Here’s a challenge for the programmers out there. Once upon a time, when I was a younger man with “hacking” time on my hands, I would have already been all over this. Instead, now I’ll put it out into the universe in the hopes that someone else is in a position to take up the challenge.
A recent post on Reddit claimed to be a recitation of the sonnets over some video from one of the Halo computer games. The problem, it was just classic computer “text to speech (TTS)”. Which, you’ve probably experienced, is painful to listen to – no pacing, no inflection, no sense at all of what it’s reading. I suggested to the original poster that it was like listening to somebody read the dictionary.
But then I got an idea. Text to speech technology has actually gotten much better than it was in the old days. Machine learning has given the engine some degree of understanding of how words go together, and the whole point of punctuation. In fact, Amazon offers a cloud service known as Polly that is specifically all about “lifelike speech”.
So now I’m wondering, what would it take to tweak a TTS engine to make a reasonable recitation of the sonnets? Something that feels the iambic pentameter, and sounds like it’s actually reading poetry as it was intended to be read. Of course, it’s not going to be Alan Rickman’s quality, I get that. I’m just wondering if it can be better.
There are a couple of ways to go about this. One obvious one is to pick a sonnet, and then manually create a transcription of the text into the special codes that tell the TTS engine exactly what to do — emphasize this syllable over that one, pause longer here, make an “oo” sound here instead of an “oh”.
That by itself is maybe a couple of hours of work. A proof of concept, as they say in our biz. Tweak it, play it, go back and tweak it some more.
But then, can we learn from that? Can we bring machine learning into it? You’d probably need to do this for more than one sonnet, but I think you could train something fairly easily to look at those few, let’s say half a dozen, and extract the underlying patterns. Then turn it loose on the next couple and see what you get.
Like all machine learning, it would be an incremental exercise, constantly going back and throwing more training data at it until you start to be happy with the results. But how cool would it be if you had to train it on less (substantially less) than the entire 154, and before you were done it was reciting the remaining ones on its own?
Then, for the real fun, switch gears and throw some soliloquies at it and see how it does!
Who’s up for the challenge? The more I described it the more I wish I could tackle it myself. Maybe I’ll end up trying a manual transcription job anyway, just to kick it off and see where I get?
10 Things is generally regarded as the best of what we’ll call the “high school Shakespeare adaptations.” We’ve got She’s The Man, O, Get Over It, Were The World Mine, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. Julia Stiles is in two of those, and I’m not counting her turn as Ophelia in the 2000 Hamlet with Ethan Hawke. (Also in 2000 she played a character named Imogen in Down To You but alas I can’t make the Cymbeline connection.)
But enough of that. Over the years the subject has come up regularly, we’ve reviewed some of them, and shared many a “top 10” list on social media. 10 Things is the bar against which all these movies were (and still are) compared.
And, until now, I’d never seen it.
Confession time. I don’t watch a lot of Shakespeare. My work-life balance just never allowed for it. If it wasn’t something I could sit down with my family and watch, the only time I’d get would be later at night after everyone had gone to bed. But finding a two-hour block to sit and pay attention to a movie, sometimes taking notes for my eventual blog post? Honestly, I usually had things I’d rather do.
The pandemic changed all that. I work from home now. The tv is on almost constantly in the background, providing some much-needed noise in an otherwise empty and silent house. So I’ll often get into a mood like “80’s movies I remember being good (or at least entertaining)” and I’ll put on a Lethal Weapon or Breakfast Club, something I’ve seen, just to be butterfly net for my attention. It’s not interesting enough to me to pay attention to it, because I’ve seen it. But when I need to lift my head up from the computer and focus on something else for a minute, I can stare at something familiar. For bonus points, count how many references you see or hear in these movies that are totally unacceptable now. The ’80s were a different time.
As each of these movies finishes I’ll click through the “You might also like” list that inevitably follows. And somehow, I ended up on 10 Things I Hate About You. On the one hand, it’s true, it broke my basic rule because I haven’t actually seen it. But this is something of a special case because over the years I’ve seen so many clips and heard so many quotes and read so many articles and summaries, I felt like the only thing I was missing is honestly being able to say, “Yes, I sat through and watched this entire movie.” Now, I can check that box and offer my honest review, not just a parrot of what I heard everyone else saying.
