Paper Shakespeare : To Date Or Not To Date

Whenever I see a reference to a Shakespeare inspired video game it immediately catches my attention.  Shakespeare’s works are one of the great places to start for public domain stories, after all.

So when I spotted Paper Shakespeare: To Date Or Not To Date  I had to check it out. In fact, I literally sought out the developers to have a conversation on the topic.  It turns out that they’re planning video games based on thirty-seven of the plays?!  I love that idea.  As a cynical old man I don’t expect to ever see it, but hey, as they crank them out I’ll be sure to post about them here.

How is Paper Shakespeare? I wish I could say I liked it, I really do. It’s apparently supposed to be some kind of dating simulator, whatever that means.  From my angle (that of a fifty-year-old married father of three) it resembles a choose your own adventure book, offering me a few sentences of text at a time, leaving me to just press the space bar over and over again. I meet the characters, all sporting Shakespearean names and high school personalities – Tybalt the bully, Othello the football star, and so on.  Every now and then I get a choice to make – which class should I take? Who should I pass a note to, and what should it be about?

I just don’t know what to do with it at all. There’s a counter in the corner that’s keeping tracking of some sort of interaction I have with the characters, and I get the feeling there’s a goal, I just can’t get into it.  Sorry, developers. Maybe I’ll enjoy the next one more.

 

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Pre-Review : Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

When I first heard about the Hogarth Series that would product “modern novelizations” of Shakespeare’s work I thought, “Eh.  So what.  If you rewrite Shakespeare it’s not Shakespeare, it’s yours, and it’s just like any other novel.”  As such I’ve avoided them all to date.

I decided to change that because we’ve got a book club at work and I wanted an excuse to read something of at least passing interest to me. When multiple people told me that Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, was the best one to come out so far,  was hooked.  If I’m going to give the series I try I might as well start with my favorite play.

So glad I did! I’m just about halfway finished with it but I’m very excited to get out a review (and, who we kidding, it gives me another post for Shakspeare Day).

Felix, our director, is in the middle of what’s to be his masterpiece, a production of The Tempest.  He likes this play so much he even named his daughter Miranda.  Unlike Shakespeare’s story, however, both Felix’s wife and daughter have passed away before the story takes off. But the next part plays out like you’d expect — control of the group is usurped by Tony and Sal, and Felix is “banished” from the theatre scene until he gets a job teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. He even uses the pseudonym “Mr. Duke”, an amusing callback to Prospero as Duke of Milan.

The plot is following along close enough to the original that you have some idea what’s going to happen. Tony and Sal are going to end up in the prison where Mr. Duke will make his triumphant return. I just have no idea what’s going to happen other than that.  Our Prospero has no Miranda. This one seems to be all about revenge.  What would Prospero have been like if everything else had gone the same, except Miranda had not survived? I think we might have seen the full scope and scale of his power.

While retelling The Tempest this book is also a lesson in The Tempest as Felix walks his prisoners through the finer points of the play.  He makes them re-envision Ariel as something other than just “a fairy”.  He asks them to find all the “prisons” in the play (apparently there are nine?) and they discuss what form each prison takes, who is imprisoned, and who has captured them.  I’m learning lots of new things.  I hope she gets back to the question of “is the island by itself magic” because I’ve often wondered about that myself.

I don’t want to spoil much more of the book so I’ll stop here.  Suffice to say I’m loving it, and when I’m done with this one I’m going to dig into Jo Nesbo’s new Macbeth next. Definitely recommended.

 

 

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Nutshell In A Nutshell (A Review)

Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Alas, poor Hamlet…

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.

 

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Lear’s Shadow

SCENE

A rehearsal room, dark. Enter JACK through the curtains, directly from outside as we see cars driving past.  He rolls a single, lit incandescent lamp to center, and opens the curtains. We see folding tables on which sit copies of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  JACK picks one up and starts swearing.

Enter a younger man, STEPHEN, on the phone and holding a neck brace. He’s clearly been looking for JACK and is relieved to find him.

Thus opens Lear’s Shadow, written and directed by Brian Elerding, which I had the pleasure of watching yesterday at Mr. Elerding’s invitation.

We quickly learn that something bad has happened, though what we do not yet know. Jack is bruised, Stephen is trying to get him back into the neck brace, so those are some obvious clues. More telling, however, is that Jack – our director – seems to have no real idea where or when he is. He doesn’t know what play they’re rehearsing (hence his anger at seeing Romeo and Juliet scripts) or why no one else has shown up for rehearsal.

