Solved! How I Got Mel Brooks In My Shakespeare

Ok, this story is too fascinating not to share.

You’re probably sick of me hyping my Shakespeare is Universal campaign, which features a t-shirt depicting “To be or not to be” translated into languages from around the world.

This morning, Twitter follower @JulietWilliams3 wrote to me, “Your Japanese says ‘Mel Brooks running away’, is that what you meant?”

For a moment I thought she was kidding.  Then my stomach turned as I realized that she was in fact correct, or at least as far as the Mel Brooks went.  Yikes.   I flew back to my original document, and that sequence of Japanese characters was not there. What the heck?  The version that I’ve been using was produced by my graphic designer who did admit to having re-generated much of text.  So now I’m left with the choices of a) a bug in the translation engine, b) designer made a copy-and-paste error of some sort (maybe he was in IMDB?) or c) designer did that on purpose.

I immediately write back to him – a former coworker I haven’t spoken with in 3 years.  I don’t expect a response.

I then turn to Reddit and see that they have a translations  group specifically for this purpose.  So I post up my image and ask for validations of the translation.  Someone who does not know the story tells me that the Japanese reads, “Mel Gibson’s Great Escape.”

And then it all falls into place with this post from swarmtactic:

Yes, Mel Brooks’s “To Be Or Not To Be” was rebranded to be “Mel Brooks’s Great Escape” in the Japanese market, and that is what it says here (I’m guessing silverforest just had a typo with “Mel Gibson”) 

I can confirm silverforest’s translation is accurate. In your graphic designer’s defense,[1] , which is a popular online japanese translation dictionary, lists the Mel Brooks movie as the first entry for the phrase “To be or not to be”, god knows why.

I confirmed this myself – type “to be or not to be” into that engine and you get back the characters which, out of context, would simply tell you “Mel Brooks’ Great Escape.”  (Making this even more confusing?  The Mel Brooks movie The Producers has a song called Run Away! So at first I thought this was a Producers reference!)

So it appears that the engine I was using at the time had a pointer into this service and parroted back whatever it was given.  Amazing that we found that!

I’ve got edited artwork in with the t-shirt people, so this and a couple of other errors will be fixed before the shirts are printed.  Plus I took the opportunity to add Chinese and German ( I learned last night that I forgot German!) so now there’s even more language.  Please, if you haven’t already, consider supporting the movement and showing the world how much you believe in the power of Shakespeare.


I think that Daeshin Kim would be fun to hang out with.  We have a lot in common.  We both think that it’s never too young to expose our children to Shakespeare. We both think that music is a key component in doing that.  I sing lullabies, never met a pun I didn’t like, and post stories of my geeklets wisdom here on the blog.

And then Daeshin goes off and produces Kinderbard, and we’re in different leagues.  Clearly a labor of love for him and his family, Daeshin and his 5yr old daughter Sherman wrote and produced a collection of nursery rhymes – including Sherman singing them! – that they call “A Horse With Wings” (Imogen, from Cymbeline).  Each rhyme is sung from the perspective of a Shakespeare character, and attempts the dual task of teaching a lesson (or dealing with an issue) while providing some context about the character doing the singing.

Example?  Juliet’s song, “It’s just a name.”  If you know the story of Romeo and Juliet you’ll immediately recognize the idea behind Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” speech.  Here, sung by Sherman, it’s a song about dealing with teasing when your perhaps your own name is on the more unusual side.

Or maybe Cordelia’s “I don’t know what to say” song, encouraging shy children to speak up for themselves.

Of course there are the silly ones, too.  Two Gentlemen of Verona‘s contribution is the “Smelly Dog” song, and let me just tell you now, the dog doesn’t smell because it needs a bath, it smells because of what somebody’s been feeding it.  If you get what I mean.

And then there’s Falstaff’s dirty laundry song, where he comes face to face with something so disgusting I’m not going to blog about it (but it will no doubt have younger children in stitches).

Honestly there’s not a great deal of Shakespeare in this.  The coverage is impressive, with contributions from 16 different plays (not just “the big ones”).  Where possible they sneak in direct references (Yorick sings about giving piggyback rides, and As You Like It’s Jaques pretty much sings a simplified version of his entire ages of man speech), and there is some artwork with original quotes.  But I don’t think that a child is going to come away from any of the songs with any long term understanding of Shakespeare.  Although I’ve often said that at the youngest age, the most important thing is recognition of character and maybe plot.  So if the kids who work through Kinderbard learn about Ariel and Yorick and Cordelia and remember those names?  It’s a good start!

Disclaimer – Daeshin and I have discussed this, and he’s clear that his goal is “a songbook that happens to have Shakespeare as its source”, and that he is not primarily attempting to teach Shakespeare.  So I don’t feel as if I’m throwing him under the bus by going here.  This is, after all, a Shakespeare blog so I have to take the logical angle.  If I saw this on a shelf I’d want to know how much Shakespeare my kids are going to get out of it.