I liked it.
Thank you, and good night.
Ok, seriously :). I think we all know the plot, lifted quite plainly from Taming of the Shrew. He’s got two daughters. The younger one wants to date. He says that she can’t until her older sister does. Not because he’s trying to marry off the older sister first, but because he feels safe that the older sister – Julia Stiles as Kat, our shrew – has no interest in dating, and no one has any interest in dating her. Enter a young Heath Ledger, who takes on the challenge because he’s paid by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who wants to date younger sister Bianca. I think we all know where it goes from there, in a predictable teen comedy fashion.
As a father in my fifties, I think I pretty substantially missed my window for truly appreciating (nay worshipping) this movie and its young actors. I found myself sympathizing mostly with the father, played by stellar 80s comic icon Larry Miller, who feels the most important job in the world for a father is to make sure his daughters don’t get pregnant and ruin their lives. I get that the world is a whole lot more liberal today than it was when I was their age, but I’d still rather see my daughter get a college degree before a baby. During the house party scene I could think of a dozen different and very bad ways the story could have ended. Even the smartest kids can get angry and be stupid sometimes, and when you take a girl who has spent her whole life acting better than everybody else and put her drunk and out of control in the middle of a house party, there’s not always going to be a white knight boyfriend to save her from other life-changing consequences.
Heath Ledger’s voice bothered me the whole time. It’s very deep, and did not suit his high school character. The Australian accent, which they did nothing to hide, made it worse. The notes for the movie say they felt this made him “dangerous and sexy”. Nah. Made him seem like he was cast entirely for his looks. This was especially true for me when he sings, because his singing voice does not match his speaking voice. I went looking for confirmation that he was lip-syncing but from what I can tell it was really him.
The movie is loaded with Shakespeare references without being about Shakespeare if that makes sense. So many of these movies are about a high school that’s putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In terms of the actual plot, the closest we get is some attention to the sonnets. What it is filled with, though, is easter eggs. The family name is Stratford. The boyfriend’s last name is Verona. They go to Padua High School. They did give us one token character, Mandella, who is supposedly obsessed with Shakespeare (she even has pictures of him in her locker). Though I always love Shakespeare content, this was pretty obviously shoehorned in just to add some more references. Trust me, if there were any girls in my high school harboring a crush on Shakespeare and decorating their lockers with his picture, I would have found them.
When I told Bardfilm I’d finally watched this one his one question was, “Does it still speak to today’s high school students?”
I don’t think it does. I think it was a good movie for its time, better than average. Written well. I thought at times it might have been written at least in part by Tina Fey, who is known for her sharp dialogue. But in the end it’s still just a glued together collection of the same tropes of every other teen comedy of the era, hung on a Shakespearean frame. They just did it better than others.
It feels weird still telling geeklet stories when one of the geeklets is in college, but traditions must be followed! It’s fascinating to look at how the conversations and stories have evolved over the years.
So my daughter’s off to college (second year, actually) and last night she got to hang out with the Shakespeare club. Naturally, I had to speak with her this morning and get the scoop.
“We actually didn’t talk much about Shakespeare,” she told me. “It was a lot more getting to know each other stuff. Oh, but I did learn, the production this year is Hamlet.”
I’m of two minds. “Really?” I start with, “Of all the plays? What are they going to say about Hamlet that hasn’t been said a million times already?” But, reconsidering, “If you want to get immersed in Shakespeare, Hamlet’s going to be one of the best choices. Sometimes they’ll go off and do a Comedy of Errors or a Two Gentlemen of Verona or something, but all you get out of those is the laughs. Something like a Hamlet is where you can really spend all the time getting into the details of how you’re going to tell it, and why.”
We talk briefly about “gender-bent” productions and the difference between “a woman playing Hamlet” and “playing Hamlet as a woman.”
“I’ll send you resources,” I continue. “Sarah Bernhardt famously played Hamlet back in the 1800s. There’s even video.”
The conversation continues, and then she drops a bomb on me. “Last night I was reading Taming of the Shrew, and that ending is just …”
“Hold on,” I say, “Pause. Back up. You were doing what?”
“Reading Taming of the Shrew?”
“Before or after you met with the Shakespeare club? Something came up in conversation?”
