Monday, August 27, 2012

ProfShakespeare 1, Dark Lady 0

So the news of the day is somebody claiming that "Black Luce" mentioned in Henslowe's diaries must have been Shakespeare's "Dark Lady".  The problem with these stories is that people who don't follow Shakespeare will see it in the popular press and think, "Oh, interesting, well then I guess that's an answer to that question."  Meanwhile people with the slightest passing interest in researching Shakespeare will think, "Great, another unproveable theory - get in line."

I think this theory is amusing because I heard it not from that link but from Twitter user "ProfShakespeare", aka Grace Ioppolo, who I hope doesn't mind me citing her research since she did a much better job than I ever would.  She also happens to be Founder and Director of the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation Project, so why not get your information from somebody who deals with the original source material every day?

Professor Ioppolo is hosting a conference (I assume - she calls it "my conference") on the connections between Shakespeare and Henslowe in September:
Who invented Shakespearean theatre?Burbage & Shakespeare
Henslowe & Alleyn:
Who Invented the "Shakespearean Theatre"?
Saturday, 24th November 24th 2012, 10am-5pm
The University of Reading 

Geeklet Amazes Me

Haven't done one of these stories in a while.

Back in January, I told the story of working my kids (who are now 10, 8 and 6) through Julie Taymor's Tempest on DVD.  Basically we'd do 10 minutes at a time, with me muting and pausing as appropriate, to explain what's going on.

Well, we lost the momentum and it's been awhile since I've popped that one back in.  Every now and then the kids would ask about it, but it's one of those things you need to be in the mood for (which normally translates to "Just Daddy and the kids", since my wife's not a strong believer in using the minutes before bedtime as a teaching opportunity).

Well tonight the girls started cheerleading camp and it lasts an hour longer than the boy's karate practice so we had some time to kill and in went The Tempest.  We start with the "Thou liest!" scene, as Ariel breaks up the jolly band of "pirates" Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban.

"Is that the guy who never stops talking?" my geeklet asks, as Stefano enters the scene.

"I suppose so," I say to the unusual question, "He does talk a lot."

Enter Trinculo.  "Is that the guy that doesn't stop talking?" he asks again.

"Well, yeah, I suppose Trinculo talks more than Stefano..."

"But where is the white guy?"


"The white guy, the white guy who never stops talking."

At this point Ariel's spirit pops up behind Trinculo to yell, "Thou liest!" and I realize that in this interpretation, Ariel is entirely white.

"Oh, him?" I ask.  "Is that the white guy you're talking about?"  I don't really think of Ariel as never shutting up, but he's clearly all white.  My geeklet does not seem satisfied.

Cut, a few minutes later, to king Alonso and his followers wandering around the island (and about to stumble across a magical banquet).  "There's the white guy that never stops talking!" my son shouts, pointing at the screen.

At Gonzalo.  With his white hair. The guy who never stops talking.

My 6 year old son, having not seen this Shakespeare movie in over 6 months, remembers Gonzalo - a character arguably so minor that I've seen a production of this play where he was completely excised (and I wasn't happy about it, I like him).

Wait, it gets better.

Cut to Prospera handing over Miranda to Ferdinand (and, luckily, I do not have to explain "virgin knot" to anybody).  My son asks, "Now, I know that she's never seen another boy and that's why she fell in love with him, but has the boy ever seen another girl? Then how come he fell in love with her?" this really happening?  Is my 6 yr old jumping back into a lesson on one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays right where we left off 6 months ago?

These were just two examples.  I was also quizzed on the nature of Ariel's invisibility and whether he was *always* invisible (except to Prospera), or merely chose to be invisible most of the time.
I am well and truly blown away, I have to admit.  Is it possible that my kids are actually paying attention to this stuff?

I love nights like this.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Romeo and Juliet Effect

So on my way to work this morning I'm listening to an audiobook in my car all about motivation, will power and stuff like that - how the brain works kind of stuff.  And in a chapter about how you can't tell your brain "Stop thinking about X" I get to this:

This might explain what psychologists know as the well-known "Romeo and Juliet" effect, where love for another person only becomes stronger when it is forbidden.(*)
Ummm......huh?  I'm trying to decide if that's psychobabble for "We are saying this *about* the characters of Romeo and Juliet", in other words they fell that deeply in love precisely because they could not be together ... or else if this is just a modern acknowledgment of a modern idea, and they've simply slapped a cliche onto it.

What do you think?  Am I reading too much into it, in the hopes of pulling a blog post out of it?  Or do you think that Romeo liked that girl at the party, and when he learned that she was a Capulet, only then did he think "I can't live without her!"

