Your Favorite Hamlet

As far as I know, Sir Ian’s version is not available on video.

So at work the other day, my CEO asked which Hamlet was my favorite.  At the time, in context, I assumed that he meant film version, as in, something that other people could then go watch.  Not a live production that, if you missed it, telling somebody that it was your favorite didn’t serve much purpose because they couldn’t go take advantage of that information.

I decided to ask the question on Twitter.  I had no idea I’d get the kind of response.  Taking out the people who pretended not to understand the question (answering with the names of cozy little villages, or “Q1”, etc..), I still got over 20 different Hamlets to choose from.  Not all of them are available on video, but that’s been changing lately with live broadcasts of many.

For the record I’d not even heard several of these names, but was happy to discover them.  Some performances are even on YouTube in full!

One Vote

Papaa Essiedu (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2016)

Oscar Isaac (The Public Theatre, 2017)

Andrew Scott (Almeida Theatre, 2017)

Campbell Scott (2000)

Adrian Lester (2002 directed by Peter Brook)

Tom Hiddleston (2017, as directed by Kenneth Branagh)

Richard Chamberlain (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1970)

Ruth Negga  (coming in late 2018)

Two Votes

Derek Jacobi (1980)

Mark Rylance (1989).

Coming in Second, with Four Votes

Kenneth Branagh (1996) comes in with 4 votes,

Our Winner, with Six Votes is …

David Tennant (RSC 2009)!

Did you get to vote?  Who is your pick?  For the record, I told me CEO Branagh was my choice because as I said I was limiting myself to film versions I thought he might have a chance of seeing if he wanted to. I wasn’t going to give it to Mel Gibson or Ethan Hawke, the other two that leaped immediately to mind.  At the time I didn’t even think of Tennant, but on reflection I think I’d still keep my choice as Branagh. I found Tennant’s a little too … hyper?  OCD?  Can’t remember the words I used at the time.  But then we start to get into a debate about whether we’re talking about the movie as a whole, or about the character.  It’s probably true that Tennant’s Hamlet character was better than Branagh’s, but I like Branagh’s movie better as a whole.

(No love for Kevin Kline (1990), I notice.  I wonder if people simply never saw it?)


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My Poor Fool Is Hang’d

Let’s talk about King Lear for a second, since I’m in the middle of watching a new production (that I’ll be posting about shortly).

We all know the deal with Fool.  He disappears halfway through the play. There’s that one line “my poor fool is hang’d” at the end.  It’s generally interpreted that Cordelia / Fool were doubled, and that Lear, who is sitting before Cordelia’s hanged corpse, is referring to her as his fool.

That leaves it up to the director.  Many interpretations show the actual death of the character, presumably to give the audience some closure (“Wait, the fool was hanged? When was that, I missed it!”)  Isn’t it the McKellen version that shows Fool left behind, surrounded by enemy soldiers, and hanged right there on screen?  Not a fan of that scene.

I know a production where Gloucester and Kent forget about Fool when they take Lear, leaving him to die in the storm.  Between the two I think I like that ending better.  The former has an element of “humanity is deliberately violent toward each other. The latter is more “humanity can too easily forget each other.”

How else have you seen it done?  Do you prefer to leave it the way Shakespeare wrote it, with no resolution to Fool’s fate?

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Book Review : Macdeath by Cindy Brown

I’m always torn when people offer to send me books for possible review.  If it’s not an audiobook or ebook, it goes on the bottom of the “get to when neither of those is available” list. That’s just the way my schedule works. As such, it takes me forever. Such is the case with Cindy Brown’s Macdeath, which I’ve had so long I can’t remember when I got my copy.  But I’m happy to say I finished it!

Book one of a series, Macdeath introduces us to Ivy Meadows, a struggling actress / part-time detective (thanks to her Uncle Bob, a full-time detective). Ivy’s been cast as one of the witches in Macbeth, and we all know that the Scottish play is cursed.  Sure enough, somebody winds up dead. Now Ivy can’t seem to stop investigating whodunnit, despite the pleas and flat-out demands of her coworkers, the police, and her detective uncle.

