obvious and enduring cultural references and adaptations of Shakespeare's work over the centuries, we don’t typically think of Shakespeare as a successful brand story. But we should, Berens said, because the way he created, bonded with, and nurtured his customer base has valuable and highly applicable lessons for marketers today. In essence what he did back in The Globe Theater in the 1500s, Berens said, is move from meaning transmission to environment cultivation.
I'm curious whether others find deeper meaning in the examples the article provides, or if this is just another case of people using the magic word Shakespeare to make their point.  Do we think that Shakespeare was at all interested in "brand", the way we know it today?  Do we think that he was pursuing it without ever realizing it?  Surely there was name recognition, at least.  But being recognized as good at your job, versus actively pursuing a strategy of getting your name recognized, are two very different things.

Sonnet 155 - Shakespeare Performance Art?

I'm not quite sure how to describe Sonnet 155, but I'm excited to have found it.

What if a musician went out to a variety of people, actors, fellow musicians, etc... and asked them about the most important themes in Shakespeare? Then our travelling musician combines all their answers with Shakespeare's words and produces something very, very new. A fascinating combination of classical and rock music with spoken word performance is what follows.

It's called an album, but on the web site it speaks of tickets and prices as if there's a live show. I wonder if there is (or will be) video?

Check it out, let me know what you think.

Atheism, Afterlife and ... Hamlet.

Thanks to reader Christopher S for this fascinating video from the Jewish TV Network where top atheism advocates - including Christopher Hitchens - debate the existence of an afterlife with several top rabbis.

At 1:28 (that's one hour, twenty-eight minutes - it's a long video), they break out the Hamlet. Which side, exactly, brings up Hamlet? *Both*. That's cool. They both try to argue that Hamlet supports their case. And apparently, though I don't have time to find every reference, Chris tells me that "Several times throughout the evening they bring up Shakespeare's canon as a foil to the religious canons, arguing about whether we should read both in the same way or whether they need to be approached in different ways." This is a topic that we've covered as well.

What do you think about the atheism question? Does Hamlet fear the undiscovered country because he doesn't know what comes next ... or because he's wondering if *anything* comes next? I wouldn't go so far as to extend the discussion to "Is Hamlet atheist? Therefore, was Shakespeare atheist?" I know that's been argued elsewhere on the net. I think the odds are against it. I'm referring to this particular case. Even if Hamlet is a devoutly religious chap with a firm belief in the afterlife, is this speech a moment of weakness where he wonders "What if I'm wrong?"

Monday, March 07, 2011

Stanley Kubrick, on Shakespeare

On this the anniversary of his death, I went hunting for references to Shakespeare and Stanley Kubrick. What I found was a quote from the man himself (Kubrick that is - Shakespeare was relatively silent on his impressions of Stanley):

How do you explain the kind of fascination that Alex exercises on the audience?

I think that it's probably because we can identify with Alex on the unconscious level. The psychiatrists tell us the unconscious has no conscience -- and perhaps in our unconscious we are all potential Alexes. It may be that only as a result of morality, the law and sometimes our own innate character that we do not become like him. Perhaps this makes some people feel uncomfortable and partly explains some of the controversy which has arisen over the film. Perhaps they are unable to accept this view of human nature. But I think you find much the same psychological phenomena at work in Shakespeare's Richard III. You should feel nothing but dislike towards Richard, and yet when the role is well played, with a bit of humour and charm, you find yourself gradually making a similar kind of identification with him. Not because you sympathize with Richard's ambition or his actions, or that you like him or think people should behave like him but, as you watch the play, because he gradually works himself into your unconscious, and recognition occurs in the recesses of the mind. At the same time, I don't believe anyone leaves the theatre thinking Richard III or Alex are the sort of people one admires and would wish to be like.

Emphasis mine. If you don't recognize the context, they are speaking of the lead character in A Clockwork Orange.

Full interview (or, at least, the public excerpts) available here.

Win FREE Shakespeare Puzzles!

Last week I published my review of Pocket Posh Shakespeare, a collection of 100 Shakespeare-themed word puzzles from The Puzzle Society.

And now I've got three (3) copies to give away!

How Do You Enter?