Somehow I don't think the text supports that.  Granted, I think that every 13yr old who thinks she is in love with the gangsta down the street and whose parents say she can't see him anymore?  So she climbs out her bedroom window to go hang out with him?  That, I think, is the Romeo and Juliet effect.  And that's not at all what Shakespeare was talking about.

(*) From memory, of course, so nobody pick on the book for any lapses in grammar - that's my fault.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Shakespeare Drinking Game

Ok, Huffington Post has to know that if they title a story that way, we're gonna link it!

The Contemporary Shakespeare Drinking Game

Since the post is entirely just the rules of the game, I'm not left with much to copy unless I want to steal their content.  Go check out the rules and then tell me which are your favorite, and what rules you'd add to your own house version.   I like "shotgun a beer every time someone mentions a sword, dagger or blade but is holding a gun."

As for adding my own?  Hmmm ... "Drink once, and then bang your head on the nearest desk or table, every time the audience laughs where they're not supposed to."  In a production of Macbeth that I saw, Macduff delivered his "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" line and Macbeth fell to his knees in what I'm guessing was supposed to be him struck down by the reality of the prophecy, but in practice came off more as "Oh I am having *such* a bad day!"  Climax of the play, and the audience laughs through it.

Caliban's Olympics

I know the Olympics have been over for awhile, but Bardfilm started it when he posted Timothy Spall as Churchill as Caliban and asked readers about the use of Churchill (and subsequent World War II implications) and what that does to the speech.  I'm just riding his coattails on this one.

(Side note -- when we asked Shakespeare fans which rendition they thought was better, I heard nothing but Branagh.  When I asked an actor friend, who is not particularly a Shakespeare geek?  He said Spall, unquestionably.  He didn't believe Branagh's character.  And, I happen to agree completely.  When Bardfilm and I were discussing it I said, "Spall looked like he was trying to be Churchill.  Branagh looked like HOLY CRAP I'M RECITING SHAKESPEARE AT THE OLYMPICS!!" And I was perfectly fine with that. :) )

Anyway, what I want to talk about is how the exact same speech was used to bookend the ceremonies, both as welcome and farewell.  As a reminder, here's the text:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.Sometimes a thousand twangling instrumentsWill hum about mine ears, and sometime voicesThat, if I then had waked after long sleep,Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,The clouds methought would open and show richesReady to drop upon me that, when I waked,I cried to dream again.
When the show started and I knew that there was a Tempest quote coming (thanks to some spoilers ;)) I just hoped it wouldn't be the same old "We are such stuff", and I was not disappointed.  In fact, the speech does a good job of setting the tone, giving this whole sort of "You're about to see wonderful magical things that you have never seen before....don't be afraid, just enjoy..." vibe.  The emphasis in the welcome seems heavily on the "isle is full of noises" bit.  That work on multiple levels, from "Something magical is happening here" right down to the more literal "Look, our country is going to be very busy and noisy for the next couple of weeks, so just roll with it, it's all good, and it's just temporary."

As a farewell, you now pay attention to the second half -- it was temporary, it was a dream, and like any dream you have to wake up, and then it's over.  And when it's over what do you do?  You wish you could dream it again.    In this case is it sadness over the end of the London Olympics, or setting the stage for the next one?  In any other case, "I cried to dream again" is a desire for it not to end, to have the experience continue on indefinitely.  But with the Olympics we know something special -- it comes around again.

The more I think about it, the more I like it.  I didn't even see the closing ceremony (except for video of Spall's speech, courtesy Bardfilm), so I have no real commentary on the Shakespeare headlines (yet).  But looking strictly at Caliban's speech, it works just like a big dream sequence, opening up the door to wonders of what's about to happen, and then closing it with the promise that those doors will open again.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One Word : Racism

Bardfilm and I were discussing this the other day, and I saw it pop up in a different discussion so I figured we could talk about it here.

Conversation #1 --  Aufidius' final insult to Coriolanus is to call him "boy", and Coriolanus hurls it back at him ten-fold:

Boy! false hound!
If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there,
That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli:
Alone I did it. Boy!
We were discussing this line, and Bardfilm brought up the idea about how the line would change if the lead were portrayed by a black actor. Same line, same in-play context, just change the skin color of the guy saying it.

Wait!  Hold that thought.