Maybe if I was a backstage theatre geek I would have liked this one more, since that’s where most of the action takes place. I just couldn’t get into any of the characters. None of them are around long enough or described deeply enough to care about. Which, granted, is part of the point of a murder mystery because you need to keep guessing about who the murderer is.  But without that, I was stuck in the head of our narrator, and as a 50yr old husband and father with stuff on my to-do list, I felt exactly as comfortable with that as I would have hanging out in real life with a 20something struggling actress :).  Oh, your costume is too tight in the crotch?  You’re not sure if you have enough money to get your car out of the parking lot?  The struggle is real, people.

There’s plenty of twists to the story, a couple of dead ends, and a reasonably satisfying ending (as these things go).  A cast of characters has been introduced, and there’s obvious room for a series.

Know what it reminded me of?  Once upon a time, there was a golden age of television where it seems like everything was a detective show.  Magnum P.I., Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Remington Steele, Hart to Hart, Miami Vice, Charlie’s Angels, Simon and Simon …  This book reminded me a great deal of those.  Imagine a Charlie’s Angels episode where one of the girls has to go undercover in a production of Macbeth.  You get a very brief glimpse at the cast of characters, she runs around trying to uncover clues even though everybody tells her not to (because she can’t blow her cover), and all the while she still has to remember her lines and go perform when her cue comes.  Then when their allotted hour of tv time is up the bad guy is revealed, the day is saved, and everything wraps up nicely until next week.

That’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason why they made so many of those shows, and some of them did very well (Murder She Wrote went for 12 seasons!)  But the strength of each of those shows was in the main character, and finding an audience that connected with that character.   Just because I’m not the audience for Ivy Meadows doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

P.S. Just one more thing before I go?  We all know that Shakespeare was a master of the dirty double entendre, whether Hamlet’s putting his head in Ophelia’s lap or Mercutio’s got his hands upon the very prick of noon.  I’ve got people regularly telling me that Shakespeare itself is a euphemism for something (as is “will”, come to think of it).  The author chose to have one of her characters named … are you ready for this?  Detective Pinkstaff.  Yikes.  Every time that character was in the scene I couldn’t take him seriously, not because he was a bad character, but because he was a walking phallic joke.  At least she didn’t make him the love interest.




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Prince of Cats of Denmark

You never know where you’ll find a Shakespeare story.

I listen to podcasts at work.  Everybody has their own personal style for what they like – educational, informative, short, long, etc…  I’ve found that I’m a big fan of the NPR “shows” more than the news. Stuff like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, for example.

When you listen to those shows long enough you start to find your favorite guests and realize that you can follow them to other podcasts. Such is the case with Paula Poundstone. I remember watching her do standup years ago, and now I enjoy opportunities to listen to her take on the world around her.  Not so much with the technology. Lots of cats.

I recently discovered that she’s got a new podcast along with Adam Felber (also a Wait, Wait regular) called Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone. It’s fun. Adam asks Paula for her advice on a topic, then they bring in an expert to discuss whether that was good advice.  It’s fun and educational.

Anyway, this isn’t a big advertisement for their podcast.  I was listening to an episode about cats and Adam mentioned that his cat was named, “Horatio.”  I wondered if that was a Hamlet reference.  So why not ask? He’s on Twitter, as is Paula.

I asked, “@adamfelber is your cat named Horatio a Hamlet reference?  Just heard it mentioned on @paulapoundstone’s new podcast and had to ask.”

And back came the reply! Actually several, which I’ll paste together here.

Brooklyn, 1997.  As I was having breakfast in the tiny yard behind our ground floor apartment, three newborn kittens and their mom poked their heads through a hole in the fence and tumbled in…

They hung around and over the next couple of weeks we got to know them. One of them seemed really conflicted and unsure whether to trust us humans or not, so we started calling him Hamlet.

Naturally, the one who seemed outright hostile became Laertes. The mom cat was Gertrude…

…and the sweet, friendly, reliable kitten became Horatio.

(We subsequently met Claudius and learned that Hamlet was in fact Ophelia!)

We took Horatio in soon after that, and he lived with us happily for the next 20 years – like his namesake, the only apparent survivor of that troubled family.

Alas, Horatio has passed on to that undiscovered country from which no feline returns, sung to his rest by flights of mousey angels.  But Adam posted a picture! Can cats be good boys?  He looks like he was a good boy. I love that “really conflicted” (in a cat, no less) makes some people think, “We should name him Hamlet.”

I have no pictures of cats on file, so please enjoy young Sir Ian.

