What If Claudius Was Innocent?

Here’s a thought that came to me over the weekend.  What if the “ghost of Hamlet’s father” really was an evil spirit that was just trying to cause trouble? What if Claudius didn’t really kill Hamlet’s father?  How would the play change?

Other than Claudius’ actual words (“a brother’s murder”), how much evidence is there that he admits to his crime?  If we snipped that bit out could he just as easily be dealing with guilt over the “crime” of marrying his brother’s wife?

More importantly, what does this do to the character of Hamlet?  We go through the entire play assuming that Hamlet is doing the right thing, and Claudius is the bad guy. What if it was reversed? What if we really didn’t know? Or, even better, what if we knew (somehow) that Claudius was innocent, and that Hamlet spends the play chasing the wrong guy?



Most Popular Shakespeare Geek Merch for 2017

When started making Shakespeare geek merchandise as part of Amazon’s merchandise program back in April of this year I had no idea how it would go. I’m no graphic designer.  At best I had the strength and popularity of one particular quote I thought might do well.  So I started throwing anything I could think of up onto a shirt and seeing what happens.  I’m actually quite happy with the results, and I hope that the hundreds of people out there who purchased are happy with what they received in return.  I still harbor hope of bumping into strangers wearing a shirt I created.

Since it’s a slow week to close out the year I thought I’d take a look at my sales numbers and see what the most popular Shakespeare geek merchandise turned out to be. In all examples below, click the image to visit Amazon if you’d like one for yourself!

Right now Amazon’s got something weird happening with their inventory where they’ve drastically cut back on how merch vendors (like me) are indexed.  What that means is that while I have nearly 100 designs with them, only about two dozen are visible at the moment. And even with that, some of them are out of stock.  I hope they get it together soon because they also have a “delist shirts that haven’t sold in XX days” policy that hasn’t changed, which makes no sense to me — if people can’t see my designs then, of course, they can’t buy them!  

Got Dagger?  This idea actually came out of a Twitter conversation, from one of my followers.  I asked permission to use it on a shirt, and people seemed to like it.  Amazon looks like they’re having trouble sourcing the long sleeve shirts right now (most of them say currently unavailable) but hopefully that will be remedied after the holidays.

Mercutio Drew First! The Sequel  This is the one that brought me to the dance, so to speak, but it’s not the original.  People had told me that they didn’t like the Star Wars font of the original, which I wouldn’t have expected because isn’t it a Star Wars joke?  But I aim to please, so I made a few versions with different fonts and they seem to have been popular enough to make the list.

Bard Core  Who knew? I was walking through a department store one day and saw some kind of skater / surfer shirt that said “Hard Core” on it and thought, “Can I do something Shakespearey with that?”  So I threw “Bard Core” onto a shirt. Sure enough, people liked it!

Elsinore Was An Inside Job I have to say, I think this is my favorite shirt even though nobody seems to get it. I wanted to do a play on the 9-11 conspiracy meme (jet fuel can’t melt unbated and envenomed steel?), and this is what I came up with. That’s actually the silhouette of the real Kronborg castle, but I don’t know how many people are going to recognize that.  The smoke plume and the gun sight seem a little mixed message, I know. But I wanted to break it up with some color.

Warning! Quotes Shakespeare When Drunk This one was another Twitter group effort (from the same evening that gave us “Got Dagger?”) People seem to like the long sleeve version more than the short sleeve, so I hope Amazon gets its act together and restocks soon!

Swords Don’t Kill People (Unbated and Envenom’d Swords Kill People)  I’m so happy this one found an audience. I just like everything about it – the image, the font, the way the top part catches your attention and the bottom delivers the punchline. I hope somewhere there’s a fencing team wearing it to competition.

