Hooked on Shakespeare

Both dead.Challenge:  Can we come up with “hooks” for Shakespeare?

Normally when somebody mentions a hook today they’re talking about music, and that short repeated musical phrase (possibly not even words) that gets stuck in your head.  Chances are when you hear the song again on the radio you don’t even recognize it the first few times until you hear the hook and you say, “Oh, yeah, this is that song, I love this song.” Know what happens, though?  You recognize more of the song each time.  You pay attention to the words. Before you know it, you can recognize it from the opening notes.

But the actual definition, at least according to Google, is

a thing designed to catch people’s attention.

So I’m wondering if we can’t come up with a hook for Shakespeare’s various plays. I saw a teacher complaining earlier that he’d given the students No Fear Shakespeare and yet still found himself having to translate that for them. I thought, “We’re doing this backwards. We hold the text up to be the Holy Grail and then we say let me make it simpler for you, let me make *that* simpler for you, let me make that simpler for you…” and all the materials are in that context of “Here’s how far removed you are from the actual good stuff.”

Let’s change the perspective.  Can you reduce Hamlet down to a single sentence?  I don’t want to summarize all the elements of the play. What I want is the students’ attention. I want them saying, “Sounds interesting, tell me more.”

I have this image like something out of a movie, the harried English teacher walking down between the desks while the kids sit on their phones, throw paper airplanes, and generally ignore him. The teacher is holding a copy of the complete works.  He gets to his desk, turns, and slams the book down on his desk to get their attention.  And he says …  what?

Sure, he could go with, “Two households!  Both alike, in dignity.  In fair Verona where we lay our scene.” And if you’re like me lightning bolts shoot up your spine because that happens every time. But he doesn’t have a classroom full of Shakespeare geeks, and he needs to hook their attention some other way.

“Girl meets boy at party. Two days later they’re both dead.”

“Hamlet’s dad is gone and he wants to kill his step dad.”

“The only person that knows Macbeth just killed his boss is Macbeth’s wife, because she told him to do it.”

“Everybody knows Beatrice and Benedick love each other, except Beatrice and Benedick.”

As I write these I realize it sounds like click bait, but I don’t want to call it that.  Clickbait implies trying to trick the user into looking under the covers for something that’s not really there. But everything I said above is true. I *want* my students to be interested in what happens next.

Anybody else got some good ones?  The goal is to have a list of great starters that any teacher of Shakespeare could use to kick off a new lesson.

 

 

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With All My Heart

If you’re a geek in the more traditional sense of the word, sometimes you look at the works of Shakespeare as one big text file and say, “Ooh, let’s look for patterns.” If you were to take a course on natural language programming, chances are very good that one of the first lessons will be in parsing Shakespeare for what are called n-grams, or “phrases of N words that always appear together.”  This is how autocorrect works, it looks at what you’ve already written and then says, “Statistically, what do I think is typically the next word?”

But being Shakespeare geeks as well, we can then work backward and look at the context for when and where and why he used them. This post is just one in what’s hopefully a series of interesting discoveries using this technique.

For my fellow programming geeks – here’s the github source I found to get started!

Disclaimer – raw text processing has lots of issues.  Special character and line breaks and headers/footers all get in your way and have to be stripped out.  In one version of this test the phrase “a midsummer nights dream” ranked very highly and I thought, wait, no it doesn’t.  That’s because one of the sample text files had used the title of the play as a header on every page.  Very hard to strip that out if there’s no real markers to identify it.  So, take these results with at least a few grains of salt.

The longer the n-gram that less data you get, which makes sense because you’re going to get fewer hits.  So typically you see 2 or 3 words (bi- and tri-grams, respectively).  But Shakespeare’s a bit wordy and you tend to get things like, “I pray you” or “I know not” which don’t give you much to work with. So I expanded to look at 4 and 5 word grams. Quads and quints?  Not sure what they’re officially called.

My quad-grams give me plenty of the usual hits: “I know not what”, “I do not know”, “I do beseech you,” … but one of them appears significantly more than the others (30% more actually), and it is where I got the title for this post.

With all my heart.

Lovely.  Now can you guess which play uses it the most?  I’ll give you a hint.  Merchant of Venice uses it 4 times, Othello 5, but this play uses it 6 times.

I’m not giving the answer here, I want to see what people guess.  It’s not one I would have expected.  I wonder if it has something to do with when the play was written relative to Shakespeare’s career. Maybe he had a tendency to repeat himself or use simpler go-to phrases earlier in his writing? Is that a hint?

