Can I still call my kids geeklets now that they’re all teenagers?
So I’ve got driving duty this weekend for my daughter’s volleyball practice. Scene : A Honda Pilot with four 16yr old girls jammed into it. They are discussing the recent walkout, how it went with various teachers, etc… and one of them clearly says “…we were listening to Macbeth and we just left.”
Fast forward through the fifteen or twenty minute ride, waiting for a break in their conversation, but it never comes. Instead there is a steady discussion about parties, school events, math homework (oh, sure, you bring your math homework with you in the car ride but not your Shakespeare?) and general kinds of things teenage girls discuss, peppered with too many “likes” for my liking.
But then, when we’re about a minute from practice, there’s a lull. I can tell they’ve run out of things to say because one of them is singing along to the music on the radio.
“Did one of you say you walked out of Macbeth?” I ask. I look in the rearview mirror. Three sets of eyes are staring back at me as if to say, “Wait, is the adult talking to us? Who ordered this Uber? Two stars.”
My daughter in the front seat, shrinking rapidly, says, “None of them know about your obsession with Shakespeare.”
“I’ve run a Shakespeare website for ten years,” I continue. Now they do. “And if you thought I was going to let that pass by unnoticed you’re sadly mistaken. Which production were you listening to? Do you remember?”
She did not. I did not expect her to, but that’s ok. I would have been annoyed with myself if I hadn’t mentioned it. You never know. Could have spurred a whole conversation. She might actually *like* the class. If not, I could maybe even convince them that it’s more interesting than their teacher is making it sound. She said they were reading along as they listened to the play. Not a horrible technique, but man, GET UP AND READ IT YOURSELVES.
Maybe if the topic came up faster we could have found more to talk about, or maybe I’m just overly optimistic when it comes to my favorite subject. In reality we got to practice and they jumped out of the car, although they did at least wait for it to stop.
I have no idea who was more embarrassed, the girl I tried to talk to, or my daughter. Eh, they’ll live.
So the other day I saw a post on the Shakespeare section of Reddit that mentioned a King Lear rap. Which happens. Later that day I got an email about a King Lear rap. Which also happens, as people trying to promote their original content will google for Shakespeare blogs and I’m usually somewhere on that list. Then I saw that the name on the rap (and the email) was MC Lars.
MC Lars (real name Andrew Nielsen) is a “lit-hop” rapper who has opened for Snoop Dogg and worked with Weird Al Yankovic (among many, many others). He’s also written songs about Ophelia, Macbeth, Edgar Allen Poe, Moby Dick, and now, King Lear.
I wrote back and told him, “Sure I can share the link around, but while I’ve got you here can I ask you a few questions?” He said sure.
So, first things first!
Oh, and did I mention he’s also got a TEDx talk on the subject of hip-hop and Shakespeare?
So the way this worked is that I sent him some questions via email, and he sent back his answers. Both my questions and his answers have been edited. Any misrepresentation of intent is entirely unintentional, I am editing only for length and clarity.
SG: If I hadn’t done enough research I would have used the term nerdcore to describe you, but from what I’ve learned lit-hop is the better term. Can you tell us more about how you prefer to be presented?
MC Lars: While rapping about Shakespeare is indeed nerdy, “nerdcore” has always been MC Frontalot’s invention, which is why I’ve opted to let him own the genre. While I would agree that my Game of Thronesand Star Wars raps could potentially fall under the nerdcore genre, “lit-hop” (a term coined by Canada’s amazing rapper Baba Brinkman) better describes the literary songs I’ve been releasing. semantically speaking. I started using Brinkman’s term in 2012 when I released by Edgar Allan Poe EP.
SG: When I think hip-hop and Shakespeare I think of that TEDx talk by Akala. Is there a relationship between your work and his?
MC Lars: I wrote my first Shakespeare rap in 1998, but I doubt if Akala ever heard it. He is truly awesome, though! After my TEDx came out, lots of people tweeted me to check out his, which I did and really enjoyed. Looking at the YouTube timestamps, it looks like he debuted his TED Talk a few months before mine. I would love to meet him one day.