Quince & Snug & Flute & Snout & Bottom & Starveling I made a whole bunch of these after seeing this particular style (just a list of names with & at the end of each line) pop up everywhere. I don’t understand where it came from, I thought it was part of some viral tv show. Turns out it’s been around forever. There’s another design I made that has Hermia & Helena & Demetrius & Lysander, which I thought surely would have been more popular, but this is the winner (for this particular style, at least).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream I guess Dream is just a popular choice for Shakespeare t-shirts.  This one, as you can see, is really more about the cool center graphic. It’s hard to tell from the thumbnail, but the decoration around the edge is the names of the characters, all properly in balance with Bottom on top and Puck on bottom.  Lots of discussion over whether Bottom should be on the bottom, but I personally like it better this way. Shows the importance of Bottom to the play, while leaving in the silly nature of Puck who I think would enjoy hanging out upside down.  Do it in the reverse and you make Puck the central figure, and no matter how much you like Puck, I don’t think that was Shakespeare’s point.

Shakespeare Makes Life Better I love that this one is popular.  It’s a very simple idea – doesn’t even have a picture of Shakespeare, just a quill pen.  But it’s also the heart of this site, so if any of these designs is going to deliver the message I’m trying to get across, let it be this one.

And the winner, to no great surprise, is…

Mercutio Drew First (The Original)   Maybe it’s because I promote this one the most, or because it’s been around the longest with the most links. Or maybe it really is the most popular all on its own. I think I started using this one back as early as 2008, but didn’t have shirts until 2010. It’s been ripped off plenty of times since then, so if you do like it, remember to look for the original!

So that’s it!  The most popular Shakespeare geek merchandise of 2017. If you see anything above that you’d like, or that someone you know might like, please click the images to visit Amazon!  Once there you can browse around the “recommended” and “people also bought” links to see many of the other designs not listed here, in case something else strikes your fancy.

Thanks as always for your support (of both the site and the mission) and I’ll see everybody in 2018!



A Shakespeare Framework

A coworker challenged me to participate in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writer’s Month.  If you’re not familiar, this contest challenges writers to create a complete fifty thousand word novel in just thirty days. Technically November is past, but there’s no reason why you can’t attempt the challenge any month you like.

I’m not scared of word count. Most of the time you need me to cut words out.  What I can’t do is stream of consciousness for that long. I can’t just start writing and assume that a novel will plop out at the end.  I’m a computer programmer by trade, and you can’t just open up a text editor not knowing whether you’re going to end up with an ecommerce site or a mobile videogame.

What we do is start with a framework.  Just like a building has a floor, four walls and a roof, the same logic is true of software projects. A video game has backgrounds, sprites, controls, a scoreboard. An ecommerce site has navigation, a shopping cart, buy buttons.

So naturally before I’d attempt a novel I’d ask whether there’s a framework I can start with.  See where I’m going with this?  Whether it’s The Lion King, Forbidden Planet or West Side Story, there’s clear precedent for taking the minimal plot elements of a Shakespeare play and then rebuilding your own story. I immediately thought of doing something along the lines of The Tempest, although I’ll have to make it a point to stay out of Forbidden Planet territory.

What I was wondering, though, is whether we can make a framework out of all the plays. Everybody does Hamlet or King Lear or Romeo and Juliet. Could you use, say, Coriolanus as your starting point?  What would that look like?

Pick a play, and break it down to the minimal plot skeleton. Hamlet, Disney taught us, is any story where the uncle figure kills the king and the son has to take his rightful place on the throne. Romeo and Juliet has been reduced to “two groups of people don’t like each other, until one from each side falls in love.”

Pick a harder one. What’s the framework for A Midsummer Night’s Dream?


How Old Is Fortinbras?

So I was thinking about Hamlet this morning on the drive in to work (what, doesn’t everybody?)  I realized that there’s a gap in my understanding of the timeline. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but this is why I have this site, so I can brain dump random Shakespeare thoughts and have people either learn the same things I’m learning, or else correct me where I’m mistaken.

We all should know the basic plot from high school – Hamlet’s father (“Old Hamlet”) defeated Fortinbras’ father (“Old Norway”) years ago in fair combat, and won some lands from him. Young Fortinbras has a problem with this, and eventually invades Denmark by the end of the play.  We also learn from the gravedigger that Hamlet was born on the day that “our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.”