Stephen’s job is to keep Jack talking until Rachel (who Stephen was speaking with on the phone) can bring the car around. They reminisce about other plays they’ve done together, before landing on King Lear.  Jack keeps re-realizing that the scripts are wrong, and doesn’t know the date. Stephen takes it upon himself to walk through the play with Jack.

For the next hour the two debate the finer details of Lear – what scenes and lines can be cut, how to deliver certain lines, where to “start” so you have “somewhere to go”.  If you love being a fly on the wall during conversations like this (as I do) you’re going to greatly enjoy this. I do not fancy myself an actor, never have, so I like to watch them work at their craft without trying to put myself in their place.

Of course none of this is random, we’ve got a man who has lost his memory and has clearly had some tragedy befall him doing what amounts to a one man show about a man who has lost his memory upon which many tragedies fall. It’s a reminder that while King Lear may have been written five hundred years ago it could also have happened yesterday.

Though I’m watching this as a movie it reminds me of going to theatre back when I was a younger man. It’s a bare stage two man show, just dialogue, no real plot to speak of other than toward the ultimate answer to the “What happened?” question (which we may or may not receive).

If you believe that Shakespeare makes life better, even when it brings tears rather than laughter, then of course you’re going to like this. It’s very reminiscent of when Slings & Arrows did Lear, a connection the director and I already spoke of.  “There’s no way I wasn’t influenced by Slings & Arrows,” he wrote.  That’s intended as high praise.  I’m not saying “This is trying to be Slings & Arrows,” I’m saying, “I’d watch an entire season of this like I’d watch a season of Slings & Arrows.”

 

 

 

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Not So Great Shakespearean Deaths (The Game)

When I put the Great Shakespearean Deaths Card Game on my Shakespeare Gift Guide this year, I jokingly put it in the “Stuff I Want” category.  Well god bless my mom who saw that post and thought, “Hurray, my son published his Christmas list!” and immediately bought it for me.

Apparently it’s quite a popular choice this year, as a quick Twitter poll showed at least half a dozen people who could now include it in their stash as well.

The problem is, it’s not a good game.  You have no idea how disappointed I am to say that, but it’s only reasonable, as I’m disappointed in the game.

Each card represents a character death, explaining that death briefly, offering last words where the character had some. It also rates the death on a number of scales – gore, piteousness, fairness, speed of death, and a few others.  So far so good, a chance for people unfamiliar with any deaths other than Romeo, Juliet and Hamlet to learn about the lesser known characters like Enobarbus or “the fly” from Titus Andronicus (seriously? seriously).

If I understood the directions correctly – they’re written in a weird, pidgin-Shakespearean – everybody gets a face-down hand of cards, and can only play their top card at any time. When it’s your turn, you look at your top card, then pick a scale, presumably based on which one is best for that card. Whoever has the high score for that scale (normally you, since you’d pick your best scoring chance), you get the other players cards. If there’s a tie, those stay in the middle and you play again.  It’s basically “War”, the card game.  There’s no real strategy involved. Got a ten? Pick that one.

Has anybody else played it? Did I misunderstand anything?

My kids were bored almost immediately and clearly played only so I wouldn’t be sad that my Christmas gift was boring.  I meanwhile started thinking of ways to make it more interesting.  Here’s a few that we came up with:

  • Pick the category before you look at your top card.  That makes it entirely random, but at least you don’t just keep giving your cards to whoever had a ten for Gore and Brutality.
  • Play two-factor.  Choose two attributes (by dice roll if that’s easier), and you have to maximize your score across both.  So your ten coupled with a two isn’t going to beat somebody else’s six and seven.
  • Everybody gets to look at their cards, but at each turn roll a die to randomly determine which attribute will be played. That way you at least have to decide which card to play.
  • Everybody gets a hand of six cards. Your goal is to maximize your score by playing one card per attribute. For your turn you play it like Go Fish in reverse, offering up a card to see if anybody wants to trade.  For example say you’ve already got Richard III as a 10 in Last Words.  But you’re also carrying Hamlet, and you really need somebody with a better Speed of Death score.  So you’d say, “Does anybody need Hamlet?” without specifying his numbers – people have to learn who the good cards are.  If more than one person wants him, they can make their case – “I’ll trade you a Young Macduff” – and you decide who to trade with.  When everybody’s happy with their hand and either doesn’t want to trade or can’t find someone to trade with, total up your scores.
  • Play by poker rules.  Deal out five cards, try to match up the plays – “I’ve got a full house, three of Hamlet and a pair of Richard III.”

