A Most Mellifluous Monster

Every day I comb through Shakespeare references from social media, reddit, google… and throw out 99% of them because I’ve either seen them a thousand times before, they’re irrelevant (like Shakespeare fishing rods), or they’re just plain dumb (Shakespeare memes are on the rise, and you can thank me later for saving you from most of them).

I do this because sometimes you find a gem, like this 1960 made-for-tv Tempest starring Maurice Evans, Roddy McDowell, Lee Remick and, are you ready for this?  Richard Burton.   I start the movie wondering, “Is he playing Prospero?” Nope, too early, Maurice Evans is Prospero.  Oh, then maybe Richard Burton is Ferdinand.

Nope.  He’s *Caliban*.

This production’s just crazy.  The costumes are amazing (especially Gonzalo and the boys). I have no idea yet if any of the acting is any good, but it’s entertaining to be sure.  Look at the costumes on Gonzalo and the boys! The rocks, the rocks!  Now I want this as a video game.

Love seeing Maurice Evans, too.  For someone my age he’s probably most famous as a Batman villain, and other random supporting bit parts. Nice to see him in the lead.

I should also point out that Bardfilm was there first, back in 2009!

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Stupid Questions : From Forth The Fatal Loins Edition

I hate when people think I know everything about Shakespeare.  I don’t, not even close. In fact, some of the best posts I’ve made have been when I just put it out there and say, “I just noticed this, let’s talk about it.”  But there are also times when I feel like there’s stuff I should know, and don’t, and it bugs me.  Normally I bother Bardfilm with these questions. So I thought for a change I’d start posting them here, and see if we can’t get some interesting conversation going.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet. We all know it. One of the most famous openings in literature. We all know what it means, right? There’s these two families, each family has a kid, the kids kill themselves.

*record scratch* Let’s just stop right there.

For years I’ve said, “Romeo and Juliet kill themselves. Shakespeare literally says it right in the prologue. It’s the great spoiler alert of all time. You know they’re going to die, and yet you keep watching because you have to see how it comes to that, and in a good production you’ll still be on the edge of your seat, still hoping Juliet wakes up in time, even though you know she won’t.”

And then somebody told me, “That’s not how to parse that sentence.  Take their life goes with from forth the fatal loins.  It means that a pair of star-crossed lovers are both.  They take their life forth from the fatal loins of the families.” So yeah we still get foreshadowing on “star-crossed” and “fatal”, but the actual “take their life” line does not mean that the lovers kill themselves.


I will adjust my understanding and subsequent teaching of this passage immediately if some folks smarter than I can confirm that reading. But I’m not taking just one person’s word for it.


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Wherefore 18?

Today I was watching a poetry reading and thinking, “If I ever got in front of a microphone to recite a sonnet, which one would I pick?”

17 is my goto answer because I read it to my wife at our wedding.  Which makes a nice romantic story but it’s not necessarily great for a big crowd.

130 is probably best for a laugh. But I don’t think I could play it for a laugh. I’d end up delivering a lesson on the bigger point.

The thing is, if you had to pick a sonnet that you assume everybody would recognize you’d pick … 18. Right? “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is right up there with “Wherefore art thou Romeo” and “To be or not to be” in the Recognizable Shakespeare Canon.

What I got to wondering is … why? What’s so special about this one, anybody know? I googled around a bit and everybody says the same thing – “It’s beautiful. It’s an example of the form.” and a whole bunch of other stuff that could just as easily refer to #1 or #29 or pick your favorite.

Since the first 17 are generally regarded as the “procreation sonnets”, I wonder if there was a period in teaching this material that the powers that be said, “You know, we really don’t want to talk about that. So let’s skip those.”  Thus making 18 the first one. It’s not that hard to imagine. Once upon a time I learned that Julius Caesar is commonly taught in school not because it coincides with an ancient history curriculum, but because it’s got no sex in it.

Anybody know the actual answer?  I’m often downright hipster when it comes to 18 (“Oh, you know sonnet 18?  That’s so over. Sonnet 153 is where it’s really at.  You probably haven’t heard of it…”) so if there’s a story to go along with why people generally tend to know it, I’d love to spread the word.


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Just Say You’re Remaking West Side Story

A hip-hop Romeo and Juliet? Produced by Queen Latifah and Will Smith?  Coming soon to Netflix? Tell me more!

Variety reports:

The movie will set Shakespeare’s tragedy in contemporary New York and follows a Brooklyn waitress and a musician from wealthy family.