My kids are too old for the collection now, but I’d like to think that if it had existed when mine were still young enough that I was popping nursery rhyme CDs into the car stereo when we drove around town?  That I would have picked it up.  If nothing else Kinderbard shows what can happen when you’ve got the kid of passion for a project that Daeshin has demonstrated.

This year’s Shakespeare Day Celebration is sponsored in part by Shakespeare Is Universal: Shakespeare truly is for everyone, and nothing demonstrates that sentiment better than his most famous quote of all, translated here into languages from around the world.   In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, show that you believe his works are just as relevant, powerful and important as they’ve ever been!

Another #ShakespeareDay Is Done


So, how was your day?

This year I succeeded in publishing a new record *28* stories.  And you know what?  I’m pretty sure that a silly picture I tweeted in the middle of the day got more traffic than all of those stories combined.  But that’s ok.  Tweets are temporary, posts are forever.

Here’s a quick recap of the day’s action, since so many posts will have scrolled into the archives before most people get to see them:

  1. My Shakespeare, Rise!
  2. Cover Songs and Sampling
  3. Playing Against Type
  4. Deconstructing Shakespeare
  5. Theme Song Shakespeare : And The Rest!
  6. The Master
  7. A Game! Novel Perspective
  8. Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music
  9. A New Sonnets to Music Collection
  10. WIN One of the Beautiful Shakespeare Signature Series, Free!
  11. Review : Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger
  12. Synetic Shakespeare
  13. “Shakespeare” by Jaden Smith
  14. Romeo & Juliet Trailer
  15. Drive-by Earl of Oxford Jokes
  16. Review : Shakespeare Shaken
  17. Review : So Long, Shakespeare
  18. Willie “Shakespeare” Joel’s Greatest Hits
  19. Kinderbard
  20. Dreaming in Shakespeare (A Continuing Series)
  21. Tales from Shakespeare : Illustrated
  22. Why Are Some Plays Better Recognized Than Others?
  23. Pen Us A Play You’re The Stratford Man
  24. Review : The Wednesday Wars
  25. Rocky Shakespeare III
  26. What Shakespeare Means To Me
  27. Is Shakespeare Universal? Show Your Support!
  28. Why Should I?
This year I’m trying something a little different. I’m running a fundraiser that I’m calling “Shakespeare is Universal.”  In the style of Kickstarter, this company Teespring produces a much higher quality product at a lower price than any other outlet I’ve yet found.  The trick is that you need to get a minimum number of people to sign up for the campaign (i.e. reserve a shirt) by a certain time.  By working in bulk quantities the prices stay low, without sacrificing the quality. 
I am hoping that loyal readers who have enjoyed the blog and everything I’ve done for the cause of Shakespeare over the years will do me the honor of joining the campaign.  There’s three good reasons I’d really like to see this latest effort of mine succeed. First, there’s the obvious practical reason that if I have money I can spend it on more cool Shakespeare things. I don’t believe in lying about that or trying to hide it.
Second, I think it’s a nice shirt.  I made this image awhile ago by taking “To be or not to be” and translating it into as many languages as I could find, and had a graphic designer friend help me with the layout.  When you look at the patterns and realize how you can tell what it says even when you can’t speak the language you begin to see Shakespeare as this Rosetta Stone that enables communication between people all around the world. I think that’s a very cool idea.  When we talk about “Shakespeare for everyone” that doesn’t just mean English speakers.
Lastly there’s a reason of personal importance to me.  If the campaign succeeds, that will mean that there’s at least a hundred people out there who’ll be wearing shirts that identify them as fellow Shakespeare geeks.  One day I will bump into somebody in the wild who is wearing one of them, and that will be an amazing milestone for me, because my bond with that person will be deep and it will be instant, yet again confirming that power that Shakespeare brings out in all of us.

Why Should I?

I promised to speak more about this after I did a video conference with Bardfilm’s students.  It’s a topic that we cover frequently, but it’s important to revisit it from time to time so that we’re all on the same page.

Why should you read Shakespeare?  (* Let’s not argue “read” versus “see”, that’s not what this is about.  I mean why should people expose themselves to Shakespeare.  Moving on..)

When you are in school someone will tell you to read Shakespeare.  If you’re unlucky enough not to get a better answer you may spot a trap — he’s famous because we all study him, but we all study him because he’s famous.  You make us read him because he’s important. Why is he important? He must be, everybody reads him.  Those aren’t answers.

You may go into theatre, in which case you will likely seek out Shakespeare on your own on the path to perfecting your craft.