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Most Overused Audition Monologues

Not an actor myself (I may have mentioned that), but if you asked me what the most overused Shakespeare audition monologue is I wouldn’t go with “To be or not to be…,” I think I’d go with “All the world’s a stage.”  You don’t


Viola and Orsino

always have to swing for the fences, sometimes a base hit is fine.

I just discovered Backstage.com that has a huge collection of Shakespeare pieces, including their list of audition pieces you shouldn’t use. All the greatest hits are there – winter of our discontent, Romans and countrymen, damned spots, as well as the two I mention above.

 

But there’s at least one surprise on the list: left no ring with her: what means this lady?

I left no ring with her: what means this lady?
Fortune forbid my outside have not charm’d her!
She made good view of me; indeed, so much,
That sure methought her eyes had lost her tongue,
For she did speak in starts distractedly.
She loves me, sure; the cunning of her passion
Invites me in this churlish messenger.
None of my lord’s ring! why, he sent her none.
I am the man: if it be so, as ’tis,
Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it for the proper-false
In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we!
For such as we are made of, such we be.
How will this fadge? my master loves her dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love;
As I am woman,–now alas the day!–
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O time! thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie!

Really?  This is a common one?

People who’ve had to audition for Shakespeare roles, what selections have you used?  Are they on the list?

 

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Shakespeare’s Worst Fathers

I didn’t want to do a Shakespeare Fathers list because I knew there’d be plenty of others doing the same thing.  That doesn’t mean we can’t discuss it, though. Here’s one for Shakespeare’s Worst Fathers that we can use.

Since it leads with a picture of Lord Capulet (strangely blacking on John Leguizamo’s face, I guess to symbolize that he could be anybody’s father or something?), I thought that they were going to give him the #1 spot. They didn’t, but it was close.

I used to be on the “Lord Capulet is a horrible father” train, but over the years I’ve been convinced that he’s all talk.  For every scene we can point to where he’s the bad guy, there’s one where he’s the good guy.  He’s the one that suggests that maybe Capulets and Montagues can get along. He’s the one that knows Romeo has crashed his party, and not only lets him stay, but turns on his own kinsman Tybalt for getting everybody upset.  He’s the one that tells Paris that Juliet gets a say in who she marries.

True, that last one appears to be fairly empty when she doesn’t choose “correctly”, and true he does basically threaten to beat her, to throw her out of the house, if she doesn’t do what she’s told.  But does he actually do any of those things? Would he have, given the chance?  Or is it all talk?  Is that just the picture of a father with a temper who has never been spoken to that way before? He’s also the guy who was all, “Revive, or I will die with thee!” when he found her body.

Some of the entries on the list I can live with.  Leonato’s “Do not live, Hero. Do not ope thine eyes,” is pretty bad in my book.  I find it hard to allow him the “Sometimes we say things we regret” defense. That one’s pretty bad.

Shakespeare's Worst Fathers
Well, ok, that one was obvious.

The one that bothers me most is Prospero.  Worst fathers? Really?  The reason seems to be that he, like basically every other father in Shakespeare’s time, chose a husband for his daughter.  I mean, sure, he raised her entirely on his own for a dozen years while stranded on an island with magical creatures who weren’t necessarily friendly.  And he manipulated the veryforces of nature to cause a ship to land on their island to return her to the life she deserved.  He also used no magic to charm either Ferdinand or his daughter into the marriage.  On the contrary he chained up Ferdinand and put him to work to test his faith.  I think it’s hard to argue that he’s not one of Shakespeare’s best fathers.

 

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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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Review : Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

What about Romeo and Juliet?
Shallow, confused, then dead.

Eleanor and Park : Romeo and Juliet?I honestly thought that Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell as a new release, after seeing it on some random “must read this summer” list.  It had some sort of Romeo and Juliet connection, so I thought, “I’m in.  Maybe it’ll be something my kids will like.”  Turns out it’s published in 2013 so I’m late to the party.

The first line of the book is, “He’d stopped trying to bring her back.”

Interesting!  I immediately wondered whether the book was taking a page from Romeo and Juliet and giving us ye olde “star-crossed lovers take their life” right there in the prologue.  So I was hooked for the rest of the story thinking, “When’s it all gonna go down?”  The boy (Park) is still narrating so I guess he doesn’t die, but then again, no one says that we’re starting at the very end.  This could be the middle.  He could be telling us the equivalent of standing in front of her tomb holding his own poison.

