Thursday, March 29, 2012

Country Song Shakespeare

Howdy, y'all!

What do you think the greatest works of literature in the western world would sound like if we'd given William Shakespeare a big ol' cowboy hat, some boots, and stuck a guitar in his hand? I think it woulda gone a little somethin' like this.  One!  Two!  One, two, three!

  • Strangled My Wife Because My Best Friend Told Me She Was Cheating But He Lied
  • My Girlfriend's Gone Crazy And My Mom Married My Uncle
  • I'm Swearing Off Women, At Least Until The Next One Comes Along
  • My New Best Bro Turned Out To Be A Broad
  • Her C's, U's and T's Made An F'ing A Outta Me (explicit)
  • Those Weren't Her C's After All (The Yellow Stockings Song) (radio friendly)
  • Called My Girl A Ho On Our Wedding Day
  • Never Drug Your Wife To Win An Argument (She'll Sleep With The First Ass She Meets)
  • You Only Say You Love Me When I Offer You A Third of My Kingdom
  • Who's Taming Who Here Anyway?
  • Don't Tell My Fool, My Achy Breaky Fool
  • My Drinking Buddy Is King Now But All I Am Is Banished
  • Proud To Be Syracusan (Where At Least I Know I'm Not Ephesian)
  • My Boyfriend Killed My Dad, I'm Going Swimming
  • Hitchhiked My Way To Dunsinane On A Tree That Was Going My Way
  • Never Listen To Witches, Or Your Wife
  • I Want My Kingdom Back, This Horse You Sold Me Stinks

Thanks to my co-conspirator Bardfilm for his contributions to this list!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How Old Is Your Favorite Character

How old is Romeo? remains the most popular post on this site, by a long shot.  Every day I land hundreds upon hundreds of people looking for the answer to this question.  (The answer, by the way, is "Despite saying that Juliet is 13, Shakespeare never specifically says how old Romeo is so it's up to your own interpretation.")

How old is Hamlet? is also a big search result.  He's either 30 or 16, depending on how you prefer to interpret the gravedigger's speech.  I think the evidence is stronger for 30, myself, but I don't think the character behaves like a 30yr old.

Pick another one.  For which other character in which other play do you think that pinning down an exact age is a big part of understanding that character?  I saw an As You Like It once where I felt that Rosalind, an otherwise strong character who ties the entire play together, was reduced to (literally) a giggling school girl who was too much with the "OMG! Orlando looked at me!!!" stuff.  I never thought of her as *that* young, but I never really tried to pin an age on her, either.  Late teens, early 20's?

(For the pedants out there I'm obviously not trying to an *exact* age.  I don't think that it matters if Romeo is 18 or 19, but I do think there's a difference if he's 13 or 18.  I don't worry about whether Polonius is 65 or 66, but you could probably make a case for different behaviors depending on whether he's 55 or 85.  Like that.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I Was Close!

Mornings in my house...

We're getting ready for the day, one of the kids has put on a new tv show, Olivia, about a pig who goes to school.  Fits the usual pattern, rambunctious little girl who always wants things to go her way, gets bent out of shape when they don't, learns a lesson and everything works out in the end.

Scene: A classroom.

Teacher:  I am happy to announce the name of our next school play!  It will be ...

Me:  (throwing up my arms and taking a wild guess)  Hamlet!

Teacher: ...The Faerie Queene!

Me:  Spencer?  Really?

Of course they didn't mean the classic, they meant some generic "play with fairies in it".  I just thought it was funny that I'm joking about them tackling Shakespeare and for at least half a second it sounds like they're tackling one of sources.

Had I guessed Dream instead of Hamlet that would even funnier ;).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Second Fiddle Shakespeare

There's something you don't hear everyday.

I knew about Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters, her debut novel about a father and his three daughters who spend a good chunk of their time quoting Shakespeare.  I actually have a copy around here someplace that was sent to me as a gift (thanks!)