Or you may go the scholarly route and choose to study the body of his works down to the last punctuation point, coming at it from history or spectral analysis or statistics or any possible angle.  And that’s fine too. Over the years I’ve met many people from programmers to physicists who have brought Shakespeare with them into their profession.

I’m not talking about any of those people.  I’m talking about that other 99% of the world who, once they leave the academic world of being told what to read and why to read it, will have to decide whether to voluntarily expose themselves to more of Mr. Shakespeare.

Why should they?  Take that literally.  Assume that you’ve just been introduced to someone at a party, and you make a Shakespeare reference.  The person says, “Oh, I’ve never read Hamlet.”

“Oh, you have to!” you say.

“Why should I?” says she.

What’s your answer?

I know what we *feel*.  I want to communicate that, logically. I want to find the vocabulary to have this discussion, because I think there are a hundred chances a day to have it if only we knew how to do it.

This year’s Shakespeare Day Celebration is sponsored in part by Shakespeare Is Universal: Shakespeare truly is for everyone, and nothing demonstrates that sentiment better than his most famous quote of all, translated here into languages from around the world. In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, show that you believe his works are just as relevant, powerful and important as they’ve ever been!

Cover Songs and Sampling

I once wrote, “All Shakespeare is cover songs.”  That post is sadly overlooked, I really which it had gotten more traffic.

My analogy has grown, however, and I’d like to bring it back up for discussion.

When you perform Shakespeare (and by that I mean using the text, not writing your own adaptation), you have no choice but to interpret it through your own creative vision.  Shakespeare had his, you have yours.  This is the essence of a cover song.  You both start with the same instructions (recipe?) but then within those constraints you can go in whatever direction you can imagine.

Adaptation is different. Adaptation is more akin to sampling, where you look at an original and think, “I like a piece of this. I will use a piece of this to make my creation more powerful.”  Sometimes you take the underlying beat of the entire song and just put a shallow new layer on top of it (the Vanilla Ice / Queen controversy comes to mind).  Sometimes, though, you find a piece of one original work that comes and boosts your own work, producing an entirely new thing.  Consider Primitive Radio Gods’  Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand, which everybody knows for the B.B. King sample.

In the second case everybody said, “Wow, that’s a great song!”  In the first everybody said, “Dude, you completely ripped that off.”  Big difference.  You have to bring enough of your own stuff to the party, and you have to acknowledge the contributions from the original, or you’re going to get busted trying to ride somebody else’s coattails.

Covers and samples are entirely different things with different points to make.  It drives me nuts when people make lists that combine the two, putting She’s the Man next to Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing.  Please stop.  Each can be artwork in its own way, but they are two very different things.

Playing Against Type

A little while back I saw a conversation on Reddit started by someone who’d directed Julius Caesar.  He’d chosen to cast a … what’s a good word … corpulent gentleman as Cassius.  His motivation was probably 90% practical (i.e. the big guy was the only choice) but he’d convinced himself that the casting really drew attention to Caesar’s famous “yon Cassius hath a lean and hungry look” line, making people think that well duh obviously Caesar doesn’t really mean he wants to be surrounded by obese dudes.  You can have a “lean and hungry” look that has nothing to do with whether you are undernourished.

I’m into a book right now that looks to be painting Gertrude as an alcoholic (at the very least, she enjoys her wine a little too much).  That’s not the first time I’ve seen that, by a long shot.  I wonder if somebody’s ever played a tea-totalling Gertrude who won’t touch the stuff?  What if we took the whole wine thing right out of Hamlet and had the final bottle of Gatorade poisoned instead?

I’ve been thinking about typecasting in Shakespeare.  Some roles seem like they have to be cast a certain way.  Does Cassius have to be a beanpole?  Does Gertrude have to demonstrate her fondness for wine before we get to the final scene?  Does Hamlet have to dress all in black? Does Don John have to hold the cape up to his face and twirl that handlebar mustache?

Ok, I’ve never seen that last one, but it’s what I always think of when I see that play.  “There’s to be a WEDDING?!  I must RUIN it, because I am so very EVIL!!!  Grab the girl, tie her to the railroad tracks!”

Does anybody know what I’m talking about?  What character interpretation has become such a go-to move that you’re left wishing somebody would stand the idea on its head just to shake it up a bit?

Deconstructing Shakespeare

I’ve been thinking about adaptation lately, and not just because Bardfilm keeps dumping homework in my lap.  This idea has been a recurring theme here on the blog all the way back to the Lion King / Hamlet debate.

(For the sake of terminology, when I speak of “adaptation” I refer to telling the story using modern language.  Kenneth Branagh’s work, using original text in a modern setting, is what I’d call “interpretation”.   10 Things I Hate About You or She’s The Man or, yes, even Lion King are adaptations.)