First, let's start with a puzzle. That is the theme, after all:

You can start by attempting this cipher (link goes to a definition of this puzzle type, if you're unfamiliar). As I mentioned in my review of the book, your knowledge of Shakespeare should help you solve the puzzle, otherwise is it really a Shakespeare puzzle?

Second, email me your answer. I'm just looking for the quote, you don't have to send me the mapping of all 26 letters. (Even if you can't quite solve it, see below....)

Optionally, follow me on Twitter and help me promote the contest. Remember, publishers give their products away as promotional items, and they want to see as many people as possible take part. Successful contests means more giveaways in the future!

Comment on this post if you want, but please do so only to talk about the game or ask questions. Do NOT post solutions (I'll delete them as fast as I spot them) or consider a comment left here to be your entry into the contest.

How Do You Win?

Ok, I'm going to put a spin on this, so pay attention. I've got 3 copies to give away. *TWO (2)* copies will be given to randomly chosen entrants who provide the correct solution. *ONE (1)* copy will be given to someone randomly chosen from people who do *not* have the correct, complete solution, but instead provide only a partial one.

You heard that correctly. Even if you cannot solve the puzzle, do your best and send in an answer anyway! Part of the mission of this blog has always been to encourage people to learn more about Shakespeare, so it doesn't seem right to punish people who may not yet be familiar enough with the topic to recognize the chosen quote. Entirely blank entries will not be counted.

When is the Deadline?

I'll be collecting entries through end of day Thursday, March 10. Winners will be chosen as described above - 2 from among the correct solutions, 1 from the incorrect solutions. On the off chance that there are not at least 2 correct solutions entered, I'll naturally have to adjust accordingly.

I will attempt to contact the winners beginning Friday, March 11. Please note that to receive your prize I'll need to get your mailing address, which will then be sent along to the publisher. I say this in the interest of full disclosure, as I will not be the one doing the mailing.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Review : Pocket Posh Shakespeare, from The Puzzle Society

I love a good puzzle. Even got dragged to one of those puzzler's league conventions, once. And everything's better with Shakespeare, right? (Seems like there's a Bacon joke in there somewhere.)

Whenever Andrews McMeel Publishing asked me if I wanted to review a Shakespeare puzzle book from The Puzzle Society, I got all excited. I didn't think such a thing even existed - as a matter of fact I'd even given thought to seeing if I could piece together and distribute one myself. So I quickly said yes.

What was I expecting? I think, when I think "puzzle book", I imagine those ubiquitous, cheapy "5000 Sudoku Puzzles!" ones you see at the supermarket checkout for a buck ninety-nine, and I think I was expecting something like that here. So imagine my pleasant surprise when out of the shipping envelope dropped a smaller book that looks exactly like a Moleskine notebook. Hard, textured cover. Strong binding. Even an embedded elastic wrapped around, to keep it closed when you're not using it. Nice. Quality stuff, here.

The book itself is labelled as having "100 puzzles and quizzes." What sorts of puzzles? A whole variety:

* Word searches ("Find all these words and characters from Antony and Cleopatra", or "Find all these cliches that Shakespeare first used") Both the traditional kind as well as "pathfinders" where each word links up to a new one and you have to find them all in a row.

* Quizzes (ranging from easy ("What did Shakespeare bequeath to his wife Anne in his will?") to tricky ("Which is the largest female role, by line count?" Your mileage may vary.)

* Crosswords, and multiple variations - Kriss Kross, ArrowWords, etc...

* Codecrackers - one of my favorites, where you've got a crossword sort of puzzle where each blank has a number between 1 and 26, and you have to figure out which letter goes with which number. Do it right and spell out a Shakespeare quote.

* A variety of smaller puzzles like a jigsaw puzzle with letters on it, or "word wheels", or word transformation games (for instance you're given "drat" and "a light breeze", so you add an F to get draft)

How's the Shakespeare? As billed, every puzzle has some Shakespeare in it. I have to be honest, some seem to be phoning it in a bit more than others. A word search where every word is a Macbeth character? Cool. A traditional crossword puzzle, with traditional non-Shakespeare clues, with one little "At the end, the letters in the shaded circles will spell out a Shakespeare character" addition on the end? Not so much.

