Review : David Zwirner’s Othello with Chris Ofili

My mom loved a good yard sale. Whenever she saw something with the word Shakespeare on it she’d snatch it up, rarely even knowing what it was, and bring it to me the next time we saw each other. “You probably already have it,” she’d say, “but I got it for a quatta.” (That’d be twenty five cents outside of New England :)) Inevitably it was a collection of the sonnets or a small bound copy of a single play, something that I did already have several of. And each time I’d say to her, “Shakespeare isn’t like other books. It’s not just about the words with each book, it’s about how a particular book chooses to present the words.”

I was reminded of that story when two books from David Zwirner Books arrived. I now have new copies of Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As far as the Shakespeare goes? It’s the same words we all know and love. Well organized and presented, plenty of whitespace, line numbers down the left, glossary on the right. It’s a nice, easy read – and I can’t say that about every book, I’ve seen some real doozies of a teeny tiny font that I could maybe read comfortably twenty years ago.

Then it dawned on me, that’s not what these books are about. David Zwirner is an art gallery. Each of these books showcases the work of a particular artist, using a particular Shakespeare play as inspiration. They are little artworks in their own right. Why have just one image inspired by a play, when you can make a whole series? And if you’ve got a whole series of images inspired by a play, why not decorate the play with those images?

This makes for an interesting challenge for me, because I know nothing about art. I can say what I like and don’t like, but I’d hate to say something stupid or worse, offensive.

So let’s start with Chris Ofili’s Othello. There’s a clear statement being made here right from the opening essay, referring to Othello as a problem play (“doubly so,” even) and referring to it, several times, as a “white fantasy of blackness.” I don’t know how to speak to this, and I don’t want to cloud my description of the book with my opinions. As the saying goes, I understand that I will never understand.

The artwork is all stark white line drawings on solid black background. Each representation is Othello’s expressive face, with a glimpse at what he is thinking. Sometimes he looks happy, sometimes angry, sometimes sad.

I would love to just get all the images from the book and display them here, and we could discuss which images goes with which scene. Or animate them like a flipbook to watch what happens in Othello’s mind as the action plays out. I think that would look kind of cool, actually.

Stay tuned for part two where we look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Review: A Shakespeare Motley

Somewhere in my collection I have one of those “Shakespeare A-Z” reference books that’s something of a mini encyclopedia, attempting to reference everything of note you might want to look up from Shakespeare’s works. So when I was offered a copy of A Shakespeare Motley, described as “from apothecary to zephyr, from bee to Yorick,” I assumed it would be similar.

It’s not. This “Illustrated Assortment” isn’t trying to be a reference work. Instead it’s exactly as the title says – more of a random collection of interesting entries, with pictures. M offers mermaid and moon, mulberry and music. U gives us unicorn, urchin and … urinal? Not a word I recognized from Shakespeare, but apparently he used it four times – three in Merry Wives, once in Two Gents.

It’s the illustrations that make the book, and I’ve included some random samples below. Many of my books aren’t what I consider “sit down and read cover to cover” books, they’re “open up at random and see if something catches your curiosity.” That’s exactly what this one is. I’d love to have books like this just lying around my house that guests would feel free to pick up and flip through, maybe learn something new, maybe get a whole conversation going about interesting bits of Shakespeare.

Of course every time I leave my Shakespeare books lying around the house my wife inevitably picks them up and puts them back on the shelf, but that’s a whole different story ๐Ÿ™‚

I don’t understand why “biting my thumb” doesn’t feature on the hand page.
This picture of Queen Elizabeth makes me think it’s misprinted right on her face.
How much room did early doctors think twins had in there?!
I think unicorn is one of the highest quality pictures in the whole book.

Letters to Juliet (2010)

Ok, I realize this movie is ten years old, but I’d never seen it. I have the book around here someplace, but never really sat down to read it. I’ve known about the movie, it just never filtered up in my priorities high enough for me to sit and pay attention.

So I’m thankful that my wife has lately been in a “what movie can we watch with our teenagers” mood. Since they’ve grown out of generic animated things, we end up in situations where we immediately see anything Marvel or Pixar anyway, but then the boy only wants slasher gore (or anything generally R rated that he knows we won’t let him watch), while the girls want teen drama stuff that’s got a little too much “content you don’t watch with your parents,” if you know what I mean. So movies that look fun and safe and interesting to everybody, that nobody’s seen yet, have been a new quest. This week they found Letters to Juliet, entirely on their own!

The book and the movie are two different things. The book tells the story of the “Secretaries of Juliet”, a bunch of volunteers who take down the love notes left at Juliet’s balcony in Verona and answer them. The fictional story of the movie has our heroine (Amanda Seyfried, who specializes in playing characters named Sophie it seems) going to Verona on a “pre-honeymoon” with her husband who is so busy opening up his new restaurant that they haven’t had time to plan a wedding. He’s so busy, in fact, even in Verona, that she spends all of her time alone, site-seeing. She runs into the secretaries, they let her answer a letter of her own that turns out to be fifty years old, which results in the woman (and her grandson) coming back to Verona to hunt down her lost love, taking Sophie with them.

As far as romantic comedies go it’s as predictable as you’ve ever seen. As the movie was still in the opening credits I said to my family, “Is it just a rom com rule that whatever guy the girl is with in the beginning is not the guy she ends up with?” I’m still wondering if that is 100% true. It’s hardly a spoiler. A new guy enters the picture, they do the “we hate each other, we tolerate each other, we’re friends, we’re more than friends, will we end up together?” thing just fine. It’s all by the numbers.

How’s the Shakespeare content? Other than being set in and around Juliet’s balcony, there’s not much. There’s several tourist scenes of the crowd, including a line of people taking pictures while feeling up the statue. In the trivia I learned that they actually had to mock up the entire alley where this all takes place because the real one was far too small for the camera equipment. Fun.