Those are just some ideas, some literally off the top of my head as I write this post.  There aren’t enough cards to play some of the games I thought of.  You’ll quickly be surprised with who is – and isn’t – in the deck, as well as how they’re graded.  This is covered in the rules, and there’s even a blank card to add your own.  A nice idea, but I would have preferred that they just make all the deaths.  It’s been popularized in posters and infographics, it’s not really a hard data point to get.  If there’s too many you could start lumping them together (like “Macduff’s Family”).

 

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Review : Deadpool Meets Shakespeare

I first spotted the Deadpool / Shakespeare crossover in July 2016 and wrote that I was “cautiously optimistic”.  I wrote that I’m not a fan of the current trend of just writing things in iambic pentameter and calling it “Shakespearean”, nor do I appreciate the Kill Shakespeare technique of just having the characters kill each other. I suggested in my original post that while I was afraid of both of those things, I was still the picture of “wishful thinking”, because what if I’m wrong?

I’m not wrong.

Took me forever to find this.  I would periodically visit the local comic shops, flipping through the stacks and sometimes asking where I might find it. My mom even got me a gift card to the local Newbury Comics at my suggestion because I knew I’d have something to buy.

Never found it. That card just burned a hole in my pocket for the better part of a year until relatively recently (month or two ago?) when I finally asked a clerk whether anybody had it, and where I might find it. Turns out another store in Boston supposedly had it.  I file that knowledge. But then, a week or two later, we find ourselves in Boston.  Next thing you know I’m walking out of the store with Deadpool #7 : Deadpool Does Shakespeare. This is actually a reprint of the original, but hey, I’ll take it. This is the one with Deadpool dressed as Cupid on the cover, in case you’ve ever spotted it in the wild.

It is … about what I expected. It’s Deadpool after all, the “merc with the mouth”.  If you’re not familiar with the comic (or the movie), he’s famous for breaking the fourth wall and basically behaving as if he knows he’s in a comic book.  So he opens with something straight out of a PG-13 Twelfth Night: “What country, friends, is this? And what the f%&*???”

And so it goes. He meets Shakespeare, and kills him. When Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears, first Deadpool assumes that it’s Christmas, and then ponders whether they are in a galaxy far, far away (Ian Doescher, who wrote this one, also wrote the Star Wars crossover books).

It then turns into Kill Shakespeare, as our hero meets a steady stream of Shakespeare’s characters, all of whom claim to want to kill someone else, and who try to convince him that they’re the good guy and he should help them kill the bad guy.  All in some syllable-counting iambic pentameter.

I’m glad to add it to my collection, but there’s not much else I can say about it. It’s exactly what I thought it was going to be.

 

 

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Review : Will #10 (Series Finale)

I have to admit, now that we know it’s cancelled, I’m disappointed.  I thought there was a lot wrong with it, but seeing Shakespeare and his fellows on tv every week was kind of exciting.  I know more people are sitting down to watch Game of Thrones every week but I enjoyed having a show of my own to anticipate.

This will be something of a live blog as I watch.  I DVR’d it last night but it’s live to me 🙂  Total spoilers will abound, so beware.

Weird that last week’s episode ends with Will running through town, but now he’s walking. Step it up, man! You’re girlfriend’s getting choked out.

I don’t love how Walsingham became an important character with just two episodes left. You can’t just drop a name like that and expect it to mean anything without a chance to learn about the character.

Suddenly Topcliffe’s enforcer (Justice Young?) is a real human, with a conscience? Again, would have been nice to learn more about this character. Holy…?! Just as I write that he kills the jailer as a cover story for letting Will escape with Alice.  Yikes.

It’s weird to watch this and have context for the real story.  The real Topcliffe did eventually get Southwell, and does live until old age.  So I am not expecting him to get any sort of comeuppance in this episode.  But I still want to see how it plays out.

Bizarre that Will can carry a nearly dead Alice around the streets and literally nobody turns their head to look at him.

Will ends up at Amelia Bassano’s house (makes sense) so her personal physician can take care of Alice (with leeches, of course).  This makes everything all better, and soon Will takes her home.

So, to be clear — in the time Topcliffe had her, he never bothered to get her name? He doesn’t immediately head to her house?  Not a great interrogator, it seems.

