I recently talked myself into reading the biography of Robin Williams. It wasn’t a question of whether I’d enjoy it. I loved the man’s body of work. It was more a question of whether I was prepared for the inside story of his end.
But we’re not there yet, I’m less than half way through. I want to talk about his Shakespeare. I think anybody that followed the man knew he had some Shakespeare in him. He attended Julliard, for starters, and was known to drop Shakespeare references throughout his improvisations:
He also, of course, played Osric in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.
What I did not realize is that he *started* with Shakespeare. His Malvolio received rave reviews. I did a little digging, and look what I found!
This image is from 1971. I only wish I could have found the complete review! I did get a pointer to it, but it was behind a subscription paywall so I gave up on that idea.
But then! I found something even more exciting. The book talks about a Western production of Taming of the Shrew that Williams was part of. I won’t say “starred in” because it looks like he played Tranio, not exactly a major role. And guess what? There’s video! Unfortunately, there’s no audio so all you really get is Robin Williams in a cowboy hat standing around in the background.
I’m about halfway through the book now, well past Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poets’ Society, so I’m pretty sure I’m not going to see any more live Shakespeare credits. But I was very excited to learn about a few that I never knew!
My streak continues! I’ve not missed a Commonwealth Shakespeare in the Park performance since 2005. This year I finally met Steven Maler, the artistic director since the beginning. Immediately told him about missing Hamlet, and that I’d toughed out the rain and then stood there, hours late, watching them strike the stage and screaming, “I’M HERE! BRING EVERYBODY BACK!”
Anyway, this year it was Richard III, and I was both excited – because I’ve never seen or really ever studied that one – but also a bit ambivalent, because I had no real stake in this one, you know? I have no special love or hatred of the play, so if I missed it, would I care? But I knew I’d care in the long run, especially about breaking my streak, so I’m happy to report we did not miss.
I tried to explain the general plot of Richard III to my ever patient wife who tolerates my addiction. Coming from someone who’s not read the play my summary is not the greatest, but it went something like this: “Think of it in terms of today’s royal family. Say that Prince Harry has decided he wants to be king. But he’s way too far down the line to ever see the crown, unless he does something about it. So he kills his brother William. Then he decides that he’d rather be married to Kate, but problem, he’s already married. So he kills his own wife, then convinces Kate to marry him, despite the fact that everybody knows he killed her husband. This is too much for Prince Charles’ heart, so he dies. William’s son is in the way too, though, so he’s also got to die. You get the idea. It’s a blood bath.” That’s not a 1-1 match but it gave her some context to work with.
Having never seen a different production I can’t really tell you if I saw a good one. I did not love their Richard. Maybe it was early in the run (it opened on Wednesday, we went on Friday), but I felt like he was having trouble with his lines. His timing was off, and too often you could feel him take an extra pause like he was trying to remember the next word. Once he spoke over another actor’s lines (which I’m pretty sure was not supposed to happen), and I may have imagined it but I thought I heard Clarence feed him a line right at the very beginning.
What I did like, and found quite surprising, was the strength of the female characters. Not surprising in the sense that I didn’t expect strong female characters from Shakespeare, but rather that in all the times we’ve had discussions about Shakespeare best female roles, I never hear this play mentioned.
I loved Queen Margaret, thought she was great. Just this kind of crazy old lady who’s all, “Yup, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but I’m old and I don’t care, I’m going to say whatever I want to say to whoever I want.” I did particularly like when Buckingham recalls her curse just before his death as if to say “Well, I guess the crazy old broad was right. Ok boys, let’s go.”
Special appreciation, though, for Queen Elizabeth. I lost track of how many of her family members were killed during the course of the play. But when Richard stands in front of her and says he wants her daughter, the Queen took the insanity of the situation to a whole other level. The best way I can describe it is if you found yourself in one of those Friday the Thirteenth serial killer movies where almost everyone you know and love has been brutally murdered, only now the guy that’s been doing it isn’t a silent unstoppable monster, he’s here trying to have a conversation with you. And he wants one of your remaining daughters.
This was probably my favorite scene, because on the one side you’ve got Richard who is just so calm in what he’s asking, completely in control of the situation. He doesn’t just want to take the daughter, he wants her mother to thank him for the favor that he’s doing for them. She on the other hand is on the edge of insane at the whole situation.
