The Merch(andise) of Shakespeare(Geek)

Straight Outta Birnam Wood - ShakespeareGeek Merchandise

The following post is pretty much blatant product shilling for Shakespeare Geek merchandise, so if that’s not something you’re interest in, here’s your chance to just skip this one!

‘Tis the season, everybody! I haven’t blatantly shilled any Shakespeare Geek Merchandise lately, because I always feel very uncomfortable doing that. But then I remind myself that you can’t buy Shakespeare Geek merchandise if you don’t know about it, and this is the perfect time of year when people will be thinking, “I wonder what I can get that Shakespeare-crazy friend of mine that they don’t already have?” and that’s where I come in.

Let’s do this in two steps. If I were indeed in this to make money, I’m sure by this point, I could have gotten much better at this. But I’m not, so it’s still a little haphazard.

First — I have a storefront on Redbubble. This is where you can get a wider variety of *types* of merchandise – stickers, phone cases, tote bags, hats, face masks … but t-shirts are there, too. Not all of my designs are up there, but they have a cool way of writing directly to the shop owner (me!), so I can take requests. I just filled two this past week.

Click Here to Shop Shakespeare Geek Merchandise on Redbubble!

Second — Ok, now let’s talk about Amazon, the gorilla in the room. Clearly, Amazon is a merchandise creator’s dream, bringing all the traffic volume (it goes up to 11, you might even say). My biggest problem with Amazon has always been that they do not offer a one-stop “Here’s a link to all your merch” solution. It’s spread out not only across product types but across international domains! So if you see something on Amazon.com, chances are it’s on Amazon.co.uk as well, but there’s no easy way for me to get you there.

The closest I’m able to provide is this Amazon Search of the ShakespeareGeek Brand, but it’s only for the US site, and I’m still not sure it represents all of my stuff (and it’s definitely not ordered in any useful or interesting way).

Click Here To Shop Shakespeare Geek Merchandise on Amazon!

To make this a little easier, here are direct links to some of my recent best sellers! Note that all of these links will show men’s t-shirts, and I can’t always pick what color to highlight. But just about every product is available in various styles of colors, including women’s and children’s. Some are available as sweatshirts. You just kind of have to click around and explore. Note that all of my stuff is branded “Shakespeare Geek” – there’s a lot of Shakespeare merch on Amazon, and it’s not all me.

Show some love for the Rude Mechanicals! I’m just now thinking, “Why didn’t I put Bottom on the Bottom???”
Everybody loves the “Straight Outta” shirts, I think all the versions I did are some of my best sellers.
I’m sad that this one seems to have poor reviews, but they are on the physical shirt that Amazon provides, not about my design. Looks like they might run small?
Pair this one with the Rude Mechanicals version and see how many people recognize it! I can’t remember if I made a fairies version, but if I didn’t, I will have to.
Click through this one to see the better color combinations, I don’t like this screenshot but I can’t easily change it. On this one, I deliberately put Bottom on top, both to emphasize that it’s Bottom’s Dream but also because I thought Puck would enjoy being the one who’s upside down.
Didn’t I say the Straight Outta shirts were best-sellers? This one makes the most sense to me, plotwise.

Wrapping It Up

See what I did there? While I’m wrapping up this post, you can wrap up all the great new Shakespeare Geek merchandise you bought for people! Ha!

Ok, that’s enough links. If you’re going to click, I’ve given you plenty to click. If I don’t get the chance later, let me take this opportunity to thank you all for your support over the years. The mission has been and always will be to get more Shakespeare out into the world – Shakespeare makes life better! But the reality of that world is that money makes it go around, so when you’re able to purchase Shakespeare Geek merchandise for yourself or as gifts for your friends, that helps me buy things for my family and my friends.

Even if you got this far and didn’t see anything fun to click on, you can still help support the site and get more Shakespeare out into the world by sharing this post! Thanks!

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season!

