Make Life Better

Why won’t your friends come see Shakespeare with you?

I don’t mean you, specifically. I expect that if you’re here reading this you probably enjoy taking in a nice Shakespeare performance on occasion. And I don’t mean your core group of friends who may feel the same way. I think that it’s safe to say, for all of us, that such a group only extends so far.

I mean literally everybody else in your life. Friends, family, coworkers.  If you asked, they probably don’t want to come see Shakespeare with you.

Why do you think that is?  It’s a question I come back to regularly because it bothers me. I feel like there’s a large audience out there that is dismissing Shakespeare as a chore, something they said sayonara to back in school and never looked back. I feel like those people are missing something important, something that will make their lives better, and I feel some degree of personal obligation to fix that.

Preaching to the choir

Surely you’ve heard that expression. I realize I’m often doing that here.  I’m all, “Hey, Shakespeare is even cooler than I imagined, check this out!” and you all are all, “Yeah, I know, right?”  Only, you know, we both sound more education when we say it.  Like, totally.

Good Idea!I don’t want that.  Well, I do, I just don’t want only that :).  I want our choir bigger. I want the whole world to be a part of it.  Maybe there are folks out there that have studied Shakespeare and know everything they want to know about him and his work, and just don’t like it, and I suppose we have to accept that. (We just don’t have to invite them to the holiday party.)

But how about everyone else?  That gets me back to my original question.  If you’ve got someone in your life (and I know you do) who you wish would share Shakespeare with you, but doesn’t … why do you think that is?  How do we bridge that gap?

Oh, and by the way, for that core group of friends that do want to see Shakespeare with you? Show them this post. Spread the word. We’re not about keeping the Shakespeare to ourselves here.



Naught Without Mustard

Sometimes you find yourself in those situations that make you feel like more of a geek than usual.

A reddit user had asked about Touchstone in As You Like It and I was going through some quotes when I found this:

Of a certain knight that swore by his honour they
were good pancakes and swore by his honour the
mustard was naught: now I’ll stand to it, the
pancakes were naught and the mustard was good, and
yet was not the knight forsworn.

Hmmm, that rang  a bell. I immediately thought of, “Not without mustard,” and had to go do some research.

For those that don’t get it, “Not without mustard” is a line from Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humor, and is thought by some to be a joke reference to the coat of arms that Shakespeare had recently acquired for himself bearing the motto Non Sans Droit, or, “Not Without Right.”


So, then, is Touchstone’s line a response to Jonson’s? It’s unlikely we’d ever truly know for sure, but it can be fun to pursue the line of reasoning.

Dating the plays is already notoriously tricky, not to mention answering the question of who knew what when.  Would Shakespeare have had to see a performance of Jonson’s play to know the line, or would they have been sharing scripts while it was being written?

Jonson’s play was acted by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599, and it is technically a sequel to the 1598 Every Man in His Humour, so we have a pretty small window to work with there.

But what about As You Like It?  The Wikipedia entry reads, “believed to have been written in 1599 and first published in the First Folio, 1623.” Even if we don’t always trust Wikipedia, the Royal Shakespeare Company page says, “Typically dated late 1599.”

Not Without Right
Not without mustard.

Looks like it’s certainly possible.  After some cursory research I called in Bardfilm, who is much better at this sort of thing than I, and has access to all the best resources. He tells me that the Arden edition offers no notes on the connection, but then goes on to find this amusingly “relevant” article from an author named Mustard.

So who knows.  Either we’ve uncovered a joke between playwrights that nobody else has thought to mention, or it’s just a coincidence.  This is why we’re geeks about this stuff!


Small Shakespeare World

So, I’m trying to get the family to Disney World this year.  We’ve been in the past, but it’s a whole thing where my girls were old enough to remember it but the boy wasn’t, so we’d like to get back for a trip where it’s more about him and he’s not just the one being pushed around in a stroller.

Not a Mouse StirringBut I digress.  Helping us set up the trip is a travel agent who turns out to be a friend of my in-laws.  In fact I may even have met her at a random gathering at one point or another, but it’s not like we see or speak regularly.

Anyway, the other day during the snow storm I’m working from home when my daughter comes into my office and says, “Did you know about a new teen Shakespeare program coming to town?”

“No,” I say, “And I’m surprised I didn’t hear about it sooner? Where did you hear this, what’s the details? Wait, are you talking about Rebel Shakespeare?”

“I think that was the name.”

“Honey you’ve been to a number of their shows.  They’re not new.”