I think that if I watch more productions (and I plan to), I’ll better understand all the players and how they move about the game. I was trying to stay ahead, including having the script loaded up in my app and following along at some parts. It just wasn’t what I expected. Scenes I thought might have played more humorous did not get laughs. The few laughs that it did get seemed more slapstick, with Buckingham cavorting about the stage and yelling “Boo!” to the children, or Richard doubling over slapping his knee laughing at just how evil he is.
This year they did a thrust(?) stage? Am I using that term right? Basically it came straight out into the audience so most of us were wrapped around the edges. We spoke with one photographer right at the edge of the stage, he was getting some great shots.
Not being terribly familiar with Richard III cover to cover (and wanting to change that, because I’ll be going to see it and the end of this week), I wondered, “Did Shakespeare ever make the obvious joke there?” We often talk about how he wasn’t afraid to make a dick joke, so when his main character is named Richard, did he go for it?
The best I can tell (and by that I mean searching the open source shakespeare for the obvious), he did not. The only reference I see is here:
‘Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold,
For Dickon thy master is bought and sold.’
But then I thought, “Well, was it common to abbreviate the name Richard as Dick back then? Maybe it came later.” But that’s not accurate because I knew that Henry VI Part 2 has a character Dick the Butcher (most famous for his “First thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” quote).
I also noticed something interesting in Henry IV Part 1:
Sirrah, I am sworn brother
to a leash of drawers; and can call them all by
their christen names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis.
I’ve always heard the expression as “Every Tom, Dick and Harry,” but… is that where that comes from? Does Shakespeare get credit for that?
I suppose I could google all these things but it’s more fun to get a discussion going. Was Dick a common nickname for Richard during Shakespeare’s time, and was it also a euphemism for other things? I’m leaning toward some combination of no, because you’d then think that there’d be more such puns in the works and I just can’t find them.
On a related but different note, is he the first to use that Tom, Dick and Francis/Harry thing? When did it turn into Harry?
I love it when Shakespeare comes up at lunch. We were talking about with a coworker who’d been in Midsummer, and I asked whether his production had been on the light and glitzy side, or touched on some of the darker bits. This might be the play that kindergarten kids get to dress up as fairies, but it’s also the play where a husband drugs his wife and sends her off to be with an animal until he gets everything he wants.
Which led to this question. I’ve seen “Best Marriage in Shakespeare” done before (and we’ve done it here), and the Macbeths often win that one. They’re made for each other.
So how about the most dysfunctional? Define that however you like.
I am going to go ahead and disqualify Othello right off the bat. If you actually kill your wife during the course of the play then it’s just too easy. And that goes for both Othello and Iago in that one. Claudius gets a pass because that was an accident.
Kate and Petruchio? Whether or not you intrepret the play’s ending as happy doesn’t necessarily mean that their relationship is a healthy one. What about the Twelfth Night couples? When you realize that the person you married isn’t the person you thought you were marrying, can you just roll with it and end up happy?
Mention the word “aglet” to children of a certain age (and their parents) and they’ll all point to the Phineas and Ferb episode that drilled the word into our heads forever:
If you have no idea, and don’t feel like clicking that, an aglet is the name of that hard little thing at the end of your shoelace that keeps it from fraying, allowing it to easily thread through the holes.
So why, I wondered, was there a post saved in my newsfeeds this morning entitled “This Post Will Change Your Life” and featuring a picture of aglets? I have several automatic services that search for Shakespeare references and save links so it’s not unusual to see random things in my newsfeed, but this was a new one.
I assume that it’s a throwaway reference that’s just noise, like how every time somebody mentions Gwynneth Paltrow they inevitably say “Academy Award-winning Shakespeare in Love actress” but I click anyway and see this:
Before the invention of buttons, they were used on the ends of the ribbons used to fasten clothing together. Sometimes they were formed into small figures. Shakespeare calls this type of figure an “aglet baby” in The Taming of the Shrew.
Wait, what? Now I’m thinking this is a humor piece and that’s a joke, praising the eternal usefulness of the aglet.
But we check these things, and, would you look at that…
Nay, look you, sir, he tells you flatly what his
mind is: Why give him gold enough and marry him to
a puppet or an aglet-baby; or an old trot with ne’er
a tooth in her head, though she have as many diseases
as two and fifty horses: why, nothing comes amiss,
so money comes withal.
Learn something new every day. In all the years I’ve been reading that play I never made the connection. Now I can just picture kids in high school being forced to read Shakespeare, glossary in hand, and thinking, “Aglet baby? That sounds like that thing on the end of your shoelace. THAT can’t be right.”