Mystery Men of Shakespeare

I discovered this weekend that the 1999 Ben Stiller movie Mystery Men was finally on Netflix. When my kids were younger I kept coming back around to it as something I wanted to show them, given the rise of superhero movies, but it was never available for streaming. This one’s weird, it’s more of a “super anti-hero” movie where a bunch of normal guys with arguably no powers at all wish they were heroes. You’ve got Paul Reubens as “the spleen”, who farts at people as a weapon, Hank Azaria as the fork flinging Blue Raja, William H Macy as the Shoveler (“God gave me a gift. I shovel well, I shovel very well”) … the list goes on, all easily recognizable character actors. Janeane Garofalo as “The Bowler”. Ben Stiller as “Mr. Furious”. You won’t necessarily like him when he’s angry, but you won’t have to worry too much about it.

Why are we talking about this? Because when we sat down to watch it I noticed something I hadn’t seen twenty years ago – William H Macy delivering his version of Henry V!

I Don’t Know Who Zion Is, But I Approve

One of the earliest posts I ever made on Shakespeare Geek was about an ad for a videogame that featured the Henry V “Band of Brothers” speech. The idea of spotting Shakespeare references in the wild, and sharing them, has always been a central theme for the site.

Just because I’ve gotten too old to understand the references doesn’t mean I plan on stopping any time soon. I get that “Jordans” are a type of basketball sneaker, I’m not that old. I just have no idea who this Zion Williamson character is. But not only does he have his own line of Jordans, he’s introducing them with Shakespeare.

I guess this guy is on the Pelicans? Here’s how much I know about basketball, I didn’t know that was a team. I’m deep in Celtics country. Which reminds me, apparently our new star is named Romeo. That’s surely got to come up again!

Sigh No More, Students ( A Geeklet Story )

I hear my oldest coming down the steps. “I wonder if she needs help with calculus or physics?” I ask my wife.

She rounds the corner. “Ok, so, we’re playing trivia in virtual classroom and the category was Shakespeare.” Oh fun. “Which character has been in three plays?”

“I’m going to assume Falstaff.”

“Right. Yes, well, we got it wrong. We guessed Antony.”

“That’d be Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, only two.”

“Exactly, I knew that wasn’t it. But anyway, he’s, like, a big character, isn’t he?”

My kids know thee well, old man.

“He was never the title character, but it’s been argued by more than one person that he’s Shakespeare’s greatest creation. Books have been written on just him. I literally have a book upstairs right now that’s nothing but an actor’s diary of when he played Falstaff.”

“I thought so. Our teacher told us that he’s a huge Shakespeare fan, and how he’s read all of the Henry’s because, you know, he prefers the lesser known plays, and that he didn’t remember this character, he must not have been that important.”

I fire up my computer. “Hold on a second.” I google “Harold Bloom Falstaff”:

Then there’s Harold Bloom, who, in the opening pages of his short, charming new book Falstaff: Give Me Life,[1] writes that he has “come to believe that if we are to represent Shakespeare by only one play, it ought to be the complete Henry IV, to which I would add Mistress Quickly’s description of the death of Falstaff in act 2, scene 3 of Henry V.”

For Bloom, what puts Henry IV on top is not the starring role, Prince Hal, but the supporting character Sir John Falstaff. “I think of this as the Falstaffiad,” writes Bloom, “rather than the Henriad, as scholars tend to call it.” For Bloom, who has been teaching at Yale since 1955 and who is considered by many to be the most distinguished living literary critic (he’s 87), Falstaff is not just “the glory of the Henry IV plays” but (his italics) “the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare.” 

You can’t bluff your Shakespeare knowledge in front of my kids.

Never Miss An Opportunity (A Geeklet Story)

So my daughter has a friend over the other night, who happens to be involved in local theatre. Over dinner conversation, I ask, “Which play is next?”

“Musical?” she replies. I can’t tell if that’s the name of a play, or if she’s asking me to clarify which musical they’re doing next or just any play. “Oh but I guess we’re doing Shakespeare too.” This friend knows she’s in a Shakespeare house, for context.

“Which one?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Give me the smallest clue,” I try.

“Something underground about Henry IV?”

“Well, there are two plays called Henry IV.”

“That’s probably it, then! I bet it’s one of those.”

