Shakespeare Uncovered Returns This Friday

Who’s excited for the return of Shakespeare Uncovered?

WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered returns to PBS for its third and final season on Friday, October 12!

The series, which covers the fascinating history behind Shakespeare’s greatest plays, will feature six installments hosted by celebrated names such as Helen Hunt, F. Murray Abraham, Romola Garai, Brian Cox, Simon Russell Beale, and Sir Antony Sher.

Each episode will tell the stories behind the stories of Shakespeare’s famous works and will investigate “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Measure for Measure,” “Julius Caesar,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “Richard III.” 

The show will air Fridays, October 12-26 on PBS (check local listings) and stream the following day at and on PBS apps.

Commonwealth Shakespeare 2018 : Richard III on Boston Common

My streak continues!  I’ve not missed a Commonwealth Shakespeare in the Park performance since 2005.  This year I finally met Steven Maler, the artistic director since the beginning.  Immediately told him about missing Hamlet, and that I’d toughed out the rain and then stood there, hours late, watching them strike the stage and screaming, “I’M HERE!  BRING EVERYBODY BACK!”

Anyway, this year it was Richard III, and I was both excited – because I’ve never seen or really ever studied that one – but also a bit ambivalent, because I had no real stake in this one, you know?  I have no special love or hatred of the play, so if I missed it, would I care?  But I knew I’d care in the long run, especially about breaking my streak, so I’m happy to report we did not miss.

I tried to explain the general plot of Richard III to my ever patient wife who tolerates my addiction.  Coming from someone who’s not read the play my summary is not the greatest, but it went something like this:  “Think of it in terms of today’s royal family. Say that Prince Harry has decided he wants to be king.  But he’s way too far down the line to ever see the crown, unless he does something about it. So he kills his brother William.  Then he decides that he’d rather be married to Kate, but problem, he’s already married. So he kills his own wife, then convinces Kate to marry him, despite the fact that everybody knows he killed her husband. This is too much for Prince Charles’ heart, so he dies.  William’s son is in the way too, though, so he’s also got to die.  You get the idea.  It’s a blood bath.”  That’s not a 1-1 match but it gave her some context to work with.

Having never seen a different production I can’t really tell you if I saw a good one. I did not love their Richard.  Maybe it was early in the run (it opened on Wednesday, we went on Friday), but I felt like he was having trouble with his lines. His timing was off, and too often you could feel him take an extra pause like he was trying to remember the next word.  Once he spoke over another actor’s lines (which I’m pretty sure was not supposed to happen), and I may have imagined it but I thought I heard Clarence feed him a line right at the very beginning.

What I did like, and found quite surprising, was the strength of the female characters. Not surprising in the sense that I didn’t expect strong female characters from Shakespeare, but rather that in all the times we’ve had discussions about Shakespeare best female roles, I never hear this play mentioned.

I loved Queen Margaret, thought she was great.  Just this kind of crazy old lady who’s all, “Yup, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but I’m old and I don’t care, I’m going to say whatever I want to say to whoever I want.”  I did particularly like when Buckingham recalls her curse just before his death as if to say “Well, I guess the crazy old broad was right.  Ok boys, let’s go.”

Special appreciation, though, for Queen Elizabeth.  I lost track of how many of her family members were killed during the course of the play. But when Richard stands in front of her and says he wants her daughter, the Queen took the insanity of the situation to a whole other level.  The best way I can describe it is if you found yourself in one of those Friday the Thirteenth serial killer movies where almost everyone you know and love has been brutally murdered, only now the guy that’s been doing it isn’t a silent unstoppable monster, he’s here trying to have a conversation with you. And he wants one of your remaining daughters.

This was probably my favorite scene, because on the one side you’ve got Richard who is just so calm in what he’s asking, completely in control of the situation. He doesn’t just want to take the daughter, he wants her mother to thank him for the favor that he’s doing for them.  She on the other hand is on the edge of insane at the whole situation.

I think that if I watch more productions (and I plan to), I’ll better understand all the players and how they move about the game.  I was trying to stay ahead, including having the script loaded up in my app and following along at some parts.  It just wasn’t what I expected. Scenes I thought might have played more humorous did not get laughs.  The few laughs that it did get seemed more slapstick, with Buckingham cavorting about the stage and yelling “Boo!” to the children, or Richard doubling over slapping his knee laughing at just how evil he is.

This year they did a thrust(?) stage? Am I using that term right?  Basically it came straight out into the audience so most of us were wrapped around the edges. We spoke with one photographer right at the edge of the stage, he was getting some great shots.

The “there’s only one man at this table who isn’t loyal” scene has been done many different times and I knew it was coming but I still loved it.
I have to admit I did like his look. He doesn’t look very deformed here.
I like the conspiratorial “over the shoulder” look I caught here.

Some Richard Research

Ok, ok, I couldn’t bring myself to title this post Some Dick Research, but that’s what I want to talk about. This post is going to be PG-13, fair warning.

