Shakespeare and Verlander (whoever that is)

This piece from seems a custom followup to yesterday’s article about Majorie Garber’s new book, but as far as I can tell they are not related.
Here, Bill James asks why the London of 400 years ago gave us Shakespeare and Marlowe and Jonson, but the Topeka, Kansas of today (a city of roughly the same population) doesn’t see to be churning out the literary masters at the same rate. He says that Shakespeare’s London fit one of two categories – either it was an act of God, a random clustering of what turned out to be a very unusual amount of talent….or else you take the position that talent is everywhere, and it has more to do with what your environment does to foster that talent.
James chooses B, and goes on to argue that we don’t develop great writers in America – we develop sports heroes. But honestly, after a paragraph like the following I’m honestly not sure if he’s pulling our leg a little bit:

We are not so good at developing great writers, it is true, but why is this? It is simply because we don’t need them. We still have Shakespeare. We still have Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson; their books are still around. We don’t genu­inely need more literary geniuses. One can only read so many books in a lifetime. We need new athletes all the time because we need new games every day—fudging just a little on the definition of the word need. We like to have new games every day, and, if we are to have a constant and endless flow of games, we need a constant flow of athletes. We have gotten to be very, very good at developing the same.

I’m going to assume he’s joking. I don’t even know how to respond to something like “one can only read so many books in a lifetime.” Maybe if one spent less time watching “new games every day” one might have more time?
What do you think? Is he serious? He’s playing it awfully straight if he is.

How about Lady Macbeth as a man?

Thanks to regular reader Angela for the link!
Alan Cumming, fresh from playing Sebastian in Julie Taymor’s Tempest, wants to tackle more Shakespeare. And he’s got a doozy of an idea – he wants to try Lady Macbeth:

“I want to do a production of Macbeth where I play Macbeth one night and Lady Macbeth the next – and the girl who plays Lady Macbeth will change around too. I think it’s a way at looking at gender, what defines a man.”

I like this idea, and I respect him as an actor for even bringing it up. We often hear about giving male roles to women – Helen Mirren’s Prospera comes immediately to mind, though we also had a post recently about a gender-bent Hamlet as well. It’s not often you hear male actors speak of their desire to tackle a female role.
Also, maybe I’m misunderstanding him, but is he suggesting that the female lead, when he is playing Lady M, would take on Mac? So depending on when you saw the show you’d either see it played straight (ahem), or bent? I think I’d feel obligated to see both versions, if that’s the case.
What do you think? I know, I know, no girls in original version, boys plays girls’ roles all the time, yadda yadda. I’m not talking about 400 years ago, I’m talking about today, by contemporary expectations and standards, what do you think? What sort of expectations are you going to bring to the show if you know that a man is playing Lady M? If a man were playing Lady M and a woman playing M, which one do you think you’d pay more attention to?

Does Literature Still Matter?

Here, of course, that’s a rhetorical question. We know the answer. But Marjorie Garber is taking it to the next level in her new book, The Use And Abuse of Literature.

For Garber, of course, literature does matter. “Language does change our world,” she writes. “It does make possible what we think and how we think it.” Echoing an argument made by the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom, Garber claims for literature a sort of stem cell-like power to generate fresh and new imaginative experiences in those who read it.

The article is short, but it seems that the book will be something of a throwback to the old “two cultures” debate — should you teach literature or science? Sure, both, but at what ratio? Which is more important?
Readers of this blog may answer that easily, but that’s why our language has words like “should” – because what we want is not always the same as what is. How many times a day do I see some form of the question “Why teach Shakespeare? Is Shakespeare still relevant?” In my world everybody would know the answer to that question, and stop asking it.

I’ll be watching for reviews of this book, I’m curious to see how much discussion it generates.

Bloom Lite : Apparently Shakespeare Invented Teenagers

You may have already seen by now this NY Times article entitled How Shakespeare Invented Teenagers:

Yet our whole modern understanding of adolescence is there to be found in this play. Shakespeare essentially created this new category of humanity, and in place of the usual mix of nostalgia and loathing with which we regard adolescents (and adolescence), Shakespeare would have us look at teenagers in a spirit of wonder. He loves his teenagers even as he paints them in all their absurdity and nastiness.

