When You Have No Mind’s Eye

Not how I would have pictured him, but that’s not saying much.

I’ve long been fascinated with “visualization,” mostly because I discovered that I can’t do it. You know that thing when someone says, “Close your eyes. Picture yourself standing on a beach. A woman approaches, carrying a box…?” I have no picture in my mind. I can’t tell you whether there’s other people in the scene, or how old the woman is or what she looks like, or the color or size of the box. It’s more like my brain just establishes the connected concepts and says, “Ok, yup, on the beach, woman carrying a box. Next?”

I learned in college that people actually *do* see a picture in their head. Maybe you, dear reader, are one of them (you probably are). Consider the scene I described. What does the woman look like? What color is the box? Are there other people around? What’s the sky like? You probably have answers to all of those things.

My kids recently taught me the word “aphantasia” to describe this. They’re fascinated with it. “You have no mind’s eye!” they’ll tell me, astonished. Whether they realize they’re borrowing from Hamlet, I’m not sure, but I’ll take it. When we talk about math I’m astonished that they tell me they literally visualize numbers lining up in columns, and when they say things like “carry the 1” they really see the 1 moving over to the next column. I get none of that. Numbers to me are just quantities, they have no visual component. They can’t imagine it working like that.

This isn’t just a random rant about the inner workings on my brain. I’m wondering whether or not it’s precisely because of aphantasia that I’m interested in theatre, and Shakespeare specifically. See, I don’t know or care about how anything looks. I have no picture of Hamlet or Ophelia or Gertrude. People talk about “a director’s vision” and I think, “Nope, I could never be a director.” All I have, and all I care about, is the words. So the words are 99% of the experience for me, and the fact that every production of the play brings forth a new visual interpretation just adds to it.

Audio is excellent, too, by the way. This is not a “read only” type of thing. I’m perfectly happy to have the words acted out for me, to put all the emphasis in the right place. But literally at no point do I picture a snivelly little hunched Claudius or a big fat Claudius. He is entirely defined for me by the words that come out of his mouth, which are what define him in relation to the other characters. So when someone else puts a visual to him and I get to see Claudius? I never, ever think, “That’s not how I pictured him.” I almost always think, “Ok, interesting, let’s see how well the visual connects to the words.”

Ok, that’s it for a Sunday night. Just something I’m thinking about, with no pictures.

Among His Private Friends

When I started this site way back in 2005 I really had no idea what I was doing. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, and basically you started a blog as a way to brain dump ideas you had on a topic in the hopes that other people might want to read them and engage in conversation. I don’t know that I knew more about Shakespeare than your average Joe, I just knew that I found the topic more interesting and wanted to talk about it more than my friends and family did. So I started a blog to talk about Shakespeare.

Then a funny thing happened. People who actually did know about the subject – a lot, as it turns out – joined the conversation. One of my new friends was Dr. Carl Atkins, who sent me a copy of his book Shakespeare’s Sonnets : With 300 Years of Commentary. Looking back now I admit that I had no idea what I was doing and understood very little of it :), but it’s been a reference ever since, both when I pull it down from the shelf, and when Carl pops up in the comments on sonnet threads and quotes his research to answer our questions.

Among His Private Friends

Well Carl’s working on a new book and site now called Among His Private Friends which aim to put you the reader in the role of one of Shakespeare’s “private friends”, passing the sonnets around among yourselves and learning the story they tell from the inside. In the author’s own words, the goal of this one is not to be a definitive reference but rather a fun read, the way Shakespeare may have intended.

The site is still a work in progress. Hardcore sonnet fans who are always interested in a new angle, should definitely check it out and send Carl some feedback! His book is due out in October.

What Are Your Top Five Shakespeare Plays?

Yeah, that’s right, I’m doing one of these. But, there’s a twist!

I think it’s impossible to take a list of 38 plays spanning tragedy, comedy and history and compare them equally. It’s like asking your favorite food, or song. You need some sort of context. Favorite for what? Relative to what?

Here’s mine:

Hollywood called. There’s a new rule that nobody can make any more Shakespeare movies without the approval of actual Shakespeare fans, so it’s up to us. We’ve got to make a list of the most desired “Please make a modern movie version of <play>” plays, and they get to choose from that list.

Go. Everybody gets 5, in order of preference. Feel free to elaborate whether you want to see a particular kind of adaptation / interpretation, but it’s not required. If I get enough people to play I’ll crunch the numbers and post the final list. Who knows, maybe there really are some movie producers out there looking for a new project? You have to put it out there in the universe if you want to see it exist!