This story is posted with Adam’s permission. I thought it would be a fun reminder that if you think you see a Shakespeare reference in the wild, go chase it down!  You might be right. And you might get introduced to some fun new people.  Thanks, Adam!  Go check out his new show.

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Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Titus

This morning in the car we heard an NPR story about the most popular musicals to perform in high school.  My daughter found the list on her phone and asked me to guess some. I said, “Well it’s musicals so I won’t bother guessing any Shakespeare.”

“That’s the other list,” she told me. Suddenly I was interested.

Alas it’s not “Most Popular Shakespeare” but I love that some Shakespeare made it to the top overall list!

How do you think other Shakespeare plays ranked?  Which play would be next on the list and just didn’t make the cut?  A tragedy or a comedy?  Maybe Comedy of Errors, because it’s easy to produce?

Also, I must be out of the loop because I don’t recognize several of these, at all.  Almost, Maine?  Though if somebody tells me that Radium Girls is about Marie Curie (and women in science in general) then I’ll be very pleased.  I am assuming that somewhere along the line 12 Angry Men turned into 12 Angry Jurors so that they could more easily cast female roles?

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So, Anybody Want To Pre-Read My Book?

A funny thing happened the other day while discussing with my daughter.   I discovered a book I’d written on the subject and completely forgotten about.

For years I’ve daydreamed about writing my own “intro to Shakespeare,” a fantasy that has evolved over time.  My hard drives are littered with half-hearted starts that never went anywhere because I always talked myself out of it. Either I didn’t have the audience, the audience I wanted was already saturated, or I just plain wasn’t qualified.  Finding excuses not to do something is easy.

But at some point, I sat at the keyboard long enough and wrote a complete-ish guide to The Tempest. It only goes about 17 PDF pages and is maybe 5000 words. But it has an introduction, a conclusion, and some actual structure in the middle.  It’s even got pictures 🙂

Now I’m trying to decide what to do with it.  I don’t expect that, by itself, I can just say “Here world, enjoy!” But I also know that I don’t need 50,000 words to throw something out on Amazon that people might find worth reading.

That’s where you come in. I’d like to send it to a few people who’d be willing to give some constructive criticism about what I might do with it – content to add, mistakes to correct, fine-tuning to …tune.  I do not need an academic redlining, believe me. I’ve already got 99 reasons to forget the whole idea.  I’m looking for supportive folks who’ll help me actually do something with this instead of giving me more reasons to forget the whole idea.

My real motivation for doing this is because both my girls want to be writers, and both of them suffer from terrible anxiety about letting the world see their work. I’m using this as an opportunity to throw something out there and show them that not only does the world not come to an end when other people read your stuff, but they might actually get some value out of it.

If you’re interested, please drop me a line at and I’ll send you the PDF. I’d like to get into an email correspondence with anybody that’s got feedback to offer, I’m not looking for just comments here on the blog post.

Thanks so much to everybody in advance!



Speed Reading Shakespeare

A couple of times recently I saw people asking for advice on how to read Shakespeare.  Normally this turns into people telling them that Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read. So what they should do is to go find a live production of the play they were thinking about reading and watch it instead.

I’ve always hated that response.  I don’t think that anybody in the history of that question has ever meant, “Hey, I’ve got a choice between seeing a live production of this play, or reading it, what should I do?”  If somebody wants to read Shakespeare, why are we trying to stop them? Either they are a student who has to, or are trying to learn more on their own.  I think we should be encouraging that, not trying to talk them out of it.

To that end, I’ve come up with a new recommendation that I’m going to start using. I call it Speed Reading Shakespeare. I can’t say I’ve taken it for a spin yet personally, but I look forward to doing so because I can’t see why it wouldn’t work.

Let’s pick a play as our example.  Shall we say A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Great. I’m going to assume that you have, or can get your hands on, a reasonably modern edition of the play. By that I mean it should have some degree of footnotes/glossary, modern spelling, and just in general be more approachable/readable than going straight to the First Folio.  That can be fun, too, but it’s not for beginners.

Ok, awesome.  Now go get a movie version of Dream.  Preferably several.  This is most likely easier than it sounds – a quick search tells me that there are two versions streaming on Amazon Prime right now (the 2016 BBC version, and the all-star 1968 Peter Hall version). But a little searching on Hulu, YouTube, and other streaming sources will no doubt reap benefits.