Here's my metric for dealing with that - does my knowledge of Shakespeare in some way help me solve the puzzle? If so, then I count it as a win. For instance if I'm supposed to be guessing the name of a Shakespeare character by adding letters based on clues, but I spot right away based on the closing F that the character is Falstaff, then win. Likewise even with the word searches - there's something exciting about spotting the word Leontes among a scramble of letters that you simply don't feel when you find a generic word like vehicle or library. This is why I love the code cracker puzzles, because the earlier I recognize the quote, the faster I can fill in the unknown letters. I don't know about you, but I only ever consider a puzzle done when I've filled in all the clues, not just when I got the "special" answer at the end.

With that metric in mind, I'm happy to report that pretty much all these puzzles succeed. The crosswords less so, for reasons described - but even there, you never know if you're going to get a "movie based on a Shakespeare play" or "a famous actor famous for playing Shakespeare", so there's some challenge to it, and some level of surprise.

Downsides? Well, this is a small book. As I did several puzzles I found it very hard to keep the cover curled back and out of the way, holding the book in one hand, while still keeping it firm enough to write in. If I put it down on the table, I think the cover would constantly be trying to get in the way. And though I want to share these puzzles with my kids, the form factor really doesn't lend itself to sharing. In a big puzzle book we could all put our heads together (literally, sometimes, complete with thunk noise :)) and everybody could do a word search. With such a small book I can maybe let me 8yr old take a crack at some puzzles by herself, but the 4yr old's not getting his little chocolatey hands on it.

There's also the potential issue of price. I don't think this is out yet - the marketing copy said April 2011 - but the price printed on it is $7.99 US. I'm sitting here asking myself, if I was browsing the bookstore and spotted this in the wild, would I have scooped it up at that price? If you're a puzzling Shakespeare fan who is going to do all the puzzles by yourself, then yes absolutely of course you do. [ While we're on the subject, if you are in the mind to snap this one up, please consider clicking that Amazon link up there, which is an affiliate link, and helps support Shakespeare Geek. Thanks!

In my case, knowing the above family constraints, I wonder. That's expensive for a book of puzzles that's really just for me, not something I can share with the kids. Even though this one is 100% pure Shakespeare, they'd get more value out of one of those $1.99 cheapies at the front of the store with 500 pages in it.

Overall I'm very glad that books like this exist, and I am far happier to see this quality product (granted, at the higher price) than if I'd been handed a ninety-nine cent special that looks like a coloring book. My issue with the price could well be my own personal situation and nothing more. Know what I'd love to see, now that I think about it? Once this book is out, I'd love it if their website had online versions - even printable ones - of a bunch of the puzzles. That would cover my "sharing with the kids" issue completely. If that were the case, then all my reservations would be completely gone.

Now! Anybody know a three letter word, ends with O, Much blank About Nothing....? Hmmm.....

UPDATED  Win this book!   (Contest ends Thursday, March 10)

Multi-Sensory Art

What exactly is the nature of art? It's a big question, no doubt. One that we struggle with constantly, trying to find the line between the value inherent in what Shakespeare gave us, and any given interpretation. Although much the same battle rages every time a cover song comes out -- does the cover surpass the original? Can it, ever? Matter of opinion.

So, here's the thing. I just finished Marco and the Red Granny, the latest podcast from Mur Lafferty. It's short (7 episodes), it's complete (so you can get it all at once), and it's available in ebook if you prefer to read. Highly recommended. In this story, Mur imagined a world where art is multisensory - you see a painting of a thunderstorm and taste hot chocolate with marshmallows. You put on a fancy new shirt and feel the anger of having a fight with your spouse. It's science fiction, of course. But it's a fascinating idea.

It was with that story in mind that I returned to this ongoing idea of page and stage, whether reading Shakespeare has value, or whether he must be performed. I compared acting Shakespeare to grabbing some brushes and canvas and trying to paint your own Mona Lisa....but it's not the same. There's one Mona Lisa, we can all see it, it doesn't change.

But is that a good thing? Shakespeare's words don't change, but we're quick to point out that that's not the same -- how you *say* them (and why and where...) always changes, and that's part of its nature.

Is that the way it should be, or simply the way it is? What if it was different? We'll never know why Mona Lisa is smiling. What if we did? What if, in Mur's world, simply looking at the painting could impart to you exactly what she was thinking? What if the very nature of reading Shakespeare's works made you experience the same rush of emotions that Hamlet does? Technically, I suppose, it does ... but in each case it's merely your own brain doing it for you, it's not like the creator could leap through his medium and stick those emotions into your brain.

