Sorry About the Downtime

Hi Everybody,

Although the main site (this one) was not affected, the hosting provider I use for a number of other projects had a big hardware move over the weekend that resulted in many of my sites being slow or unreachable for the past several days.  This includes Blank Verse, Not By Shakespeare Shakespeare Geek Store and Shakespeare Answers.
It appears back to normal, but this could be temporary.  Fingers crossed!  
Sorry for the inconvenience.

Folger eBooks

Just this week in the comments someone was bemoaning the poor state of Shakespeare ebooks these days.  Well I think I might have an answer to that.

Folger Editions, in conjunction with Simon & Schuster, are now available in eBook format.

I have two very important questions that I haven’t been able to answer yet:

1) The image in this article clearly looks like an iPad-specific format.  Is this only going to be available in the iBook store, and not for Kindle and others?

2) From the article, each ebook “will have the same pagination as the physical book, with hyperlinks allowing readers to move easily between text, commentary, and a host of illustrations from the Folger’s collections that bring Shakespeare’s plays and world to life.” As a techie this frightens me, because this sounds suspiciously like “we took an image of each page, and the so-called ebook is really just a sequence of pictures of pages.” This makes the page look perfect, of course, but it also causes a number of features to suffer, including the ability to search and bookmark the text, as well as doing simple but important things like manipulating the text size to a comfortable level. In the world of ebooks, “the same pagination as the physical book” is actually a bad thing, because working backwards that means “we will decide how much content goes on a page, not you, so if the print is too small for you, that’s your problem.”

If I can find out more details I’ll update.

Talking Original Pronunciation with The Crystals

The following YouTube clip (part of the OpenEdu initiative) is making the rounds lately, where both David and Ben Crystal give a lesson (and demonstration!) of Shakespeare’s original pronunciation while standing inside the Globe:

Love.  Man crush.  Both of them.  Holy cow.  The way they both switch fluently between modern and original pronunciation?  *swoon*

Observations about the actual clip:

* While they are demonstrating original pronunciation, the camera keeps cutting to a shot of the text that they are reading from — a highly edited and modernized text!  What’s up with that?  They’re making such a big deal out of every sound, and yet they are clearly (in the Henry V prologue example) reading an edited version.  Here’s a screenshot of the text that they’re demonstrating from, followed by a shot of the actual Folio text:

I suppose when you get right down to it there aren’t that many spelling differences (short of a few trailing e’s and some capitalizations), but still, that leapt right out at me.  Given the big speech with which they start the video about how the Globe’s purpose is to do everything original, it seems fairly glaring.

* Speaking of “do everything original”, they keep showing clips of the play featuring a black woman.  I’m pretty sure there’s at least two words in that sentence that wouldn’t be historically accurate.  Again, not that it’s a problem, just jumps out at you after the “everything original” speech.

* Ben Crystal trying to explain a dirty joke is adorable.  He looks around like he’s looking for his dad or something, like he’s going to get in trouble if he says what the “ripe and ripe and rot and rot” line really means.

In all, I’m not sure how I feel after clips like this.  The entire point is to say, “If you haven’t heard original pronunciation, you’re missing much of the point.”  So, is that supposed to take away from my enjoyment of the majority of Shakespeare productions I’ll ever see?  That stinks.

Review : Coriolanus (The Movie)

Sometimes the book is better than the movie — even when “the book” is “the script.”

I first spotted news of a Ralph Fiennes / Gerard Butler Coriolanus movie back in October 2009.  Well, the movie came and went in a very limited release late in 2011 (I don’t recall it ever coming through Boston), but it snuck onto DVD within the last couple of weeks and I got a copy for Father’s Day.  Prior to that I’d actually gotten a copy of the shooting script, which I reviewed here.

Here’s my really high level summary of the play, which I admit to having limited knowledge of:  Caius Marcius (played by Ralph Fiennes, who gets the Coriolanus title later in the play) is the super-soldier of the Roman army, doing battle against the Volscians, let by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).  Although Marcius had received some 27 wounds in more than a dozen battles, he has never been able to defeat Aufidius.  In fact they even battle hand-to-hand at the battle of Corioles, and it ends in a draw.

Well, Marcius’ advisors urge him to make a move into political office, and playing to the whims of the people is not in Marcius’ nature.  This goes badly for him, and it’s not long before his enemies (and the people of Rome) are screaming for his head.  But they’ll accept his banishment.

Marcius (now Coriolanus) does that natural thing, he walks straight into the Volscian camp, makes peace with his sworn enemy, and chooses to march on Rome.

