It’s rare that I pick up a book the day it comes out. But when somebody tells me that we’re doing a science-fiction locked-room murder mystery version of Hamlet where Horatio is an AI, I’m getting in line. So it is with The Death I Gave Him by Em X. Liu. Was it worth the effort? Read on!
I always appreciate a good Hamlet modernization/novelization. There’s so much room to work with. How close will they stick to the original, and where will they go off on their own? After all, the original’s got ghosts and poison and all sorts of murder, intentional and accidental. How do you compose a believable story that doesn’t take place in the Danish royal court?
This one’s pretty good, all things considered. We’re in a super secret lab where they’re experimenting with the kind of thing that will revolutionize everything … so, of course, people will kill for it. You’ve got the father, chief scientist, already dead when we start. So we go into lockdown. Did the son do it? Or the uncle? What about the trusted advisor, who is also the father of the young intern who used to date the son? The characters are all there. And the plot does hit most of the necessary beats, I’m happy to say. They handle the ghost thing in an original and, for the purpose of this story, believable way.
In the end, though, it started to lose me – and I blame the narration. If you know Hamlet, you know that there’s really only one character who can be the one to tell the story. But is that true here? The author opts to go for this sort of “I’ll justify an omniscient narrator through various excuses” approach where sometimes it’s in first person; sometimes it’s transcripts from other people’s diaries, sometimes it’s log files from the computer or security tapes … basically, especially in audiobook, when you heard “I felt this and saw this so I did this” you typically have no idea who I is. Whenever you think you know, suddenly that character’s being referred to in the third person again, so now you have to figure it out all over again.
There’s one thing I hated about the book, though, and I’ve debated just saying it since it would be a total spoiler (that has nothing to do with the plot resolution), I’ll just say it like this. Do you know how sometimes people get overly obsessed with how the Hamlet/Horatio relationship could have gone? Yeah, this is one of those books. I thought you said Horatio was an AI? I did. You’ve been warned.
My wife and I have reached that age where quality time together means binge-watching the latest show that all our friends are discussing. This explains how I ended up on Firefly Lane, a very, *very* girly story that tells us the life story of two best friends. It stars Katherine Heigl of “I remember her from Grey’s Anatomy” fame, and Sarah Chalke, who will forever be Elliot from Scrubs to me. It’s a very well-acted show (especially Elliot), but it is also one of the most cliche-ridden, predictable things I’ve ever seen, which is what probably made it tolerably entertaining for me. Scene after scene, I’d do some of the dialogue, only for that exact dialogue to come out of the screen 10 seconds later. (And I’m sure my wife found it equally entertaining, right? 🙂 )
So it was in this context that we find Kate (Chalke) and Tully (Heigl) in a flashback to their high school days, sitting in English class and debating whether “fake stories about fake people” are as interesting as “real stories with real people.” In the background, we see a chalkboard with “But soft what light through” marked out in iambic pentameter, and I note, “….and, there’s the obligatory Shakespeare. I wonder if there’ll be any more.”
But indeed, there is! We quickly learn that the English teacher – the young, hot English teacher – is going to have the class do Romeo and Juliet because, of course they are.
I’m not going to spoil a bunch, but I’ll post some funny observations. There turns out to be a good amount of Shakespeare content covering multiple episodes, including a play performance (though not much of one), There are people hurling quotes at each other outside play rehearsals, and there are callback quotes when they’re adults. There’s the obligatory “will the real-life romances in the story map to the Romeo and Juliet casting” story arc that ends up resolving in what I thought was a pleasantly surprising way.
You probably already know much of the story, anyway, just from my description. One friend is the nerd, who of course knows all the words and longs to be Juliet, while the other is the popular girl who could care less. Guess who gets to be Juliet? And did I mention that the English teacher is handsome? Start writing your own script, and you’ll probably be pretty close.
Anyway, it’s a good show, and if you’re looking for something to binge-watch, you might want to consider it. If the story of two women’s decades-long friendship (including all the ups, downs and dirty details) is something you or someone you love can get into.
Most of the budget seems to have gone into costumes. Lots of kids roaming around in nice costumes, but the actual stage we get is pretty bare (and we don’t get much time for them to actually use it).
The quotes they use randomly are not what you normally see. There are the typical highlights, but then random stuff that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in this context before. I don’t remember Marcia Brady talking about sharp sauce and sweet goose. The kicker is that they then give that line to the wrong person 🙂
None of it is particularly well acted, except perhaps for the obligatory scene where the hot teacher demonstrates how to do it and all the girls swoon.
Teacher: Come up on stage, show us how Juliet’s supposed to be done right.
Me from couch: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo…
Juliet: O Romeo, Romeo, where the f%^& are you, Romeo?
Me: THAT’S NOT WHAT IT MEANS!
Kid hoping he’ll be cast as Romeo, talking to his friends in the hall: And at the end I get to stab my own guts out!
Me from the couch: NO YOU F*()&$ING DON’T!
I have a tendency to talk to the screen when I get passionate about things.
Juliet, rehearsing: Oh happy dagger, here is thy drops dagger
Dead Romeo: Ow.