Oh, so, West Side Story. I think it’s crazy difficult to do an “adaptation” of Romeo and Juliet because the expectation scale is so out of whack.  Beyond “two people in love who can’t be together,” what exactly are the required elements before we care about this one, and it’s not just another Camp Rock 2 or Gnomeo and  Juliet? Does there have to be a Mercutio? A Tybalt? A sleeping potion, a Friar Laurence?

Something that’s often forgotten in modern Romeo and Juliet adaptations is where Shakespeare says, right there in the first line, “Two households, both alike in dignity…”  Shakespeare never said “worlds apart” or “from different sides of the tracks” or made them two different religions or races or socio-economic classes (although I’ve heard it argued that the Capulets were much better off than the Montagues).  I don’t think modern audiences want to do the extra brain work of keeping track of who is on Romeo’s side and who is on Juliet’s.  “Can’t you dress them all a certain way so I can tell by looking at them?”


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Why Kids Hate Romeo and Juliet

My younger daughter is studying Romeo and Juliet at the moment. We’ve been over that play so many times over the years that for the first few lessons I learned that she wasn’t even reading the book, she was just going from memory!  Unfortunately she had her events out of order and was getting them wrong (Mercutio and Tybalt do not fight in Act I Scene 1…) but that’s not the point of this story.

Driving to school the other day…

Geeklet: “We have a Romeo and Juliet quiz coming up.”

Me: “You going to crush it?”

Geeklet “I think so.”

Me: “Should we study?”

Geeklet: “What kind of nut does Queen Mab ride around on?”

Me: “I have no idea. But we could find out.”

Geeklet: “It’s a chestnut, isn’t it? I think it’s a chestnut.”

I’m driving, so I ask Google assistant to pull up the Queen Mab speech.  My oldest is sitting in the front seat so she reads.  “See if you can find anything about a nut in there,” I tell her.

Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;

Geeklet: “Oh. I was close.”

Me: “Wait, so, is that actually a question you’d be asked? What kind of nut?”

Geeklet: “Oh she’ll definitely ask that, and if you get it wrong you’d get the whole question marked wrong.”

Me: “That’s stupid. Ask about the point of Queen Mab, or why Mercutio tells us about Queen Mab, or what that tells us about Mercutio’s character.  But to get quizzed on that level of detail? That entire speech is nothing but that level of detail!  Children, children –  please, what kind of *bone* is Queen Mab’s whip made from? Hmm? Anyone?  A grasshopper? No, I’m terribly sorry, the answer we were looking for was cricket.  Cricket bone.  You fail.” Maybe it’s just to prove they read it. Great – prove they read it by translating it into their own words or something. That would show significantly more comprehension, rather than pure word by word memorization.

So instead we turned the rest of the drive into a lesson about why Mercutio is awesome.

Geeklet: “He’s the one that starts the fight with Tybalt, though, right? Because he was defending Romeo.”

Me: “That’s why Mercutio is awesome. He’s a poet *and* he’s a fighter. He’s that guy where, if there’s a party and you weren’t gonna go, then somebody says, “Dude, Mercutio’s gonna be there,” you’d be all, “Oh, sh*t, Mercutio’s going? What are we waiting for!”

Geeklet: “Isn’t he also a drag queen?”

Me: “You’re thinking of the 1996 Romeo+Juliet movie.  But they were all going to a *costume* party. Everybody was dressed up.  Mercutio just kind of got into the spirit more than some others.”

My kids like Shakespeare because we talk about the characters like they’re real people. If you’re supposed to like them we talk about why, and if you’re not supposed to like them we talk about why, too.  I don’t quiz them on perfect recall.  Half the time I get my quotes wrong, too.

But most kids who have to study Shakespeare in school don’t have me.  Nor do they have a parent who plays the same role. So they’re stuck with whatever’s asked of them in class.  And if all that’s ever asked is to memorize, there’s never going to be any appreciation.

(In my daughter’s teacher’s defense, I am not in the class, and I have no idea if my daughter’s description is accurate. My point is still valid, though, because it’s how she sees the class. She *thinks* that is the kind of thing that’s expected of her, and that’s enough to have her spend her time studying the trees rather than appreciating the forest. Perhaps that’s indicative of a larger problem with the default way that students go into classes like this? As far as I know, her teacher never gave any indication that this sort of memorization was expected – my daughter just assumed it.)