A related example - the invention of film as a medium did not kill theatre. On the contrary, theatre fans are quick to point out all the places where theatre is still superior. When I saw Macbeth? The power went out. Scared us silly. Oh, yeah? Well I saw King Lear during a thunderstorm, it was amazing! I saw Timon of Athens and the person behind me unwrapped hard candy the whole time, I hated it. Film can't do that.

I'll give you an even simpler example. Books, particularly old books, smell. eBooks do not. This is enough, in many people's minds, to brush aside the rise of ebooks and swear that nothing will ever replace a "real" book. In its own way, that is the exact same argument. Where, exactly, is the value in reading a book? Is it to impart the information contained in the words on the page? Or is it the whole multisensory experience associated with how old you were when you read it, what the book looked and smelled like, how it made you feel, etc....?

I don't know where I"m going with this, really. Bit of a ramble. Trying to decide whether or not our inability to capture all those things is a good thing, a bad thing, or only a matter of time.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Helen Mirren Said What?

"Let's ban Shakespeare," says Helen Mirren,

Got your attention? :) What she actually said was to ban reading Shakespeare in class, and start taking kids to plays instead. I don't know that anybody here is going to disagree with that.

At least, not totally ;). I've always felt that people feel the need to take sides in the "see, don't read" war. In truth the answer can only ever be, both. If you see a live show of Hamlet once in your life and never think about it again, consider how little you really got out of it. You probably missed half the dialog. You certainly missed any bits that this particular interpretation chose to excise. And you're left thinking that Hamlet is a whiny git because this guy happened to play him that way.

See it, yes, *and* read it. Stop with the either/or nonsense. By seeing performance you are doing two things - you are getting closer to the source material, but you are also seeing one particular group's interpretation of that source material. Here's the beautiful thing -- every time you see it? The first bit remains the same, you get closer to the source material. But the second changes every time.

You know how else you can get close to the source material? Read it. :) As long as you understand that reading the text for yourself is just another tool in your arsenal, another step in your journey, then I don't see where all the hating comes from.

The Melancholy Mick?

[ Apologies for the slur, just trying to turn a phrase ;). And me mother's name is Daly, my daddy's name is Moran, so I'm as Irish as they come! ]

New research out of Scandinavia adds a piece to the puzzle of Hamlet's source material - by linking the name "Hamlet", via Snow Bear's "Amlothi", to an Irish story called The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, featuring a character named "Admlithi". That extra D, the story is quick to point out, is silent.

From there Dr. Lisa Collinson makes the connection between this name and sea monsters, and then to Hamlet's "sea of troubles." Although I think that last one is a bit of a stretch :).

It's an interesting idea, I suppose, but I've never been that interested in the history. Would new research in this area make you change your understanding of Shakespeare's Hamlet? Is there any possibility at all that if this story is true, that Shakespeare actually would have known and understood the original story?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Eve of Ides : David Blixt's Latest Work!

I'll let him tell it

I've been sitting on this particular piece of news for a couple weeks, but the official announcement went out today. My original Caesar/Brutus play, EVE OF IDES, has been chosen for a reading at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey this September, as part of their Lend Us Your Ears play reading series. The reading will be directed by the amazing and talented Rick Sordelet.

Congratulations to The Master Of Verona, and go see it if you can!

One Man Hamlet

Yesterday we had a gender-reversed Hamlet, so today how about a one-man show?

In describing his one-man version of Hamlet, Bhaneja said: “For many of us, our most powerful experience with the play Hamlet occurred on our first reading of it — outside of the theatre ­— where we, alone, had to conjure up the setting, characters and drama. With this production, the audience is guided through the actual text, almost in the way an ancient storyteller might do, where the actor/storyteller provides an outline of a character upon which the viewer extrapolates.”

With the firm understanding that this is pretty far-afield from going to see a Shakespeare show, I think it would be quite interesting. When I tell my kids one of the plays, I'm basically the one-man storyteller. And isn't a teacher doing the same thing, for a larger audience? So why not put the storyteller on the stage and have him speak to as many people as will sit for the show?