I don’t know why I found that so funny, but I laughed myself silly.
But there’s something that happened that day that I realize I didn’t write about in that post. Picture it, if you will. With my youngest still in a stroller, I’m pretty much still a new dad. I’ve also been running the blog for about three years at the time, so I’ve been anticipating this moment all that time. I grew up a computer nerd, and everybody told me that my children would grow up to be nerds, but it’ll be a long while before we get to that. But there’s never been an obstacle to introducing them to Shakespeare, and this was my chance.
What I walked into that day was magical. I knew that I could read Shakespeare to them. But here were children, some not that much older than my oldest, on stage and in costume, actually performing. Something else happened that day that I think back on often, though it’s hard to put into words. It was more an emotional experience than anything else. I caught up with one of the organizers of that day recently to reminisce, and I’ll borrow her words:
The audience would gather, we’d introduce the show. The kids would be out of sight range and would get into a gratitude circle, manifest the energy and magic they wanted to bring to the performance. I believe they’d always be holding hands, and then at the end of it they’d raise their held hands up over their heads and yell “THANK YOU, SHAKESPEARE” so he could hear them.
That still sends lightning bolts down my spine, both the description of it and the memory of being there. This was an island, and their energy echoed out into the expanse around them. It doesn’t do the moment justice to just say, “Thank you, Shakespeare.” These were children screaming it into the universe. Let me tell you something: if you perform Shakespeare when you’re still in elementary school, there is no challenge too great for life to throw at you. You can do anything. That’s a tremendous gift, and it merits thanks.
And I thought in that moment, “Yup. My kids may not end up as performers, but however much Shakespeare I can bring into their lives, so that they can bring it into the universe around them, then that’s what we’re gonna do.” That is the motivation and energy I brought into their classrooms, telling these (eventually) 8-year-olds exactly that, that there was no reason they couldn’t understand Shakespeare or anything else they put their minds to. It’s one of the reasons the mission statement for this site is, “Shakespeare makes life better.”
Thank You, Shakespeare
The reason I bring this up is that I finally connected enough dots to help return the favor those kids did for me (and my kids) at that moment. I honestly don’t know why I never thought of this before. I finally put together a line of merchandise with precisely that sentiment — Thank you, Shakespeare.
When I first started making merchandise like this, I said it was a way for kindred spirits to recognize each other in the wild. I never wanted to just stick Shakespeare’s face on stuff and call it a day. I want all my creations to have a message. I want people to see it and get it, you know? If it’s true that Shakespeare makes life better, it’s only fair that we thank him for it, don’t you think?
This design is available on Amazon in all the usual styles – men’s, ladies’, and children’s tees, v-necks, tanks, and hoodies. Also, in this case, I did phone cases, pillows, and tote bags. It’s available with and without the exclamation point, depending on personal preference. I’m more understated about it, but friend Christine said oh no, one must exuberantly proclaim it. Dealer’s choice!
When people ask me how I got into Shakespeare, I tell them a story. I’ll try to keep it short this time.
A Long, Long Time Ago
I went to an engineering college, where I studied computer science. During my first year there, we had to do a significant project in the humanities, and I chose Hamlet. Not because I had a special love for the subject yet, but because I’d just come out of high school, where I’d taken AP English and done well, so I figured I had an affinity for the subject.
Well, these were the days of shareware, where indie game designers would crank out products on their home computers and send out floppy disks in ziplock bags. So a guy in the neighborhood was doing an educational game in that standard “questions with 4 multiple choice answers” format. He had put out the word that he was looking for subject matter experts to make him databases. I said, “Do you want a Shakespeare database?” and he said sure. The deal was to be that you could either get a profit share from the game or get paid a dollar a question. I chose the latter. He needed 600 questions, and I delivered. In the process, I read the complete works, so technically, I can check that off my bucket list.
Long story short, the game never saw the light of day, and I never got paid. So here I was, sitting on a database of what was eventually 1000 Shakespeare questions and nowhere to go. This was before the Web, people. If I couldn’t wrap an entire Microsoft DOS application around it, I had nothing. I couldn’t.
So I kept the file for years across computers but eventually lost it. That upsets me to this day. When I look at the little miniature Shakespeare empire I’ve created and all the resources I’ve built, that database would have fit in nicely a long time ago.
Which Brings Us To Today
This is why I am proud to announce, with more than a little help from some AI … <drum roll>
The AI generated these questions, which means that there are mistakes. I have added feedback buttons, so if you see a question that’s wrong, please let me know so I can fix it. I’ve been combing through the list and adjusting where I can, but there are hundreds of questions (still hoping to get to over a thousand, at least), and not only is that a lot to do for one person, I am not an expert in all the subjects either.
So go play and have fun! Let me know what you think. Tell your friends.
Take a trip with me. It’s gonna be a long one, but hopefully worth it. And there’s even plenty of Shakespeare.
I was born in 1969, so I’m not exactly “Woodstock” age. But that didn’t stop me from loving that era. My college years were spent with a lot of long hair and tie-dye (but not any drugs, in case anybody thinks that’s implied). Somewhere along the line I found HAIR, I can’t remember. I probably recognized the “What A Piece of Work Is Man” song then, but I don’t think I knew how much Shakespeare was in there.