So “the grudge,” for lack of a better term, is as old as Hamlet.  Am I right so far?  That must mean that either:

Fortinbras is younger than Hamlet, and thus was born after the combat, and is avenging a dishonor that is just entirely abstract to him, or,

Fortinbras is older than Hamlet, so then I ask, how much older?  If he’s old enough to remember the combat and to have taken it as a slight to his family honor, he had to be what, ten years old at least?

I might be missing a textual clue that tells me the actual answer.  I was just pondering it in relation to how Hamlet (who is supposed to be thirty, by most interpretations) is still relatively whiny and immature.  So if Fortinbras is ten years older than that, and still being referred to as “young” and of “unimproved mettle hot and full,” that seems a little strange.  How old you gotta be in this world for people to stop calling you young?


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You Only Get One Shot

For some reason on the ride in to work today I was thinking about Sir Derek Jacobi.  That’s not even a “the reason is not important,” that’s “No, seriously, I honestly can’t remember.”  I do remember thinking, if I had the chance to interview the man, what would I even say? I hate that fake, “I’m such a big fan I’ve seen all your movies you’ve changed my life” stuff. Other than a clip of his Hamlet I’m not sure how much else I could name.

But then walking to work, for a brief moment, I thought I saw Sir Patrick Stewart. Whether the former led to the latter, I have no idea.  It wasn’t him, but it could have been one of those, “I saw a celebrity at a distance and I had the chance to yell something at him…” moments.  All I could think to yell would have been, “Why did you have Claudius shrug opposite David Tennant’s Hamlet?”  It’s always bothered me.  And I have no idea how I’d yell italics, but I could give it a shot.

I thought that would make a fun game.  Pick one of the modern Shakespeare gods – Sir Ian, Sir Patrick, Dame Judi, etc… You get the random opportunity to shout a single question at them.  Which celebrity and what’s your question?

Don’t throw away your shot!




Virtual Reality Shakespeare is Almost Here

Virtual Reality ShakespeareA good video game starts with a good story, and anybody looking for a good story heads straight for Shakespeare.  I’ve seen many video game versions of Hamlet over the years, and even wrote about virtual reality Shakespeare back in 2015. Now it looks like we’re one step closer.

TheatreVR has created a demo where you don the headset and play through the last scene of Hamlet.  Check it out!

Companies have been working around this idea for years.  Remember Second Life?  There was a whole virtual reality Shakespeare troupe in there.

I think that the problem with VR has always been one of interface.  There’s just too many ways that your body is interacting with reality – site, sound, smell, touch, not to mention peripheral vision, not to mention more specific senses like balance and proprioception (knowing where your limbs are in space). You can only do so much putting on a headset and some gloves.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that the OMG COOL! factor is very real.  Even putting on something like Google Cardboard (not to mention Oculus Rift) is still something to be experienced before you’ll believe it.  But the same was true of Pacman and DOOM once, too.  The excitement wears off, and you’d better have a good story to tell when it does.  From the perspective of the plot, yup, you’ve got Shakespeare.  But have we just reduced it down to going through the motions?  Escape the pirates, save Ophelia, kill Claudius?  Or are we saying that one day we’ll act it out as well?

I’m not a “gamer” by modern standards, and will likely never have the necessary gear to play most of these. I’m hoping that eventually they become the new video arcade, and I can go somewhere like a Dave and Busters to try my hand for a couple bucks.  I’m sure it’ll last 30 seconds, but maybe if I manage to kill Laertes and Claudius I can win enough tickets to a shot glass! 🙂


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Also Based On Shakespeare

Once again the other day I walked into another Lion King is Hamlet conversation. Twice. It always goes like this:

Lion King is Hamlet.”

“Seriously? I had no idea it was based on Shakespeare.”