“I wanted to refresh myself on the story.”
I’m momentarily speechless, a rare event in this Shakespeare-related universe. “You’re telling me that, of your own accord, you said hey I think I’ll catch up on my Shakespeare and decided to re-read Shrew?”
“Well, yeah. Not the whole thing, not in one night. Mostly the ending.”
We then talk so long about the ending of that one, the ending of Midsummer, the ending of Merchant, that I eventually have to go to a meeting and put a halt to the conversation.
I think it was probably fourteen years ago? That I was tucking in a cute little curly-headed five-year-old girl who needed a bedtime story and I thought, “What the heck, never too young to learn about Shakespeare.”
Look how far we’ve come. I can’t wait to see what comes next. But I tell you right now, documented for the record, that if any of my kids end up on a stage delivering lines, I’m not sure my heart will be able to take it.
I had an idea for a new merchandise design – a very simple “All the World’s a Stage” font with a prominent display of the iconic tragedy/comedy theatre masks in some nice bright colors.
There’s about a zillion t-shirts out there that just show the quote, and maybe throw some clip art on it. I thought it would be fun to do something with actual original artwork. Something unique that someone else can’t easily rip off.
And, I thought, where better to get such artwork but an audience of Shakespeare geeks? I can’t draw. My visual skills are limited to taking other images and playing with them in photoshop until they get some interesting (eh) twist.
I’m wondering if there’s somebody out there who might be able to draw something like that for me? I’m putting it out there, it’s something I want to put on merchandise. I’m happy to send you a t-shirt (or coffee mug or tote bag or whatever you pick) as payment, if you like. And I’ll credit you accordingly, both in a specific blog post thank you as well as in the actual product description (to the extent I am able).
You know the image I’m talking about, right? Something like this…
But, you know, more interesting. The two should overlap a little. Definitely want the ribbon/string, it’ll give another element to color. The faces can have more personality, but should retain that minimalist, iconic representation so it’s more about the image as a whole and not about looking at the details of each individual mask. Personally I like big black outlines emphasizing the image, as if it could easily be represented as a pure line drawing – but that’s just my personal style, and like I said, I’m not the one drawing it. But it’s got to be something that really pops on merchandise and separates itself from background colors.
Any takers? I know I’m probably asking a lot but you never know unless you ask,maybe there’s some folks out there that love doing stuff exactly like this.
Thanks in advance! I look forward to seeing what you come up with! Maybe we can have a contest 🙂
I had a killer streak going for CommShakes shows. Until recently I’d been to something like 14 of their shows. Last year was off for everybody, and the year before that I missed it because my mom was sick, so it’s been two years off. I was looking forward to a return with The Tempest, my favorite, which I’ve started referring to as “our family play” because my children know it so well. I don’t take the kids to many productions – they went to Romeo and Juliet a few years back, and of course, they’d be coming to The Tempest.
We started out unfortunately on a poor note, as we arrived to discover there were no chairs for us. This is a free, outdoor production where you claim your space by putting down your blanket, bring a picnic, what have you. But you can normally rent chairs, which we’ve always done – it’s an easy way to contribute money to the cause. This year they changed that, requiring that you get chairs in advance, and due to a poorly designed mobile website I didn’t get that memo. So, after finding no help among the volunteers to remedy the situation, I spent the whole production trying to figure out how to get comfortable on the ground. I probably would have ended up with a more charitable review if that all hadn’t happened.
Stuff I Loved
Loved the opening. The whole cast comes out, just stands there. Breathing. Calm. Tranquility. Get the audience settled down and paying attention. Prospero, in the center, raises his staff over his head and slams it onto the ground. BOOM, storm. Chaos. Waves. Thunder. Screaming. Actors, including a not yet introduced Ariel, circling the stage like a tornado. And then, when the time is right? Prospero lifts his staff, and the storm is over. Nice.
Along those same lines, loved the special effects. You can only do so much with an outside production like this, and it being such a magic heavy show doesn’t help. But they did a great job with the simple stuff – a hand gesture from Prospero would immediately freeze a character in his tracks, or kill the lights, or summon thunder – but also with some more prop-oriented symbolic ideas, like Ariel attaching a red ribbon to Ferdinand and tugging him toward Miranda.