My Selections

5) Much Ado About Nothing

I think the two most well-known movies we’ve got, Kenneth Branagh’s and Joss Whedon’s, are excellent. But I’ll take more. I think Much Ado is as close to the modern “romantic comedy” as any of Shakespeare’s plays might get, and it’s a perfect date night introduction to an audience that might not otherwise think about going to see Shakespeare.

4) Twelfth Night

I think the time is right for someone to really get in there and explore all the issues of gender and sexuality found in this one.

3) Hamlet

What can I say, I’m a bit of a purist. I don’t really need to see another Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, but I can pick apart Hamlets all day. Look what David Tennant did, look what Benedict Cumberbatch did, look what Kevin Kline or Derek Jacobi or Laurence Olivier or Mel Gibson did. Where does it work, where does it fail, and why? Does this Hamlet love his father or fear him? Does this Gertrude know about Claudius’ guilt or not? There’s nearly infinite variety. As I write that I’m imagining some sort of “express Hamlet“, like a one-man show version, that all young up-and-coming actors must tackle so we have a baseline for how they do it.

2) King Lear

I want a modern retelling of Lear. This play is as much a challenge for the audience as it is for the actors. While I consider it a masterpiece and a true honor to witness a production, I am still hesitant to say to any friends and family, “Hey, come see King Lear with me.” Hamlet has been approachable enough for so long that it’s been stripped down to its elements and built back up. I want that for Lear, so more people can experience even a part of it. I hesitate to say it, but yes since people are no doubt thinking it, I’m open to a “Lion King for King Lear.” (And yes, for those others thinking it, I’ve seen A Thousand Acres)

1) The Tempest

So I’m predictable, sue me. I’ve loved The Tempest since my children were little. You can tell it as a fairy tale, as a romance, as a comedy, as a revenge (forgiveness?) story. I’ve written for years that I think Disney could do a version. I understand that it’s got some issues around “colonialism” but I’ve just never really chosen to look at the play that way. For me, it will always be primarily about a father literally positioning himself as a god over the bubble universe that he created for his daughter’s well-being and his realization and acceptance that he has to relinquish that power and let her go. I think we’re still waiting for a definitive version of this one.

How Out Was Kit Marlowe?

I asked a variation of this question a few weeks ago on Twitter and Facebook but nobody took me up on it. Since those two channels are very time-sensitive (if you’re not there when it’s posted you’ll usually miss it forever), I thought I’d post it here as well. I still get traffic on posts from ten years ago.

The question is this. We love to debate whether Shakespeare was gay. But from everything I’ve read we all seem to be in agreement that Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Shakespeare’s popular contemporary, definitely was. Can somebody who is expert in this area elaborate a little bit?

Do we have actual evidence in Marlowe’s words? Or just an interpretation of his work that’s a little more on the nose than Shakespeare’s?

If it is somehow obvious now, was it also obvious then? What would it have meant to be a gay man in Elizabethan England?

And the most interesting question to me, would Shakespeare (and Marlowe’s other fellow writers) have known? How exactly would that play out? Maybe it’s one of those “poorly kept secrets,” where he was never really “out” to the world, but only his inner circle?

Of course, this is all based on my assumption that Shakespeare and Marlowe knew each other quite well. Marlowe didn’t die until Shakespeare was something like 29 years old. Aren’t there parts of Henry VI that are direct homages to Marlowe? I could be entirely wrong here.

I hope somebody out there knows what I’m trying to say. It feels like what we “know” about Marlowe must open up more questions than it answers. But I’ve never really seen much discussion about the answers to those questions.

Oh, That Question [ A Geeklet Story ]

School’s over now, so my kids are decompressing by starting to have friends over just to hang out, not to study. Today my daughter’s friend arrived and headed straight for me.

“I had to tell you,” she began excitedly, “For my Latin final, I wrote about the Shakespeare question. And my teacher said it was the best answer he’d ever seen!”

“Great!” I replied, thrown by the leap from Latin to Shakespeare. She’s also probably talking about an AP (Advanced Placement) course so I think that maybe this was one of those situations where they gave the kids multiple prompts and they had to pick one, and one was about Shakespeare. “Exactly which Shakespeare question are we talking about?” I finally asked.

“About authorship, how people think he didn’t write the plays.”

“Oh,” I said, rolling my eyes, “that question. I hope you are on the side of the man from Stratford?”

“Of course,” she replied, “I’m definitely a Stratfordian.”

“Good girl,” I told her. “I don’t think I would have let you into the house otherwise.”