The other day I saw a discussion about how you think a modern Hamlet’s ghost should be staged. My first thought was, “I was the ghost popping up randomly, in the audience, in a way that makes them think it’s impossible for that to be happening.”
My first thought was, “Hologram?” But I put that off as too expensive, but also because the evidence about what was to happen (such as a mini pedestal/stage where he’d appear) would ruin the effect.
Then I thought, “Just have multiple actors dressed as the ghost, so when one exits, another one can appear elsewhere.” But if they don’t look identical, the effect isn’t the same.
Twins! Comedy of Errors had twins. Ok, fine, maybe Shakespeare didn’t actually have twins to work with (did he?) I know that I’ve yet to see a Comedy of Errors with actual twins.
But that brings me to our question. What if you did have twins in your group? How would you use them? On the drive in to work today I was thinking about the difference between doubling an actor (Theseus / Oberon anybody?) versus how you’d do it with twins. If you never have them on stage at the same time there’s no point, so how would you change the staging to take advantage?
How about two Hamlets? One that devolves slowly into madness (complete with costume change), while the other remains his normal self, silently watching the proceedings. Until at some crucial point late in the play the good Hamlet disappears. (I saw a high school production once with five Hamlets, all on stage at once, all delivering the lines. It was weird.)
King Lear where Goneril and Regan are twins? Not sure how much that really changes the story, but it strengthens the bond between them versus Cordelia, and later shows how big a deal it is when they split.
A Tempest where Ariel and Caliban are twins? I saw a production once where they were handled like conjoined twins, and at the end Prospero separated them.
I’m clearly no director, but I know many of you are. What better ideas can you come up with? Assume that you can have access to a set of twins of whatever type you need, young or old, male or female.
I tried to read Nutshell by Ian McEwan about a year ago and couldn’t get into it. I thought I’d reviewed my attempt to do so about a year ago around Shakespeare’s birthday but I can’t find the post.
Bardfilm recommended that I read through the whole thing, as the ending was worth discussing, so I forced myself through it.
Nutshell is a version of Hamlet told with a unique twist – Hamlet is Gertrude’s unborn child. That’s right, our narrator is a fetus.
In general I’m not a fan of first person narrative, I think it forces way too many unnatural hoops to jump through to get information to the audience in a way that the narrator would have known. Here that is magnified fifty fold, as our narrator can’t see anything that’s going on, nor can he go anywhere that Gertrude (or, as she’s named here, Trudy) can go. But that doesn’t stop him from knowing about the plot between his mom and her boyfriend (“Claude”) to kill his father (“John” because I guess there’s no easy way to modernize “Hamlet”). He knows when Claude loans his dad money. He knows what his mom is wearing. He knows where his mom and Claude go on dates, what she eats for dinner, and most importantly, what wine she likes.
Seriously, the wine is a recurring theme. It’s one thing to just say that Trudy is a drunk who doesn’t think that being really pregnant is maybe a reason to cut back. She drinks so much and so often that the fetus himself is a budding oenophile, hoping at different times that his mother partakes of a particular vintage. I hated this part in audio, he really sounds like Stewie from Family Guy.
Also to hate is the amount of sex that Trudy and Claude are having. It’s a lot. And, since he’s got a front row seat, it’s described play by play and blow by blow by our narrator (who hates it, if that wasn’t obvious). Have you ever wondered what a sex scene reads like when it’s narrated from the inside? Yeah, don’t.
The most fun part about this book is the way the author tosses in references to the original text, like a treasure hunt. There are so many I can barely remember them, but one easy example was when the narrator said of Claudius, “As a man, he was a real piece of work.” See what he did there? 🙂 References like that are just all over the book, and if you’re a fan of Hamlet you’ll have a great time trying to spot them all.
There’s not much Hamlet story here. No Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, Horatio. Just Gertrude and Claudius, already together and plotting against Hamlet’s father. At best it’s something of a character study of how the author sees Hamlet. Sometimes it was as if he was going through a checklist — they like to drink in the original? Check. Hamlet’s obsessed with how often his mother is sleeping with his uncle? Check.
