Monday, December 1, 2014

A Rambling Discourse on Shakespeare and the Tower of London

Last month was red poppy season, with countries on both sides of the Atlantic "celebrating" the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I. The most striking commemorative image was the monument to the slain at the Tower of London, where hundreds of thousands of ceramic flowers were placed to honor the British soldiers who died in the poppied fields of Flanders and on other WWI battlegrounds.

The poppies spilling from the dark Tower like a tide of blood brought to mind the number of bloody deaths that took place there during the Renaissance. Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Jane Howard, Jane Grey, Robert Devereux, and Walter Raleigh took their axe strokes there, as did quite a few other hapless

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Creepy Poe and Creepy Shakespeare

This is a creepy time of year, what with Halloween and the Day of the Dead and Guy Fawkes Day, and even All Saints Day, which can seem kind of creepy to a Protestant. So I've decided to write a post about the creepiest American author, Edgar Allan Poe, and his connection to some of the creepier plays of Shakespeare.

This thought didn't descend on me out of thin air (which, by the way, is a Shakespeare quotation. "Into thin air" is, I mean). Nay. The idea came to me as I was rereading Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" in my middle-schooler's horrible

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Best Names for Bands, Courtesy of the Bard

Each year I hold a competition for the students in my Shakespeare seminar. I give a fabulous prize (usually a pack of Hamlet chewing gum; yes, there is such a thing, and worse things) to whoever can come up with the best essay-title that includes a quotation from Shakespeare. The essay itself can be F-quality. I just care about the title. This contest once inspired a paper about Macbeth, whose wife complains that he's "too full of the milk of human kindness," called "Got Milk of Human Kindness?" (Picture an ad showing medieval King Macbeth with a milk-stache.) Then there was my all-time favorite entry, an essay about As You Like It entitled, "When a Boy Playing a Girl Dressed Like a Boy Pretends To Be a Girl, with a Hey Nonny Hey Nonny Nonny Nonny No."
     Well. Reflecting on the success of this excellent competition gives me another notion. If essays can take their titles from Shakespeare, why can't bands? Why don't bands? Shakespeare's plays -- not to mention his sonnets -- offer numerous

Monday, September 1, 2014

How Not To Write Historical Fiction, Revisited

 So much historical fiction has been written since I last wrote about how not to write historical fiction that it's time to write more on the subject. This time I'll broaden my comments to include screenplays that should never have been written. Or, in any case, one such screenplay, namely, John Ridley's Twelve Years a Slave. For though Solomon Northup's nineteenth-century narrative of the same name was not a work of fiction, Ridley and director Steve McQueen went a long way toward turning it into one -- but not in a good way.

Now, make no mistake. As for Chewetel Ejiofor, featured in the photo above and on the left -- well, I would watch Chewetel Ejiofor reprogram his I-phone. That isn't to

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Trigger Warnings for a Tragic Syllabus

USA Today 4/6/12:  This branch of the University of California's student government unanimously passed a resolution in support of trigger warnings on syllabi earlier this year. Although the resolution still doesn't require [the warnings] to be placed on syllabi, [the resolution] shows that the student body supports professors using these warnings on material that could be upsetting."  -- USA Today, April 6, 2014

Well, okay. Here's my revised syllabus for my fall, 2014, section of "Tragic Drama," now retitled:

The following warnings are in place for students who have not played a video game, seen the evening news or an action movie, or read a work of fiction at any point before this, their freshman year of college.
 Week 1. Euripides, Medea. Students are warned that the text and clips of televised

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Grief, Madness, Repetition

"Horror! Horror! Horror!"  
            "Words, words, words."
    "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!"                                 

Ever wonder what's going on when characters in Shakespeare simply repeat themselves? It is after all surprising when the greatest writer in the English language gets respect for lines like this:

          "O do de do de do de. . . . O do de de."

          "O, o, o, o!"

           "O horrible, o horrible, most horrible!"

To us such constructions seem wordy, and sometimes incomprehensible. I know you're in dire straits, Tom O'Bedlam, but would not one "Do de do" have served the purpose? And my English teachers always told me, correctly, I think, that intensifiers paradoxically weakened the force of assertions, to the point that I now spend my

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Edward Gero, Stacy Keach, and Rolling Thunder in DC

Friday afternoon at rush hour on Memorial Day weekend I thought it would be smart to head for the Beltway alongside 70,000 bikers bound for the annual Rolling Thunder event in Washington, D.C. It was a beautiful day, and I had time to enjoy it during the minutes I spent sitting semi-stationary on I-70 with my engine turned off, listening to the low rumblings of motorcyclists weaving through the parked cars and zipping by on the shoulder. At last I got to Arlington, where I stayed with a friend, and the next morning spent only fifteen minutes immobile in traffic on Memorial Bridge on my way to Washington and the Shakespeare Theatre. (A note to all U.S.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What Drugs Did Shakespeare Do?

Here's a Mayday Shakespeare question. Was Shakespeare on drugs? And here's a response. Which time? You mean when he he sent a boy actor on stage to write Ovidian verses in the stage-dust, with a stick clutched between wrists bound and bloodied to look like he had no hands? Or when he gave Desdemona a few more lines to say after she'd been strangled to death? Or when he authored the worst lines in the canon, namely Laertes' after he hears of Ophelia's drowning: "Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, and therefore I forbid my tears"? Certainly these textual instances constitute internal evidence of a mind gone haywire. But are they enough to convict the Bard of drug abuse?

Did Shakespeare over-indulge? Some have speculated that his death at a mere 52 suggests he did too much of something. But there were plenty of ways to die young in 1616, and, alas, though for centuries readers have attempted to extract

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It's Shakespeare's Birthday!