Conversation #2 -- Over on the reddit forum on Shakespeare, we were discussing the moderation of a comment where somebody used the dreaded n-word (although the less offensive -a variation :)).  In discussion, a fellow moderator pointed out this bit in Much Ado About Nothing:

Good morrow, prince; good morrow, Claudio:
We here attend you. Are you yet determined
To-day to marry with my brother's daughter?
I'll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope.
Or to put it more bluntly, "I won't say anything even if she's black."  This person pointed out that this line should pretty much just be excised from the text ("better excised than excused", to turn a phrase).

So the can with the big WORMS label on it is locked and loaded in the opener and I'm ready to push down on the little button.  What's your thoughts on the issue of racism in our beloved works?  Bardfilm wants to explore it, possibly by adding some racism overtones where none were originally intended, as a way of showcasing just how powerful a single word like "boy" would have been.  On the other hand you've got a line like Claudio's that's pretty racist no matter how you look at it.  Should we just decide it's no longer funny and remove it?

For bonus points, reconcile your position with Othello.  The opening scene(s) are about as racist as you can get, but would we tone it down or play it up?  Are you doing the play justice if you only make it a play about racism?   (The same argument applies to anti-Semitism in Merchant, I suppose.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Messing With The Ending

Coriolanus bringing out the boy to end the play last night is certainly not the first example of a director taking some license with the ending.  Does Romeo die knowing that Juliet is alive?  Baz Luhrman thinks so.  And then there's that old example that I always forget to attribute properly where Fortinbras, "Go, bid the soldiers shoot" is actually a command to execute Horatio, the last survivor.  And speaking of Coriolanus, plenty of people were upset at just how differently the movie ended compared to the play.    (Related, I actually saw a neat Hamlet once where the ghost of Polonius came to walk the ghost of Ophelia offstage.  Great way to get the actress' dead body offstage.  But we're talking about endings here, and not middles.)

So here's my question - what productions have you seen (stage or screen) where the director kept to the script, but decided to throw in a twist you weren't expecting?  Of course, "kept to the script" is subject to interpretation since the whole play is already edited to the director's vision.  In general, though, I'm talking about visual and action that happens in between the text.  Whether Romeo knows is based entirely on whether Juliet opens her eyes, and he sees it.  Stuff like that.

Commonwealth Shakespeare 2012 Presents Coriolanus : Part 2

Ok, now that you've heard the story of how I got there, let's talk about the show.  It should be noted that other than my introduction to the play via the recent Ralph Fiennes movie, I don't have much detailed knowledge of the little things.

Taken to an extreme, it's hard to explain Coriolanus to someone without sounding like a punchline -- "This big bad war hero declares war on Rome and promises to burn it to the ground, until his mother comes and lays the guilt trip on him and makes him promise to play nice."  Of course the interesting bits are in how we get there, and in why this can happen like it does.  The Fiennes' movie (with Vanessa Redgrave as the mom) had some pretty deep and dark emotional baggage.  This one felt like it was playing more for the comedy angle.

The scenery is plain, wooden, with a burnt-out feeling to it.  At first I think it conjures up a little too much of a pastoral / foresty vibe rather than the industrial sort of thing I was expecting, but not to the point of distraction.  As is typical with all of the staging of their productions, they've got stairs to a landing stage left, and a higher balcony stage right.  There's a main entrance through doors center stage, but that's typically used for special stage directions - most actors entrances and exits come from the audience.

One of the downsides to seeing the same group perform a different play every year is that their characters begin to blend.  No more is this more true than with their comedian Fred Sullivan, who was so definitive as Nick Bottom that I've struggled to hear him portray anything differently since.  He was Brabantio, Parolles, and now Menenius.  I did not yet have an appreciation for how funny Menenius could be!  Fred's got what I can best describe as a classic Abbott and Costello sense of timing, equally able to deliver the straight line, the zinger, or to burst into over the top ranting and raving.  Every year it's a treat to watch (and hear) him.

Likewise, Volumnia is portrayed this year by the same woman who did The Countess last year in All's Well That Ends Well.  I apologize for not having her name handy, I do not have a program with it (I know Fred's name from years of paying attention to his characters).  I wasn't sure what to do with Volumnia who is first seen playing guns with Coriolanus' son, fingers cocked and pointed and shouting "eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh" at the boy as he play stumbles to his death down the stairs.   She is a joyful lady at this point, who doesn't appear to have a care in the world.  Her son, her wonderful son!  A war hero!  She can't wait for him to come home, with his shield or on it (no, she doesn't say that, but that's the idea).  Her tone doesn't change in the slightest when she talks about the pride she would have in her son if he died, something that Coriolanus' wife never quite seems to comprehend.  This was not what I expected.  But, then again, this gave her a great deal of room to change as the play progresses, which I think worked well.