This is where the entirety of the Roman empire has a collective, “What have we done?!” moment and scramble to figure out how to calm the enraged dragon (lots of dragon references in this play).   They send Coriolanus’ wife, mother and child to try and talk some sense into him.  It’s a very weird image, no doubt — this one-man army that has all of Rome quaking, and his mother giving him a guilt trip.  And having it work.

So, how was the movie?

I had some pretty high expectations after reading the script, and I was disappointed in the beginning.  The direction is, well, it’s not good.  As I live-tweeted my experience, this was echoed back at me from all angles – don’t like the direction.  The battle scenes in particular cut all over the place, and scenes from the script that I thought were going to be these amazing moments just come and go like nothing.  The whole battle at Corioles is supposed to be Caius Marcius single-handedly routing the Volscians.  I expected to see Fiennes’ character elevated into some sort of superhuman killing machine.  What I saw instead was just a battle scene that could have been any other battle scene, it just happened to have Fiennes in the lead.

After the battle there’s another scene that the script pays careful attention to, where Coriolanus’ mother is binding his wounds after battle, and his wife walks in on them.  The way it’s written there’s supposed to be this awkward moment where both Coriolanus and his mother look at the wife like she’s the outsider, like this bond between mother and son is the most natural thing in the world.  In the actual movie, however, this scene just comes and goes so quickly you wonder why it was even left in.

What I did like about the movie is when it shifted over into the political maneuvering.  Coriolanus is quickly taken out of his element and turned into a pawn where two sides are clearly shoving him around the board for their own gain.  He begrudgingly wins the support of the people (something he’s been told is required), but the second he leaves, his political enemies swoop in and turn the crowd right back in the other direction.

When people want to cite examples of how to turn a crowd through oratory they often go to Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar. But Coriolanus has plenty such moments.  “He should have showed us his battle scars!” calls out one of the citizens.  This is something that was hyped up by his handlers — the people want to see him take off his shirt and show the scars he got defending his country, something that Coriolanus refuses to do.  “I’m pretty sure he did show them, didn’t he?” responds one of his political enemies, knowing full well the answer.  “No!  No, he did not!  He didn’t!!” the crowd roars back, now enraged.

A moment here for Brian Cox, who plays Coriolanus’ trusted advisor Menenius.  His acting is superb in this crucial supporting role.  Early on he is an excitable political flunky, thrilled at the idea that his man has received 2 more wounds in battle.  “He had 25,” says Coriolanus’ mother.  “Now he has 27!” Menenius replies joyfully.  Later, when the crowd has turned, Menenius must then come to the negotiating table with their political enemies and bargain for his man’s very life, pleading “What must he do?” and then having the difficult job of trying to get Coriolanus to do it.

It is Menenius who is sent to beg Coriolanus not to attack Rome, and to suffer the results when it does not go well.  This scene was done especially well I thought, as Menenius goes from “Screw all you people, you’re the ones who banished him, you deal with it” to “Ok, I’m the only one he’ll listen to, I will go talk to him” to Coriolanus’ single word dismissal.

I don’t know how to wrap this up, having never seen a different production of this play to compare against.  I’m told that the ending is changed, but I couldn’t tell you how.  I can tell you that reading the script made me anticipate certain scenes, and that those scenes did not deliver, which is a shame.  But there were plenty of moments in the movie that I enjoyed that I did not expect – mostly the individual character evolution, and all the politics.

Here’s how I think I’ll sum it up.  This summer I’ll be going to see Coriolanus on Boston Common with my wife and some friends.  As is custom I’ll no doubt be asked what the play is about, and be tasked with summarizing the character and plot and pointing out the important bits.  I will not point out Coriolanus’ mother (much), nor will I point out the oddly homo-erotic relationship with Aufidius.  I will point to Coriolanus’ interactions with the crowd – why exactly he does not want to do what is asked of him, why it works the first time, how his enemies twist his words, and how it does not end well.  I think that might have been the most interesting part of the play for me.

What Are Shakespeare’s Hidden Gems?

In some random bit of spammy email marketing I saw the term “hidden gem” (and subsequent discussion about how to use this term in your marketing :)).  Well, this week I learned that I like Coriolanus much more than I thought I would.  It’s easy to talk about Hamlet and Lear and Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet for years on end.  Something like Coriolanus doesn’t get nearly as much love.

So, let’s talk “hidden gems.”  Which of Shakespeare’s plays is not commonly known, that should get more love?  The Great Tragedies are off limits – everybody’s seen and discussed those a thousand times.   No Dream, no Much Ado About Nothing.  We all know about those gems.

