Back To School?

Every year about this time I get into a Shakespeare slump. I look back at the last few months, how few posts I’ve made, and debate whether I’ve lost my interest in Shakespeare. (Then again, I had a dream just last night that the prize in a video game was a Shakespeare quote and I literally cried with joy, so there’s that.)

I decided to try something different this year. I signed up for an online edX course called Shakespeare’s Life and Work, taught by Stephen Greenblatt, whose name might be familiar to Shakespeare geeks. I expect that the course is going to be a little basic, covering all the “where and when was he born” stuff that I think we generally already know, but I’m not in it primarily to learn a bunch of new information. I’m in it for the structure and reinforcement. I want to force myself to talk about Shakespeare and Shakespeare-related content for a few weeks and get myself back into the zone. Hopefully I’ll learn some new things, I don’t claim at all to be an expert in Shakespeare’s life.

I’ve tried this before – last time was a similar but far more advanced course about Hamlet’s ghost. I didn’t make it far on that one, but to be honest it had more to do with class participation than information. My introvert self loves the online learning thing precisely because I can sit behind the computer and not be forced to interact with others. When you tell me “The required homework for part one is to talk to three fellow students”, I’m probably not going to make it to part two. (This new class asked the same thing, though, and I forced myself to make it happen. Unclear yet whether it’s going to require that of me every time or if that was just a gatekeeping mechanism.)

Anyway, into the class we go. It’s funny now to see a video of someone standing in London describing the sites because now I can say, “I was there! I know where he’s standing!” which is probably nothing to the folks that live in the area but it took me a lifetime to get there so I’m going to geek out over it every chance I get ๐Ÿ™‚

My plan is to blog here about how the course is going, especially if I find anything interesting outside general progress reports. The first bits so far are about the general universality (?) of Shakespeare and how “the world” owns him, what’s your personal attachment to Shakespeare and so on. I hope to hear more specifics about life at the time – economy, morals, the kind of stuff that contributed directly to why Shakespeare wrote, not just what he wrote.

Wish me luck!

Review: All The Sonnets of Shakespeare

Having only a casual understanding of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I admit to being intimidated by All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (with a quote from Judi Dench on the cover, just to name drop some more ๐Ÿ™‚ ). I already own a handful of copies of the sonnets, but most different only in design. This one is a different beast – a complete reorganization of all the sonnets (including those in the plays, not just the most well known 154). I read some early reviews where people were already arguing about some of the choices made. I don’t have the academic credentials to say much on that level.

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare

But I figured, that’s never stopped me before, and I can certainly tackle it from the only perspective I know, that of a casual reader, interested in learning more about the topic. It’s worked for me thus far.

The layout of the individual sonnet pages is very nice and already informative. Ordered by likely date they were written, each sonnet is presented along with a simple glossary of terms, as well as a simple summary of the sonnet’s theme (“You look beautiful and your name has a good reputation, which you use powerfully to hide your misdemeanors, but it is a power you should use with caution.”). I’m thinking those summaries alone might make a fun game, see if you can guess which sonnet goes with which summary.

Then comes the numbering, and why. The “original” number is marked, though this does not reflect the order that the sonnets are presented. For an easy example I went hunting for sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”) and found it near the front of the book in the 1590-1595 section. Some thoughts are provided on each sonnet, almost like a “What might Shakespeare have been thinking?” moment. Here, for example: “Dramatic analogy: Benedick on Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.” I’d never made that connection before. But it makes sense, I get it.

To give you an idea how the reordering/grouping ends up working, sonnet 130 is still followed by 131 through 137, then we break to show how 138 first showed up in The Passionate Pilgrim, side by side with the 1609 version, with notes comparing the differences. That’s kind of cool. That’s the bite-sized kind of new information I like processing. “Unskilful in the world’s false forgeries” versus “Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.” Did Shakespeare change it, or was one of them just a corrupt forgery? Papers have probably been written on the evidence for answers to that question.

The “regular” grouping of this set of sonnets continues up to #152 (with another Passionate Pilgrim side track at #144). So that’s where I get curious again, where do 153 and 154 end up?

#154 actually opens the book! It’s listed in the Pre 1582 section (making Shakespeare a teenager? fascinating!), and the notes suggest that this and #153 (which is listed next) being just paraphrases of a Greek epigram could mean that Shakespeare was recalling his schoolboy exercises.

On top of all that, there’s even more to this book. After all the sonnets are laid out as above, there’s a “literal paraphrases” section that goes through each and repeats it back in mostly modern language. This feels a bit like it was added to beef up the page count. They’re not formatted, shoving three paragraph looking sonnets onto each page. I’m not really sure who these are for, as typically a student who doesn’t follow the original language (even with the included glossary) would benefit more from a side by side and line by line translation, not “flip to the back of the book for a quick blurb on each one, if you can find it.”