The only Shakespeare content I spotted, oddly enough, came from Hamlet — “Doubt that the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move…” Strangely out place, but I guess I’ll take it.

All in all happy to check this one off my list. Nothing especially bad about it. In fact it was exactly the kind of movie we were looking for at the time. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Book Review : Flibbertigibbety Words by Donna Guthrie

Once upon a time, when my kids were still young, I searched the bookstore Shakespeare baby books, not expecting to find any, but still hopeful. Never did. Yeah, there was the brief “Baby Mozart / Baby Shakespeare” craze, but we don’t speak of that.

So it was with very great pleasure that I agreed to review Donna Guthrie’s “Flibbertigibbety Words“.

This is the story of one young William Shakespeare, who opens his window one morning and words (“To thine own self be true”) just come flying in. Well, he thinks, if that’s not just the coolest thing in the whole wide world. I must have those words. He starts chasing them, but they’re slippery little devils, tumbling down the stairs and out the door. So begins the adventure of the story as he chases an ever growing string of words through town.

Every page is decorated in enough Shakespeare quotes to keep geeks like us happy. Over the years, when I have found books similar to this that claim to include Shakespeare’s words, they usually don’t go much beyond “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” and “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” But here we’ve got “Boldness be my friend” and “Words without thoughts never to heaven go” and that’s just on page 3.

The illustrations are big and colorful, making the story obvious as young Shakespeare adventures through town, bumping into interesting new characters, while still leaving plenty of room for the wonderful words to decorate the pages. I have to wonder if the font may prove a challenge for children attempting to read, though. The story itself is told is standard text, but the decorative Shakespearean in the scenes is often scattered randomly, and most likely going to be read by an adult pointing out words with their finger to young readers. But hey, if that helps the kids jump more quickly into a world where the letters don’t always have to be the same size, or in a straight horizontal line? That works, too!

The author has also included a simple “life of William Shakespeare” bio page, as well as citations for all of the quotes included. I love that. I don’t know the exact age that’s going to be the audience for this book, it’s been too long for me. But if the kids are old enough to wonder where the quotes came from? There’s a great opportunity to do so, especially if the parent doesn’t immediately recognize all of them.

Overall there’s a word that came to me while I was reading this book, and that word is wistful. This book catapults me back in time sixteen years to those days of wandering the children’s section of the bookstore with my wife, pregnant with our second and shopping for our first, me scanning the shelves for Shakespeare references like a child racing to the toy department. And, just like that child among those toys, I’d see a book like this, my eyes would go wide, I’d grab it and flip through it and hug it to my chest and wheel around to my wife with my biggest puppy dog eyes and “Please can we get this?” face. Then we’d head home and I’d read it to my daughter over and over again over the days and weeks to come (sorry Dr. Seuss!), pointing out the quotes, asking her to repeat them when she’d heard it enough times to memorize, following up with ridiculously advanced questions like “And what play is that from?” that she couldn’t possibly answer (she’s two years old for heaven’s sake) but patiently waiting for the day when she does answer, because I know that Shakespeare is going to make her life better.

I, we, didn’t get that. Because books like this one didn’t exist yet. Now it does, and now others do get that experience. Lucky. To steal a phrase from my oldest daughter (via Schitt’s Creek), “Love that for them.”

Now I look forward to the future, when someday I’m a grandfather (“Grampy”, in my family), and I get to open this book again and read, “One morning, William opened his window and the words flew in …”

I can’t wait.

Not Quite Book Review : How To Think Like Shakespeare by Scott Newstok

Ok, let’s see how this goes.

I don’t think have to reintroduce Scott Newstok every time I write about him. Back in 2008 when I was just getting started he sent me a copy of his book on Kenneth Burke and my honest response was, “I don’t know who that is.”

My ignorance of things at Scott’s academic level has not turned him off, however, and he’s continued to keep in touch and send me his work over the years, including Wayward Macbeth a few years later.

Which leads me to his latest, How To Think Like Shakespeare, which started out as a convocation address he gave and is now available in book form. I actually received the book back in April and am ashamed that I have only now gotten around to writing about it.

There’s a reason for that. I have tried and tried to complete this book, and I hate to say that I can’t. It’s not for the source material or the subject. I love the idea – see the linked post above for how I raved about the idea when I originally heard it.

My problem is with the book itself. Everbody’s life is busy. During pandemic, doubly so. So we all find ways to organize our time, our priorities and our lives. For years I had a commute to work that lasted about an hour and a half each way and I learned to live on audio books. Used to go through 50+ of them a year. On the flip side, my “Sit down with an actual paper book” time has approached zero over the years. When I was in the car I had no choice what to do with my time. When I’m home and find myself with time to read a book I am plagued with thoughts of, “What other things do you need to be doing right now?” It is very, very hard to find the attention span. So if a book does not hook me right away and become something I simply can’t put down, I’m going to struggle.

What’s killing me here is the editorial structure of the book. Literally every single page is loaded with footnotes, call outs, quotes, italicized and/or emphasized words … and probably a few other flow-breaking constructs I’ve forgotten about. I tried to scan a page to give an example:

Imagine all the pages like this. Maybe it’s just what my reading style has become, maybe I’ve developed focus or attention issues as I’ve gotten older, but I simply can’t pick up any momentum reading like this. Every time the font changes or the paragraph breaks unexpectedly that voice in my head says “Whoa hey wait we just got sidetracked” and I’m left with each page feeling like a jumble of separate thoughts rather than a complete whole.

If you’re used to reading books like this, don’t let me stop you. I still love the topic, as shown by my post from a few years ago. I’m just not the best person, for whatever reason, to offer a review. My apologies to Scott and his publisher.