Tuesday, December 1, 2015

On Rapping Shakespeare: A Response to Mark Rylance

I recently read an interview with the talented Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, who is fast becoming a big TV and movie star due to his brilliant portrayals of Thomas Cromwell in the BBC miniseries Wolf Hall and the Russian spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. In the pages of The Guardian, Rylance complained that most Shakespearean actors impart an inappropriately slow, portentous, and reverent delivery to Shakespeare's lines, which should instead be spoken as rapidly as rap. Rylance also compared Shakespeare's speeches to Rolling Stones lyrics, asserting, "To take a song like Honky Tonk Woman and study it for its literature" does "a disservice to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who would like it to be revered as a great rock'n'roll song." He added that we should likewise "revere [Shakespeare] in the way he would want to be revered -- as a playwright."*

Now, an actor as good as Rylance deserves to be listened to. He knows his craft. But if you sense something fishy about his argument, it's because it's fishy. My

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November . . .

 October 31st through November 5th is a spooky almost-week, encompassing Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day (or the Day of the Dead), and Guy Fawkes Day, which is November 5th. Since non-English people may not know about Guy Fawkes Day (also known in England as Bonfire Night), let me explain that it was the day scheduled by twelve disaffected Catholic gentlemen for the blowing up of the House of Lords at oh, say about 9 a.m., back in 1605. They had lots of gunpowder, and came close to doing it, but the plan fizzled.

What was their motive? And how did they fail? More to the point, how did they come so close to succeeding? And most importantly -- was Shakespeare secretly in league with them?

You'll get some unusual answers to those questions in my forthcoming novel, Gunpowder Percy. Will Shakespeare is the least of its cast of characters, which includes Guido Fawkes (the guy himself, pictured above left), the playwright Ben Jonson, the iron-willed and feisty gentlewomen Anne and Eliza Vaux, mad

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Cumberbitches and Benedictines Flock to the Cinema for HAMLET

Why not the deerstalker cap? That was my thought when Cumberbatch, in his first "Hamlet pretends to be mad" scene, marched across the on-screen stage in a tin soldier costume that included a towering drum major's hat. That hat was great, but, given that Hamlet is the ultimate detective, probing the secret of his father's murder, not getting Benedict to sport the Holmes headgear featured so amusingly in the brilliantly updated TV series Sherlock was a wasted opportunity. I decided director Lyndsey Turner must have begged Cumberbatch to do it and Cumberbatch simply refused. If so, I understand.

But  those who didn't see the British National Theatre's live-streamed* Hamlet will want to know not what hat the Benedict wore, but whether he was any good. Did he embarrass himself? Should some stars just stay away from Shakespeare?

Well, yes, some stars should just stay away from Shakespeare (perhaps the subject of another post). But Benedict Cumberbatch is not one of those. In fact, his was one of the two most brilliant portrayals of Hamlet I've seen.

That the second in that group was David Tennant's, in a 2012 production, might indicate my preference for newer approaches to the role, but it doesn't mean I'm not

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Will's Will

Lately I've been thinking about investments, and because these turned out pretty well for William Shakespeare, I've been wondering, WWWD -- What Would William Do in today's markets? Of course, I have no idea, though I'd like to think he would sign up for one of those expensive weekend seminars that use his plays to instruct people in making fiscally savvy business decisions (see my post on this, "Shakespeare Profiteers Make Out Like Bandits!," below). I also hope he'd use a chunk of his earnings to contribute heavily to the arts, and to various charities like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, but alas, all that we know of him suggests he kept as much of his money as he could for himself, though we do know he once loaned someone ten pounds, because he was careful to make a record of it.