Now the whole Burbage family knows about Alice and Will, and worse, that he’s a Catholic. So this is what the whole series has been about, even calling back the “Topcliffe was looking for a man with a cut on his hand” from the first episode.  I just don’t feel like it’s built properly to these kinds of reveals. Nobody’s really explained how Richard III is going to be so screamingly obvious to everyone in the theatre (the groundlings are not known for their post graduate degrees, you know) that it’s a scathing satire of Topcliffe.

Watching Will explain to Richard that he’s in love with Alice is oddly reminiscent of Chandler trying to explain to Ross that he loves Monica.  They go from best friends to “that’s my sister!” *punch* But then five minutes later they’re besties again.

Wait, Marlowe’s still in this?  We don’t have time for Marlowe.  Now there’s going to be no resolution to his story at all, I’m afraid.

Hunsdon? They have to convince Hunsdon? Who is Hunsdon?  Is he the one that they did Midsummer for?  I feel like I’ve lost a lot of these characters’ significance.  (Yes, Lord Hunsdon is Henry Carey, who was with Amelia Bassano, and a real character from history.)

I also just realized that the “Tommy” that Marlowe keeps hanging around with is Thomas Walsingham, son of Sir Francis.  The real Marlowe definitely did have a relationship with the real Thomas Walsingham. Now that makes sense, how Marlowe was able to call upon him so quickly last week.

Marlowe finally tells the story of who the old guy was in the bed a few weeks ago – Barrett Emerson.  Unfortunately this appears to be a fictional character.  There’s some theory that perhaps he’s modeled on Lord Strange, but that’s all I can find.

Marlowe gets lots of screen time in this episode but now it just feels wasted, knowing that we’ll never get to really explore anything with it.

…ok, wait, are you kidding?  Next up is a scene of Southwell and his followers self-flagellating (i.e. whipping themselves) while chanting in Latin.  That looks like something straight out of a Dan Brown DaVinci Code novel, and is a ridiculous plot twist.  Was their intent to make Southwell look like a nut? He’s been turned into the villain the last few episodes, but now he looks crazy.

Here we go, time for the play. I’m actually surprised that it took me this long to see this whole plot device as a Hamlet thing, the whole “catch the conscience of the king” and what not.  I’ve been looking too closely at the source material and not the bigger picture.  Shame on me.

The play is good. I like how Richard steps up to play the lead, I wish we could have seen him in some more of the good stuff.  The ending, I won’t spoil. I’ll just say that I approve of how it all goes down. A bit anti-climactic, just kind of “Will the plan work?  Ok, yup it worked with no complications at all.”

 

Well I guess that’s it.  Alice and Will get something of a Shakespeare in Love ending, which is really kind of a cop-out.  Maybe if there’d been a season 2 they would have done something with it, but now we’ll never know.  Marlowe never comes of anything, other than to offer an Elizabethan “Swive you, Shakespeare”.  Nothing ever comes of Moll and Richard.  Topcliffe is last seen playing with his torture instruments as if he’s going to do something to himself, with no payoff.  Marlow asks Shakespeare what he’s going to do next, and I’m dying for him to drop a hint about a big play – remember earlier in the season when he mentioned Falstaff? And how he was going to write the greatest plays man has ever known?  Instead he just shakes his head and says nothing.  That might be the most painful part of the whole thing. If he’d described his idea for Hamlet or something it would have been perfect.

I hope it’s generally looked upon as “Shakespeare on prime time can work.”  Probably not, but we can always hope.

 

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Review : The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

As a geek in the traditional (i.e. nerdy) sense of the word I have long been a huge fan of Neal Stephenson’s work.  Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, REAMDE, Anathem, Seveneves – all highly recommended.

So when I heard that he was doing a time travel story about Elizabethan England?  I did something I don’t usually do, I went ahead and got the hardcover.

Should have waited. I think this is the first Stephenson book that I can’t say I recommend. Most of the time, like with Seveneves or Anathem, I’ll ask, “Are you up for the challenge?”  Not here, not by a long shot.

Let’s get something out of the way. Shakespeare’s not in this. They do have a visit to Elizabethan England and do meet Richard Burbage and have what I’ll admit is an amusing scene there.  But that’s it.  There’s some discussion by others about Shakespeare’s work, but that’s it.  There’s a bit about the Irish that’s worth another blog post, coming soon. So if, like me, you’re interested in this book for the Shakespeare content? Save your money. There isn’t enough.