“Timon and Pumbaa are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”

Yes, there were three people talking. How the middle person hadn’t previously heard this story I have no idea, it seems like I hear it at least once a week.  There’s always somebody that brings it up, somebody that has no idea, and somebody that goes “Oh, sure…” and promptly parrots back what they saw on Buzzfeed last week.

I’ve decided that I give up. It’s no longer fun to explain to people that the number of ways in which Lion King is NOT Hamlet far outweigh those in which Lion King is Hamlet.  Instead I’m jumping on the bandwagon.  Enlisting the help of Bardfilm (who no doubt will be responsible for the best bits), I present:



Psycho is based on Coriolanus because it’s about a guy that does what his mother tells him.

The Shining is actually based on The Tempest.  They both take place in a remote location and involve apparitions.

Seriously, though, Titanic is really The Tempest.  Not only is there a shipwreck, but at the end an old person throws valuable stuff in the ocean.

Goodfellas is really Julius Caesar because that one guy gets stabbed a lot.

On The Waterfront is a modern retelling of The Merchant of Venice because both are on the waterfront.

The Silence of the Lambs is based on Titus Andronicus. We know all about Hannibal Lecter’s main course of liver with fava beans and a nice chianti, but he never talks about the pie he had for dessert.

Twins (with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny deVito) is really Comedy of Errors because both involve twins.

No Country for Old Men is King Lear, for obvious reasons.

Four Weddings And A Funeral is The Taming of the Shrew, only with more weddings.  (The funeral being for Petruchio’s father, which is technically before the play begins, but when has that ever stopped the movie people? )

The Godfather is King Lear.  I don’t know how, but apparently people really do think this. Hmmm, might require a separate post…

Purple Rain is based on Romeo and Juliet because Prince is a character in both.

The Wrestler (2008) with Mickey Rourke is a sequel to As You Like It, looking at what happens to Charles after the events of the play.

The Wizard of Oz is Twelfth Night.  It’s so obvious. Storm causes girl to be shipwrecked alone in a strange new land? The Wizard is Orsino, and Glenda is Olivia.  The Wicked Witch is a gender blind Malvolio.  Not buying it?  I don’t see why not, it makes about as much sense as saying the meerkat and warthog are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

My goal is to own the Google search results for “Lion King is Hamlet” so we can set the record straight and stop people from including it on all those lists otherwise reserved for 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man.  Help Bardfilm and I achieve this goal by adding your comments below!  More content on the page helps drive up the quality score 😉

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It’s Not Hamlet

Say what?

Regular readers know my opinion on the “Lion King is Hamlet” issue.  King is killed by his brother, son must go on hero’s journey and eventually regain the crown. Boom, Hamlet.  Timon and Pumbaa are kind of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, other than the fact that they’re his friends and not spies for the bad guy, I suppose … and  Zazu is the Polonius character even though he doesn’t have any children, doesn’t end up dead…  you get the idea.  We focus on the facts that support our case and ignore the ones that don’t.  Like politics.

Well, the bombshell from the creators this week is that Scar and Mufasa aren’t brothers. That’s not how the dynamics work in lion prides.  They are not from the same gene pool.  Mufasa calls Scar “brother,” this is true, but you don’t need me to cite every time a Shakespearean character calls somebody “cousin,” do you?



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Enter, Stage Directions

Today I was asking random people about their thoughts on Shakespeare, and there was at least one expected answer of, “old and hard to read.”  My normal reaction was to go with the “Well, you really need to see it to understand what’s going on, reading is great after you already understand the story and character and now want to get into the details…..” when something occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve ever considered before.

When it comes to making Shakespeare “easier to read” we always seem to go to “modern translation” at worst, or “easy to access glossary and crazy amounts of footnotes” at best. The latter might give the most amount of information to the reader, but it’s certainly hard to “read” anything when your eye is constantly jumping around the page.

When I need an example I often go back to one that Mr. Corey, my 12th grade English teacher, used when discussing Hamlet. There’s a moment when Polonius says, “take this from this, if this be so.” Which makes no sense unless you can see that he is pointing to his head and then his shoulders, in other words, “have me decapitated if I’m lying.”