Yes. As Katherine Duncan-Jones pointed out in her biographical work Ungentle Shakespeare, Shakespeare was a tightwad. In his Stratford barn, he hoarded grain to capitalize on times of bad harvest, and no evidence suggests that he was the type to stand his fellow players a round of drinks. There is of course no evidence to

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Shakespeare on Aging

One of the many insulting things about Facebook and Google is their personalized highlighting of geezer-oriented products and articles to folks whom their spy system has deduced are over 50. This would include me and my friends from high school and college. Most of my friends are better than I am at ignoring "EIGHTY-YEAR-OLD GRANDMA LOOKS 45!" and "Bronson Health Center. Your Choice for Congestive Heart Disease." I myself get annoyed, and tend to check the little box requesting no further ads from these sources. On the proffered list of reasons why one is offended by the ad, I always check "It's against my religion."

What does this have to do with Shakespeare?

Well, as followers of this blog know by now, all roads lead to and from Shakespeare. Will had a lot to say about everything, including aging. Some might think he had little right to comment on that topic, since he died when a mere babe of 52. "That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang" -- please! I know 50 was not the new 40 in 1616, but by most

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Famous Shakespeare Puzzles


     Well, "famous" is a relative term. Let's just say "famous among Shakespeare fanatics." What follows is a list of references to cruxes which have puzzled Shakespeare scholars, readers, and directors over the centuries. A crux is a disputed text: a passage of which there are different authentic versions, or which doesn't make sense and has prompted "corrections" as later editors have tried to arrive at the lines' intended meaning. I'm also using the word "crux" loosely enough to include other unexplained aspects of a play's dialogue. So, if that's nerdy enough for you, see if you can guess to which Shakespeare "problems" the following phrases refer. Answers at the bottom. Don't peek. If I knew how to type them upside down I would.

1.  O, o, o, o.
2. cousin Ferdinand
3. How did Brutus know she was dead?
4. Table of green fields
5. What happened to Sly?
6. Hamlet, did you mean "not not to stir without great argument"?
7. Antonio has a son?
8. Just a pretty long night in the woods
9.The Third Murderer
10.  Cassio's wife

ANSWERS

come just after this festive set of images









Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Shakespeare and the Empty Nest

Shakespeare had something to say about every subject, though what he had to say was mediated by the voices of characters who were sometimes big liars. However, so insightful and articulate is even the worst Shakespearean character that striking thoughts about almost any subject can be found by sifting through Shakespeare's plays. Even thoughts about the dreaded empty nest.

Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries might have been puzzled by modern parents' sadness and trepidation when kids fly the coop heading for college, the Alaskan wilderness, or a six-person roach-infested-apartment share

Monday, June 1, 2015

Nostalgia (and Shakespeare)


To get older, which means to live, is to be increasingly beset by nostalgia. It's easier for kids, whose lives are constantly pushing them forward into new experiences -- from middle- to high-school classes and social life, from challenge to public challenge in the areas of sports, or art, or intellectual endeavor. These changes distract them from the things they're leaving behind. They also really don't have that much behind them yet. This is why it seems odd to my Shakespeare students that Prospero asks his fifteen-year-old daughter to look into the "dark backward and abysm of time" to recall her toddler-hood. "That was only twelve years ago!," they say. I shrug. "Well, it's all the time she's ever known. It probably seems like an abysm to her."

Part of the reason I can see Miranda's twelve years as an abysm (I believe Shakespeare invented that word) is that I myself have been nostalgic since I was old enough to have a memory. When I was three I missed being two. I never wanted to get one minute older than I was, not at ten, not at eight, not at seven. I always knew that being a kid was better than anything to follow. It was a no-brainer. I remember Miss Bender, my third-grade teacher in Bronxville, New York, singing us the song about childhood from Babes in Toyland: "For once you pass those golden gates, you can never return again!" I think the whole class started to cry,

Friday, May 1, 2015

Shakespeare Read No Crap and So Should You

Let's pause at the outset to consider the grammar of my title. Admire, admire! Grammar's not everything, but it's the start of everything. Writing well begins with knowing how to write grammatically. Don't break the rules of grammar because you have no choice. Break them for some other reason (if you must).