A few years out of college, my girlfriend (whose pet name was “Starshine”) and I travel to DC at my friend’s invitation to go see HAIR live for the first time. After a microphone-wielding hippie is surprised to discover that we know the words to “Good Morning, Starshine,” we’re pulled up on stage to dance with the tribe. Core memory locked.
Fast forward a few years. I have taken myself away for the weekend, traveling to see two shows – King Lear and HAIR. The girl from the previous story is long gone, but I’m dating someone new who will ultimately become my wife. She joins me for HAIR. Hey, we’d just started dating; I wasn’t going to make her sit through King Lear with me so soon (that’d come almost 20 years later).
Years go by, we get married and have kids. I’ll tell you something about when you have kids. You will sing lullabies. You will also get sick of singing the same songs repeatedly, so you will sometimes sing anything you know all the words to. Do you know what I sang to my kids? “Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair….” But also, “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason….” because if you didn’t know, that entire speech is set to music in the show. Hey, I thought, they’re too young to understand the words. But they’re going to end up memorizing it. And one day, they’ll understand.
I have a very specific memory of my 3yr old son demanding that I sing Shakespeare one night. When I started to sing “What a piece of work is man,” he stopped me and demanded that I sing Shakespeare, not Hamlet. He wanted Sonnet 18. Who thinks I’m kidding?
It’s not a stretch to say that my children have grown up literally since birth sharing my love for Shakespeare due very much to the musical HAIR. This show holds a very special place in my heart. It represents both my youth and my journey to parenthood, all set literally to the tune of Shakespeare.
And today, we came full circle as I took them to see the show for the first time at the Seacoast Rep in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I tried very hard on the hour ride to the theatre not to bore them by talking their ears off. “Remember how I used to sing you what a piece of work is man? That’s from this show. I mean, well, it’s from Hamlet, obviously, but it’s set to music because of this show.”
Tears of joy rose in my eyes as we sat down to a 30-year flashback. Only now could I experience it with my kids. I squeezed my wife’s hand and said, “This is my youth. I am so very happy right now.”
I told my daughter after the show that openings are everything to me. I have heard “Two households, both alike in dignity” a thousand times. But still, every single time I hear it live? Lightning bolts up the spine. It’s like that first jolt that tells you the roller coaster has started. So it is with the opening bars of “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius…” I am instantly transported.
I can’t and won’t review the whole show here because it’s not a Shakespeare show. There is, however, a lot of Shakespeare in it, so I think I’m justified in talking about it. Let me hit the highlights:
During a hallucination sequence where Abraham Lincoln comes out, followed by John Wilkes Booth, Booth is dressed as Hamlet. He’s literally carrying a skull. I have no idea if this is usually how it’s played (I can’t remember ever seeing it before) or how many people in the audience get that reference, but I absolutely loved it.
I wish I had a picture to justify this next one. Work with me for a second. This show had circus acrobatics during the slower songs. There were aerial silks and the hoop. I wish I knew if it had a different name. The hoop is on the ground, and somebody (sometimes two somebodies) performs inside it. Well, during the What A Piece of Work Is Man song, the aerialist(?) who’s been working the hoop comes out in a flesh-colored speedo and poses, and I think, “Oh, shit, that’s Vitruvian Man!” So we’re mixing our Shakespeare with da Vinci? Awesome.
When Claude wakes up from his hallucination (immediately after this song), Berger says to him, “Welcome back, Shakespeare.” I have no idea if that’s always in there or not, but I love the direct shout-out to the man. There’s a lot of American history in this place, but I know of no overt Shakespeare references in the dialogue.
The finale kicks in for me as the opening does; it sends lightning bolts straight up my spine. There’s a lot of Shakespeare in it, too – the background harmony is singing Romeo’s last words to Juliet before seamlessly moving into “The rest is silence…” When you know it’s there, it’ll give you chills every time. Unfortunately, I don’t think it stood out this time, but that’s only because Claude, who was singing lead at that time, destroyed it. He’d been doing a stellar job all show, but most of his songs were high-energy numbers coupled with frantic dance numbers. The finale is just him bringing the house down, and I’ll tell you, he hit a couple of notes that there touched my soul. Damn.
I have to wrap this up it’s gone on too long. During intermission, a member of the tribe came out to chat and I told him what I said above, that this has been a 30-year trip for me that now I get to share with my kids. It would be appropriate for this show to talk about psychic powers, and my man got the message. During the finale he came into the audience to grab my kids and drag them on stage to dance with the tribe, just like I did in another life. (Unfortunately, he grabbed two out of three, probably because he only had two hands. And it was a small theatre where I think only my kids were brought up, so there wasn’t a steady stream of people my daughter could join. When I went, it was a big stage and dozens of people were pulled up. So she chose to stay in her seat.)
Thank you, Tribe, for a memory that I hope with all my heart, keeps the cycle in motion. Who knows, maybe thirty years from now they’ll be writing somewhere for their own audience, telling them about how they brought their children.