Flashback : May, 2008

Ok, here’s a game for anybody that’s got nothing better to do than hang out on Shakespeare Geek over New Year’s :). I was looking over my year’s posts and saw that I made 67 posts in August of this year. Not bad, averaging over 2/day. But then I looked farther back and saw that in May 2008 for some unknown reason I made an insane *72* posts.
Here they all are, on one browsable page.
Many of you may not have even been around back then, so feel free to jump in Ye Olde Time Machine and see what we were talking about two and a half years ago. I like to think the quality of the post topics has gotten better, the site’s gone from entirely a “Hey look I found a Shakespeare reference on the Internet!” site to deep and serious discussion about some pretty heavy “What is the essence of what Shakespeare means to us?” topics. I haven’t given up on the former, though i have to say that the latter I think is more interesting to me.
Enjoy, and Happy New Year everybody!

Let's Talk Twelfth Night

Since we’re in that after-Christmas lull, let’s talk about Twelfth Night. I have a book on Twelfth Night queued up for review, I’ll see if I can get that posted tonight.
Until then, the floor is open. Do Twelfth Night productions ever have anything to do with Christmas? If not, do we have any idea where the name comes from?
What are your thoughts on this one compared to, say, the other popular cross-dressing comedy As You Like It? Is this one light and fluffy, or dark and twisty?

Shakespeare as The Bible

My freshmen roommate in college once told me that if you’re having a bad day, or something’s troubling you, you could flip open the Bible to a random page, and you’d find your answer.
Over the last couple days we’ve been hotly debating the underlying message in Shakespeare’s works – did he write himself into the plays, or are we just reading ourselves into it? It’s certainly true that many people over the years have taken comfort in the wisdom and philosophy they find in the words of Shakespeare, regardless of how and why they got onto the page in the first place.
See where I’m going with this?
We may *want* Shakespeare’s works to be some sort of recipe for what it means to be human, his gift to the infinite, a tome where you can, literally, open up to any random page and find the answers to all of your troubles. The Bible, on the other hand, is supposed to be exactly that. It was written, the story goes, by a group of people who *were* being guided by an overseeing force, expressly for the purpose of being just such a book.
So, then, what’s the difference?
Each book tells stories of people in situations similar to our own (albeit dated, usually, and often with language we no longer understand and must have translated). We watch as these people react, and then we get together and discuss why they reacted in that way, and whether we would do the same thing.   
So then how come one book is fiction and we assume that any universal message we get out of it must only be our own projection of ourselves into what we want the message to be, while the other is assumed to be true and any messages we find in it were put there for us to find in the first place?
Imagine if it was the other way around.

Welcome Back!

Ok, I’m back. Hope everybody had a nice weekend, whether that meant spending time in church or with Chinese food.
Got a Kindle, so I look forward to reviewing some Kindle Shakespeare versions (already downloaded one that promised “254 plays poems and sonnets” and wanted to see what that math was all about ;)). Maybe I’ll read more for pleasure now. I’ve always wanted to go back and read that Edgar Sawtelle one.
Got no “Shakespeare things”, which was a little surprising. Can’t remember if I blogged about this but at one point my 6yr old was reading my wife’s computer over her shoulder, said “Hamlet!” and my wife said “Shhhhh!” so I thought maybe there was something in the works. I mentioned this to my wife after the fact, and she claimed to have no idea was talking about. So maybe she was contemplating something and changed her mind, who knows.
No Shakespeare content in this post, just saying Hi (I’ve got a real doozy coming up in the next one!). Feel free to comment at will if you’re in the mood. Anybody get any good Shakespeare loot?

Merry Christmas, Everybody

Hi Everyone,
Don’t expect much traffic over the next couple of days, I’ll be pretty tied up with family stuff at least for the rest of the weekend. Feel free to continue all the discussions, I get emails for all of those are read them all :). I’ve turned off that old “conversations go into moderated mode after N days” thing so you shouldn’t need me to approve comments.
Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours!


Here’s another idea that came out of the comments. In the latest Tempest movie by Julie Taymor, Caliban is black. What do you think that choice says about the Tempest as allegory for colonialism? (That’s not a direct quote, so if Charlene wants to reword her original question, kindly do so). The larger question to me is, what do you look at when you see a Shakespeare production? Do you look for “meta” things like this that speak to the director’s vision?
Here’s my thoughts : As a general rule? I don’t care about that stuff. At all. I go into every production (and really, a good movie as well) thinking of it as a parallel universe into which I get a front row seat. I assume that the people are real. I don’t get to ask why Caliban is black in this one any more than I get to ask when I’m 5’7″. I just am. Caliban is just black in this universe. No biggie.
Know what I mean? This was always one of the reasons I was concerned for teaching Shakespeare (back to that topic). I follow the homework boards and always cringe when I see questions about how Shakespeare sets the mood or what he uses to symbolize something or why he uses one literary device over another. I’m sure that these are important to understand, but I think that forever living in that space means that you never climb inside the universe he creates, either. It’s impossible to do both, you cannot immerse yourself in the experience of two characters, you cannot simultaneously think “Ophelia said” and “Shakespeare had Ophelia say”.
Apparently, in The Godfather movies (or maybe just the first one), there are oranges in every scene where somebody dies. That’s certtainly one of these “meta” things we’re talking about. I couldn’t go through all the bad things in my life and say “Hey, wait a second, somebody was always wearing purple!” What I’m wondering is, does knowing this or not knowing this alter your understanding and/or appreciation of the movie? It has a certain degree of interest, sure. It shows up in the “Trivia” bits for the movie. But unless you are a student of film making, is it important for you to know this?