SG: “Hey There Ophelia” came out in 2009 (and I admit I assumed it was just a cover of the Lumineers’ song, I did not make the connection). How come we’ve had to wait eight years for you to come back to Shakespeare?
MC Lars: I wrote “Hey There Ophelia” in 2007; the song’s title is a play on the Plain White T’s song “Hey There Delilah” which was a big hit back then. I always wanted to crowdfund a Shakespeare album and series of videos, but the time never seemed right. I did Poe in 2012 and this year it was my goal to launch a Series of Shakespeare ones. My next one is about his sonnets.
SG: I’ve noticed that you tend to find a hook and repeat. Do you feel that’s the essence of the hip-hop style? Or is there not enough meat on the bones to get more verses out of the original content? Do you think that your audience doesn’t have the interest or attention span to get more details from the story?
MC Lars: The idea of repeating phrases is more of a “pop song” thing that rap emulates in a simple way. I always try to leave the audience with a repeating line. “King Lear, King Lear” is a lot shorter than “Hey There Ophelia”; in the past decade, people’s attention spans have gotten even shorter. I think you really only have 45 to 90 seconds to get people’s attention! I would have loved to rap more about Edmund and Edgar’s relationship in my “King Lear, King Lear” song – maybe I’ll do a sequel.
SG: Have you had people come up to you who want to dissect your interpretation of Shakespeare? I’m personally of the belief that more Shakespeare is better, and whatever I can get into people’s heads, the better, even if it is sometimes a gloss of the details.
MC Lars: Academics do enjoy analyzing my literary raps, which I love, letting me know when I’m off the mark. I learn a lot from them though, I once tweeted about existential and family comparisons between Hamlet and Antigone and people were quick to point out that it was a stretch. My audience is smart, which means I can’t be sloppy!!
SG: Ok, let’s talk about King Lear. Shakespeare’s Mt. Everest. Why pick that one? Do you think that your audience, in general, knows the story already? I’ve often argued that King Lear, in particular, is a play that you can’t really understand until you’ve lived your whole life, and I’m amazed when high schools try to get teenagers to read it. Why not go with a Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are you avoiding those deliberately because they’ve been done to death?
MC Lars: I did a term abroad at Corpus Christi in Oxford sophomore year and Lear was the first piece we studied, so it has a special place in my literary memory. But, honestly, of all of the demos I did for this new YouTube series, my Lear song was my favorite. I do love your point, in the fifteen years since I first was introduced to Lear I understand it now more… the betrayal of youth and greediness becomes more scandalous with age! It’s more of a nightmare imagining going mad and losing everything. That’s an interesting analysis which I appreciate.
SG: Finally, any words of advice for kids out there like my son who dream of being a social media sensation?
MC Lars: I think the key is persistence – sometimes I get disappointed when things I produce don’t get an instant reaction. I think the only formula is you need to do anything consistently – like multiple times a month – for a year. If your social media numbers don’t go up, it’s time to rethink it. I went through a period for a few years where my focus was trying to hit something mainstream by writing about things like Rick and Morty or Game of Thrones, but then it began clear that I couldn’t offer much more interpretation? My main projects now are doing pop culture Patreon songs to help pay the rent and then these literary rap videos, in addition to ICP history videos (that’s another long story, but something that inspired me to start rapping back int he 90s). I am going to keep at it for a year and see what happens. I think that it’s tempting to want instantaneous recognition for something, but I think the advice would be to tell your son to keep working at something and give everything a year. It’s not easy with everyone’s access to the internet for cultural expression / edification, but, ironically, those who are persistent stick around and make an impact.
Thanks to MC Lars for his time! If you’ve got questions that I didn’t think to ask, first, where were you on Twitter when I put out the request? 🙂 And second, go ahead and ask them in the comments – he might stick around and keep answering!
The most popular post I’ve ever made is the one depicting Shakespeare’s works as a Venn Diagram (although technically that shape is an Euler Diagram). That post on Facebook has garnered over 2 million views at this point, and hundreds of comments. People have asked me if it is available as a poster (as far as I know it is not – I did not create the original image).