The rest of the book isn’t up to Stephenson’s standard.  He spends most of his time amusing himself with sophomoric pokes at bureaucracy and government, with various side trip opportunities to describe sexual stuff (like what happens when you put an 1800s prostitute and a Viking warrior in the same room together) that has nothing to do with the plot.  He seems so entertained by his own words that he forgot to write a compelling story.

Who knows, maybe I’m just so thrown off by the lack of Shakespeare that I’m being unnecessarily hard on this one. When I described it to coworkers they said, “Sounds entertaining despite itself.”  And it was, I’ll give it that. But I don’t go through these books (especially in hardcover!) just to be entertained. I want to get something out of it.  I don’t know what I got out of this other than temporary amusement.

 

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Review : Will #9

Ok we’re heading toward a big finish and lots of plots are moving forward.

Richard Burbage is a changed man after coming out of the plague house. He’s showing more attention to Moll, which is pleasant. Shakespeare has written Richard III for him, but for some reason his father James wants to play the role (because “I made this theatre and I’ll play any role I want.”).  There’s actually a nice father/son moment between the two where Richard says, “You also made me, so when I play the role, it’ll be you playing the role as well.”

Alice Burbage has fallen under the spell of Southwell, agreeing not only to be baptized but also to carry Southwell’s book to … wherever it is that it needs to go.

This doesn’t go well after Marcus narcs on them to Topcliffe in an attempt to save his son.  Southwell and his people have no time for this, dispatching Marcus when he tries to prevent Southwell from escaping, and then leaving Alice behind to be captured.  Marlowe is there, however, and won’t stand for it. He brings Sir Francis Walsingham in (I kept thinking it was Bacon, to be honest), just before Alice can be whipped and tortured.  This however doesn’t stop Topcliffe from beating her (after everyone’s left them alone), and potentially choking her to death.  I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen.  I don’t know the real Alice Burbage’s story, so it’s quite possible that she dies in this. I’m curious.

There’s some Richard III content in this one as they teach Presto (the street urchin) to play the role of Prince Edward.  Honestly I wish I knew more about the play. I can’t recognize it from the quotes, other than the obvious ones.

Next week is the final episode. I have no idea if we’ll get another season. I have no idea what the ratings have been.  I guess I’ve liked it, once we got past the ridiculous sex and violence. I’ve watched every episode.  It’ll be a shame when it’s over.

 

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Review : Will #8

Ok, after a great episode that was weak on sex and violence we’re back with blood flying.  This one opens up not just with a disembowelling but a decapitation. Awesome. This time it’s somebody we know – the fat guy from a few previous episodes who was captured and tortured. And this time we see Southwell in the audience praying for his soul.  This does not sit well with Marcus, whose son was busted by Topcliffe last week.

I don’t get most of this episode. There’s very little Shakespeare in it.  Their friend Autolycus – who is part of the storyline so infrequently that I would forget his name were it not for the reference to the text – has a new girlfriend.  Which ends up with him getting plague.  How that happens? I don’t know.

 

But he ends up in a plague house, which basically means he’s dead.  But a twist!  Burbage can’t let him go alone, so agrees to be boarded up in a plague house with him.  What? Did that actually happen? We know he’s not going to die, so I’m not sure what the writers are getting at with this little side trip.

Shakespeare has an idea – he’s going to write a story exposing the Queen’s torturer Topcliffe.  That play? Richard III.

Shakespeare learns that Southwell now has Alice Burbage on his side as well, which gets them (Shakespeare and Southwell) into an argument since Shakespeare sees it as putting Alice in harm’s way, while Southwell is

 

starting to be shown as a bit of a nut who cares only about people’s eternal spirit and is thus not troubled by people being captured and tortured.

Best line of the night? Alice says that Shakespeare’s offering nothing of value to the world because who cares about Henry VI Parts 1, 2, 3. He swears that he is working on a play of such greatness… to which she responds, “What, part 4? Does it have a funny dog?”  Ouch.

Marlowe is still his typical atheist self. Having failed to meet the devil he

wants to see Southwell, to meet god. We know how that’s going to go.

It’s clear that the story is racing toward some conclusions, but that also means focusing on the story that they’ve been telling, rather than Shakespeare’s biography. So you know how I’m going to feel about that.  I get it, I get why it’s necessary. I’m just not all that interested in it.  An episode like this is in the background while I do other things.

Let’s see what the next episode has for us!  There’s only ten I’m told, so whatever’s going to happen is going to happen soon.

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