I’ve been writing about Rebel Shakespeare for years. They’re a children’s Shakespeare group from a couple of towns over that’s been running for something like thirty years. We try to get to their shows when we can, and I even helped organize getting them to do a show in my own town.

Unfortunately this year their founder had to retire, and for a little while we thought they were done. But a bunch of parents and former participants have taken it over, and Rebel Shakespeare lives again!  So I figured that’s what my daughter was talking about, that one of their new marketing links.

Then she tells me that our new travel agent, who my wife is friends with on Facebook, posted it.

It just got interesting.

It turns out that her son has been part of that group for the last five years!  I may even have seen him perform, we’d have to sit down and compare notes.

I told them all about us (“Next time you’re with them, if the name Shakespeare Geek comes up, they’re talking about me.”) and they seemed quite excited to join our little family. In fact, they may be reading right now.  So, hi there 🙂 Welcome!

O small new world, that has such people in it!


Rough, Rug Headed Bunch o’ Forgers

I didn’t have time to put together a real piece on Shakespeare for St. Patrick’s Day, so I thought we’d do more of a smorgasbord 🙂

Old Castle, but not Oldcastle.
An Old Castle, But Not An Oldcastle

When I went googling for Shakespeare and the Irish, I found that Shakespeare created the Irish stereotype. I also learned that Shakespeare apparently wrote a play called The History of Sir John Oldcastle, which was a new one on me.  That is the true name, of course, of Sir John Falstaff. But I don’t recall him having his own play.

But, according to the link, this is where Shakespeare refers to the Irish as “rough rug headed kerns,” whatever that means.  That line is actually in Richard II [II.i], so I’m not sure where the Oldcastle / Falstaff connection comes in.

For something completely different we have the William Henry Ireland, who was so set on discovering lost Shakespeare manuscripts that he just sat down and wrote a bunch of them himself.

Lastly, is Macmorris in Henry V really the only Irish character Shakespeare ever wrote?  I’ve never really looked into it.  And if that’s the case, why does he sound so much like Sean Connery, who is Scottish?

What ish my nation? Ish a villain,
and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish
my nation? Who talks of my nation?

Where else does Ireland (or anything having to do with Ireland) show up in the works?  I could swear that there’s more crossover in King Lear but I haven’t gone and dug into it.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everybody!


What is Iago’s motive?

What is Iago's motive?I first experienced Othello in high school. I remember the teacher explaining to us that Iago’s motive isn’t what we think it is. He may say, “I want revenge because Othello slept with my wife,” but that’s just his justification for his actions. The real reason is that he’s the embodiment of pure evil, and that’s what makes him such a scary character. He has no reason for doing the things that he does.

It makes sense, and I like that interpretation. It makes Iago more interesting. I’ve never really questioned it.

When did this become the accepted interpretation?  Iago gives us a motive:

I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

He does say, “I don’t even care if it’s true,” which I suppose is evidence, but it could just as easily mean that Iago is the jealous type and doesn’t even want the rumor circulating that he’s a cuckold. He’ll later go on to imply that Cassio slept with his wife as well (“I fear Cassio with my night-cap too”) so maybe that’s just his thing.

Then there’s the racism angle.  Iago goes right for the racist epithets when he’s trying to get Desdemona’s father upset:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe.

the devil will make a grandsire of you:

you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;
you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have
coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

(I’ve always attributed the “thick lips” comment to Iago as well, but that’s actually Roderigo.)

So is Iago racist? Is that why he hates Othello, because of the color of his skin? Or, again, is he just saying these things because he knows they’ll drive Brabantio crazy?


I get how we can read between the lines and paint a picture of an Iago that says and does exactly what he needs to get what he wants, without ever actually explaining why he wants it. I’m wondering when that became the standard interpretation of Iago’s motive, and whether there are other clues in the text to support it?  Why don’t we just say Iago is paranoid and call it a day? How come we watch the play and say, “Whoa, that dude is evil” instead of “Whoa, that dude is nuts”?


Why is Egeus Angry With His Daughter?

Question: Why is Egeus angry with his daughter Hermia?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Theseus, Duke of Athens, planning his wedding to Hippolyta. Shakespeare actually lifted this part of the story straight out of Greek mythology, if you’re interested. But that doesn’t answer the question.

Enter Egeus, and he does not look happy. I’ve seen productions where he marches Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena in at the point of his shotgun. And he says…

Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child;
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,
And interchanged love-tokens with my child:
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stolen the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, messengers
Of strong prevailment in unharden’d youth:
With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart,
Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me,
To stubborn harshness: and, my gracious duke,
Be it so she; will not here before your grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

What’s it all mean?  If you want the short answer, he’s saying, “I want my daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, and if she won’t, then I want her executed.”

