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.
A recent post on Reddit compared Shakespeare and Taylor Swift as “voices of their generation.” Needless to say, it generated just a wee bit of debate. Is this the way to get a modern student’s attention? Or is it indicative of a downward slide in what we think those same students can handle? For the record, I was on the “nay” side. I’m all for teaching Shakespeare through pop culture examples, but I don’t think you need or want to elevate Taylor Swift to top billing like she’s the new Shakespeare or even deserves to be in the comparison.
It also got me thinking about what might be some good modern Shakespeare courses. If you could build your own course, how would you do it? Taking the original post as our example, we want to build a general education course for non-majors. So, while it might ultimately attract some knowledgeable Shakespeare geeks, it’s geared toward those students who don’t have to take it and may not otherwise get that Shakespeare content if they don’t happen to trip into this class.
I asked an AI for some ideas. Would you sign up for any of these? I love the cinematics one. Note how it focuses on looking at the gaps between the text. Endless room for interpretation there. The remix is pretty good, too, but for my taste, it’s got too much room to go off the rails. How much Shakespeare does something have to have in it for us to call it still Shakespeare?
(If we have to, I suppose we can put Ms. Swift into “remix” or “composing”. But I bet she shows up in the Fan Fiction one, too.)
Shakespearean Mashups: Remixing the Bard’s Universe
Synopsis: Explore the art of literary fusion by creating modern mashups of Shakespeare’s characters and plots. Imagine Hamlet meeting Macbeth in a steampunk London or Juliet navigating the world of social media. Through writing and multimedia projects, students will craft dynamic narratives that bridge classic and contemporary storytelling.
Shakespearean Culinary Chronicles: Feasting through the Plays
Synopsis: Embark on a gastronomic adventure inspired by Shakespeare’s feasts and banquets. Investigate historical recipes, recreate dishes from the plays, and design a modern Shakespeare-themed menu. This culinary journey will indulge both literary and culinary appetites, bringing Shakespeare’s world to life on your plate.
Shakespearean Escape Quest: Puzzles in the Bard’s Realm
Synopsis: Immerse yourself in an interactive storytelling experience where you become a character in Shakespeare’s universe. Solve puzzles, decode riddles, and make strategic decisions to progress through the narrative. From Hamlet’s castle to Prospero’s island, this course blends escape room dynamics with the intrigue of the Bard’s tales.
Shakespearean Fan Fiction Frenzy: Crafting Alternate Realities
Synopsis: Unleash your creativity by crafting fan fiction that reimagines Shakespeare’s stories in unexpected ways. Rewrite the endings, transport characters to different eras, or explore “what if” scenarios. Through writing, multimedia projects, and collaborative workshops, you’ll create a fan fiction collection that breathes new life into the classics.
Shakespearean Cosplay Creations: Crafting Wearable Art
Synopsis: Merge Shakespearean passion with craftsmanship as you design and create costumes inspired by the plays. From Elizabethan court attire to fantastical creatures, you’ll delve into historical fashion, fabric manipulation, and character interpretation. Showcase your creations in a Shakespearean fashion show and explore the intersection of art and theater.
Shakespearean Soundscapes: Composing Music for the Bard
Synopsis: Dive into the auditory dimension of Shakespeare’s works by composing original music that captures the essence of his plays. Create melodies for soliloquies, dramatic themes for pivotal scenes, and even experiment with Shakespearean hip-hop. The class culminates in a musical showcase that harmonizes your musical talents with the Bard’s verses.
Shakespearean Cinematics: Directing the Unseen Scenes
Synopsis: Put on the director’s hat and breathe life into the lesser-known moments of Shakespeare’s plays. Analyze the gaps in the text and collaborate on scripts, storyboards, and visual concepts for scenes that occurred offstage. Explore how these “unseen” scenes deepen the characters and themes of the plays.
Synopsis: Tend to the gardens that flourish within Shakespeare’s works. Study the symbolic significance of plants and flowers in his plays, then design and cultivate your own Shakespearean-inspired garden. Through hands-on gardening and creative projects, you’ll nurture nature while exploring the literary connections.
Synopsis: Step into Shakespearean worlds like never before through virtual reality. Craft immersive experiences that transport participants to key scenes from the plays. Combine your love for technology and theater to create virtual stage designs, allowing users to interact with the Bard’s works in innovative ways.