ChatGPT: Somebody Call Alan Turing

One of the very first programs I “wrote”, and by that I mean “copied by hand from a book”, was a BASIC version of ELIZA, the famous “chat” program by Joseph Weisenbaum. I was a kid, just learning to program, and this sent me down a spiral into the history of artificial intelligence where I learned about the Turing Test, created by Alan Turing in 1950, which says, simplified, that the goal of natural language processing is to create a chat program such that, if a person is sitting at the other end, that person can’t tell if they’re talking to a human or a computer.

Well, it’s been 70+ years at this point and man are we getting close. There’ve been a million chat programs and competitions since then, I’ve played with a lot of them, and they’ve all been quite terrible. In fact if you’re trying to break one – after all it is a test, not a game – it’s usually pretty easy. But if you’re not? If you honestly just want the content that comes from a conversation, with back and forth question and answer? Wait’ll you get a load of ChatGPT.

As I always do, I just walked up and started hitting it with Shakespeare questions. I wasn’t trying to trick it, I was just asking what I thought might be interesting exploration of what it could be expected to do. What follows is unedited transcript.

I started out with an easy one. And I got back an easy response. It’s probably not copied from Wikipedia, but it reads like it could have been. I didn’t expect much.

That was kind of cool. I not only got an answer, I got a reasonable and grammatically correct answer. Often in the older versions of these chat engines, trying to express something in a different way meant just doing some dumb word swapping. This one’s maybe doing a little of that (“tragic” = “very sad”) but it does a lot more than swap out words.

Ok, let’s make it a little more challenging.

Fascinating. Again, like the first question it feels very Wikipedia-like. But it’s serving these answers up in a matter of seconds. And it’s not like this things got a database of what people might ask. I’m relatively certain I’m one of the few people drilling down on random Shakespeare combinations.

I don’t know what I expected here, but I like this answer. It implies strongly that this thing understood my question, understands not only the characters of Hamlet but the elements of tragedy and comedy, and makes a valiant attempt to offer suggestions about how they might fit together.

Ok, two more then I want to go back and play with it some more.

I don’t know why people keep getting so excited about using this thing to generate original content – it’s not going to offer opinions, and it knows when that’s what you’re asking. So this heavily suggests that all we can ever really get out of it (well, for now) is factual responses.

This is basically the same question, yes. But do you see why I left it in here? It literally tells me, “You just asked me the same question in a different way.” So not only is it doing a ridiculously impressive job answering the questions, but it’s keeping your conversation in context and using that as part of the answer.

I wasn’t terribly impressed by the art generators that were all the rage a few months ago. This, on the other hand. I could talk to this thing all day.

We Are Not All Alone Unhappy

Being a computer scientist and a Shakespeare geek is a little weird sometimes. For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen Shakespeare’s work – and, by extension, his universe – as a structured body of text to be manipulated however I am able. When you have the ability to code at your fingers, structured data is your playground. All you see is “Plays have scenes, scenes have dialogue, dialogue has lines that are spoken by speakers…” and then you build it back up from there.

How could we ever see Lady Macbeth with anybody else?

People usually go one of two routes with this knowledge. First, they run word analysis and try to come up with reasons why Shakespeare liked to use “dark” words earlier in his career, or how often he used synonyms for love. Stuff like that.

Or, according to the new AI world where everything is “machine learning”, they “train” a model on how Shakespeare wrote, and then they generate fresh new content “in the style of Shakespeare.” I always hate these, because “in the style of Shakespeare” can be said with fewer words as, “not Shakespeare.”

I’ve always looked at it differently. I see characters, and how they relate to each other. In my dream world, where I’m a younger man with more time and energy to work on projects that have no monetary value but are infinitely fascinating to me, I want to read in the text of a play in such a way that each character turns into a chatbot, and the user can do stuff like walk through Romeo and Juliet from different character perspectives, stopping to talk to each character. “Ask TYBALT why he hates ROMEO.” Stuff like that. I think that would be awesome. I’ve often thought of how far I could really take it. I’ve just never written it.

Of course, once you get into interacting with the story, you have to start creating new content. Shakespeare and “interactive fiction” is not new. The name Ryan North might be best known – he actually published a “choose your own adventure” version of Hamlet. But it’s a much smaller universe than either books or games. You basically get to work with people who were looking for you already. It’s a match made in heaven.

So I’m a bit giddy to have found the interactive Twine game We Are Not All Alone Unhappy sitting in an article about newly published SF inspired by Shakespeare. This one’s a little different. It’s not a book. It’s a small game where you pick two Shakespeare characters (from a pre-chosen list of nine) and see if they get a “happy ending.” Who decides that? Well, the author does – Cat Manning. And the math geeks may jump right to the numbers and realize that there are only 72 possible combinations to run through. But each of those combinations is a spin on “what happens when you put these two characters in a room”, so that’s 72 pages of original Shakespeare-related content, and that’s what we’re here for.

There is a game and a goal. Each character has empty hearts next to their name. Find them a happy ending, you fill a heart. The goal is to fill all the hearts. There are 28 hearts and 72 combinations so you won’t play for too long before stumbling across the good matches. Nobody said it’s a difficult game. But those of us who have personal relationships with Shakespeare characters will have that much more fun saying, “Oh, I wonder what would happen if I put Mercutio and Kate in a room together?”

I’m also finding that I disagree with some of the results 🙂 and wish they were longer. Some are real dead ends. Some are a little softcore, so reader beware. But if you’re always on the lookout for interesting and slightly geeky new ways to play with Shakespeare content, it’s definitely worth playing with.

https://borrowers-ojs-azsu.tdl.org/borrowers/article/view/342/607

Oh, Dustin. Try Acting.

Henry Irving as Shylock, late 19th century
Henry Irving. Not Dustin.

There’s a story told about the movie Marathon Man, that saw Dustin Hoffman working together with Sir Laurence Olivier. Hoffman, a method actor, was playing a man who hadn’t slept in three days … so, he didn’t sleep for three days. Upon hearing this, his co-star Sir Laurence told him, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”

I was surprised to see Hoffman’s name on a Shakespeare story, because I can’t remember seeing him in any major Shakespeare film credits. Turns out we’re talking about Peter Hall’s 1989 The Merchant of Venice, as told by his Portia, Geraldine James. Highlights:

  • Hoffman wanted to do Shakespeare. So, of course, he goes to Peter Hall. Because that’s what you do when you have no Shakespeare credit, you go to the FOUNDER OF THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY. That’s a little like saying I think I can fix the economy, somebody get me Joe Biden on the phone.
  • He said, “Will you direct me in Hamlet?” Hall, to his credit, said, “Ummmm….maybe try something else first before you tackle Hamlet.” So he ends up as Shylock.
  • James quotes Hoffman as saying “I’ve just realized, you can’t improvise this shit.” Thank god nobody gave him a Hamlet.

https://nationalpost.com/news/world/dustin-hoffman-was-mad-he-couldnt-alter-shakespeares-dialogue-co-star-recalls

Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare Presents Much Ado About Nothing on Boston Common

Oh Shakespeare, how I’ve missed you. I know that there are plenty of opportunities to go hunt down Shakespeare in his various forms, from high school productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream to more esoteric offerings like the occasional Cymbeline. But life being what it is, I find that if I can get to at least one show a year I’m rejuvenated. And that show is often Commonwealth Shakespeare’s free production on Boston Common. This marks their 26th year doing it, and I’ve seen 15 of them. 17 if you count my first discovery of the production, where seeing the show was more like happening randomly upon it and saying, “Oh hey let’s say and listen for a little bit.”

This year’s show was Much Ado About Nothing, which they last performed in 2004, which I did see :). That predates this blog, so alas I don’t have a review so we can compare and contrast.

I loved this show. Love love loved it. This year we went to a surprise 4pm show on a Saturday – normally we go to the 8pm. So we baked in the sun a little bit, but surely no worse than the actors in their full military uniforms. It was also a special opportunity to see an accessible show, with both open captioning as well as ASL interpreters. I know a little sign language, but not nearly enough to appreciate what must be the enormous effort of trying to interpret a Shakespeare play. Not to mention there were only three of them, so each was no doubt handling multiple parts.

The play itself, as I’m sure you know, is one of Shakespeare’s most modern, approachable comedies. Claudio and Benedick are friends, Hero and Beatrice are friends. Claudio and Hero want to get married. Beatrice and Benedick pretend to hate each other but are really doing that “oooo i hate him … when’s he getting here? he is coming, right? you know, cuz, oo, I hate him so much!” thing. There’s no letter writing to confuse the audience, no long lost twins or people disguising themselves. Just good old fashioned romantic comedy. Even the villain, Don John, has little more evil to perform than to say, “A wedding, you say? I must wreck it!” *maniacal laugh*

This one’s done up in an 80’s theme, so the music and the costumes are pretty much exactly what you’d imagine (including an amusing surprise at the end that I won’t spoil). I love productions that treat the story like a big party among friends, and that’s exactly what we get. The soldiers have come back from the war, and Leonato has opened his home to them for a month. That’s our setting. It should be a party. It’s like summer vacation, you know it’ll be over eventually so you relax and enjoy it while you can.

Let’s get right into the casting and characters, since I don’t think I need to keep talking about the plot. I quite loved everybody. As I tried to explain to my kids, with the comedy you have to play a wide range. You have to go over the top and sell the outrageous bits, but for the serious bits you need to do some real acting so the the audience follows what’s happening and isn’t just there to laugh. I’ve said in the past about this particular company’s productions that I think they tend to dumb it down for the audience in a way that I don’t like. Lots of fourth wall breaking and stuff that feels like improv. None of that this year. They stuck to the script, and they sold it, and I’m happy.

Erik Robles as Claudio might as well have been the star, truly. Often you can picture Claudio as the goofy, lovesick sidekick of Benedick who is so easily duped by Don John that you roll your eyes at how clueless he is. Not here. Looking a bit like Jesse Williams (from where we sat), Robles immediately sold being head over heels in love, sometimes dropping into Spanish as he poured out his love for Hero. When he confronts Hero at the wedding you bought his heartache, and when he realized his mistake you bought his misery. Every other time I’ve seen this play I’d tell you it’s the Beatrice and Benedick story, but this time I honestly found myself paying more attention to the Claudio/Hero story.

Rebecca-Anne Whittaker’s Hero was the perfect match for Claudio, the chemistry was obvious. They didn’t look like “local rich guy’s daughter is promised to soldier”, they looked like a couple who met at a party and fell in love at first sight. When falsely confronted with accusations of infidelity she stands up for herself as best she’s able, she doesn’t do the whole “Oh dear, I’m so helplessly lost, I don’t know what’s happening!” *swoon* kind of thing from the old days. She confronts the men accusing her, demands to see their evidence. Of course this doesn’t get her anywhere, her own father still says, “Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes” – one of my favorite lines in this play because it’s just so over the top. She doesn’t deserve that. At least during the big reveal she seems to get some balance back in the relationship. Her pulling back the veil isn’t so much, “Surprise, my beloved, I’m not dead!” as it is “Told you, jackass.” I could imagine the wedding night being tough for our boy Claudio.

Rachael Warren’s Beatrice owns the stage whenever she’s on it. She’s a big, bold presence who’s not afraid to let you know her opinion on everything – exactly as Beatrice should be. She’s absolutely the kind of friend that says, “You shamed my friend on her wedding day? I’m going to have my boyfriend kill you.” Even a brief scene, like when Don Pedro asks to marry her and her first word is a too quick, “No!” and she has to backpedal her way out of it, shows impeccable comic timing.

Now, with Tia James as Benedick, we come to my only real issue with the show. I have nothing against her acting. In fact I quite liked it. You’ll note I’m saying her. That’s fine; I’ve got no issues at all with gender blind casting. I told the kids when I spotted the program, “Oh, looks like Benedick’s cast female in this production. That will be interesting.” She does a great job as Claudio’s buddy, who keeps finding herself surrounded by well-meaning friends asking her, “So, why aren’t you married yet?” and turning into that romantic, poetry-writing cliché she swore she’d never become.

But here’s my confusion – they changed *some* of the language. Benedick is referred to as “she” throughout the production, and I think I heard the occasional “madam” where a “sir” would have been in the original text. Again, ok, but … most of Beatrice’s lines are about not wanting a husband. She has those great lines about how she’ll never marry a man with a beard, but how a man with no beard is no man. Benedick, for her part, talks about beards and bachelors and not “hanging her bugle in an invisible baldrick” and more often than not I was left wondering, “What’s happening here?”

Shakespeare is confusing enough as it is for your typical audience. Like I said, I’ve been to 15 of these alone, and I can’t tell you how often my friends and family lean over to me and say, “Who is that? Who is she talking about?” When there is no action to accompany the words, it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening. So when you get into a situation where you can no longer rely on pronouns or words like “husband”, you’re making it that much harder for the audience to understand what’s happening. Especially when it comes to gender. You could have a man playing a woman, or a woman playing a man. Or a woman playing a woman who dresses up like a man. There’s a point where you need to forget what your eyes tell you and pay attention to the words.

That’s my only difficulty with this production. Not even so much that I disagree with it, just that I truly don’t understand what I was supposed to be watching. Beatrice spends most of the play talking about how no man is good enough, and she’ll never find a husband .. and then ends up with a character that’s been called “she” the whole time (a character who, by the way, has spent equal time referring to herself as a “bachelor”). Ok, so, did we just make Beatrice bi? Is that what’s happening here? We don’t get to sit down and talk to these characters and have our questions answered. All we get is what Shakespeare and the director give us. I have no issue with any of these decisions, I truly don’t. Make them a gay couple. Or make a play that is entirely gender neutral so it doesn’t matter. Whatever you want to do. It’s your show. But you left me not understanding what you were trying to do, which bothers me most because I’m left with too many questions. I don’t want to do your show any injustice by misinterpreting what you were trying to accomplish.

Before I go, I have to give one last shout-out to Debra Wise as Dogberry. You can’t review a Much Ado without talking about Dogberry! Dressed like a park ranger and surrounded by boy scouts, my best description at the time was that Wise was channeling (Emmy Award-winning) Laurie Metcalfe, and I say that as a real compliment. She’s bellowing, she’s over the top, she’s an ass. Just like we like our Dogberry.

So there you go! I meant what I said, I love love loved this. I am in no way going around saying, “Wait until you hear how they screwed with the gender and the pronouns!” because I’m at least a little afraid that, just by bringing it up, people are going to take issue with my review. I repeat – I’m open to however you want to present Shakespeare in your vision. But I want it consistent, and I want it to answer any obvious questions I’m likely to have. I’m honestly wondering if the director may have just left in a lot of the questionable words because it was too hard to change them all and because she figured the audience wouldn’t even notice (see earlier comment about dumbing down the productions). That could be miles from the truth. I don’t know. See what I keep saying? Hell, I’d love to sit down with the director and ask her all these questions. Maybe one of these days I’ll get the chance.

If you’re able, go see it. It’s a great night out. It’s short (looking back at the script I can see several scenes they cut), there’s music and dancing, and everybody goes home happy. What more can you ask?

Pictures!

A special thank you to the ASL interpreters for this performance!
Claudio proposes to Hero. Why we had to dress up Antonio like Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage”, I have no idea.
Dogberry interrogates the ruffians, while the Watch stands … watch.
Thank you and good night! See you next year!