Yes, this comedy opens up with a father threatening to kill his daughter.

The longer version goes a little something like this (but ends the same way):  Lysander is the boy that Hermia actually wants to marry, but Egeus doesn’t blame her, he blames Lysander.  Lysander has “bewitched” his child by showering her with gifts, singing love songs at her window, that sort of thing. Otherwise she would know better than to disobey the will of her father.

Egeus isn’t the kind of father who is going to negotiate with his child. In the old days if you were a teenage boy acting up, your parents my threaten to enlist you in the army.  I only had a brother so I’m not sure what parents threatened teenage girls with, putting them in a nunnery?  Egeus knows the law, however, and goes straight to “dispose of her” if she doesn’t do what he wants.

I beg the ancient privilege of AthensThe good news is that Theseus has a calmer head on his shoulders, and after listening to Hermia’s side of the story offers her another alternative — a nunnery.  But luckily this is a comedy and everything works out in the end, everybody marries the right person, nobody ends up dead or locked away.

An interesting question to consider is whether Egeus actually meant to go through with his threat.  Plenty of old school parents drove their kids to the recruitment center and then turned around to come home. What would he have done if Theseus said, “Absolutely! Get the axe, we’ll have her head right now.” If you prefer your comedies without such a dark edge, you can imagine Hermia’s home life with a father that threatens her with the ancient privilege of Athens at the slightest infraction.  “Hermia, is dinner ready yet? I swear, I’ll dispose of you!  I mean it this time!”


Having been around for a dozen years at this point, the site attracts a good deal of traffic on the subject of Shakespeare. Much of it comes in the form of questions about the plays. Is this students looking for answers to their homework? Probably. But if they’re going to get the answers anyway I’d rather have them get the answer here, along with an explanation, in the hopes that we can make them interested in the topic.


Look out! Ides!

My co-workers couldn’t wait to tell me to be wary today, it being the Ides of March.  It’s probably the most well-known calendar date associated with Shakespeare. But other than knowing that March 15 = Ides of March, and that’s when Brutus and the gang went all stabby stabby on their boy Julius, do people really know anything else about it?

I admit that I didn’t know much myself, so I went looking last night in preparation. I consulted my Asimov’s Guide, which is always guaranteed to have enough detail on every possible digression you might make from the play’s main action.  Seriously, I tried to read what Asimov has to say on Merchant of Venice and came away knowing how much the human liver weighs.
Beware the Ides of March

Once again, Asimov does not disappoint. Ides is one of three reference dates in the Roman calendar:

  1. The Kalends, or first day of the month, also obviously where the word calendar comes from :). It is believed that originally it was supposed to coincide with a new moon.
  2. Nones, meaning “ninth” and representing the half moon. Ninth because it was literally nine days(*) before the Ides.
  3. Ides, the day of the full moon. Although we naturally think the fifteenth for Ides, that’s only true for some of the months with thirty-one days. It falls on the thirteenth for the others.

So basically their calendar wasn’t just a matter of counting from one up to thirty-ish and starting over.  You counted relative to the different days, such as “two days before Ides”. I just keep thinking of that old rhyme “Thirty days hath September, April June and November” and wondering what in the world Roman school children must have had to learn instead.

If you’re confused already, definitely don’t visit the Wikipedia page (linked above) that goes on to describe how you would refer to dates for each month.  Just be thankful Shakespeare (and Brutus?) picked an easy one to remember.

(*) It’s not just Roman numerals that give computer programmers stress, apparently.  When counting relative to these reference days, you would use the day itself as one, rather than zero. So the “ninth” day actually comes eight days before the Ides. Got that?  If today is Wednesday, and I say, “How many days is it until Friday?” and you said, “Three days.  Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.”

Are Shakespeare’s Plays Encoded In The Digits Of Pi?

I thought that for Pi Day this year we could look at this age old question.  In short, it goes something like this:  “Since pi is infinite and non-repeating, does that mean that if you encoded the letters in Shakespeare’s work to numbers, that we could find the complete works of Shakespeare in the digits of pi?”

Short answer?  No.  (Or, to be specific about it, “It’s not proven, no.”)

