I continue playing with ChatGPT in as many varied ways as I can imagine. Last night I asked it to write me a blog post on “Christmas in Shakespeare’s Plays.” Here’s what I got. Let’s dissect!
The celebration of Christmas has a long and varied history, and it has been depicted in literature and art for centuries. In the plays of William Shakespeare, Christmas is often portrayed as a time of joy, celebration, and reflection.
Fine, I guess. Generic.
One of the most well-known references to Christmas in Shakespeare’s plays is in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In this play, the character Bottom describes a dream he had in which he was transformed into an ass and danced at a Christmas feast. This humorous portrayal of Christmas is a lighthearted example of the way in which the holiday was often depicted in Elizabethan England.
…what? After all these years I’ve still got some pretty hefty impostor syndrome when it comes to Shakespeare, so whenever it said Bottom references “dancing at a Christmas feast” my first thought was, “He does? Why don’t I remember that?” So I went looking:
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the duke: peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
I even went into the Quarto versions. I’m aware that just searching “Christmas” isn’t going to yield a hit, but so far I see nothing even close. I asked on Twitter, and others didn’t seem to know, either. Hmm. Ok, moving on.
In “Henry V,” Shakespeare references the Christmas season in a more serious manner. The play takes place during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and it tells the story of King Henry V’s victory at the Battle of Agincourt. In one scene, the king speaks to his troops on the eve of the battle, reminding them that it is Christmas time and encouraging them to fight for their country.
It’s Christmas Time? <asks Google to remind me when St. Crispin’s Day is> October. Again, I’ll plead ignorance and ask, is there a connection here? Would you call Agincourt “Christmas time”? Ok, one more.
“Twelfth Night” is another play that features Christmas as a prominent theme. The play is set in Illyria during the Christmas season and follows the misadventures of the character Viola, who disguises herself as a man after being shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. In one memorable scene, the character Sir Toby Belch gets drunk and sings a song about Christmas, declaring it to be “a time for joy, a time for love, a time for peace on earth.”
This is just a no. Twelfth Night is named for when the play was performed, not for the plot. It doesn’t mention anything related to Christmas or the Christmas season at all. And, much like Bottom’s Dream, I have no clue what song of Sir Toby’s it’s talking about. The word “peace” pretty much only appears in the play when people are saying “Hold thy peace.” Joy doesn’t appear at all. No version of “a time for” anything appears at all.
Overall, Shakespeare’s plays depict Christmas as a time of joy, celebration, and reflection. Whether it is through humorous references or more serious themes, the holiday is an important part of the fabric of Elizabethan England and continues to be a beloved tradition today.
And we wrap up with the generic, basically repeating the intro paragraph. This is what I used to teach my kids as the “middle school format”. Make a statement, say what your essay will show. Three paragraphs demonstrating your point. Conclude by restating your original argument.
At first glance I only picked up on Bottom’s Dream and thought, “Oh, interesting, I wonder what bug caused that.” But upon further reading and realization that it’s entirely wrong and just flat out making stuff up, my whole attitude toward the program has changed. A student tasked with looking for Christmas references in Shakespeare’s works could be given this response and assume every word of it is true. I sent me feedback to the creators (which you’re supposed to do, that’s one of the reasons it’s free for people), but I don’t expect it’s something they can address. Where do you even look for the source of something like that?
I realize that’s an awkward title, but there’s a lot of relevant information to impart and I wanted to hit the important bits. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a very long play title. This is the second review of books I received from David Zwirner. For the first, Othello, see here.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an interesting play to me, the casual fan. Often thought of simply as “the one with the fairies”, the one that’s safe (and adorable!) to have five year olds perform, running around in their sparkly wings, reciting famous lines they don’t understand. But it’s got that darker side, too. It’s also the story of a husband whose wife is not sufficiently obedient, so he drugs her and takes what he wants. But then there’s also the overarching theme of dreams and reality and telling the difference between them, of putting on masks and presenting yourself to the world as someone or something that you’re not, voluntarily or not.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a whole lot of room when it comes to interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Which brings me to our review. I gave the back story in the previous Othello blog post, but David Zwirner is an art gallery. These books are not new academic treatments of Shakespeare. The text, though well laid out and visually appealing, is the same text we’ve all seen before – line numbers, glossary terms, and so on. No extra commentary.