When you take this approach, a new telling of Shakespeare’s stories, what you’re really doing is deconstructing the story and building it back up from its elements.  Start with a king, have his brother kill him and take over his kingdom, and the son is left to avenge his father?  Is that all you need to be Hamlet?  What about Lear?  If you start with a powerful landowner and his three assumed heirs, and add a misunderstanding and a falling out with the one good one, do you have a Lear story?

I don’t mind modern adaptation.  When people talk about Shakespeare no longer being approachable or relevant the first thing they trot out is how it’s all about kings and ghosts and swordfights and we don’t have any of those things in any meaningful capacity, so you have to switch it out.  Instead of a king we have the president of a company.  Instead of Montagues and Capulets with swords we have Jets and Sharks with guns.  Lear’s “heirs” don’t have to be his children, and Claudius doesn’t have to be Hamlet’s uncle.  You can work at the edges of those relationships (you want approachable Shakespeare?  How many young people out there right now do you think have to call mom’s new friend “uncle” and it drives them insane?)

So how far back can you take it?  Is there a minimum where, if you don’t take at least that much, you no longer have the story?  You’d think there must be.  If King Hamlet isn’t out of the picture at the start of the play, it’s a different play.  If Macbeth doesn’t make his move on his superior officer, it’s a different play.

Of course there’s no rules for this, so what I’m really talking about it something between being recognizable, and “getting a bump” as they say in political/media circles.  Whether something is recognizable as having elements of X is entirely dependent on your audience’s familiarity with X. Only recently did somebody point out to me that Lion King has elements of Cymbeline.   I don’t think that the recognition factor is something that writer/directors can control.  They can hope, but they can’t control.

It’s the “bump” thing that’s more interesting, and it’s very similar to how people quote random things on the internet and stick “-Shakespeare” at the end.  It makes people think twice, and think better.  Oh you wrote a love story? Big deal, there’s lots of those.  Oh you wrote a Romeo and Juliet story?  I know that story, that’s a great story!  I’ll check out your version.

Did Tommy Boy or Strange Brew ever market themselves as Shakespeare remakes? Maybe if they did, they’d have been more critically received.  Or, worse, maybe they would have been crucified as terrible Shakespeare adaptations.

In the drive in to work this morning I thought of something.  In Lion King, Simba doesn’t realize that his uncle Scar killed his father until the very end.  This is entirely different from the world of Hamlet where his father *tells* him that, and he first has to prove it, and then has to do something about it.  Yet another reason why I will continue to argue down the “Lion King Is Hamlet” theory to the day I die.

A Game! Novel Perspective

Here’s a game.  Let’s pretend that you’re reading a novelization of one of Shakespeare’s plays.  A literary adaptation, if you will.  I’m in the middle of Undiscovered Country, to provide an example.

When you write in this style you need to choose (and I’m sure I’ll get my terminology wrong), a narrative voice.  Will this story be told in first person, third, or other?  The story I’m reading is told from Hamlet’s first person perspective and I found myself thinking, “Is he crazy at this point? Would I the read know he’s crazy at this point, if he doesn’t think he is?”

The closest Shakespeare’s got to this is the soliloquoy, where the audience gets some insight into the inner thought processes of a particular character.  But those are few and far between.  I’m talking about a literary angle on the play where the entire story is told from a single character, to the point where if something happens that doesn’t include the narrator might as well not have ever happened (except second hand, if the narrator is told about it).

So the game is this.  Pick a play, pick a character, and tell us how the story would be told differently if you saw things through that character’s eyes.   It’s not even limited to the big questions from the great tragedies.  What would Dream be like told from Bottom’s perspective?  Or Shrew from the perspective of the Shrew?

Theme Song Shakespeare : And The Rest!

It’s been awhile since we did these.  Have some Shakespeare TV Theme Songs!

 A Band of Brothers 

(sung to the tune of “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”, the Cheers song)  

Fighting the Battle of Agnicourt
takes everything you got.
A few of those men lying a-bed in England
sure would help a lot. 

Wouldn’t you like to run away?

Sometimes the fewer men, the greater share of honour:
Harry the king, Bedford, Exeter.
You want to go where Crispin knows
You’re not like all the others.
You want to be a part of a band of brothers.

A New Dane In Town (the “Alice” theme song)

I used to be mad—a really glum guy.
Funniest thing—a rogue and peasant slave am I.
Melting my solid flesh down was my favorite sport.
I gotta grab Claude & start revenging ’cause life’s too short.
There’s a new Dane in town, and I’m drinking blood!
Hell itself breathes contagion to the . . . neighborhood.
There’s a new Dane in town.  Now I’ll do it pat.
And this Dane’s here to say
With a sword and cup revenge is gonna be . . .
. . . so sweeeeeeeeeet!