Eleanor and Park does have some Romeo and Juliet in it.  On the surface, it’s just the standard “boy and girl decide they like each other to the backdrop of high school English class,” where of course they’re studying Romeo and Juliet. This gives us a chance to learn about the modern teenager’s interpretation of love at first sight:

 

‘I just don’t think it’s a tragedy.’ She rolled her eyes again. She knew Mr Stessman’s game by now. ‘But he’s so obviously making fun of them. Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they wanted. And now, they think they want each other.’

‘They’re in love …’ Mr Stessman said, clutching his heart.

‘They don’t even know each other,’ she said.

‘It was love at first sight.’

‘It was “Oh my God, he’s so cute” at first sight. If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline … It’s Shakespeare making fun of love,’ she said.

The rest of the book, of course, is two teenagers from different worlds (he from the nice happy family, she from the broken home with the abusive step father) who fall head over heels in love and can’t bear to live life without each other.

I still can’t figure out if it’s supposed to be a Romeo and Juliet story or I’m just looking for parallels.  It’s got some weird gender flippy things going on, with the weird girl who likes to dress in boys’ clothes and the longer boy who discovers he really likes how he looks in makeup.  I thought that would be cool to run with.  But the girl’s still got violent family members and her boyfriend couldn’t be caught dead at her house, so I guess she’s still playing the Capulet role. She’s welcome at his house, though, which was the motivation for my earlier post “Dinner At The Montagues.”

Without the Shakespeare? I suppose it’s good, but maybe it’s too far removed from my world to fully appreciate.  I get what it’s like to be young and in love, I’m not that old.  The author does a great job of painting that slow, slow crawl from “Oh god I hate you” to “I hope that girl I hate sits next to me again” to “Maybe today I’ll tell her I liked what she said in English class” to “I should ask her about those song lyrics written on her book cover…” until one day you’re deciding whether or not you’re boyfriend and girlfriend and should you tell anybody? Eleanor and Park ride that entire rollercoaster right before our eyes.

I was expecting a Bridge to Terabithia twist through the whole thing. I thought I knew where it was going.  I was mistaken.  I think I would have liked my ending better.

 

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Shakespeare’s Greatest Characters? How would you … why would you …

Spotted first on Facebook via Will Sutton’s “I Love Shakespeare” page, let’s talk about this list of Shakespeare’s 25 Greatest Characters.

What does that even mean?  Most famous? Most beloved?  Like many lists, I think it ends up meaning “author’s favorite” but I’m going to be generous and treat it as, “Characters only Shakespeare could have created.” Mercutio’s a great example.  The Romeo and Juliet story existed before Shakespeare, but one of the reasons why we remember his version is because of character creations like Mercutio (who technically existed in the Brooke original, if I recall, but you know what I mean. Shakespeare gave him life.)

It’s a good list, and it’s probably not what you expect.  Lear is on it … but Hamlet is not.  Falstaff is … but no Portia.  Meanwhile, the list includes Autolycus, Nurse, and Lance.  Each entry comes with its reason for inclusion.

I wonder if we could make a claim to greatest play, then, by looking at which plays provide the most characters for this list? As You Like It, Henry IV and King Lear provide two characters, but Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet each bring three.  (Othello has one, Julius Caesar one.)

 

Not appearing on the list at all?

Hamlet.

Bold move!

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Now That’s What I Call Shakespeare Music

I’m a big Shakespeare music fan.  From David Gilmour’s rendition of Sonnet 18 (which I later learned was actually Bryan Ferry’s version of Sonnet 18) to the complete works of Rufus Wainwright (with a little Loudon Wainwright thrown in for good measure), I’m always interested in hearing people put the text to music.  Driving my daughter to school the other day to wrap up her English class and finally finish Romeo and Juliet I told her about how “Romeo’s last words” shot me up to the front of the Google search results because it’s a popular New York Times crossword puzzle clue (the answer is, “I die”).  So then I had to play The Flesh Failures, the big finale from the musical HAIR, where the chorus comes in singing, “Eyes, look your last, arms, take your last embrace…” and I even flipped out in the car, while driving.  “GOOSEBUMPS, EVERY TIME!” I told her. (I even linked to an amateur production because it doesn’t matter who sings it ;))

Sorry, got a little sidetracked there.  Anyway.  The other day I got email from Tom Harrison, who had his own version of Sonnet 18 he wanted me to hear. This let me to the discovery of the week – by looking at the Shakespeare tag on this Bandcamp.com site I discovered a whole new audience of musicians doing Shakespeare music!