But at some point you get to interpret for yourself. Do we like this Gertrude? Is she a good person? How different is she from the original, and how? What do her actions say about her feelings for the men in her life?
If you like plumbing the depths of the framework Shakespeare gave us for these characters, and get a special little thrill of excitement every time you see a Hamlet reference in a completely different context, then you’ll probably like this one. I am part of a book club at work, and none of them are really Shakespeare geeks, so I couldn’t see any of them getting anything out of this at all. One even went so far as to suggest that the author wrote it on a dare, because she’s a fan of his other work.
So the other day I saw a post on the Shakespeare section of Reddit that mentioned a King Lear rap. Which happens. Later that day I got an email about a King Lear rap. Which also happens, as people trying to promote their original content will google for Shakespeare blogs and I’m usually somewhere on that list. Then I saw that the name on the rap (and the email) was MC Lars.
MC Lars (real name Andrew Nielsen) is a “lit-hop” rapper who has opened for Snoop Dogg and worked with Weird Al Yankovic (among many, many others). He’s also written songs about Ophelia, Macbeth, Edgar Allen Poe, Moby Dick, and now, King Lear.
I wrote back and told him, “Sure I can share the link around, but while I’ve got you here can I ask you a few questions?” He said sure.
So, first things first!
Oh, and did I mention he’s also got a TEDx talk on the subject of hip-hop and Shakespeare?
So the way this worked is that I sent him some questions via email, and he sent back his answers. Both my questions and his answers have been edited. Any misrepresentation of intent is entirely unintentional, I am editing only for length and clarity.
SG: If I hadn’t done enough research I would have used the term nerdcore to describe you, but from what I’ve learned lit-hop is the better term. Can you tell us more about how you prefer to be presented?
MC Lars: While rapping about Shakespeare is indeed nerdy, “nerdcore” has always been MC Frontalot’s invention, which is why I’ve opted to let him own the genre. While I would agree that my Game of Thronesand Star Wars raps could potentially fall under the nerdcore genre, “lit-hop” (a term coined by Canada’s amazing rapper Baba Brinkman) better describes the literary songs I’ve been releasing. semantically speaking. I started using Brinkman’s term in 2012 when I released by Edgar Allan Poe EP.
SG: When I think hip-hop and Shakespeare I think of that TEDx talk by Akala. Is there a relationship between your work and his?
MC Lars: I wrote my first Shakespeare rap in 1998, but I doubt if Akala ever heard it. He is truly awesome, though! After my TEDx came out, lots of people tweeted me to check out his, which I did and really enjoyed. Looking at the YouTube timestamps, it looks like he debuted his TED Talk a few months before mine. I would love to meet him one day.
SG: “Hey There Ophelia” came out in 2009 (and I admit I assumed it was just a cover of the Lumineers’ song, I did not make the connection). How come we’ve had to wait eight years for you to come back to Shakespeare?
MC Lars: I wrote “Hey There Ophelia” in 2007; the song’s title is a play on the Plain White T’s song “Hey There Delilah” which was a big hit back then. I always wanted to crowdfund a Shakespeare album and series of videos, but the time never seemed right. I did Poe in 2012 and this year it was my goal to launch a Series of Shakespeare ones. My next one is about his sonnets.
SG: I’ve noticed that you tend to find a hook and repeat. Do you feel that’s the essence of the hip-hop style? Or is there not enough meat on the bones to get more verses out of the original content? Do you think that your audience doesn’t have the interest or attention span to get more details from the story?
MC Lars: The idea of repeating phrases is more of a “pop song” thing that rap emulates in a simple way. I always try to leave the audience with a repeating line. “King Lear, King Lear” is a lot shorter than “Hey There Ophelia”; in the past decade, people’s attention spans have gotten even shorter. I think you really only have 45 to 90 seconds to get people’s attention! I would have loved to rap more about Edmund and Edgar’s relationship in my “King Lear, King Lear” song – maybe I’ll do a sequel.