Shakespearean Comedy Club: Stand-Up Inspired by the Bard
Synopsis: Merge the wit of Shakespearean humor with the art of stand-up comedy. Analyze comedic elements in the plays and craft your own original stand-up routines that infuse modern humor with classic themes. The course culminates in a comedy showcase that celebrates the hilarity of the Bard’s timeless wit.
I’ve been attending Commonwealth Shakespeare’s annual free production on Boston Common for longer than I can remember. I think my first show was their previous Macbeth in 2003, where we went with friends and only saw part of it in a right place, right time, “Oh, they’re doing Shakespeare? Let’s watch!” situation. Since then, I missed 2005 (Hamlet, a long story) and 2019 (Cymbeline, my mom was sick). So I’ve seen … 17 of their shows. Only Macbeth and Much Ado have repeated on my watch. The great thing about going now is that my kids are old enough to come with us, and have been to several shows now. So it’s a family affair! We rent our chairs; we get our spot, and we bring a Chinese takeout picnic. Gotta love traditions.
When I saw the burned-out jeep, I posted wondering whether we were going to get a dystopian Macbeth. That’s kind of like the generic interpretation, don’t you think? I feel like dystopian Macbeth is clichè. “Watch,” I told the kids, “everybody will be dressed in military uniforms and camouflage.”
So, there’s that. 🙂 In fairness, Macbeth gets to change his clothes, but nobody else does. Where’s the camo, though, you ask? Let’s talk witches. The witches weren’t just in camouflage, but a bright yellow, almost glow-in-the-dark version. Once you accepted that you weren’t going to see anything “witchy” and thought of them more as the possessed souls of fallen soldiers, the effect worked.
I’m paying particular attention to the costumes because I want to highlight Lady Macbeth’s. She got all the good stuff, and it was so worth it:
I was asked on Twitter how they made use of the set. I wish the jeep had moved, but it did not. The lights worked, as we see with the witches. People climbed all over it. This did give us opportunities for a cool shot like this during the dagger speech:
I still can’t figure out if there’s something special going on there. The angle of his real arm doesn’t match the angle of the shadow. That’s one of those “If I went back to see it again I’d pay closer attention” moments.
They did a great job with lighting and smoke. This is Macbeth going to visit the witches. Later, the stage will be full of the ghosts of kings. And yes, unfortunately, that monitor was right in our way the whole time. That’s my biggest complaint about the show. In recent years they’ve leaned heavily into accessibility, which is great (a year or two ago, they had sign language interpreters, which was really cool). But that’s a horrible spot, and you’re literally saying, “We’re going to lower the quality of the experience for the majority of the audience who don’t need this feature.”
Yes, but how was the show?
Enough pictures; let’s talk about acting. Over the years, it’s become my role to be the Shakespeare explainer guy. Whoever I’m with, whether it’s my family, coworkers, or friends, typically doesn’t know the story’s intricacies. So I’m called upon to, and I’m going to say this like this for a reason, keep it interesting. Anybody can read the synopsis in the program, and I could laundry list what’s about to happen. What I try to do instead, therefore, is to find the “watch for this” moments that they can hang on. They’re going to lose track of who’s who, and they’re going to misunderstand most of the lines. So if I can find some moments of human experience that (a) they won’t miss and (b) they’re sure to understand, then they have something to work with.
What I said this year was, “Watch Macduff. Here’s the thing with Macduff. Macbeth’s technically got no beef with him, he’s not Duncan’s family and he’s not in line for the throne. But he doesn’t go to Macbeth’s coronation, and Macbeth takes that personally. So there’s going to be a scene where Macduff’s wife and children are murdered. I don’t know how they’re going to play it here, but it’s a bad scene, it’s legit horror if they want to go that way. And then there’s this poor messenger that has to tell Macduff what’s happened, and Macduff loses it. Done right, it’s heart-wrenching. He’s so excited to get news from his family that the messenger at first tells him everything’s fine, but then has to break it to him, and the way he just keeps asking, all of them? all? can tear your heart out. So Malcolm convinces Macduff to join his army, and ultimately he’s the one to be the hero, get his revenge and kill Macbeth to end they play.”