These books are about the art. It’s like walking through a museum, where Dream is the theme. You turn a corner and you see a painting, and next to it, the relevant scene from the play. (That’s not an entirely accurate analogy as this is the full text of the play, not just excerpts). And you admire the portrait and you examine the text and you discuss and interpret their connection. What is the artist trying to say here?
I feel a little bad, because I’m not completely sure how to usefully review a book like this where it’s all about the art. Art is something you want to see and experience for yourself. I run a blog specifically, and about Shakespeare specifically, because that universe is almost entirely about the words. I can copy and paste and type new words all day long. But I don’t have the experience or education in art to adequately describe this book. Hence, the best I can do is present my own opinion and maybe some badly framed images.
So I was thinking today about a future where we have people on the moon. You know, typically Friday afternoon stuff. Like you might read in a Robert Heinlein novel. I was talking about the next generation being the ones who might live on the moon, who might be the first to perform Romeo and Juliet on the …. wait a second.
How you gonna swear by yonder blessed moon when you’re standing on the fool thing?
For that matter, how is Hamlet going to ask Polonius, “You see that cloud?”
Here’s the game. Which of Shakespeare’s plays are going to need to do some editing once they’re performed on the moon? For bonus points, put on your director hat and tell us how you’re going to creatively get around those lines. Is Romeo going to swear by yonder blessed Saturn?
One of the biggest decisions to be made, when we started planning this vacation, was whether to see a show at the RSC or the Globe. I know, I know, people are screaming “Both!” at the screen right now, but let’s just agree that real-world considerations (time, money, not wanting to push my luck dragging my family to *too* much Shakespeare…) won out, and there would be one show.
But which? The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), if you’re not familiar, is in Stratford-upon-Avon, while Shakespeare’s Globe is in London. We planned to visit both cities, so we had a choice. People may wish to discuss my broad strokes here, but the way I figure it my choice came down to:
The RSC is where you see the best Shakespeare in the world. Depending on when we go we might even get to see some big-name Hollywood actors (and then maybe see them afterward at The Dirty Duck). The downside to that is if you’re not a reasonably serious fan of Shakespeare, the difference between “this is an outstanding show” and “I don’t understand what’s going on” will probably become apparent quickly.
Shakespeare’s Globe is intended as a tourist attraction, an exact recreation of the Globe as it was in Shakespeare’s day. You’ll sit where and how Shakespeare’s audience sat (right down to paying extra for a cushion), you’ll see his plays performed on his stage. I do not expect this to be the greatest Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. I expect this to be more of a “package deal” where the “Wow, we’re actually here!” factor plays heavily.
We decide to see a show at the Globe. Specifically, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My family is reasonably familiar with that one, and it’s a raucous comedy, so worst case scenario we’re all laughing ourselves silly all night. There are worse things.
The whole area of the city around the Globe is apparently loaded with historical landmarks, and I would have loved to go visit them all, but time was not on our side. We’d started the vacation with three days of nothing but Shakespeare, and now that we were in London and had a few Shakespeare free days, I didn’t think my family was in the mood to chase me around the streets of London just to see random “Here’s where a certain building stood 400 years ago!” signs.
I did, however, see something on the map that says “Shakespeare Mural.” I had no idea what that was and wanted to find it. I thought I had an idea? Turns out it was much, much better than I was expecting…
I hate that the tuba guy is there (even though his instrument was a flamethrower). But others have told me he adds character to the picture, so what can you do?
We get to the theatre early enough to sit around and have a drink, but not early enough to catch the last tour. That was my fault, I was riding that “I will not ask my family to do more Shakespeare stuff” thing harder than I should have, and by the time I mentioned the tour and they said, “Let’s go on it!” we’d missed it. Ah, well.