What else ya got?

Top Coriolanus Quotes

A lifetime ago I can honestly say that I read all the plays.  That in no way means that I fully understand or appreciate all the plays.  Such has been the case with Coriolanus, which long stood in my memory as “The one about the super-soldier guy who gets talked out of invading Rome by his mom.”  I’ve just finished the movie (review to follow), and a number of great lines leapt out at me that remind us just how great Shakespeare was at using his characters to tell his story.

  • “You souls of geese, That bear the shapes of men, how have you run From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell! All hurt behind; backs red, and faces pale With flight and agued fear! Mend and charge home, Or, by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe And make my wars on you.” I love the foreshadowing in that last line. Coriolanus (still Caius Marcius, he’s not yet received his promotion) is rallying his troops for battle, about to charge through the enemy gate. He’s going, with them or without them – and about two seconds after this speech, when he charges through the gate and it closes behind him, his soldiers say amongst themselves “Foolhardiness! Not I (will follow him)” and are quick to report him as “Slain, doubtless” even though he returns to them shortly after. Later in the play when their illustrious leader does leave the foe (abandon the fight, that is, and join his enemy) to make his wars on Rome, they should have seen it coming 🙂 
  • “O, me alone! make you a sword of me?” At the battle of Corioles, Caius Marcius is asking for volunteers among his men to charge into what could well be a suicide mission. It took me a second to understand this line, as all of his soldiers raise their arms to volunteer and then you get this “me alone” reference as if they were sending him in by himself? Weird. But in the movie it does not come off like a question, but a command. He’s telling his men to put him forward into the line of fire, to use him like a weapon rather than a fellow soldier. Lead with him. (Of course, it’s quite obvious that had none of them volunteered he’s the sort of soldier that would have just gone into battle single-handedly anyway, so it’s less like his soldiers are using him as a weapon and more like he is dragging them along behind him.) 
  • “He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him.” / “Now it’s twenty-seven.” This exchange occurs between Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, and his advisor Menenius. It may have to be seen to be appreciated – I found it nauseating. They are talking about another human being, coming home from war, and they are practically gleeful at the idea of him having more battle scars to show the people. This is a mother saying of her son, “I hope he comes home broken and disfigured.” It is reminder that not only does Coriolanus see himself as a war machine, so do all the people around him. Since this is his mother we’re talking about, you immediately understand how he has been raised and what he’s always been told his purpose in life will be. (It is only now, as I write this, that I see a direct connection to what happens to Coriolanus at the end of Fiennes’ movie.)
  • “You’ll mar all: I’ll leave you: pray you, speak to ’em, I pray you, In wholesome manner.” / “Bid them wash their faces And keep their teeth clean.” When somebody hands you a play and tells you that not only is it Shakespeare, but that it’s one of his lesser known works, full of politics, any high school student would be tempted to roll his eyes and assume a ridiculous amount of boring dialogue that has you reaching for the glossary every other word. But then you get a line like this that cuts right through and shows you what kind of men we’re talking about. Menenius has brought Coriolanus down among the people where he must walk among them and ask for their voices. This is an entirely political gesture, something you could imagine happening among presidential candidates today. It’s not a question of whether you want to or whether you’ll like doing it, it’s just a thing you do. Note how Menenius sets it up – he’s worried that his friend (client?) is going to screw it up by upsetting the crowd, and he begs him (note the repeated “I pray you”) to be nice. Coriolanus, for his part, shows exactly what he thinks of the crowd with his “tell them to wash their faces and brush their teeth” comment. You can’t misinterpret that. (Later, when his task is done, Coriolanus’ first question is to ask, “Can I change my clothes now?” which is no doubt both a reference to being uncomfortable in the fancy pressed suit they’ve dressed him in, as well as wanting to wash the stink of the common people off of himself). 
  • “Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads, Stain all your edges on me. Boy! false hound! If you have writ your annals true, ’tis there, That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli: Alone I did it. Boy!” You know, when we list some of the most bad-ass death lines in Shakespeare, I always lean toward Macbeth. But I may have to rethink that. Coriolanus, having made peace with Rome, is down among his enemies and assuredly knows what’s going to happen next. Aufidius, his mortal enemy-turned-friend-turned-enemy again, is mocking him for crying at the feet of his mother, and calls him “Boy of tears.” So what does Coriolanus do, standing amid his enemies? Reminds them that he alone defeated them at Corioli. I can’t decide whether that last “boy” should be interpreted as one last “How dare you call me boy?” or if it’s him throwing the insult back in Aufidius’ face. “Call me boy? I single-handedly took on all of you, and won. Who’s the boy?”