But wait, there’s more! There’s an index mapping each sonnet number to its page number. Wish I’d thought to look for that sooner :), I would have known that sonnet 130 shows up on page 58, and sonnet 154 is on page 47. I said the book starts with #154, and I wasn’t lying – there’s a very long introduction ๐Ÿ™‚

Hold on! Act now and you get another index! The addition of a “first lines” index is kind of neat, perhaps for the people who can remember enough to say, “I like that one that goes In faith my friend you never can grow old, which one was that?” and you can figure out that it’s sonnet #104 on page 200. Once you remember to get the quote right. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Overall, this reminded me of an academic Shakespearean “choose your own adventure” book, as you could perhaps tell from my haphazard jumping through it. I picked an effectively random spot to start, then as I got curious, I flipped around where my interest led me, whether it was to see which sonnets came next in sequence, or where a sonnet was when it wasn’t where I thought it should be. I learned some things, and I’m sure if I eventually sit with it more, I’ll learn more. The information about each sonnet is not particularly dense, there’s not several pages defending the placement of each one and adding context for how that conclusion came to be. Not nearly as intimidating as I feared.

National Novel Writing … Decade.

The annual November challenge known as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, was the 1999 brainchild of Chris Baty. It’s often oversimplified as “write a thousand words a day and you’ll have a novel in a month”, but it’s really more than that. It’s a personal challenge, more about “I can commit to something and see it through for 30 days,” the actual completion of a goal, rather than the finished product. Most people don’t have a finished novel at the end of the month. From what I understand, most just put their writing in a drawer and call it a day. Baty has written a book explaining his ideas much better than I’m doing here (though whether or not he wrote it in a month, I’m not sure).

I first mentioned NaNoWriMo here back in 2012.

Then again in 2013, where (a) I tried non-fiction, and (b) failed. ๐Ÿ™‚

In 2017, I discovered that several of my coworkers have taken the challenge. Suddenly it was a different thing. Now I could have a real face to face conversation with a friend who was telling me, “You can do this.” I still didn’t. ๐Ÿ™‚

Then in 2019, my daughter actually went ahead and not only participated, but won!

And now I’m happy to report (not that there’s any suspense at this point), that in 2020 I, too, won the NaNoWriMo challenge!

I don’t consider myself a novelist (never have and don’t now) so I don’t expect that my 50k words will ever see the light of day. But Shakespeare definitely played a role (see the 2017 entry where I talk about using Shakespeare as a framework for whipping up new stories), so it seemed only fair that I write up what I .. wrote.

I often said that if I were to do a modern Shakespeare I’d choose The Tempest, but I didn’t want to do yet another Forbidden Planet. Which turned out to be easy, because I’ve never actually seen that movie :). I just think of it as “science fiction Tempest“. What I ended up with was more Tempest meets Frankenstein meets Frozen.

Prospero (for simplicity I’ve left the original names) is an AI researcher with his partner Alonso, where they’ve made millions in the “digital assistant” market with their product, Setebos, that has installations all around the world. After a tragedy where Prospero’s wife and unborn daughter are killed in a car accident, Prospero becomes obsessed with finding a “true AI” as a way to cope with the gaping void in his life, despite the fact that his daughter, Miranda, is still alive and now without a mother.

When forces at Setebos corporation who are interested only in profit margins (Sebastian and Antonio) move to oust him from his own company (and he’s warned by his old friend Gonzalo about it), Prospero cashes out, takes his daughter, and disappears.

Under a new identity he purchases a private island, populated almost entirely by older retired people who mind their own business and don’t question his, where he sets himself up taking care of their IT needs. But what he’s really doing is continuing his AI research, ultimately succeeding when he produces Ariel. Wishing to keep his work secret from the world (and his enemies) he has set up the island’s technology as a giant firewall from with Ariel cannot escape. As she becomes more aware of herself and her potential power, he debates whether he can allow her to exist at all. Meanwhile Ariel, aware of herself as a creation of Prospero, sees herself as a sister to Miranda (who does not know she exists).

When “the plan” begins to take shape and a plane full of executives from Setebos – Alonso, Gonzalo, Sebastian, Antonio, Stephano and Trinculo – are forced to land on Prospero’s island, everything begins to fall apart. Caliban, an angry young man who had a previous relationship with Miranda and is now an unwilling indentured servant to Prospero, makes the connection that his boss is the long lost founder of their company and that he has clearly stolen their intellectual property. Caliban hopes that this information will secure him good standing and a possible job with Setebos, that will get him away from Prospero and off the island.

Ariel discovers that Prospero never intended to free her, and begins wreaking havoc on the island in her attempts to unlock the firewall and free herself. Miranda discovers her father’s secret, all at once discovering that she lost a sister she never knew she had, and the software she’s been working on with her father her entire life is not only alive, but thinks of itself as her sister, too. Now she’s faced with the decision of whether to help her father destroy Ariel, or help Ariel escape.