I take the opportunity while we’re sitting in the cafe to stuff a bunch of Shakespeare Geek stickers in with the napkins. I wonder if anybody found them? 🙂
We get inside, and at last, we’re here (with cushions!) There’s a pretty strict “no pictures while anyone is onstage” policy, which I saw enforced, so here’s the only picture I got:
That piñata hanging there tells the theme, which I’ll come back to in a moment.
We open as expected with Theseus and Hippolyta. Hippolyta is portrayed as an animal, literally shipped here in a box, bound and gagged and barely able to speak the language. The best way I can describe Theseus is … Eric Idle, from Monty Python. Trust me. If you’ve ever heard Eric Idle speak (and you no doubt have, he’s done a zillion voiceover things), this is our Theseus. He’s afraid of Hippolyta, he’s here for comic effect. Which is not a stretch, because as I soon learn, pretty much everything is here for comic effect. Everything is over the top, play to the audience.
We meet our youths, we get our plot, we head for the forest. Cue the fairies! Remember that piñata theme? In comes this New Orleans-style parade of monstrosities, like a cross between a walking pinata and that new show The Masked Singer. Some have really long draggy arms, some have weird monster eyes. Titania is not done up like that, she looks more like she’s straight out of Mardi Gras.
Our Puck is interesting. The costuming is nothing special, just a t-shirt and some deely-bopper antennae, but there’s a reason for that. The entire cast plays Puck. Huh? It took me a while to realize that they weren’t just doubling. As far as I could tell, at one point or another pretty much every member of the cast donned a Puck t-shirt for a scene or at least part of a scene. For the scene where Puck is looking for the flower (“I go, I go; look how I go, Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.”) it worked well, like he’d cloned himself to go that many times faster. But in a later scene, the various Pucks are actually competing with each other to finish his lines. Definitely entertaining, but I’m not sure there was a bigger message or just a cool gimmick.
The funniest gimmick, speaking of, is the audience member they brought up on stage as one of the Mechanicals. This poor chap (Simon) mostly stood there, uncomfortable, while the cast all played off him like an improv game. And it was hysterical. At intermission my kids said to me, “Would you go up there if they grabbed you?” and I told them, “Yes, but I probably wouldn’t be as funny, because I’d be trying to play along with the play as I know it. The fact that this guy doesn’t know the play is half the fun.” When Bottom is translated and everybody runs away screaming, Simon just stands there. Even I’m in the audience yelling, “Run away, Simon! Run away!” And then Bottom gave him the cue: “Why do they run away? (run away, Simon! run away!) this is a knavery of them to make me afeard….” and he ran away.
Now let’s talk about Bottom, because if there’s something I didn’t like about the play, this was it. Not the actress’ performance, that was fine. I mean, there was nothing at all deep going on, just 100% playing to the audience. I’m talking about how obscene it got.
We talk about the dirty jokes in Shakespeare. We know that he had to deliver what the audience wanted, and we know that this troupe is playing up to that angle. But when you’ve got this many kids in the audience, I wonder about some of the decisions made…
Though it’s typically pointed out that Bottom is just given an ass’s head, he’s not completely transformed into a donkey, this time he’s done up head to toe in one of those piñata costumes so it’s hard to tell. Doubly so when he (I’m going to keep saying he, although it’s an actress playing the role, for reasons that are about to become obvious) reaches down between his legs and pulls out this…well, this long thing that’s dangling. I wonder whether that’s supposed to be a tail, then I remember that only his head is a donkey and think, “Oh, dear. Please don’t let the kids ask me about this.” We then see that there is a flute at the end of it, upon which he plays a tune. Then, just to drive the point fully home, he looks right at a member of the audience and says, “Whistle cock.”
(Sidebar – I thought, “Huh??? Why don’t I remember this?” and when I was able, I went back to the script:
I will walk up
and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear
I am not afraid. Sings The ousel cock so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill,
The throstle with his note so true,
The wren with little quill,–
*sigh* I guess? Maybe that’s a one-off joke? Oh, how mistaken I was about to be.