I may have misinterpreted some lines.  As I said, I’m only just becoming reacquainted with the play.  So, let’s talk about it.  Did I miss any good ones?  I deliberately left out the “common cry of curs” speech as I figured it was already done to death.  Have I fundamentally misinterpreted anything I put on this list?

Gamifying The Classics

SecretBuilders is one of those online virtual worlds where kids can go create an avatar, buy clothing and personal items for it, and generate online currency by playing games.  In SecretBuilders in particular there is a heavy educational element, and they’re about to take it to the next level with the help of Oxford University Press.

The SecretBuilders’ “50 Great Reads Before 15” initiative will gamify such classics as Alice in Wonderland, Macbeth, Arabian Nights, Pride & Prejudice, and Don Quixote as mobile and social games.

“When it comes to mobile or social games, the only choices for kids are either chocolate fudge or chocolate-covered broccoli! We want to create games that are strawberries – experiences that are both delicious and nutritious,” said Bob Brattesani, Chief Creative Officer at SecretBuilders.

 (See Macbeth in there?  I don’t know whether that’s the only Shakespeare in the mix.)

I don’t have technical details about what they’re planning, although the press release goes on to mention a “spot the differences” game based on Alice in Wonderland.  That’s probably the bulk of the project — using the *content* from the classics, and applying it into traditional games.

They appear to be aiming big, though, with the suggestion that these new gamified classics will be available on “NOOK® by Barnes & Noble, iTunes, GooglePlay, Kindle, Blackberry AppWorld and other app stores.”  In other words, everything.  Now, see, the developer in me sees this and immediately thinks “They’ve grabbed onto one of those pre-existing frameworks that works on all platforms, and they’re just going to jam their content into it.”  Phonegap, maybe? Appcelerator?

What do you think?  Intrigued?  I’m always optimistic about this stuff, but I have to be realistic as well. I’ve covered lots and lots and lots of Shakespeare games here over the years.  Most often with fewer press releases and buzzwords.  Normally a game comes out and we play it and then we decide.  I do not let my kids use such online services yet, so I can’t use them as my test audience.  I think I’m going to wait and see on this one and hope that I scan score some preview copies once they start churning out actual apps.
Disclosure – Greg Titus, one of the investors in SecretBuilders, is a friend of mine. Although he forwarded me the press release, he has no knowledge of anything that I’m writing here.  Once I post this I do plan on pestering him to see whether I can get any sort of inside scoop or maybe even an interview.

Al Pacino on Meryl Streep

How’s that for a title?

Actually, Mr. Pacino is talking about Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline doing a read-through of Romeo and Juliet this past week.  It’s actually a pretty cool idea when you think about it – can a 62yr old actress play a 13yr old girl?  Absolutely.

Pacino was in the headlines again talking about Free Shakespeare  and how, “When I couldn’t afford
anything, I was sitting there seeing George C. Scott in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” he told Speakeasy on the lawn outside the Delacorte. “It’s Joe Papp. He was a radical and he was a visionary, and I loved him so much. It was just great being around him. You could see 50 years later, it’s still going on.”

Go read that second article in particular (it has more Pacino), and try to do it *not* in Pacino’s famous growly voice. It’s so much more entertaining if you read it in character. Random shouts of HOO-AH! are not required.

I Have A Question

A question this morning from the peanut gallery:

If you were to direct a Shakespeare play, which, where, and why?  Which play would you direct?  Where would you set it?  And why would you set it there?

My initial response to this, knowing my audience, was “I have a bunch of people who have directed a bunch of plays, so we’ll hear about what choices they made in the past.”

Hence, we’re cutting that off at the pass.  This question must be answered in the conditional / future tense.  Which play would you direct, where would you set it, and why would you set it there?

(That word has now lost all meaning to me.  Would would would.  I hate when that happens.  Looks like mould now.)

Sir Kenneth!

Sir Laurence Olivier. 

Sir Ian McKellen. 

Sir Patrick Stewart. 

Kenneth Branagh.

One of these things is not like the others…..
As part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Mr. Branagh can now count himself among that pantheon of Shakespearean gods – he, too, has been knighted and shall now be Sir Kenneth.
I could swear that we’d had a discussion about his lack of Sir awhile back, and I’d gone googling for whether he was or was not in fact knighted.  But now I can’t find it.  So it was a bit of a surprise to me to learn that yes it is finally official, but that it only just happened within the last couple of days.
Congratulations, Sir Kenneth!