They – more specifically, Macduff – did not disappoint. The actual murder did, That scene was played out almost like an interpretive dance, and I found it too safe. Make it obvious; make it bloody. The wife’s pregnant, and I can’t remember if that’s always how it is played. But if you show the murder of a pregnant woman, you’ll get the audience to pay attention.
But Macduff just crushed it. The Shakespearean actor playing Macduff is immediately gone, and the man whose family has been murdered (because he wasn’t there to protect them!) is before us. When I described the scene as I did, he gave me exactly what I hoped it would be. You felt what he was feeling. His revenge would mean something.
Points also to Lady Macbeth, who knocked it out of the park in all of her scenes. During her sleepwalking scene, she let out this long ghostly wail that quite frankly made me jump and ask, “Where the hell did that come from?” It made her seem less than human. My only disappointment is that in the next scene, where there’s a scream offstage, they used a recording. Why? You just delivered a beauty on stage, do it again.
I also want to shout out a minor thing I saw because sometimes the little things catch your attention. One of the murderers lets Fleance go. He clearly picks him up, carries him out of the fight, gives him back his flashlight, and makes what I saw as a “Go! And, *shush!*” gesture. I thought ok, that’s different. But … there’s no room for it to go any place. I still wanted to point it out because I did see it! Somebody made that choice and should know that it was noticed!
How was our Macbeth? Here’s how I decided to put it. With Macduff, I saw a man whose family had been killed. With Lady Macbeth, I saw a woman driven insane. With Macbeth, I saw an actor playing Macbeth. Does that make sense? It’s not necessarily bad. He’s got a stage presence. His delivery is excellent. But I never really felt his story. I’ll give you an example. In the production that Teller (of Penn and Teller) did for the Folger years ago, we get to the scene where we learn that Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped and, just for a second, that revelation knocks Macbeth to his knees like this whole final act had just been battering down upon him and this was the final blow that almost but didn’t break him. I still remember that. Here, though? Not even a pause. Just rolled right into the next line. yawn.
I think I’ll leave it at that. I’ve been watching these productions for 20 years now, and when I try to remember them, only certain parts will be memorable from each. This Macduff will. Lady Macbeth’s wail. Not too much else.
Several weeks back I posted a poll asking where we should meet up online now that Twitter’s jumped the shark and all the good people are disappearing. Of course, stupid Mark Zuckerberg had to go and ruin the fun by announcing Threads on basically the same day and immediately registering fifteen bajillion users in thirty seconds. (Of course, most of them immediately said, “Oo wait what ick get it off get it off get it off!” and learned that if you try to delete the app, it also deletes your Instagram…)
But that’s neither here nor there. People filled out the survey (though not nearly as many as I’d hoped), and they deserve to see the results. So here we go!
First, I asked what accounts people already had:
Not much of a surprise here. Once you remove Twitter from the equation, Facebook and Instagram are the logical leaders. They’re also the oldest kids on the block. Nice to see Mastodon making a showing, though. And I’m happy to see that Tiktok is not taking over this conversation.
So, then, where would people prefer that we go?
And it’s Mastodon for the win, just edging out Bluesky!
Sure, we only got 15 votes, so that’s a difference of one vote. But nobody said this was binding 🙂
As I said at the beginning, Threads really screwed this up by just kind of saying, “Hi, we’re the elephant in the room.” Everybody’s on it, practically by default, but (a) the app’s terrible, (b) there’s no desktop support, and (c) nobody’s really on it yet. So it’s not like there’s a clear winner yet.
Where Will We End Up?
Here’s what’s going to happen over the next few days. I’m going to leave up my automatic posting of blog entries to Twitter, mostly because, why not, it doesn’t cost me anything, and it’s easy traffic. But I don’t think you’re going to be seeing any live conversation from me there anymore—no dropping quick links I found. No asking random questions I just thought of. I need to focus on building a new following on a new site.
I think we all have to give Threads a chance, whether we like it or not. They’ll change a few things in the app, and suddenly, it’ll be where everybody wants to be. So, if it’s not obvious, you can find me there at ShakespeareGeek. Does anybody know how to link that? I’m on a desktop.
But Mastodon’s the most active community, and it was the place where most people said they have an account and want to go. So it’s only logical that I go there as well. You can find me here: https://toot.community/@ShakespeareGeek I know, it’s weird how all Mastodon servers have their own host. It takes some getting used to. But it’s cool – they all talk to each other.