The problem is, I don’t like it. Most of the comments are of the form “Why do you have play X in this category but not that one?” and “You forgot to put Y in the Z category” and so on. The categories (Suicide, War, Romance, Supernatural) are, I think, too broad. Does Romeo and Juliet count as war between the two families? I would say no, but some people disagree. How about Much Ado About Nothing? It starts with the men coming home from war.
So here’s what I propose. Can we make a better one, or a set of better ones? Something that more people can agree on? If we can make something that’s generally agreeable to a large audience I’ll be happy to make it available as a poster / stickers / t-shirt / etc…
I’ve been working with Bardfilm on some new categories. The goal would be to find a set such that:
All plays are represented by at least one category.
Minimize the number of categories that have no entries.
No single category has too many entries.
What categories would you like to see? “Supernatural” made our list as well. I was thinking “Insanity” might be a good one. Bardfilm proposed “Fake Deaths” and “Cross-Dressing”. If we can’t agree across all the categories we can look at doing one for Comedy, one for Tragedy, one for History, but I think those would end up looking a little sparse, and I’d feel bad about leaving out Romance.
What other ideas have you got for us? Tell us the category you think should be on our diagram, and which plays would be in it.
If I scheduled it properly and my software behaved, you should be reading this while I’m sitting up in New England under about a foot of snow.
How often does Shakespeare make a storm of some sort a major plot point?
The Tempest, duh.
Twelfth Night needs to deposit Viola in Illyria to get started, so a shipwreck seems as good a reason as any. But does the description of how they went down count as a storm, or was it just bad luck at sea?
Poor Antonio’s ships in The Merchant of Venice. Or am I misremembering that? Do we get much of an explanation about how all of his ships go down? I think I’ve always just assumed a storm but not sure my evidence.
Macbeth opens with thunder and lightning. And then there’s Macduff’s description of the night before he arrives at Macbeth’s castle, where it all hits the fan.
King Lear on the heath. I didn’t realize the power of stage directions until I went back and looked and saw how many scenes say, “Storm still.” That is a huge storm.
So the other day I spot a headline that says something about the worst Emmy Awards in the history of the show. Thinking it’s going to be some sort of slam on the job Stephen Colbert did, I check it out.
Now if you told me, in a year when I was alive, that a Shakespeare production was sweeping the night? I’d watch the whole thing with popcorn. Probably call some friends.
I went to research this production, see if I could maybe find some video. It starred Maurice Evans, who I only knew from such supporting roles as Dr. Zaius in the original Planet of the Apes movies, and The Puzzler from the Batman tv series (in fact I even blogged about him once).
But once you’ve seen his IMDB page you realize just the level of Shakespeare cred the man had in his prime: Malvolio in 1957, Petruchio in 1956, Richard II in 1954, Macbeth in 1954…wait, what?
In 1954, Maurice Evans played Macbeth in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Macbeth.
In 1961, Maurice Evans played Macbeth in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Macbeth.
That’s not a typo. According to the Wikipedia page:
Macbeth is a live television adaptation of the William Shakespeare play presented as the November 28, 1954 episode of the American anthology series Hallmark Hall of Fame. Directed by George Schaefer, and starring Maurice Evans and Dame Judith Anderson, the production was telecast in color, but has only been preserved on black-and-white kinescope.
In 1960, Evans and Anderson starred in a filmed made-for-television production of the play, also directed by Schaefer for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, but with an entirely different supporting cast. That production was filmed in color on location in Scotland, and was released theatrically in Europe.
These days when we think of a “reboot” we think of an entirely new production with an entirely new cast, usually because of some sort of contract wrangling between studios. In this case we’ve got the same director and the same leads, just a different location and different supporting cast.
Though I’d love to watch them side by side and play spot the differences, I can’t find much video of the 1961 version. However, the 1954 version appears to be complete on YouTube (as of this posting, at least), so enjoy!
All I found of the 1960 version (won an award in 1961 but the film is dated 1960) is the opening credits: