You Learned From Who That Ears Are What Now?

Reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and this odd sentence went flying past:

I knew from Shakespeare class that ears were sexual.

Ears, you say?

I’m sorry, what?  I love that I’ve been doing this for almost thirteen years now and I can still find new things to talk about.  I’ve definitely never heard the argument made that Shakespeare sexualized ears, nor can I immediately think of any examples where this might be the case.  (Checks Sonnet 130 just in case … eyes, lips, hair, cheeks….nope.)

All that comes to mind is, “Lend me your ears!” which makes me imagine an audience shouting back, “We’re using them right now, give us five minutes!”

But seriously folks.  Have I overlooked something obvious? What could the author possibly be talking about?




The Adventures Of Will And The Boys

Recently I spotted The Enchantress of Numbers, a novel about Ada Lovelace. If you’re unfamiliar with that name, she’s often credited as being the first computer programmer because of her relationship with Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine (often heralded as the first modern programmable computing device).  As a lifelong computer geek and now the father of two daughters, I’m always interested in the stories of women in science and engineering, so this was a no-brainer.

I would say that I don’t usually like historical fiction, because it’s exactly that, fiction. Where’s the pleasure in reading about stuff that didn’t happen to people that really did exist?  I started to say to someone, “It’s not like I’m seeking out Shakespeare historical fiction either…” but then I realized that I quite liked that Will television series that was on this past summer:

When Shakespeare, Kemp, Burbage and the other “moderately historically accurate” characters are on screen, I am enraptured. I could watch it all day.  I’ve been telling people it reminds me of the recent “Jobs” movie starring Michael Fassbender, which was basically two plus hours of a universe centered on Steve Jobs.  To the degree that this show will be a universe centered on Shakespeare and his circle, you won’t be able to tear me away from the television.

I’ve never actually read anything like that.  The only Shakespeare fiction I know is usually young adult stuff to introduce my kids to Shakespeare.  People travel through time to meet Shakespeare, or people discover a long lost Shakespeare manuscript. At least once I think I read something from Anne Hathaway’s point of view.  But never “Will and the boys.”

So I’m asking. Does anybody know of historic fiction that’s set around Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson and their fellows? Ideally something that’s not completely young adult, but I’ll take what I can get. Something that attempts some degree of historical timeline accuracy, but I’m totally ok with filling in the missing pieces.

I may turn out to hate it, who knows. But it dawned on me that I might also love it.  Anybody got something that fits the category?



Which Play Do You Wish You Had Studied?

Richard III? Never read it.
Who’s this guy?

I’m in the middle of a book right now, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and while I can agree that it’s a very well-written book that deserves that praise it’s getting … I’m not enjoying it.  It feels like homework.  If I was back in college and this was required reading? Fine.  I can read some chapters and then come to class ready to discuss the relationship between Selin and Ivan.  But I’ve been out of college twenty plus years, I read things because I want to, not because I get a letter grade.

I was thinking about what to say to my book club at work and my first thought was, “I’m not about to go reading War and Peace for fun, either.” Then I thought about that for a second and realized, “But for me, King Lear is pleasure reading.”

We often talk about the difficulties of reading Shakespeare and trot out the old “see the play!” cliche.  But what about actually sitting down to study a play? How many of us get the chance to do that once we’ve left school?  I suppose if you’re active in a theatre group you can do that, but I’m certainly not. Most of my friends (barring my online following) barely get my references, let alone have interest in discussing the symbolism in The Tempest. I feel that once you’ve missed your window to study certain pieces of literature, you’re unlikely to get another shot at it.  (In my adult life I also went back to read Catcher in the Rye and, more recently, The Great Gatsby.  Both had that same feeling of, “Ok, I can see why this is good, but … I don’t love it.”)

Most of us probably have easy access to all the plays (the text, at least) and can read them at will.  But which did you *study*? Where a group of students sat with a teacher and went through the deeper intricacies of the play?  More interestingly, which *didn’t* you get a chance to study, that you wish you did?

For me, it’s Richard III.  Never seen it live, and can only say that I’ve read it in the sense that twenty-five years ago I read all the plays.  Never “studied” it, and certainly never had anybody walk me through the finer points.  I feel a gap in my understanding of Shakespeare’s works as a whole, because of that.

Who else? Tell us in the comments which play you want to go back and study like somebody was going to quiz you on it.




Every Night Is Now Trivia Night

HQ Trivia. Everybody’s doing it.

I think that, as a general rule, if you know more about Shakespeare than the average person, chances are that’s also true of a broad number of categories.  You’re likely to be good at general knowledge stuff.  Which also, if you’re like me, means that people want you for their trivia team.  I always hope that Shakespeare questions are going to come up, just to watch the other team throw their hands up in the air in exasperation like ‘Seriously?? He gets a Shakespeare question?!’

If I’m right so far, then is everybody out there playing HQ Trivia yet?  It’s the latest mobile app craze (literally, they don’t even have a site for me to link to) that’s gaining in popularity faster than Pokemon Go.  The catch is it’s free to play, and you win real money.  Got your attention yet?

The app/game’s about as simple as it gets.   They play roughly twice a day, at fairly predictable times – 3pm and 9pm in my experience.  This is a live streamed game.  A video host comes out and talks to you. If you’re not logged on within a couple minutes of the start time, you get to watch but not participate.  As one newspaper article commented, “It’s like the next evolution of what used to be called appointment television.”  Now instead of being on your couch at 9pm on Tuesday to watch Seinfeld, you’ve got to be on your phone, surrounded by your smart friends.

12 questions, 3 multiple choice answers for each.  Get just 1 wrong, you’re out (but then you’ll want to watch the rest of the game to convince yourself that you did in fact know all the other answers). But!  There’s a way you can get extra lives to keep playing. More on that in a moment.

Get them all right, you split the prize with other winners.  That’s the other catch.  The prize, typically $2000, sounds great!  But on average over 200 people are going to complete the game and you’re going to get a share somewhere south of $10.  When you have over $20 in winnings, you can get a real payout of real money.  They’ve also had several special event games where the prize is much higher. I think the New Year’s Eve game was something like $18,000 in prize money.

It’s frustrating as heck, and you’ll spend the entire time saying ‘Why am I doing this?’ but you’ll get hooked just like everybody else.  The process is unnecessarily long — did I say the game starts at 3pm? I meant, “You have to fire up the app at 3pm, and then the game starts … and some point in the future, once their algorithm has determined that the number of people joining has leveled off.”  So you might wait 5 minutes, or 15.  But then, the game st….well, no, not yet.  Because here comes the video host to talk to you!  It’s a game show. They’re cheesy, it’s what they do.  And just like for all game shows he’s going to explain the game as if you never played.  But at least it does add some variety to the game, as it is live (so they’ll do things like comment on the chat window) and sometimes surprising – last night, Jimmy Kimmel hosted.

Eventually though you do get to the game, and being as simple as it is, it’s hard to mess up.  Question with three answers comes up, click an answer within 10 seconds, get told if you’re right or if you’re eliminated.  No special preferences, really only one screen.  Basic basic.  But oh so addicting.

I haven’t actually had any Shakespeare questions yet, though I did have a Harold Pinter one.

Ok, so!  About those extra lives.  That’s how they get ya, as the saying goes.  It’s a referral program.  If you sign up because I convinced you, then you can put in my name (which is, of course, ShakespeareGeek) and I’ll get an extra life – which means, basically, another strike.  There’s no collecting them or anything, no choice.  If I get a question wrong, but I had an extra life, then I keep playing – and my extra life count goes down.  So what I’m hoping is that I’ve intrigued a bunch of you out there to try your trivia brains for a shot at some real money, and you’ll hook a brother up by remembering to add ShakespeareGeek as your referral code.  Of course, once you’re up and running, you can share with your own friends and have them use your name.  Pay it forward, yo.

How Do I Get It?!

Ok, here’s the links.  It’s been out on iTunes for awhile, but only recently showed up for Android.  Sometimes it’s a little buggy on both sides, but in general I haven’t had a problem (my kids use iTunes, I use Android, and side by side they’re near identical).

HQ Trivia Android Link

HQ Trivia iTunes Link

That’s it!  Get to downloading, remember to add ShakespeareGeek as your referral code, and I’ll see you in the next game!



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How To Get A Complete Stranger Fired With Shakespeare

Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I’ve often spoken of how, once people meet and get to know me, Shakespeare is in their lives forever.  Months or years later, regardless of how often I might see them, I’ve now got that connection. So I’ll get Facebook messages or texts with links to something Shakespeare and a note, “Saw this and thought of you!”

So there’s this friend of mine who I worked with for five years, who actually went off to pursue his dream project and started a school (you don’t hear that too often).  He texts me yesterday to let me know that one of his humanities professors has a Shakespeare book (well, chapters in a collection) coming out.

Given the guy’s name I went googling.  I saw his bio for the school, but I also saw an Amazon author page.  Click.  Blah blah blah, thirty year veteran of stage and screen, award winning script writer … seems like this could be the guy.

He’s also got a couple dozen ebooks, the first of which is described as “an erotic fantasy, two souls in one body.”