Coriolanus is little more than a boy who I might have seen play Lysander or perhaps Bertram.  When you first see him there's no "Holy cow he looks like someone you don't want to mess with," it's more like "Ok, they all look like they're playing army guys and he's the one playing a little harder and a little better than everybody else."

And that really becomes the theme of it.  All of Coriolanus' rants against not wanting to walk among the people really do come off whiny.  When he does finally walk among them he is, to put it quite frankly, a real dick about it.  At "A match, sir. There's in all two worthy voices
begged. I have your alms: adieu," he might as well have stuck in a sarcastic, "Oh, yippy for me, more voices! Yay!"

His tone is not reserved for just the people, either.  He talks to his mother that way.  At "Chide me no more....look, I am going" he begins a slow motion walk across the stage.

But then ... I'm not sure I completely understand what they were going with in the end, which is why with live theatre I always wish that I had opportunity to watch it a few times.  Coriolanus quite frankly seems scared to be in the camp of Aufidius.  He keeps repeating to them "See?  See what I did?  See how I turn away the messengers?  That's good, right? You trust me, right?  Menenius over here, I loved him like a father, but I turned him away as well, you saw that Aufidius, didn't you? Your people saw me do that?"  I mean, the lines are what they are, and I'm sure that he wasn't adding any (the above are my paraphrases of course), but I thought the idea was that Coriolanus had this aura about him that caused soldiers to flock to him, and here he is constantly needing to ask "You trust me, right? I proved to you that you can trust me?"

The penultimate scene is all about Volumnia, of course, and she knocks it out of the park.  It is a clear case of motherly manipulation over her son - he turns his back on her, tries to hide from her, and then finally flings himself at her feet in tears.  She, of course, comes home in triumph, to a parade with rose petals strewn in her path and the people all shouting her name as the saviour of Rome.

As for Coriolanus' ending, I still love that whole line about "I fluttered your Volskis at Corioli.  Alone. I did it.  Boy."  Even though I was not impressed with Coriolanus in any sort of "one man army / robotic war machine" sort of way as the Fiennes did it, this one still managed to make it clear that "I know and you know that I can destroy you, you've seen me do it, so you don't get to call me boy without paying for it."  Whether that's true or not, of course, we learn very quickly.

On a somewhat related note (if I point back to my best lines from Coriolanus post), I did not enjoy the whole "common cry of curs" scene.  It was as if somebody said "Ok, this line right here?  Center of the play,  everything revolves around this moment.  So when it comes, make sure it explodes."  It does, but only to the point where the rest of the crowd on stage seems to be saying "WTF, dude, why are you shouting?"  After delivering the big line so big that the people watching Dark Knight in the nearby movie theatre would have heard it, the followup "I banish you!" was far more pitiful.  Not dripping with disdain like he can't wait to get out of this place, but more with a resolute "I have to do this, I have choice" resignation.  Wasn't bad, necessarily, I just didn't love it.

One last thing.  End of play, Coriolanus' body has been carried off.  Enter his son, who wordlessly comes over, picks up what I think is his father's weapon (I couldn't see well), and then either holds it over his head, or salutes or something.  I really wish I could tell what he'd done, maybe somebody who saw the production can tell me.  But, regardless.....what?  Not really sure what that was all about.  We supposed to treat this as a circle of life / circle of violence message?  Wouldn't that mean that Coriolanus' wife now assumes the role of Volumnia, even though we've had an entire play to see how different their characters are?  Seemed an interesting choice.  A nice visual to end on, I'm just not completely sure why.

Commonwealth Shakespeare 2012 Presents Coriolanus : Part 1

The last time I missed a Commonwealth Shakespeare production on Boston Common was 2005 - and I'm still not happy about it.  (2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011).

So this year when we accidentally scheduled Coriolanus for the last weekend and the weather started getting rough, I feared the worst.  I'd told my wife, "It's ok ... 2005 was *Hamlet*.  This year it's only Coriolanus.  I'll understand if we miss it."

Yeah, not really.  As always we had plans with another couple.  Our typical Shakespeare date is to get takeout from the local Chinese place, bring some wine, have a picnic.  But it was clear from  the early morning that the weather was not going to be nice to us, so at 10am my wife's on the phone to me (I'm at work) trying to discuss reservations at a restaurant and when we should "call it" and just agree that there's no Shakespeare.  My actual quote to her in that conversation was the following:  "Listen.  My entire evening tonight can be summed up as Shakespeare....or not.  If I don't get my Shakespeare it doesn't really matter to me at all what else we do.  3 out of the 4 people going out tonight are going to have an opinion on where and what we eat, so why would you ask the fourth guy to make the reservations?" :)

Once the show was cancelled I felt a little better, and off we went to dinner.