Never one to miss a teaching opportunity I proceed to explain Henry IV in my no doubt highly inaccurate but hopefully compelling way: “So at the start of the play you’ve got the old king, Henry IV. And he’s got this son, Hal. And Hal’s being groomed to take over when his father dies, and become Henry V. Like William and Harry, from the Royal Family? Same idea. Oldest son has to live his life a certain way because he’s going to be king someday. Well, Hal has no interest in being king. Hal just wants to party with his friends.”

“They partied back in Shakespeare’s day?”

“Oh my yes. So Hal’s got this best friend, Falstaff. Falstaff’s much older than Hal, and he ends up being more like a father figure. They do everything together, they party, they get drunk, they wake up late, they get into fights. But all the while Falstaff knows that one day, one day this kid is going to be king. And that’s going to be a big day, that’s going to be everything they ever wanted.

And then one day it happens. Falstaff’s sleeping late as usual when his friends wake him up and say, “It’s happened! The king is dead! Hal is the new king!” And Falstaff goes running through town to find him and celebrate that the day has finally come. And you get this big huge scene when Falstaff comes into the coronation and bursts through the crowd shouting “My boy! My king!”

I pause and see if I’ve still got her attention. I very much do.

“And Hal turns to him and says, “I know thee not, old man.” And banishes him.”

Her jaw dropped.

Who says Shakespeare is boring? I will teach you Shakespeare in my kitchen while I clear the table. Do I get some details wrong? Probably. Does my captive audience learn anything about themes and symbolism? Nope. But are they interested now? Definitely.

New Year’s Shakespeare

I know this is a little late for a New Year’s post but I’ve been kind of busy 🙂

This year we decided to do family night for various reasons. We passed on several invitations and decided to just stay in, get some Chinese food, maybe binge watch some shows and play some board games.

Skip past the bingeing (on both Chinese food and High School The Musical The Series) and nobody really wants to dig into a cutthroat game of Monopoly, so I get an idea. I go get my Shakespeare Trivial Pursuit cards! We never get to play this, but I’ve got an idea. I’ve got all my family here. I know what I think they know. So I pick cards, and I read the questions I think they know the answers to, to see how much they’ve learned over the years. Keep in mind that recently we’ve been to Stratford, been to the Folger twice, seen several plays, and they’re all old enough at this point to have studied at least some Shakespeare in school.

They did surprisingly well! Questions on Romeo and Juliet were the most obvious and came out like homework questions. But the real fun was some of the non answers…

“What is the nickname of visitors to the Globe Theatre who stood for the whole performance?”
“Oh! Potatoes!”
“What?”
“It’s something about potatoes! Isn’t it? Something like that.”
“Groundlings?”
“Right, yes. Groundlings, potatoes. Same thing.”

“What are the names of Hamlet’s ‘friends’ who are summoned by Claudius?”
“Oh! Oooo! Umm… something…. hydro something…..”
“Guildenstern!”
“Yes! Hydrostan and Guildenstern!”
“??? Are we in chemistry class?”

And my favorite one…

“What play was being performed in 1613 when the Globe caught fired and burn down?”
“Macbeth!”
“No.”
“Hamlet.”
“No.”
“Tempest?”
“No. You’re just guessing.”

At which point my son, my youngest, who hasn’t taken his face out of his phone, says, “All is true.”

There’s a pause. My girls are waiting. I look at them. “Henry VIII, also known as All is True. He’s exactly right. I just have no idea how he knew that.”

He looks up, realizing he’s the center of attention now. “We saw that one.”

“No, we didn’t,” I tell him.

“Yes we did,” he says. “It opens with a fire.”

It’s at this point I realize he’s talking about the movie All is True, about Shakespeare’s life in retirement, which we saw earlier in the year, which indeed does start with the Globe burning down. Hey, whatever works for him!

I wish I could remember more of their answers, it was a good time indeed. Nobody knew that Prince Escalus has a name. But they remembered that “I know thee not, old man” is said to Falstaff, that the Folger is in Washington, D.C. and a whole bunch of other “that was definitely not on any homework you ever had” questions. I was pretty pleased with the results! Hope we get to do it again soon.

P.S. – My son really likes that scene, I overheard him playing Youtube clips of it before he went to bed last night. He also asked me if he should watch the entire movie or if he’d be bored. I thought he still might be a little bored, but agreed that there’s some good battle scenes.

UPDATE: Fixed typo, of course the Globe didn’t burn down 7 years after Shakespeare died, my brain must have been thinking I was talking about the Folio.