Is live performance better? No, not for this project.  First, there’s the real world limitation that maybe Dream isn’t playing someplace convenient for you. But more importantly, you can’t pause live theatre. If you are unfamiliar with the play, then you are guaranteed at points to say, “Wait, what did he just say? I’m lost.”  Sitting at home with the remote control, you’ve got that under control. 30-second rewind button to the rescue!

Here’s the fun part, though.  Ready for the magic?  Turn on the subtitles.

Would you look at that!  Now you’ve got your own personal production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream being read to you, all while sitting comfortably in your living room with your copy of the script, a bowl of popcorn and your Snuggie.

I’d love to say, “Just have the play open and follow along with the movie.”  There are a few reasons why this doesn’t work. First, you’re constantly taking your eyes off the screen to read, which breaks your ability to understand the flow of the story. Second, any production you see is going to edit. They’re going to change words, they’re going to give lines to other characters, they’re going to cut large sections. If, every time they do that, you have to spend a few seconds saying, “Wait, where are we?” you’re just going to get lost.

Watch the play this way. If you have the opportunity to see multiple productions, watch all of them.  You’ll discover immediately that you can spot where the productions differ (in terms of what they cut) because sometimes you’ll be saying “Wait, the first one said X Y Z and this one didn’t” or “I don’t remember the first one saying X Y Z like this one just did.”  If you get lost or confused, don’t be afraid to pause and rewind.

Now, after you’ve done this, now go read the play.  Suddenly it will all start to make sense because it’s not just words on the page. You’ll have sounds and images in your head to go with the words. If you’ve watched a few different interpretations you can even start to understand the characters. Maybe you think, “The Demetrius I saw in the first one delivered this speech much funnier than in the second one, in the second one he’s really kind of mean and I hate him.”

Wait, you’re perhaps asking, how is that speed reading Shakespeare?  Going through a couple of movies, reading it, then watching it again?  That’ll take hours. Days.

Well, yes.  Speed reading is not “Go through it once, very fast, and you’ll absorb everything.” Speed reading is about making multiple passes through the material. You then use each pass to better structure your understanding of the material. The next time through you’re “filling in the gaps” you missed the previous time.  The first time you watch the play you’re trying to follow the words but you’re mostly just getting the story – who are these people, and what are they doing? Watch it again and you know the people and the story, so you pay more attention to the words.

I think, after going through this exercise, you’ll have a much better understanding of the play than if you (a) sat down and read the No Fear Shakespeare version, or (b) found a live production and suffered through that.  I’ve got a version of King Lear that I have to get around to watching, and I think I’ll try my subtitles trick. I’ve read Lear and seen multiple productions, but I’m curious whether that trick gives me deeper insight into the text. I’m betting it does.


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Something Cool In Denmark

I have no idea what I’ve found here, but I thought it would be fun to get back to the roots of this blog by writing about cool Shakespeare things.  I give you “Something Cool in Denmark,” or, “The Hipster Hamlet,” starring Robert Goulet.

This was apparently from something called the Chrysler Festival in 1957.

My parents are old enough to perhaps remember this, but if it was some sort of one time event I doubt they will. I’ll ask in the morning and update the post if I find anything.

UPDATE : Asked them, and while they had no specific memory of the show, my dad dug up some links that I hadn’t found including this one to an episode guide of the short-lived show. Other than Robert Goulet I don’t know any of these names.

Apr 17, 1957 – Guests on the final program of the season are the Liberace brothers, comedian Herb Shriner, contralto Marian Anderson, baritone George London, Shirley Harmer, the Don Wright Chorus and the cast of the annual Toronto review, Spring Thaw. The Spring Thaw cast will present Something Cool In Denmark, a take-off on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Taking part will be Bob Goulet as Hamlet, Peter Mews, Sheila Billing, Paul Kligman, Barbara Hamilton, Dave Broadfoot and others. The Oscar Peterson Trio, originally scheduled, will not appear.

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He Was A Good Fellow, That Robin

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!




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Commonwealth Shakespeare 2018 : Richard III on Boston Common

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.

The “there’s only one man at this table who isn’t loyal” scene has been done many different times and I knew it was coming but I still loved it.
I have to admit I did like his look. He doesn’t look very deformed here.
I like the conspiratorial “over the shoulder” look I caught here.