I found an article about this new teenage adaptation of Richard III (kinda sorta) that chose to call itself Teenage Dick.  (Clicked that link, did you?  Now you’re on a list.  Have a seat over there… )

Not being familiar with Richard III cover to cover (and wanting to change that because I’ll be going to see it at the end of this week), I wondered, “Did Shakespeare ever make the obvious joke there?”  We often talk about how he wasn’t afraid to make a dick joke, so when his main character is named Richard, did he go for it?

The best I can tell (and by that, I mean searching the open-source Shakespeare for the obvious), he did not. The only reference I see is here:

‘Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold,
For Dickon thy master is bought and sold.’

But then I thought, “Well, was it common to abbreviate the name Richard as Dick back then?  Maybe it came later.”  But that’s not accurate because I knew that Henry VI Part 2 has a character, Dick the Butcher (most famous for his “First thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” quote).

I also noticed something interesting in Henry IV Part 1:

Sirrah, I am sworn brother
to a leash of drawers; and can call them all by
their christen names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis.

I’ve always heard the expression as “Every Tom, Dick and Harry,” but… is that where that comes from?  Does Shakespeare get credit for that?

I could google all these things, but it’s more fun to have a discussion.  Was Dick a common nickname for Richard during Shakespeare’s time, and was it also a euphemism for other things?  I’m leaning toward some combination of no because you’d think there’d be more such puns in the works, and I just can’t find them.

On a related but different note, is he the first to use that Tom, Dick, and Francis/Harry thing?  When did it turn into Harry?

Best Opening Line?

So I saw this Entertainment Weekly article about 2o Classic Opening Lines in Books.  For the curious, it stretches 20 pages for 20 lines, includes Harry Potter and does not include Orwell, Camus or Kafka. Of course there’s no Shakespeare, since it’s always up in the air whether someone counts his work among “books”.

So I thought we’d do our own.  What were Shakespeare’s best opening lines? I suppose Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” might be the most infamous, given how frequently it is misquoted.

I like Romeo and Juliet’s “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Not just because it’s one of the greatest story introductions ever, but because it contains an important clue that most modern adapters seem to forget : both alike in dignity.  Everybody always wants to tell the story along racial or economic lines, putting a gigantic obstacle between the two young lovers and hitting the audience over the head with “Here’s why they can’t be together.”  I don’t think by “ancient grudge” Shakespeare meant reparations for slavery. Who else has ideas?

Shakespeare Geek’s Top 10 Shakespeare Plays

Over the years I’ve seen many Shakespeare lists.  Instead of linking to yet another one I thought it would be fun to combine several and come up with my own, the Shakespeare Geek Top 10.  This is not my opinion, this is the mathematical analysis (according to my own algorithm :)) from a variety of places, some here and some elsewhere, that people have voted on a general “top 10” for Shakespeare’s plays.

How you define “best” is up to you and I fully expect that people use different scales all the time.  That’s why I’m looking at it statistically – if most people pick Dream as the best play, then does it really matter why they think they picked it?


#10. The Tempest.   Maybe it’s the fascination with “Shakespeare’s last play”, maybe the fairy tale, happy ending nature of the story (I know it’s the latter that gets my vote), but I’m happy to see one of my favorites just make the top 10.
#9. Julius Caesar.  I appreciate that this is one of the great tragedies that most of us will read in high school, but I was surprised at the showing it made.  I don’t understand.  If the Twilight lady announced that she was filming a new version of Julius Caesar I’d bet you can hear the crickets chirp.

#8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I know there are folks out there who will put Dream up against Hamlet as one of the best, and I have to concur.  I’ve ranted at times that I get sick of seeing it, but really, as I called it the other week after seeing a production, it’s “pretty near perfect on the page.”

#7. Richard III.  I’m not familiar enough with this one to have cast a vote on it.  Tell me why you love it?  Just the evilness of the title character, or something more?

#6. Henry V.  Do we all love it because of the Crispin’s Day speech and the Muse of Fire, or is there more to it?

#5. Romeo and Juliet.  Now we get into some of the more obvious ones, will there be any surprises in the top 5? Does Romeo and Juliet deserve a spot this high or is it just because we’re all so familiar with this high school favorite?

#4. Othello.  I’ve seen many people speak of Othello as one of the great underrated tragedies, and I have to agree.  When you really take the time to dig into it, it’s far better than the more shallow analysis might suggest.

#3. Macbeth. Glad to see the Scottish play fare so well, it’s one of my top choices.

…and the big question *still* not answered:

#1 King Lear and Hamlet
We have a statistical tie for the #1 spot with Hamlet and King Lear both getting the exact same score!  (That just means I need more data, hint hint hint.)

Disclaimer : Only 7 of my top 10 made the final list, so I’m not skewing the results to my own personal choices.

I can’t say there are many surprises.  If I pulled it out to a top 15 we’d start to see some of the popular comedies, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night … but at some point I run out of numbers to make a meaningful argument, too.

Disagree?  Make your own top 10 and post it in the comments!  I’d love to keep my statistics up to date and have a true and accurate top 10 list, as defined by the audience of Shakespeare geeks as a whole and not just one person’s personal opinion.  I may have even added you already, if you’ve made a list. Who knows? 🙂