I just assumed that it followed the standard format, where somebody took a bunch of Shakespeare as foundation and then wrote a story around it.  I mean, after all - weird sisters? Father and his three daughters? Seemed obvious. But this interview with the author is where I spotted the "second fiddle" thing, because it's here that she comes right out and says that all the Shakespeare content is not an homage, but rather the "workhorses" for getting her bigger point across.

I wonder about that.  Like I said, I've not yet read the book.  Is it even possible for Shakespeare to play second fiddle?  You have to imagine that most of the press she got was for the Shakespeare connection.  And I'd bet that most of the people that read it, did so for the Shakespeare.  So is she really saying that she gave us the ol' bait and switch, dangling some Shakespeare and setting the readers' expectations, only to deliver something different?

Any of you read the book?  I'm curious what the dedicated Shakespeare geeks thought of it.  Did you come for the Shakespeare and leave disappointed?

What Do You Love Most?

About once a year or so I get stuck in a rut where, for a variety of reasons, Mr. Shakespeare takes a backseat. You may have noticed the site not being updated as frequently as it has in the past.  For that, I apologize. I'm trying to fix that.  It's just that, for the moment, my heart's not in it.  And I hate that.  If your heart's not in something then quite literally anybody can write on any topic, because they aren't personally invested in the quality of the outcome. I've never been that guy.

So, along with my semi-yearly rut comes my semi-yearly reset where I try to get my head back in the game.  Spring's a good time to do that.

I think we can all agree that the topic of "Shakespeare" is a pretty deep one.  Infinite, even.  We've been talking about it for 400 years and we're not slowing down.  You can, easily, devote your full time life to the topic.  Maybe people do.

Alas, I don't.  It's never been my lot in life.  I'm neither an academic nor a theatrical type.  My relationship with Shakespeare is an entirely personal and voluntary one.

Every now and then I like to look at the big picture and then focus in a bit.  I have to realize that I can't encompass the whole thing. Once upon a time I was the only Shakespeare blog out there.  Now I'm bombarded daily by dozens of sites covering dozens of angles on dozens of stories, and I can't keep up.  I have to pick what I want to talk about.  Which means I have to take a step back and look at what's most important to me.

Hence my question.  What is it about Shakespeare that you love most?  No fair saying "All of it."  Pretend, if you must, that you're doing your graduate thesis.  You have to pick a topic.  Maybe it's the history and politics of the period that you love most, and you search Shakespeare's works for clues to that topic.  Maybe it's the poetry, and you'll argue for hours over why a certain line ends on an unstressed syllable and what that means for what Shakespeare was trying to say.

For me I guess you could say that it's about the psychology of the characters.  Yesterday a coworker told me how he was trying to help a teenage relative study the "To be or not to be" speech, and how she just plain didn't get it, how she had to slice and dice it up into pieces because she was running to the glossary for every other word. And all I could think to say to be helpful was, "To understand that speech, you have to put yourself in Hamlet's place and understand what he's feeling, and then it will start to make more sense, even if you don't technically understand every single word."

This is also why I teach Shakespeare to my kids the way that I do, by constantly taking it from the angle of the character - "Here's this character, here's what happened to him, here's what he thought and felt about it, and here's what he did about it."

There's a bunch of reasons for this.  One obvious one is that I can have an opinion on this level, and back it up.  I can't dissect syllables and compare editorial punctuation differences.  I know that those things go to the big picture, no question. I know that you can get a great deal of character info about Lady Macbeth based on how you choose to punctuate her "We fail!" line.  I'm ok with that. I'm ok with going back and changing "here's what she thought and felt about it" to "here's one way to interpret how she thought and felt about it."  That's one of the ways I get an infinite amount of stories out of it.  Same things happened to the same people, but the deeper you look, the more ways you can find to spin it.

Another obvious reason is that I think this is the best way to teach kids.  I'm not going on another diatribe about this, we've covered the topic frequently.  I'll just say that I am living the experiment of demonstrating that even a 3 yr old can understand what happens in Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.  If they can then get a 10+ year headstart on "going deep" by the time they get to high school? Imagine how far along they'll be.

I was about to write some more about how this also ties into the timelessness of Shakespeare and how still to this day you can have a My Own Private Idaho or a Lion King and
have people recognize them as Shakespeare without any original text, because Shakespeare drew the roadmap for who those characters are and what they do. But this is getting long and the day job calls.

So, I'll let others talk.  Given an infinite subject like ours, where's your focus? What do you love most?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Did Everybody Have A Good Ides?

Hey all!

I feel like I haven't posted in over a week (mostly because I can see my own post dates and know I haven't posted in over a week :)), but I feel like I can't let a Shakespeare day like the Ides of March go by without at least checking in.

How's things?  Any bad luck?

Just so everybody knows, even when traffic on the blog is low we're usually hanging out on Twitter.  On the busiest days I find it's easier to toss out a quick link here or there, or write up a joke or two, then to sit down and write up an entire post on a topic.  I have to be at least somewhat inspired to do that, you know?  To feel like I'm adding some sort of value and not just talking for the sake of talking.

Remember, the moral of Julius Caesar is, "Listen to your wife."

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A Word By Any Other Name?

So today, Bardfilm and I were talking about Juliet's famous "A rose by any other name" speech. More specifically, he's the one who came to me and said "Hey I just noticed something!"

The line is actually "A rose by any other word."  Not name.  Word.

We compare versions.  Turns out that Q1 has "name", but Q2-Q4, as well as First Folio, all say "word."

How odd!  Quick geek check -- Google search for "a rose by any other name" shows 1.2 million instances, but for "a rose by any other word" shows only 250k.  That's backwards.  According to the text, it appears that "name" would have been the first, possibly bad, version - that "word" should be the preferred interpretation.

Thoughts?  Where do you stand on this one? Have you always thought of the line as "a rose by any other word"? If so, does it drive you crazy when people misquote it?

The best I can figure is that "name" shows up like 5 other times in that speech, so this became the accepted modern edit to make it flow nicely.  But it does seem to fly in the face of the actual evidence, particularly First Folio.

Starter Plays

Saw this question on a different board, and thought it might make for good discussion.

Let's say for the sake of argument that an adult, out of school, decides to start reading Shakespeare.  He asks, "What play should I start with?"

For the sake of discussion let's take "Don't read it, see it" off the table.  Given real world constraints this is almost always going to mean, "Get the DVD" which turns this into an entirely different discussion about whose version of which play is acceptable.

Given a willing, educated adult who wishes to start reading Shakespeare plays, where should he start? Make your case.

Do you pick a tragedy, a comedy, a history? Do you go with Midsummer because it's supposedly so easy?  Personally I don't think that one is easy at all to fully appreciate, I think that we teach it to young children entirely because of the fairy element and the silly Mechanicals.  But that one's got some of the deepest poetry Shakespeare was capable of.

The best I could come up with for an answer went something like this:

There's a moment when children learn to read that they go from "I recognize those letters" to "that group of letters is a word" to "that group of words is a sentence," and so on.  There comes a moment in understanding Shakespeare that you go from, "Shakespeare wrote the following words on the page" to "I understand why this character said these words because I know what he is feeling at that moment."  The play changes when that happens. Once that happens, you'll never read the plays the same way again.

I realize that this doesn't answer the question, but I think that it's an important point to make.  If you read the plays as nothing more than words on a page and never escape that feeling that you are "decoding" or "translating" what Shakespeare meant, you'll always be at a very shallow understanding of what you're reading.  It won't really be understanding at all.  It's like Shakespearean reading comprehension.  Many children, when they learn to read, just go "word word word word word period word word word comma word word word..." in their heads, and nothing ever clicks to make them say, "Oh, ok!  I get what's happening!"  I think that a very similar thing happens for most people when they try to understand Shakespeare.

If I have to pick a play, I'm going to say Hamlet.  I think that there are easier plays, but there's more that goes into the question than simply which one is easiest or shortest. Hamlet is "popular" (every other page you'll be spotting a modern cliche that came directly from the text). Hamlet is fairly easy to understand as far as plot goes. The character relationships (fathers and sons, men and women, brothers and sisters) are realistic.  Most importantly, there's enough depth that you don't just read it once and check it off your list.  You read it again and again and again and discover something new every time.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Happy Birthday To The Only "Modern Shakespeare", Dr. Seuss!

I mention Dr. Seuss on this blog. A lot.  I think that there are places in the text where Shakespeare and Seuss practically overlap.  Not in tragic storyline, of course, but in mastery at using rhyme and meter to make their point.

Last year for Seuss Day we had a grand old time mashing up our beloved poetic heroes over on Twitter with the #SeussSpeare tag, and repeated the effort this year.

Here, for your enjoyment, are the best of the bunch:

  • Did you hide him here, or there?  I hid Polonius under the stairs.  #SeussSpeare
  • "And To Think That I Saw It At Elsinore Castle".  No, wait, that wasn't Seuss, that was Horatio.  #SeussSpeare
  • And cut him out into little stars, which those Sneetches o'er thar shall wear upon thars. #SeussSpeare
  • I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees! Which are marching to Dunsinane quick as they please! #SeussSpeare
  • Stop! You must not Hop On Top of Pop! Or divide his kingdom between yourselves and send him out alone into a raging storm. #SeussSpeare
  • I would not wish any companion in the world but you. And, of course, Thing One and Thing Two. #SeussSpeare
  • Big M, little m, what begins that way? Macbeth Macduff and murder, all in a Scottish Play. #SeussSpeare
  • Today was good, today was fun. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow are other ones.  #SeussSpeare
  • He meant what he said and he said what he meant, faithful Iago's word is one hundred percent. #SeussSpeare
  • I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where Oxlips and the grickle-grass grows. #SeussSpeare
  • Lear's shoes are off, his feet are cold, he has a Fool he likes to hold. #SeussSpeare   (One of my favorites :))
  • "Regan doth not fear mere Lear sneers..."" #SeussSpeare
  • Cordelia is more near dear Lear's sphere.  #SeussSpeare
  • I may be certain there's a Yurtain in my curtain, but I really might embarrass the old Polonius in my arras. #SeussSpeare
  • O is very useful, you use it when you say, obsessed Othello offed his obedient one and only today. #SeussSpeare
  • Who's that, who's there? I said, who's there? Is that Horatio on the stairs? #SeussSpeare
  • Rest now, prince, let angels sing. Fortinbras shall be our king.  #SeussSpeare
  • Cup is up, Gertrude's down!  Claudius heads out of town.  #SeussSpeare
  • I lay there with Julie. We lay there, we two, and I said, "How I wish I had poison to drink." #SeussSpeare  (courtesy @bardfilm)
  • Unbated and envenom'd, too? Tell me, Laertes, what you planned to do? #SeussSpeare
Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

King Jobs

Some people get road rage when the traffic is too heavy, or when somebody cuts you off without a directional, or any of 100 other reasons.  I bet I'm the only guy who gets road rage in this situation:

I'm driving to work, listening to the Steve Jobs biography on audiobook.  I come to this passage:

"I started to listen to music a whole lot, and I started to read more outside of just science and technology - Shakespeare, Plato. I loved King Lear."  His other favorites included Moby-Dick and the poems of Dylan Thomas.  I asked him why he related to King Lear and Captain Ahab, two of the most willful and driven characters in literature, but he didn't respond to the connection I was making, so I let it drop.
You...let it drop?!  I will kill you.  Yeah, in the course of my book research the single most brilliant technologist of the last century who created an empire focused on integrating the humanities rather than ignoring them, just told you he loved Shakespeare and you let it drop. 

Man, way to make me sad.  I would read an entire book of Steve Jobs' thoughts on Shakespeare.

By the way, true story -- the original NeXT computer (by Steve Jobs) came with the complete works of Shakespeare.  How do you not love that?  Sure, at the time it was just one of those "Because we can" opportunities, but have you ever seen it since then?  Why doesn't your phone come with the complete works of Shakespeare built in?