SG: Have you had people come up to you who want to dissect your interpretation of Shakespeare? I’m personally of the belief that more Shakespeare is better, and whatever I can get into people’s heads, the better, even if it is sometimes a gloss of the details.
MC Lars: Academics do enjoy analyzing my literary raps, which I love, letting me know when I’m off the mark. I learn a lot from them though, I once tweeted about existential and family comparisons between Hamlet and Antigone and people were quick to point out that it was a stretch. My audience is smart, which means I can’t be sloppy!!
SG: Ok, let’s talk about King Lear. Shakespeare’s Mt. Everest. Why pick that one? Do you think that your audience, in general, knows the story already? I’ve often argued that King Lear, in particular, is a play that you can’t really understand until you’ve lived your whole life, and I’m amazed when high schools try to get teenagers to read it. Why not go with a Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are you avoiding those deliberately because they’ve been done to death?
MC Lars: I did a term abroad at Corpus Christi in Oxford sophomore year and Lear was the first piece we studied, so it has a special place in my literary memory. But, honestly, of all of the demos I did for this new YouTube series, my Lear song was my favorite. I do love your point, in the fifteen years since I first was introduced to Lear I understand it now more… the betrayal of youth and greediness becomes more scandalous with age! It’s more of a nightmare imagining going mad and losing everything. That’s an interesting analysis which I appreciate.
SG: Finally, any words of advice for kids out there like my son who dream of being a social media sensation?
MC Lars: I think the key is persistence – sometimes I get disappointed when things I produce don’t get an instant reaction. I think the only formula is you need to do anything consistently – like multiple times a month – for a year. If your social media numbers don’t go up, it’s time to rethink it. I went through a period for a few years where my focus was trying to hit something mainstream by writing about things like Rick and Morty or Game of Thrones, but then it began clear that I couldn’t offer much more interpretation? My main projects now are doing pop culture Patreon songs to help pay the rent and then these literary rap videos, in addition to ICP history videos (that’s another long story, but something that inspired me to start rapping back int he 90s). I am going to keep at it for a year and see what happens. I think that it’s tempting to want instantaneous recognition for something, but I think the advice would be to tell your son to keep working at something and give everything a year. It’s not easy with everyone’s access to the internet for cultural expression / edification, but, ironically, those who are persistent stick around and make an impact.
Thanks to MC Lars for his time! If you’ve got questions that I didn’t think to ask, first, where were you on Twitter when I put out the request? 🙂 And second, go ahead and ask them in the comments – he might stick around and keep answering!
The most popular post I’ve ever made is the one depicting Shakespeare’s works as a Venn Diagram (although technically that shape is an Euler Diagram). That post on Facebook has garnered over 2 million views at this point, and hundreds of comments. People have asked me if it is available as a poster (as far as I know it is not – I did not create the original image).
The problem is, I don’t like it. Most of the comments are of the form “Why do you have play X in this category but not that one?” and “You forgot to put Y in the Z category” and so on. The categories (Suicide, War, Romance, Supernatural) are, I think, too broad. Does Romeo and Juliet count as war between the two families? I would say no, but some people disagree. How about Much Ado About Nothing? It starts with the men coming home from war.
So here’s what I propose. Can we make a better one, or a set of better ones? Something that more people can agree on? If we can make something that’s generally agreeable to a large audience I’ll be happy to make it available as a poster / stickers / t-shirt / etc…
I’ve been working with Bardfilm on some new categories. The goal would be to find a set such that:
All plays are represented by at least one category.
Minimize the number of categories that have no entries.
No single category has too many entries.
What categories would you like to see? “Supernatural” made our list as well. I was thinking “Insanity” might be a good one. Bardfilm proposed “Fake Deaths” and “Cross-Dressing”. If we can’t agree across all the categories we can look at doing one for Comedy, one for Tragedy, one for History, but I think those would end up looking a little sparse, and I’d feel bad about leaving out Romance.
What other ideas have you got for us? Tell us the category you think should be on our diagram, and which plays would be in it.
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?
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 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?
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?
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?
A 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.
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! 🙂