Love love loved their Caliban. Best part of the show for me. When he’s introduced he comes running at Prospero to attack, and we see that he is tied down by one leg. He looks like a vicious dog. And he’s got no cower in him, let me tell you. Standing there at the length of his rope, hopping on one foot, he’s swinging his arms and hurling sand and casting his own curses in Prospero’s direction. Great stuff. Later, after he meets up with Stephano and Trinculo, he balances the drunken comedy with a very believable “Guys, you’re not really getting me – if you don’t focus on the mission and kill Prospero when you have the chance it is going to go *very bad for us*.” Despite showing almost no fear in the opening scene, he’s got plenty of fear.
Loved the comedy. I’m not generally a huge fan of the “play it over the top so the audience gets it” kind of stuff, but I understand the necessity for it. Miranda was a big hit, really playing up the “man crazy” aspect of the teenage girl who suddenly realizes just how many people there are in this brave new world. Later when Stephano and Trinculo arrive they just knock it out of the park. I could watch the Stephano/Trinculo/Caliban show like a tv series.
Stuff I Didn’t Love
Unfortunately, what I saw as a very uneven Prospero. Personally, I like a bit of a scary Prospero who runs his island the way he wants it, and takes no back talk. After all, this is a father who has done nothing but protect his daughter (and plot his revenge!) for twelve years. He doesn’t have time to relax. What I got was a father getting walked on by his daughter (during the first “pluck my garment from me” moment, she just walks away, leaving him to chase her). He then starts crying while explaining their back story. Huh?
I’m trying to read this in the context of “the father of the bride who cries at the wedding.” Prospero knows how this story plays out. He knows that every interaction with his daughter is part of this last chapter. He’s sad. I can kind of get behind that. Not usually how I see it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong.
But when he’s not crying he’s screaming at everybody. He screams the “Our revels now are ended” bit? I don’t think I understood what they were going for, there. I tried to explain it to my wife and kids something like this: “This is like his wedding present to Miranda and Ferdinand. He’s bringing out all the stops, he’s literally summoned down the goddesses for their blessing. He’s showing the full power of his art, and he’s happy to be in the moment. But then he’s broken from that trance by the realization that he still has to deal with everything else that’s going on, and he’s angry about it.” That could be complete BS from what the director/actor intended, but it’s how I figured to read it.
Lot of stuff just kind of ends up in the middle. Like Ariel. Ariel here is a dancer. He ballets his way around the various scenes. <shrug> Ok, I guess? I didn’t get any connection. I told the kids on the walk back to the car, “Ariel’s got this great opportunity to play with the relationship to Prospero. Do they love each other? Or is it resent? Why does he keep asking, and complaining?” I’ve seen productions where the minute Prospero says you’re free, Ariel’s gone without turning his head, and ones where he goes give a last look back. I don’t feel like any attention was paid to Ariel’s freedom here, he just kind of left.
The music. Parts were good — somehow they made the “Caliban ban ban” song a real toe tapper. But in the beginning, with the “Full fathom five” bits? Their version of Ariel working with the other spirits on the island involved some singing women coming through the back of the stage who looked exactly like the women who hop down off the Grecian urn in Disney’s animated Hercules movie. Once I had that image in my head I couldn’t shake it, unfortunately.
The rest of the cast? If a scene didn’t involve Prospero, Caliban or Miranda, it just didn’t rise to the same level. They aren’t the stars, true. Their scenes are mostly about plot. But I don’t know if it was the delivery, or the blocking, or just the sound system, but my family spent most of this time “We’re lost, what’s happening?” Antonio in particular I felt was miscast. Maybe it’s because I recognized him from previous clown roles, but I was trying to sell him to my kids as, “Ok, this guy’s a real bastard, he’s trying to get Sebastian to kill the king and he doesn’t think twice about killing the only witness,” and I just wasn’t feeling it.
Overall? It’s Shakespeare under the stars, it’s The Tempest, and I don’t care if I had to stand through the whole thing, I’m going to watch it and I’m going to look for parts I love. If I was still in my bachelor days I’d probably go back and see it three times, looking for different things every time. Go see these things, I’m sure your town or one near you has similar. The world is made a better place by hearing Shakespeare spoken into the universe. I look forward to seeing what I can be a part of next year.