Sonnet 18I won’t pretend to suggest the “best” ones I’ve found because it’s going to take me forever to browse. There’s every genre you could imagine.  Sometimes it looks like the band is just named / inspired by Shakespeare and the work itself is not so much about the text, but in most cases I’ve seen it’s actually putting the text to music.  In some cases it appears to be music that was produced for actual Shakespeare performances.

Report back in the comments when you find the good stuff you think everybody should hear!

I’m going to go predictable here and point to some Tempest music that I liked :).

 

 

 

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Why Do We Read?

I suppose this post isn’t specifically about Shakespeare. But I am assuming that many (most?) of us enjoy the subject so much that we don’t limit ourselves to waiting for a performance, and are pretty familiar with the text. Maybe not every play, but for your favorites, I’m assuming that you’ve read them. Probably closely, and probably more than once.

Why do we read?
Words, words, words.

Why?

I run a virtual bookclub at work (which is really just a Slack channel where I brain dump the audio books I go through on my commute at a rate of about 2-3 per week).  We were bouncing around recommendations and a coworker asked what kind of things I like to read. I said, “I like stuff that explores humanity’s place in the universe, and our purpose in life, if there is one.  How an individual’s actions and motivations affect everyone and everything around him.  If technology is involved, AI and stuff like that, all the better.  But that’s extra.”

In a previous discussion on the same topic, though, here’s what I’d told somebody:  “I like books where you feel changed at the end. Most books I read, I’ll forget.  Sure they were entertaining for a little while, but if they don’t leave me with something that I’m going to carry with me, I don’t feel like I got anything of value out of it.”  I’m trying to figure out if that is the same answer or the opposite answer.

Either way, I got to wondering if the same logic applies to my love of Shakespeare, and I believe that it does.  Tell me that Hamlet and King Lear don’t perfectly fit both my answers above?  I tend to trivialize the comedies (just like I would for movies or television shows), but even a Midsummer or Much Ado has a certain depth that touches on what I’m seeking.  I don’t get that from Love’s Labour’s Lost, or All’s Well That Ends Well.  Maybe that’s personal opinion, or maybe there actually is something in one play that’s not in another that strikes a universal chord.  Who knows.

What’s your story?  Why you do this? What do you get out of it?

 

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Shakespeare Wedding Season

Remember when I wrote a book? Spring is peak season for weddings, and frequently I get traffic for people looking for Shakespeare wedding ideas. So I thought it was a good opportunity to revisit the story…

Has it been seven years? Man I forget how long it’s been that I’ve been doing this.  Then I realize that there’s probably a whole slew of readers who never saw the original project.

Back in 2010 I told myself, “Listen, take one of those ideas running around your brain and actually finish it.”  Ideas are the easy part.  Execution and completion are the hard part.  That’s the story of my life right there.  This was my pure will power effort to get something from the idea stage all the way to completion.

The result is Hear My Soul Speak: Wedding Quotations from Shakespeare. I’d been to one too many weddings where they trotted out Sonnet 116 again and I said to my wife, again, “Why can’t they ever recite something different? There’s so many Shakespeare wedding quotes to choose from.”  I read Sonnet 17, personally.  Actually I recited it to my wife during our first dance.Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because they don’t know anything else to choose from. Everybody knows 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…” by the way) probably because they heard it at somebody else’s wedding and thought, “I’ll have that at mine, too.”

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because they don’t know anything else to choose from. Everybody knows 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…” by the way) probably because they heard it at somebody else’s wedding and thought, “I’ll have that at mine, too.”

Shakespeare Wedding QuotesSo I went through all the sonnets and quote databases I could, pruning out the not by Shakespeares (*), organizing them into how they might be used (the proposal, the vows, the guest book, the toast…) and explaining their context.

Hear My Soul Speak

The end result is a tidy little Shakespeare wedding quote reference book to use whether you’re getting married, in the wedding party, or just on the guest list.  If you’re in any of the above categories, check it out!  Shakespeare makes life better.

(*) Look, I love “I love none but thee til the stars grow old and the sun grows cold,” or however it goes, but it’s not Shakespeare. It’s Bayard Taylor.

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