Now you're expecting me to say Shakespeare wrote grammatically. The truth is, I don't know whether he did or not. The rules seem to have been a little different then, back in fifteen-ninety-something. There were fewer of them (rules). Shakespeare didn't even spell his own name the same way every time. He wrote, "Who does the wolf love?" because "whom" hadn't been invented yet, luckily for the Elizabethans. As for subject-verb agreement, forget about it. "These high wild hills and rough uneven ways / Draws out our miles." What's that, the more "s"s, the better? "Their encounters . . . hath been royally attorneyed." Hmm. Let's forget about "attorney" as a verb. It's "encounters hath" I find unsettling. I give it a big "nay," and I blame it on the printer. Then there's

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Shakespeare's Birthday Salute to Will, Cervantes, and Sancho Panza

It's Shakespeare's birthday again, and to celebrate, my students are taking a test on The Tempest. Lest they be less than enthused, when they finish it I will present them with "Shakespeare cookies," decorated with the faces of characters in the plays we have read this semester.

Here is Petruchio:


 And shrew Kate:

And The Tempest's Ariel.


I went with a basic frog-Caliban in forest green.





Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bold Plantagenet Director To Present Hamlet as a Renaissance Prince



 Kalamazoo Community Playhouse director Jerry Eaton is all about pushing the envelope. This man of the theater -- whom DNA evidence has shown to be a twenty-sixth cousin to Richard Plantagenet, or King Richard III  -- was the driving force behind his company’s 2010 post-nuclear, dystopian Annie, 2012’s all-female La Cage Aux Folles, and the controversial 2013 Arcadia Elementary School production of Full Metal Jacket. This time, however, he’s got Shakespeare companies from Chicago to New York sitting up and taking notice. 

He''s chosen to set Hamlet in late-sixteenth-century Denmark, and to cast a 30-year-old man in the title role.

“It took a while to convince the cast,” Eaton confesses. “When I sprang it on them at the first read-through, they were incredulous. Several stormed out. Our key actress had of course assumed she

Sunday, March 1, 2015

First Amendment Shakespeare


I've taught at four universities – two private, two public – over a period of almost thirty years, and during this time I've encountered some "liberal" humanities colleagues who are no more interested in freedom of speech than they are in the nocturnal habits of the African land snail. In fact, on a few occasions I’ve seen instructors take active steps, with an air of righteousness, to shut down, in their classrooms or at panel discussions, the expression of views unwelcome to them. Such teachers and scholars – with whose social and political opinions I often agree – can be vocal when describing how crucial the humanities are to the very existence of critical thinking and to the open sharing of ideas. Yet such behavior reveals that what they are truly committed to is

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Shakespeare Invented Your Name!

Hosts of BBC television programs about Shakespeare love to list words Shakespeare supposedly made up ("assassinate," "accommodation," "lonely," etc.). Sometimes these lists only show us that someone has not consulted his Oxford English Dictionary, because many of the "new" coinages actually appeared before Shakespeare used them. Likewise, many proverbs for which Shakespeare gets credit have the distinct ring of general use, like "He who is giddy thinks the world turns 'round," which is said by a snide bride in The Taming of the Shrew.  Probably the only reason we know this saying, or that some of us do, is that Shakespeare stuck it into a soon-to-be-famous scene, but it sure sounds like it was a common proverb. And it's a pretty good one, except for the fact that the world actually does turn 'round, so he who is giddy would be right, at least in this instance -- though most Elizabethans

Thursday, January 1, 2015

On Being Written About and Through

When I was in graduate school studying the English and American novel, I had a fantasy. I imagined being a novelist myself. I idolized Joyce, Dickens, Beckett, Melville, Hawthorne, and short-story writers like Poe and Flannery O'Connor. My professors, who gave access to these authors' mysteries, seemed like priests. (This was at Notre Dame, by the way.) Because of this, nothing was more ego-flattering to me than to imagine a book of mine as the subject of scholarly scrutiny, a thing deemed worthy of mention in an academic journal or book, or of critical discussion in a seminar.

And now, it has happened! Yet not, overall, in a way that fulfills my grad student dreams.

Here's the story. I was accidentally Googling my name on the Internet, when I came across two references to  my fiction. The first concerned a novel I'd written