But I didn't start this post to tell you about my dinner (Tuscan Kitchen in Salem, NH.  Not bad!  A little pricey for the atmosphere, but I'd go back.)  Unlike 2005, I did get the opportunity to head back into town to see the followup show - in this case, Sunday at 7pm.  Since babysitters were not as forthcoming on a Sunday night, my wife stayed home and I went in alone.

Very disappointed at first, as traffic got me there at about 6:45 - way too late to get a good seat.  I ended up far house right, with a someone obstructed view (which I did not realize until the action began and much of it took place on a balcony high stage left).  Worse, I'd left my sunglasses in the car and the sun was directly behind the stage, meaning that at least to start, I saw nothing.

So the show opens, and director Steven Maler introduces local radio host Kennedy.  Not really sure why, as she pretty much did nothing but introduce herself.  "They say Shakespeare invented the knock knock joke," she tells the audience, to groans.  "Yes, I'm going there.  I've got a joke for you.  Ready? Knock knock."

"Who's there?" asked the audience half heartedly.

"Wherefore means," said Kennedy.

"Wherefore means who?" asked the audience.

"No, wherefore means why, how many times do we have to go over this?" she completed.

The audience didn't love it.  The director said that he loved it.

I loved it.  Not because it was a good joke of course, but because I wrote it.  Someone must have googled "Shakespeare knock knock jokes", and the list that Bardfilm and I put together pretty much owns that first page of results.  I don't think that was the greatest joke in the list for them to have picked, but I'll take it!  Of course, this major event in my life come on a night when I have no family and friends around me to bounce my excitement off of, so I turn to the random stranger next to me and say, "That's my joke!  I wrote that joke!"  She looks at me like she hopes I'm not going to talk to her anymore.

With that, the show's about to begin.  I'll make my actual review a second post so this one doesn't get too too long.  The sun set relatively quickly so I could actually see the stage.  I tweeted a picture, to give you an idea of where I was and what was going on with that obstructing branch.

To be continued!

Monday, August 06, 2012

I'm Back, And I Brought Maple Candy!

[ Maple candy available at my desk. ]

Did you miss me?  I'm back from my New England road trip vacation, which for the curious included stops in (the commas are about the crucify me here) Augusta, Maine, Chesterville, Maine, White River Junction, VT and Williston, VT, with stops along the way at Clark's Trading Post, Polar Caves, Lost River, The Vermont Teddy Bear Factory and Ben & Jerry's, with a special visit to Burlington, VT which I like to think of as time travel back to 1969.  Had to love the hippie dude on the neon decorated bicycle with the sign that read "Flower Power" on one side and "Police are Scumbags" on the other.

I found something for you!  One of the great things about wandering around the little towns of New England is always stopping to stick my head in used bookstores and ask if they have a Shakespeare section.  My find?  The out of print 1982 "Shakespeare Games" by Robert Fenster.  This is exactly what it says, and right up our alley - a book of all kinds of different games about Shakespeare and his source material.

If the book wasn't long out of print I'd have much more worries about occasionally printing a game, but given that it's been 30 years, it's the only title by this author, and the used Amazon price on it is a penny (come on, I paid four bucks!), I think we're safe to enjoy it.

Should we play a quick one?  I'm just back at the office so I don't have a lot of time right now to shepherd over a longer one.  Let's see.....(flip, flip, flip)

Game 15, A Caldron Boiling

Name the correct Portion of the Potion.

e.g.   _____ of newt.   (Answer: eye)

Ready?  No fair digging up the script, you have to test your memory of the famous spell.

 A.  ______ of newt
 B. ______ of hemlock
 C. ______ of salt-sea shark
 D. ______ of frog
 E. ______ of dragon
 F. ______ of goat
 G. ______ of Turk
 H. ______ of blaspheming Jew
 I. ______ of birth-strangled babe
 J. ______ of wolf
 K. ______ of dog
 L. ______ of yew
 M. ______ of bat
 N.______ of a fenny snake

Ok, enjoy.  I've got a week's worth of links and posts to catch up on so hopefully I can get some more stuff up soon.  I hope Bardfilm doesn't think I missed his whole "Yes Shakespeare Said That" game on Twitter while I was gone, I'll get him for that one.  I'm working on a post detailing the parallels between Merry Wives of Windsor and Manos, The Hands of Fate.