Ok, phew, that’s a big post. If you want an idea about how the NaNoWriMo game is played, that summary is 444 words. To hit 50k in 30 days you have to do 1667 words/day. So imagine the above, four times a day, every day for a month. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s, to quote I believe Douglas Adams, “like sitting in front of the typewriter and opening a vein.” But just like Chris Baty says, the whole point is that once you’ve done it, the most important thing you actually got out of the whole experience is that you did it! Now I have a certificate I won’t hang anywhere, and a t-shirt I won’t likely wear, but both those things are material and will be gone someday. But the knowledge that I set a goal for myself and proved to myself that I could accomplish it? I get to keep that.

What’s In A Name?

One of the problems with moving your company to Zoom is that you rapidly lose track of your coworkers’ lives. Wait, they got married? Who’s having a baby? I haven’t heard from so and so in weeks, apparently they left the company!

Such was the case when a new coworker was introduced (via Slack) whose last name was McBeth. “Oh my,” I thought, “I simply must introduce myself.” But how? I won’t bump into her in the halls. We’ll have no meetings together. Is it weird to send her a Slack message making Shakespeare references? It’s not like she’ll ever walk by my desk and see that it’s littered with Shakespeare memorabilia.

Turns out I didn’t have to. We have a company meeting every other week, and this week they broke up into smaller chats (“breakout rooms”) to get more social, and sure enough McBeth was in mine. After she’d introduced herself along with the others in the room I had to ask. “So do you get many Shakespeare references?” I ask.

Shhh! Don’t say the M word!

She smiles, rolls her eyes and says, “You have no idea. It’s not spelled the same, so every time I have to read my name out, like over the phone with a credit card, or oh god, at a cash register or something when they see it, they always say Oh, Macbeth, like in Shakespeare!’

“My god think of all the people you’ve killed by saying the name!” I tell her. “As you might have noticed, I have a certain affinity for Shakespeare.”

“Oh, they told me about you,” she replied.

Apparently my reputation precedes me ๐Ÿ™‚

Bored At Home? Talk To Shakespeare

So there’s a whole lot of Shakespeare going on during the pandemic. There’s so many “Zoom readings” there’s even a meme about it ๐Ÿ™‚ (The granddaddy of them all, of course, is Rob Myles’ The Show Must Go Online. If you haven’t watched one of their productions yet, seriously, do yourself the favor.)

But I’m here today to talk about an entirely different kind of Shakespeare project – Bard in the Yard:

William Shakespeare, aka “The Bard”, is stuck in London during the plague quarantine of 1605. Quite literally stuck.He urgently needs to write his next masterpiece, but his parchment remains desperately blank. If only he could speak to an audience again, and rekindle the fire of his Muse! What’s that? You have a yard in which he could perform his greatest hits and reignite the Bard-blockbuster machine, all while maintaining a suitably safe distance?

What that means is a 45 minute one-person show featuring “The Bard”, using you the audience as his inspiration for a new play (tentatively titled, “The Lamentable Comedy of King Leonardo, his Three Daughters and Their Dog.”)

Here’s a few reasons why I think this project has the potential to be something a little different from the rest:

  • It’s original content. From what I gather it’s something of a “greatest hits” walkthrough as it’s scaffolding, but other than that it’s an all new story about Shakespeare. Great place to start.
  • There’s 23 different actors playing Shakespeare. By that alone every show is going to be completely unique.
  • It’s all about the interactivity. This is not a sit back and watch show. Expect Shakespeare to be talking to you, and expecting you to answer. It’s made for Zoom. You literally pay for your tickets by screen. Thinking in very “Mulan on Disney+” American terms I wondered why you wouldn’t just pay your ticket price and then invite a dozen people over to hover around the screen. “No no, ” they corrected me, “That would defeat the purpose. Even if you’ve got a bunch of people in the house that want to watch, have them all fire up the show on their own screen. That’s what makes it an individual experience.” This is not an improv show where there’s a hundred people in the audience and every now and then an actor calls out for movie styles and you never get picked. You get your own virtual front row seat.

This is a show about the actors. Right now live theatre is having a tough time as an institution. But underneath that “macro” problem is the micro problem that there’s actors not getting paid. This show was developed to address that. That’s one of the reasons why there’s so many different one-person shows. That’s one of the reasons why you pay per screen. So yes, you’re going to have to pay for tickets (unlike the myriad of Zoom readings we know and love), but they’re very open about that – you pay for this show so money can go into actors’ pockets.

So this one’s more than a bit about motivation. If you want to see some original Shakespeare related content, great. If, however, you know and love people involved in live theatre and know the struggles they’re having, and have been wondering how you can help give back to them? Here’s an opportunity. If you’re only one person, take the opportunity to pay it forward by donating some screens (the base ticket price is for three screens and goes up from there). It’s not even a hand out or donation. Actors get to do their job and you get a show. It’s for a great great cause.

Bard in the Yard – Coming this November, straight to your living room.