Guest Review : "Contested Will" by James Shapiro

Regular contributor Dr. Carl Atkins sent in this guest review of James Shapiro’s “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? “. Mr. Shapiro is also well known for A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.) , his biography of Shakespeare. Dr. Atkins, or “catkins” as he’s spotted in the comments, is the author of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Take it away, Carl:
I was actually pleasantly surprised. It was much more readable than I expected. I had read his “1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare” and found it to be rambling, disjointed, and filled with conjecture, so I was not expecting good things from a book about such a difficult subject. Yet “Contested Will” is, for the most part, tightly written, well structured, straightforward, factual without being too dry, and absorbing. It details the history of the authorship controversy, interestingly laying the blame on one of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars, Edmond Malone. He notes that Malone, frustrated at being unable to uncover any documents to help flesh out the biography he hoped to write about Shakespeare, began to look to the plays for biographical references. This opened the door for anti-Stratfordians to launch their only means of attack.
If the book has any fault it is only in spending a bit too much time detailing the course of the Oxfordian cause. I found myself getting a bit bored by the end of that section. But only a bit.

It is a testament to Shapiro’s cool-headedness that he spends two-thirds of the book discussing the (circumstantial) evidence against Shakespeare’s authorship and ends with 27 pages debunking it.
What is most impressive is that Shapiro does not come across as someone with an axe to grind, or as a scornful elitist. He actually sounds like someone who is presenting the evidence for all to see. He makes no pretense about what side he is on, but he makes the evidence very clear.
I did not think I would like a book about the authorship question because I do not think it is an important question. But this book is more about understanding the history of the authorship question than about resolving the controversy. That is a more interesting topic. This is a book I would recommend to all interested in Shakespeare. It is fun to read.


Kicking this up to the top level and out of the comments so people can join in.
The topic is Improvising in Shakespeare’s work. Or, more generally, let’s call it “going off script”, since it doesn’t have to be extemporaneous for our purposes. We’re talking about when actors, in between their Shakespeare lines, add the occasional words of their own devising.
I have two thoughts on the subject. First, on the subject of “Do we think that Shakespeare’s actors improvised?” I answer, “Shakespeare’s not here anymore to defend himself.” So I have to assume that, when it was live, he had least had the option of going up to an actor afterwards and saying “That was good, keep it” or “Well, that ruined the show, thanks a lot. Don’t do it again.” Who really knows if the plays were the same night after night? Shakespeare could have constantly been revising. So while the Works as we’ve come to know them are like Scripture to us, we almost certainly hold the source material in a much higher regard than the creator did.
Second, I think there is an important distinction between a director saying “Ok, in my vision of the play, I’m going to have you do the following….” versus an actor just deciding to say something funny. I’ve actually just remembered a good example – during the Commonwealth production of Shrew in Boston several years back, I can’t remember why exactly but there’s a chase scene – some servant who has impersonated someone is now being chased by that man’s bodyguards – anyway, he jumps off the stage and into the audience, turns back to the stage (where the bodyguards are approaching), puts his arms up and yells “Wait!! Fourth Wall!” They pause, confused, just long enough for him to head for the hills, before they too jump down and pursue.
I don’t recall at the time being pissed off that the director had thrown this in. I remember thinking it was very funny. It was a directorial decision, and showed some purpose.
Now instead compare a hypothetical scene from Macbeth, at the dinner party before Banquo’s ghost makes his appearance. The seated guests are all no doubt socializing and talking amongst themselves, and then one of them pipes up loud enough for the audience to hear, “Rectum? Damn near killed him!” and everybody has a big guffaw.
I think I’d be upset about that.
Are my feelings on the subject arbitrary? I honestly don’t know. Could be. Could entirely be in the hands of the particular director or actor. If I get the feeling that the director and/or actors have love and respect for the material and are merely trying, in their own way, to present it in the best possible way? I like that. If on the other hand it seems to me like they’ve taken the “We need to make this better” approach, then I have a problem with that. And I do realize that this is entirely opinion – Julie Taymor could have nothing but the utmost respect for Shakespeare’s work, and this is simply her way of expressing it. I have no idea.

Tolkien 1, Shakespeare 0

Ok, learn something new every day. You know that scene in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Two Towers, when the giant tree-creatures known as Ents march on Saruman’s tower? Remind anybody of a certain Scottish play? Coincidence, you say?

Maybe not. From Tolkien’s letter #163 to W.H. Auden:

Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading someone else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. And into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening.

(Emphasis mine.)

There you go – straight from Tolkien’s mouth. Or, pen. I’d provide a link, but unfortunately this comes from a PDF document that I received through …. ummm…..unlinkable means.

You have to admit, though – if we want to pit modern movie special effects against Shakespeare’s ability to paint a picture with words….the march of the Ents still rocks.

UPDATED: Found a link, here.