Let’s just jump to where Titania and Bottom meet, and she’s taken by the size of his … instrument. She tries (?) to play her own tune on it, does so poorly, then announces, “It’s been a while” and moves on. I’m wondering at that point whether she was as uncomfortable as the parents in the audience. Not to mention any music teachers, who were no doubt thinking “That’s not what you do with your tongue.”
Don’t worry, it gets worse. You know that scene where Bottom is just fully into the whole “Ok, I guess these fairies are going to do everything I tell them” thing? This whole scene has taken place in a big dumpster, by means of a prop. It’s where Titania originally fell asleep, it’s where she takes him for whatever it is they’re doing, and it’s where they are when the fairies are … waiting on him. Except whatever they’re all doing to him is rather exciting. Building to a climax, even. Suddenly a jet of some unidentified liquid comes shooting forth! Everybody gets uncomfortable (nay, grossed out) and the scene continues.
There’s more of that sort of humor, but that was the worst of it. In the big scene at the end, when Wall comes out (played by a woman), you can make a guess where they decided to put the chink that Pyramus and Thisbe have to put their lips against. Stuff like that. I don’t want to sound like a prude. My kids are old enough now that they understood what was going on. And it’s not like I saw many 10yr olds running around among the groundlings. Shakespeare and people could do bawdy. I just didn’t expect it to be quite so graphic.
Overall it was exactly what I expected (except for the obscene parts). It was all about the audience, all about making sure they get the joke and laugh. Nothing was subtle. My family enjoyed it, that’s the important part. We got to see the Globe. Quality of performance aside, I think that if I’d chosen RSC at the expense of not seeing the inside of the Globe, I would have regretted it.
One quick story before I go! We had excellent seats, front row of the top section. We filled the row except for one seat, taken by this young woman who was there by herself. She told us that she’s a graduate student (though not in Shakespeare), and that her studies allow her to get to London regularly enough that she’s been to see a show at the Globe four times. She apparently had some sort of social media presence of her own, because when I saw her trying to take a bunch of selfies and offered to get a picture for her, she told me that the selfie angle was part of her signature style. But she did have me take a few. She then took a few of my family, which came out nice but of course I can’t post here. She said she’d never been to Stratford, so I pulled out some pictures we’d taken earlier in the week, and she was suitably jealous. 🙂
Before leaving I gave her one of my Shakespeare Geek stickers. Never did catch her name, but if you ended up following me and you’re reading this, hello!
When Shakespeare geeks heard that Sir Kenneth Branagh would be bringing us a story of Shakespeare’s final years, written by Ben Elton (who brought us Upstart Crow and Blackadder) and starring Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen, hearts skipped more than a few beats. How could it be anything other than a dream come true? A modern Shakespeare movie to replace Shakespeare In Love in the “Shakespeare fan fiction” movie pantheon. All in all, I liked it. Parts I liked a lot. Parts I loved. My wife liked it, my kids liked it. But I don’t think it will be remembered as a great movie.
We open in 1613 after the Globe has burned down. The text tells us that Shakespeare never wrote another play. We instead return to Stratford Upon Avon, where he’s basically gone to retire and be with his family again. His reputation follows him – both as the world’s greatest writer, but also as the son of his disgraced father. Both fans and enemies alike follow him around and annoy him.
Judi Dench is excellent as Anne Hathaway when she stops Shakespeare from coming into the bedroom, telling him, “Twenty years, Will. You can’t just back and pick up like everything is normal. You’re a guest here.” Later she’ll have more speeches about what it was like to be married to the world’s greatest writer and not know how to read, or how she felt when someone else read the sonnets to her. Answers to the “second-best bed” question are given but I didn’t find them satisfactory.
The daughters also do an excellent job, but Judith is given much more to work with. Susannah is already trapped in an unhappy marriage to a Puritan, while Judith still lives at home and is an angry young lady who has no problem shouting things like, “Why don’t you just say it, father? The wrong twin died.” Yikes. Her relationship to Thomas Quiney was played brilliantly, I thought, and could easily have been the subplot of any modern drama.