When I first saw this come through I was surprised at how short it was, until I realized that it’s just a snippet from the upcoming book “How Shakespeare Changed Everything”, by Stephen Marche.
Honestly I read it and skipped it, and I’m only posting here to get a little discussion going since everybody and his uncle Antonio has been linking it. I couldn’t help but think, “Didn’t we already go through this with Bloom?”
What do you think? Did Shakespeare invent teenagers?

Who is Hazlitt, and did he read the same play I did?

Flipping through my Kindle version of the plays this weekend I tripped over this description of Twelfth Night (found here via Google Books):

This is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare’s comedies. It is full of sweetness and pleasantry. It is perhaps too good-natured for comedy. It has little satire and no spleen. It aims at the ludicrous rather than the ridiculous. It makes us laugh at the follies of mankind not despise them and still less bear any ill will towards them.

This comes from William Hazlitt, in the early 1800’s (the Google copy is dated 1845, and I note with a smile that it is dedicated to Charles Lamb, of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare).
Am I misunderstanding something, or has our understanding of Twelfth Night done something of a one-eighty? I’ve seen it described as the dark and twistiest of the comedies. Here, Hazlitt claims it has no spleen.
What’s going on? Somebody fill us in on this Hazlitt fellow.
UPDATE: From the Wikipedia page, I think I would have quite liked this guy:

His approach was something new. There had been critics of Shakespeare before, but either they were not comprehensive or they were not aimed at the general reading public. As Ralph Wardle put it, before Hazlitt wrote this book, “no one had ever attempted a comprehensive study of all of Shakespeare, play by play, that readers could read and reread with pleasure as a guide to their understanding and appreciation”. Somewhat loosely organized, and even rambling, the studies offer personal appreciations of the plays that are unashamedly enthusiastic. Hazlitt does not present a measured account of the plays’ strengths and weaknesses, as did Dr. Johnson, or view them in terms of a “mystical” theory, as Hazlitt thought his contemporary A.W. Schlegel did (though he approves of many of Schlegel’s judgements and quotes him liberally). Without apology, he addresses his readers as fellow lovers of Shakespeare and shares with them the beauties of what he thought the finest passages of the plays he liked best.

Emphasis mine. But yes, yes, yes.

Theatron : Virtual Theatre Environments

This has potential. I’m not fully sure yet what it is, exactly – a software download, a programming language? But it seems like the end result is 3D representations (such as Second Life) of theatres – including the Globe! Be sure to check out the video on the rightside navigation. I could definitely picture kids in an English class getting to poke around stuff like this, even if it is just playing the YouTube walk through, for those schools that are not quite at the interactive level of having each kid cruise through Second Life on his own.

Ok, What's The Deal With Berowne?

…And by that I mean the spelling of his name. I get that Biron / Berowne are the same person, but what’s the story on the change? I actually flipped through a Who’s Who book at Borders the other day looking up Berowne, and he wasn’t even listed under that name, not even a “See Biron.”
To add a little more depth to the question, how about pronunciation? I found this via Google books :

Biron, or Berowne, as it appears in the early copies, is accented on the second syllable and rhymes with “moon”.

Really? So those are both pronounced the same way? If I saw Biron I would assume was pronounced more like BYE-run.

Villains, Part Two : Little Villains

Ok, we did “best villain” and, no surprise, Iago killed it. I’m actually surprised that it was such a runaway, I thought Aaron would make a stronger showing.
So, what’s the villain landscape look like when we rule out all the big names? I’m curious about the Don John’s of Shakespeare’s canon. Who is your favorite “villain who’s not really much of a villain”? Every time I see Much Ado I can’t help but imagine Don John as this sort of Snidely Whiplash character with the big black cape twirling his handlebar mustache. “A wedding??! I must wreck it! Bwahahahaha!”
I suppose Shylock might fall into this category, but it’s hard to really see him as the villain, given our modern understanding of his situation. Is Petruchio a villain? Which plays don’t have a villain at all? Is there a villain in Midsummer?