Well that’s different, I think. But hey, it’s not my business.  What people do on their own time doesn’t bother me. I figure they did their due diligence, they know what their employees are up to, they made the same call.

“I think I found his author page on Amazon,” I text my friend.  “Little surprised to see the erotic fantasy pop up, I have to say.”

“HOLY SH*T!” comes the response.

Apparently not 🙂

“Maybe I have the wrong guy,” I reply.  “Australian fellow?”

My friend confirms, with great relief, that I’ve got the wrong guy.   But for a minute there I thought Shakespeare was about to get some dude fired who I never even met!


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Shakespeare Storm Quiz

Storm still.

If I scheduled it properly and my software behaved, you should be reading this while I’m sitting up in New England under about a foot of snow.

How often does Shakespeare make a storm of some sort a major plot point?

  • The Tempest, duh.
  • Twelfth Night needs to deposit Viola in Illyria to get started, so a shipwreck seems as good a reason as any. But does the description of how they went down count as a storm, or was it just bad luck at sea?
  • Poor Antonio’s ships in The Merchant of Venice.  Or am I misremembering that? Do we get much of an explanation about how all of his ships go down? I think I’ve always just assumed a storm but not sure my evidence.
  • Macbeth opens with thunder and lightning.  And then there’s Macduff’s description of the night before he arrives at Macbeth’s castle, where it all hits the fan.
  • King Lear on the heath.  I didn’t realize the power of stage directions until I went back and looked and saw how many scenes say, “Storm still.”  That is a huge storm.

What did I miss?



Unseen Scenes

For reasons too complicated to mention I was fast forwarding through King Lear with the kids last night, jumping to the ending.  I knew it wouldn’t really capture their attention the way I hoped, and I’d have to explain 90% context, but I’m ok with that :).

Which gave me an idea, as I explained how Cordelia died.  Shakespeare gives us lots of action off stage, for whatever reason.  Sometimes modern directors will go ahead and add the scene to make things easier to follow – I’m thinking of Romeo and Juliet‘s wedding scene as an obvious example.  Many people will swear that they’ve seen Romeo and Juliet’s wedding and refuse to believe that Shakespeare never wrote that scene, because it was in the 1996 movie.

What other scenes fit the bill?  I’d love to see Lear’s last desperate act trying to protect his daughter.  I can see the whole thing quite clearly (having just watched Olivier’s version doesn’t hurt).  Cordelia and Lear are sitting happily in a cell.  Enter guard with a rope, who roughly pulls her away despite Lear’s protests. He tries to protect her but is no match for the guard who hurls him back to the ground. The guard struggles with Cordelia and drops his sword so he can use both hands (having been ordered to hang her, not stab her).  Behind his back Lear recovers the sword and does the scoundrel in, just as the messenger from Edmund (et al) arrives screaming for them to stop the execution.

What else?  Petruchio and Kate’s wedding scene writes itself, that’s an easy one.  Then you have Macduff beheading Macbeth, but I don’t think of that one as a really necessary scene, there’s just not much to it.

Which ones am I missing?




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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Most Popular Shakespeare Geek Merch for 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the winner, to no great surprise, is…

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

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

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



As You Can Take It Or Leave It

Whenever we discuss Shakespeare’s best or greatest play, some folks will make the case for As You Like It.  Just yesterday on Facebook, in response to yesterday’s “The One Play” thread, one reader suggested that it is “at least as good as Hamlet.”

I don’t get it.

I don’t think it’s a bad play, necessarily.  But that’s not saying much, I’m not sure I’d say that any of them are bad.  But there are some that, if I never saw again, I think I’d probably be ok.  I’m not a Love’s Labour’s Lost fan, or All’s Well That Ends Well or Two Gentlemen of Verona.  There are other potential candidates, like Merry Wives of Windsor, that I’ve simply never seen live.

But other than general agreement that Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s strongest female leads?  As You Like It is right in that “It’s fine, I guess” category for me.  There’s no real conflict or drama, the plot is ridiculously convoluted, the ending entirely unbelievable.  The only real laugh out loud moments for me come during the exchanges between Jaques and Orlando.

Give me Twelfth Night any day if you want a strong female lead dressed up like a boy.  That one’s not afraid to play with some dark edges, like what they do to poor Malvolio.  His ending certainly isn’t happy.  Does anybody know WTF we’re supposed to take from a character whose last line is, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”? That’s the kind of thing somebody says before coming back with an automatic weapon.

So let’s have the alternate argument?  We’ll call it the Battle for Cross-Dressing Shakespeare.  I suppose we can go ahead and throw in Portia from if you really want to go down that path, but I don’t really think of her as the “female lead” in the same way as a Rosalind or Viola.  But, your call.