In this particular case, there’s often (always?) a stage direction that says, “[Points to his head and shoulder]. So it’s not really the greatest example. But is that part of the problem? The incredible dearth of stage directions? For the most part all we get with Shakespeare is who entered, who exited, and who stabbed or killed whom.  You’ve got to be careful, too, because those that are stabbed often stick around for a few speeches before they die.

Has anybody published an addition that doesn’t touch the actual text of the dialogue, but instead lays out the context in the stage directions?  Modern stage directions, in my limited experience, seem much more detailed.  For some reason True West by Sam Shepard  is what came to mind, and here’s a snippet of those stage directions (I was unsure if the bolding was in the original, I took a screenshot of somebody’s analysis I found online):

There’s a fairly obvious argument against going down this path in that it destroys the infinite interpretation of Shakespeare that has made him so timeless.  To say “Enter Hamlet, and here’s what he’s wearing, and here’s the expression on his face because here’s what he’s thinking…” is to destroy the character. Or at the very least, to lock one interpretation in stone.  But surely there’s middle ground?  How hard is it to write, “Enter HAMLET, still mourning his recently deceased father, dressed mostly in black.”  Now you’ve got context for “clouds hang on you”, “inky cloak,” “nighted color”, and so on.

Maybe this is how Shakespeare is actually performed, I don’t know.  Maybe the director, in trying to document her vision, does something similar where she has to go through and add notes of description to all the various scenes?


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Reddit’s Favorite Shakespeare

Hello /r/Shakespeare!Anybody that knows me knows that when I see a post titled 1000 Most Mentioned Books on Reddit (or, really, anywhere), the first thing I’m going to do is search it to see where Shakespeare shows up.  Any guesses?

I’d love to say more about who made the list and why and how, but there doesn’t seem much to go on. The post, on Medium, was made by BookAdvice.  Have to look more into that, see what other cool lists they have.  All we know about the methodology is, from the summary, “Sorted based on the number of upvotes and the number of different users linking to them in post and comments.”  I suppose that’s got a certain chronological bias — a book that came out last year couldn’t possibly compete with those that have been around since before Reddit.  But it does say “most mentioned” and not “best” or “most loved” or anything like that, so I suppose it’s accurate to say that a book that has existed for ten years will typically be mentioned more than a book that’s only existed for one.

Much of the list is highly predictable, if you know anything about Reddit.  Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy all rank in the top ten.  I’m pleasantly surprised to see To Kill A Mockingbird in there, and The Count of Monte Cristo (though not so pleasantly Catcher in the Rye.  Really, reddit?)  Thrilled to see J.K. Rowling’s name not appear until well after the 250 mark.  Not that her work is bad, just that I’m tired of seeing such brand new books always top the lists of “all time classics”.

Ok, you want the data?  Drum roll, please. Presented in reverse order, from least to most mentioned, we have …

905. The Taming of the Shrew

754. The Tempest

674. Merchant of Venice

625. King Lear

578. Much Ado About Nothing

568. Othello

371. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (*)

295. Macbeth

237. Romeo and Juliet

and the most mentioned work of William Shakespeare on Reddit is……

144. Hamlet

What do we think, any surprises?  Surely not the great tragedies, I think those became self-fulfilling long long ago.  Is Romeo and Juliet popular because it’s so good, or is it considered so good because it’s popular?  Little surprised about Othello, that one doesn’t usually get much love, and I’m kind of wondering if they took the time to rule out references to the board game.

When I first made this list, searching for the word “Shakespeare”, I was surprised to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream not make the list.  I had to go back and double check.  It’s because they’ve got it listed by, and I’m not kidding, SparkNotes.  I wondered if there were many on the list marked this way, but it turns out that’s the only one.  Glad I checked, I almost missed it!

Anything you think should be on the list that’s not there?  Hey, wait … where’s Twelfth Night?




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