It's Shakespeare's Birthday! Yay! Will is 450 and still going strong. I like to imagine Shakespeare transported from his time to our own, suddenly dropped down one evening onto a busy street in London or New York or -- why not? -- Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo. Amid the whizzing cars, beneath the blinking stars and plane lights in the sky, by the tall buildings and the strangely clad peoples of all hues, he stands astonished for a moment. But just for a moment. Then, like Malcolm McDowell as the time-traveling H. G. Wells in Time After Time, he quickly pulls a tablet (paper, not a drug) from his pocket, and starts taking notes. "My tables! Meet it is I set it down." He walks a block, glancing and scribbling all the while, then enters a building that, for some reason, bears his name on a signboard. If he's in

Monday, April 7, 2014

More on Writing Historical Fiction

I've been invited by Christine Sneed (, author and friend, to participate in a blog-relay of sorts, by which writers answer a slate of questions about their writing and then pass them on to other blogging writers. So here goes. The questions come with the relay, and I shall answer them to the best of my ability.

What are you working on? My diplomatic manner (still in the formative stages), my empathy and listening skills, my resistance to worry, my students' Othello exams, and, oh, yeah, some stories! At the moment I'm engaged in perhaps the third rewrite of a book I call Gunpowder Percy. It tells the tale of the twelve men and several women who conspired to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Like most of my novels, it involves real historical characters and events with a bunch of made-up stuff thrown in -- ok, I mean artfully added -- to shape a story. This one centers on Thomas Percy, one of the leaders of the plot, who's driven slightly cuckoo by his obsessive attendance of Shakespeare's history plays. Any more would be a spoiler.

How does your work differ from others of its genre? It's much better. Ha! Actually:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bones of Macbeth Uncovered at Scottish Supermarket

Incredibly, forensic and DNA evidence has revealed that bones long preserved in the deep freeze of an Edinburgh Tesco in Queen's Road are the remains of the eleventh-century Scottish king Macbeth.

The investigation of the store's kitchens was initiated by Judith Paddock, Jane Pywacket, and Harpier Malkin, founding members of the "Friends of Macbeth," a group that has long maintained that Shakespeare's play Macbeth maligned a king who was neither tyrant nor murderer, but noble Scottish ruler.

"Shakespeare was always looking for villains for his plays,
and rewriting history," Paddock says. "And in 1605 he worked
for King James I, wh'od been the victim of several assassination
attempts, and was a generally unpopular geezer. James wanted
a play to caution his subjects against all thoughts of rebellion
or regicide. Shakespeare the King's Man knew what side his
bread was buttered on, so he came up with Macbeth, a play in

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The World Must Be Peopled

I was going to title this post "Shakespeare's Cuckolds," but that would have been misleading, since Shakespeare didn't create many actual cuckolds. (By the way, my students don't usually know what "cuckold" means, but when they find out, they become very interested.) What do I mean by saying, "Shakespeare didn't create many actual cuckolds"? This. For every bona fide Shakespeare character whose wife is truly sleeping with another man, there exist five who only think their women are cheating. Have I done the actual math? Hell, no. But I know I'm right in spirit. The fact is, Shakespeare is way more interested in masculine jealousy than in feminine sexual treachery. To be sure, his plays (not to mention his sonnets, about which, read the whole story in Paint!) do contain a few loose or, to

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Great Shakespeare Adaptations

What are the best adaptations of Shakespeare to fiction, film, poem, opera, or what you will? If you're reading this post, you'll have to settle for my largely arbitrary and probably temporary favorites. The usual thing in these lists is to pick the ten best. But my list is better, because I've chosen eleven. That's right, this goes to eleven. Look, read, watch, listen, and tell me what you think.

Best Greenish Painting Based on a Shakespeare Play: John Everett Millais' Ophelia, painted in 1852.

Justly famous, and often pictured in editions of the play, Millais' painting translates Gertrude's suspiciously detailed description of Ophelia's suicidal plunge and drift into an image as peaceful as the queen's speech. Ophelia captures Ophelia's haplessness and her helplessness, as well as Gertrude's dreamy beautification of the last moments before she drowns. Millais realized in a visual medium the queen's curious suggestion that self-slaughter can be pretty. The painting's hanging in the Tate.

In case you're sick of Hamlet, here's more Hamlet.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Scrooge Is Falstaff

It’s January 1st, and still Christmas if you celebrate the holiday from December 25th to January 6th, like Shakespeare, instead of from Halloween through December 24th, like Wal-Mart. So I’ve got a Christmas question. Of what Shakespeare character was Charles Dickens thinking when he created Scrooge for A Christmas Carol?

The answer is: Falstaff.

What!?, you say. Falstaff? Jolly, festive Falstaff, the decadent, witty, frolicsome knight of Shakespeare's history plays? Falstaff as the miserly Scrooge? Impossible! (you say). Does Falstaff not have more in common with Scrooge’s kindly old employer Fezziwig, who spends his money on a Christmas party for his employees, and makes merry?

No. He does not.

Indeed, Falstaff is fat and festive, but he’s also a sinner and a skinflint, and the last person in any of Shakespeare’s plays who'd pay out of his own pocket to throw a Christmas party for his employees. He's worse than Scrooge, because he would never buy a friend a turkey. The redeemed Scrooge at least does that. Falstaff wouldn't even know what a turkey was, staggering around in London in 1403, leeching cash. Throughout his three-play career (the two Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor; four plays, if we count his reported death scene in Henry V), Falstaff's main occupation is to steal others’ money to pad his own purse. In fact, in Merry Wives, his “apprentices” (no Bob Cratchits they) abandon him because he won’t give them a raise. Their income is entirely derived from theft, and Falstaff keeps the split uneven.

But let me back up. Why compare Dickens’s characters to Shakespeare’s, anyway?