Here’s a video that explains it better than I can:

Here’s the problem in a nutshell.  People tend to think of “infinite” as “representing all possible combinations” and that’s an incorrect assumption.  Say, for example, that we had the repeating sequence 1, 0, 11, 0, 111, 0, 1111, 0 … and so on.  That sequence is infinite and non-repeating.  But you can easily prove that it does not contain all possible number combinations.

The term for what we want to happen is for the digits of pi to be a “normal” infinite number, which means that all combinations are equally likely to occur.  If that proves out to be true – which it has not yet – then yes, you would have a case that the works of Shakespeare would appear.

However then you have a different, “multi universe” problem. If you assume that all possible combinations exist within pi, that means that Macbeth does.  As well as Macbeth with a happy ending, Macbeth as a cat, Romeo and Juliet where they’re both transgender and live happily ever after, and, yes, even the complete works of the Earl of Oxford. Literally, every combination possible whether they make sense or not. You would be able to provably state that they are in there, but you would not be able to extract that them out in order to find the next great work of English literature.  So then it literally has no value at all.

Personally I find it much more interesting to determine where your name appears in pi, or the longest string of repeating digits in pi.

On a completely different note, my daughter won her school’s Pi memorization contest when it was her turn a couple years ago, now her younger brother is up. Hope he successfully defends her title!  I’ll have to let everybody know how it goes, since I’m scheduling this in advance 🙂

The Digits of Pi
Shakespeare, are you in there?


I see this question come up periodically, and I don’t think that we’ve covered it recently so I wanted to make sure we had something to say about the subject.  No, as of right now we do not have proof that the digits of pi contain the works of Shakespeare. Or any other string of significant length.  But it’s fun to think about, isn’t it?  If this question even occurred to you in the first place, you’ve got some geek in you!  Welcome to the club.

Happy Pi Day, everybody!

Boy Meets World Meets Shakespeare

My kids were just the right age for Girl Meets World, the spin-off of the longer running and more popular Boy Meets World. But 1993-2000 I was already out of college and not really the audience anymore. I was going to say Saved By The Bell was more my thing but that was 1989-1993 and I would have been in college for that too!

Anyway, I didn’t have to follow the show religiously to know the Mr. Feeny character, played by William Daniels (who I knew from St. Elsewhere). Maybe it’s precisely because I was older that I could appreciate the importance of school teachers. When I did watch I would be thinking, “You stupid children, listen to the man. He knows what he’s talking about. He cares about you and wants you to succeed in life. That’s his job.”

Well today I learned that the actually wooed Daniels to the role with Shakespeare:

I live on the other side of the fence from you, Cory. It’s impossible not to face in your direction every once in a while and notice the people in the next yard. And through the years as I’ve gotten to know them, it is apparent they are fine individuals. But, their real strength comes from being a family. And do you know why they are a family, Cory? Because at one time a man and a woman realized that they loved each other and pursued the unlimited potential of what may come from that love, and here you are. There is no greater aspiration than to have love in our lives, Mr. Matthews. Romeo knew it and died for it.

In case you’ve never heard of the show and are now thinking about binge-watching it on Netflix, beware:

There were more Shakespeare references tied to Mr. Feeny’s character, but most of them landed on the cutting room floor, including the Romeo and Juliet speech.

Oh, well.  It had potential!

If you loved Mr. Feeny too, apparently this and other stories come from Daniels’ new book There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, and Many Others.

For those that know the show and the character and know where I’m coming from, enjoy one of the great television finale moments. Total spoilers but come on it aired almost 20 years ago if you wanted to see it and never did you might as well:

You Think You Loved Sir Patrick Stewart Before?

This post has no Shakespeare in it, just one of the world’s greatest living Shakespeareans. I know that’s upset some people in the past when we dare to look at the actors as people, rather than just their roles.  So consider this the disclaimer!

Sir Patrick Stewart has a new dog.  Specifically he and his wife are fostering a pitbull named Ginger. Here he gives the details on Conan:

For a clip I like even better you have to check him trying to take the dog for a swim. It does not go well, but it should certainly make everybody’s day. I wish I could embed the clip. That’s a link to his Twitter.  If you’re not following that you really should, he’s posting plenty more clips.

It’s true that this is the story of a person fostering a dog, something that no doubt happens all around the world all the time and is rarely newsworthy. I don’t care.  What I see is a 70+yr old man who hasn’t had a dog since he was a boy, who now gets to act like he’s a boy all over again. Pure joy radiates off the man, and that makes me happy. He’s given us plenty of things to he happy about, so if you’ve enjoyed his performance as Macbeth or Claudius or Prospero or any of the other myriad roles he’s played, time to enjoy him just being himself for a change.