That’s basically your plot – man ignores his family for twenty years, during which time his only son dies, and in his final years, he tries to set things right. One daughter is trapped in an unhappy marriage, one is rebelling at every opportunity, and his wife, their mother, is just trying to keep it all together in the name of reputation and honor. There’s some really heavy-handed symbolism right out of the gate where he says, “I think I’ll plant a garden.” Later, “I’m not a very good gardener…” and you can just imagine how it goes from there. Oh look, people came to help him… and so on.
There’s enough Shakespeare bio here to appease the fans. All the important areas are touched on – what did Anne think about the sonnets? What was Shakespeare’s relationship to Henry Wriotheseley? The coat of arms, the glove making, even Thomas Lucey’s poached ponies are referenced. Stuff is quoted, from sonnets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titus Andronicus makes an appearance. To the extent where you want to see this movie just to count the references, it’s enjoyable. Whenever there was a pause in the dialogue I’d do my own filling in the blanks for the kids. “Ok, that must be Thomas Quiney, look for him to do something that dishonors the family name and for Shakespeare to change his will…”
The problem, ultimately, is that everybody making this film knows that they are riding a line between “Here’s what we know” and “Here’s what we don’t, so we’re going to fill in the blanks.” Most of that “blank” surrounds Hamnet’s death and Shakespeare’s dealing with it (with second place going to “how could all the women in Shakespeare’s life be illiterate?” and third “what exactly was Shakespeare’s relationship to the Earl of Southampton?”) The more time they spent on Hamnet, the more I thought, “See, now, this is the stuff they’re just making up.” Hamnet wrote poems! Shakespeare and Hamnet had a favorite pond they used to walk to! How lovely … for an audience like my wife, who doesn’t know which parts of the story are true and which are not, so for her it’s basically all true and she can let herself enjoy it. But for those of us that are keeping a running fact checker in their heads because we can’t turn it off, the more time they spent in made up land, the weaker the movie becomes.
See the problem? They built the entire movie around Shakespeare’s relationship to his lost son. In that context, we learn about his relationship with his own father, and with his daughters, and with their children. But there’s that legal term “fruit of the poisonous tree”, and if all of your evidence traces its way back to a source that isn’t really legitimate, well, you have to throw it all out. I can’t totally fault them for it – the movie has to have a plot, after all – but it ends up being the weakest part, to me, because I couldn’t help thinking all is not true. Could it have been true? Sure. They do a better job there than Shakespeare In Love which I don’t think was at all suggesting that’s what really happened. But I’ll give Branagh that – he tells a perfectly reasonable story. But the title of that story is not Could Be True.
One thing that did surprise me – this film is *gorgeous*. I don’t know who is responsible for making the colors on the screen do what they do, but damn they did a fine job. Some shots are near breathtaking. For a play about a man of words, somebody decided, “We’re going to make sure we show just how beautiful the world around him is.” At times it reminded me of the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come (also a Shakespeare line!) with its literally out-of-this-world colors. Given that much of the story takes place inside – lit by candles, thus making the scenes pretty dark – the cuts to outside shots are always a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.
In the end, and maybe this was deliberate, I don’t know, but in the end, this is an average story about an average man. You could tell the “man tries to reconcile with the family he ignored for twenty years” about anybody. In this case, it just so happens to be the world’s greatest author. It might even have been a better movie if they pulled back on the Shakespeare and let that story shine through. There are parts where it was good, but plenty where it was contrived. There’s a scene where Judith screams, “Nothing is true!” just so we get our juxtaposition with the title of the movie for Heaven’s sake, but come on, who talks like that? What does that even mean? There’s the aforementioned garden. Lots of heavy-handedness like that. But I guess there’s an audience that likes that?
Go see it. Go see it with someone you love, who doesn’t know as much about Shakespeare as you do :). Spot the references, enjoy the colors.