Explaining Shakespeare

I often open up a word processor and try to bang out some notes on the general topic of what I’d call “explaining Shakespeare.” I know that No Fear and For Dummies and Sparknotes have done the subject to death, but I like to humor myself and think that, if I ever find my hook, I could actually add some value to that particular canon.
I get stuck over and over again in the same spot, however. So I thought I’d open up the idea to discussion. Here’s my dilemma. When you are attempting to explain a Shakespeare play (let’s say Hamlet), how do you do it? Do you describe the chronological events of what’s happened / happening? Do you describe it scene by scene? Or do you talk about the characters, and their relationships and motivations?
The easy and done to death answer is to go scene-by-scene. I don’t like this, though, for a couple of reasons. Most notably, every production is different. I hate the idea of telling somebody “Ok, in the next scene Polonius is going to send Reynaldo off to spy on Laertes” and then have them go to a production where that doesn’t happen. You know what I mean? Most people who want to read a summary of Hamlet aren’t necessariy going to then sit down and read the text (except maybe high school students :)). Grown ups who want Shakespeare explained to them want to understand the story, so that if they ever see it they know what’s going on.
So then what about chronologically? I like the idea of starting out talking about Hamlet being off at school, and his father dying. I think that this is something that many families today can immediately relate to. But … then what? How do you go from “Hamlet’s dad died” to “Horatio confirms his ghost walking the castle” to “Laertes returns to France” and so on through the play? You can find a way to do it I’m sure, but it’s going to seem fairly awkward (since there are places in the play where the timing itself is a little suspect anyway), and the harder you try to make it work, the more you’re going away from the story on the stage so that if someone does go see a production, they’re just as likely to be lost by what’s happening. You’ve ended up writing an alternative version of Hamlet. A novelization, almost.
Lastly there’s the idea of character study. While I love this idea, I love taking Hamlet and just walking through the entire play completely from his point of view, I think that this simultaneously provides the most interesting story while also offering the least immediate value to the audience. Make sense? I don’t think my reader wants 400 pages on Hamlet’s relationship problems. My reader wants enough information about the story that they will both *understand* it as well as *enjoy* it. Going too deep into each character (and really, how can you not go deeply into each character if we’re talking about Hamlet?) is going after a different audience. That’s like the second-stage audience, the ones who have already seen and understood and enjoyed Hamlet and now say “I’d like to learn more about these characters.”
What to do? How do you explain Shakespeare to somebody in a meaningful and useful way, without resorting to a scene-by-scene translation?

(As I write this, I think I know my answer. I’ve gone to see Shakespeare with people casually. People who don’t know the story. So they ask me, “What’s it about?” And I proceed to tell them, to the best of my ability, what I think is a useful description of what they are about to see. What I need to do is record one of those spontaneous explanations, and then write it down, and go from there.)

Rest In Peace, Katharina : Elizabeth Taylor Has Died

Perhaps it’s been a long time coming, and for too long the rumors have been greatly exaggerated, but today we must sadly report that Elizabeth Taylor has died.

As always, we take a look back at the contributions to Shakespeare made by such a fine actress. Everybody knows where this train of thought goes, right? Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew, of course. Is this not the definitive cinematic version? To me I think that she’ll forever be Kate, chased by Richard Burton’s Petruchio while she hurls curses (and furniture, if I recall!) at him.

Interesting : The trivia for this movie says that, unlike Burton, Taylor had no Shakespeare experience when she started. In fact she insisted that her entire first day of shooting be reshot because she wasn’t happy with it. Perhaps this has something to do with her coming off of Cleopatra, a legendary flop (and no, not anything to do with the Shakespeare story on the same subject).

Does anyone know if she ever did any other Shakespeare after this? I can’t find any. Although, amusingly enough, I see that she gave Marlowe a spin, starring in a version of Doctor Faustus :).

Rest in Peace, Katharina.

UPDATE: For those looking for more, US Magazine had done a recent “25 Things You Don’t Know About Me” story with Taylor. I just learned that Richard Burton never won an Oscar?