Merry Little Christmas to Me!

A joyous Epiphany to you all! I didn’t think I would have anything to post this holiday season, but it turns out I got some Shakespeare stuff after all!

Be these the wretches that we play’d at dice for?

My oldest told us all ahead of time that college had been particularly busy this year and that everybody would be getting their presents at some point after the holiday. This added a level of fun because each person got their present separately instead of getting lost in the chaos of the big day.

Both my daughters, at one point or another, fancied themselves writers — my oldest won NaNoWriMo at one point, and her younger sister is in fact, a published novelist. So we have a collection of story cubes scattered around the house. You’ve perhaps seen them, each side of each die has an icon – a man, a woman, an alien, a weapon, an animal … – and you use them however creatively you like to take turns making up stories.

You see where I’m going with this? Behold, from the brains behind Upstart Crow Creations … Shakespeare’s Plot Device Dice (which I’m inevitably going to continue to call Shakespeare Story Cubes)!

Five dice and six sides yield thirty symbols. Luckily there’s a guide to them all because some of the artwork does make you go, “uhhh…??” But how would you iconically show madness? or fate?

My only nitpick is the Death face which is labeled “Only Mostly Dead”. Don’t you be sneaking Princess Bride references into my Shakespeare toys 😉 Just kidding. I get it, and I appreciate it, but it is definitely out of place. There’s also “The Mighty Pen”, which I hope isn’t a reference to “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Because, you know, Shakespeare didn’t write that.

If Hercules and Lichas play at dice, which is the better man?

Like so many of my Shakespeare toys, I have no idea what I will do with this. But I’m happy to add it to my collection! I prefer to think of myself as more Smaug on his horde of gold than Gollum and his precious. My wife thought it was a game to play. I suppose technically it is, just not in the competitive sense. It’s more about storytelling. In theory, people go around the room and build a story collaboratively using what the dice tell them. My daughter chose it for me for inspiration because I, too, have attempted the NaNoWriMo challenge in the past. She thought I could use them when I get stuck on plot ideas.

I’m thinking about a game where you guess the play based purely on the dice (like with emojis). If I get any good results, you’ll be the first to know!

Review : 10 Things I Hate About You

10 Things is generally regarded as the best of what we’ll call the “high school Shakespeare adaptations.” We’ve got She’s The Man, O, Get Over It, Were The World Mine, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. Julia Stiles is in two of those, and I’m not counting her turn as Ophelia in the 2000 Hamlet with Ethan Hawke. (Also in 2000 she played a character named Imogen in Down To You but alas I can’t make the Cymbeline connection.)

But enough of that. Over the years the subject has come up regularly, we’ve reviewed some of them, and shared many a “top 10” list on social media. 10 Things is the bar against which all these movies were (and still are) compared.

And, until now, I’d never seen it.

Confession time. I don’t watch a lot of Shakespeare. My work-life balance just never allowed for it. If it wasn’t something I could sit down with my family and watch, the only time I’d get would be later at night after everyone had gone to bed. But finding a two-hour block to sit and pay attention to a movie, sometimes taking notes for my eventual blog post? Honestly, I usually had things I’d rather do.

The pandemic changed all that. I work from home now. The tv is on almost constantly in the background, providing some much-needed noise in an otherwise empty and silent house. So I’ll often get into a mood like “80’s movies I remember being good (or at least entertaining)” and I’ll put on a Lethal Weapon or Breakfast Club, something I’ve seen, just to be butterfly net for my attention. It’s not interesting enough to me to pay attention to it, because I’ve seen it. But when I need to lift my head up from the computer and focus on something else for a minute, I can stare at something familiar. For bonus points, count how many references you see or hear in these movies that are totally unacceptable now. The ’80s were a different time.

As each of these movies finishes I’ll click through the “You might also like” list that inevitably follows. And somehow, I ended up on 10 Things I Hate About You. On the one hand, it’s true, it broke my basic rule because I haven’t actually seen it. But this is something of a special case because over the years I’ve seen so many clips and heard so many quotes and read so many articles and summaries, I felt like the only thing I was missing is honestly being able to say, “Yes, I sat through and watched this entire movie.” Now, I can check that box and offer my honest review, not just a parrot of what I heard everyone else saying.

I liked it.

Thank you, and good night.

Ok, seriously :). I think we all know the plot, lifted quite plainly from Taming of the Shrew. He’s got two daughters. The younger one wants to date. He says that she can’t until her older sister does. Not because he’s trying to marry off the older sister first, but because he feels safe that the older sister – Julia Stiles as Kat, our shrew – has no interest in dating, and no one has any interest in dating her. Enter a young Heath Ledger, who takes on the challenge because he’s paid by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who wants to date younger sister Bianca. I think we all know where it goes from there, in a predictable teen comedy fashion.

As a father in my fifties, I think I pretty substantially missed my window for truly appreciating (nay worshipping) this movie and its young actors. I found myself sympathizing mostly with the father, played by stellar 80s comic icon Larry Miller, who feels the most important job in the world for a father is to make sure his daughters don’t get pregnant and ruin their lives. I get that the world is a whole lot more liberal today than it was when I was their age, but I’d still rather see my daughter get a college degree before a baby. During the house party scene I could think of a dozen different and very bad ways the story could have ended. Even the smartest kids can get angry and be stupid sometimes, and when you take a girl who has spent her whole life acting better than everybody else and put her drunk and out of control in the middle of a house party, there’s not always going to be a white knight boyfriend to save her from other life-changing consequences.

Heath Ledger’s voice bothered me the whole time. It’s very deep, and did not suit his high school character. The Australian accent, which they did nothing to hide, made it worse. The notes for the movie say they felt this made him “dangerous and sexy”. Nah. Made him seem like he was cast entirely for his looks. This was especially true for me when he sings, because his singing voice does not match his speaking voice. I went looking for confirmation that he was lip-syncing but from what I can tell it was really him.

The movie is loaded with Shakespeare references without being about Shakespeare if that makes sense. So many of these movies are about a high school that’s putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In terms of the actual plot, the closest we get is some attention to the sonnets. What it is filled with, though, is easter eggs. The family name is Stratford. The boyfriend’s last name is Verona. They go to Padua High School. They did give us one token character, Mandella, who is supposedly obsessed with Shakespeare (she even has pictures of him in her locker). Though I always love Shakespeare content, this was pretty obviously shoehorned in just to add some more references. Trust me, if there were any girls in my high school harboring a crush on Shakespeare and decorating their lockers with his picture, I would have found them.

When I told Bardfilm I’d finally watched this one his one question was, “Does it still speak to today’s high school students?”

I don’t think it does. I think it was a good movie for its time, better than average. Written well. I thought at times it might have been written at least in part by Tina Fey, who is known for her sharp dialogue. But in the end it’s still just a glued together collection of the same tropes of every other teen comedy of the era, hung on a Shakespearean frame. They just did it better than others.

Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare presents The Tempest on Boston Common

We’re baaaaacccckkk!

I had a killer streak going for CommShakes shows. Until recently I’d been to something like 14 of their shows. Last year was off for everybody, and the year before that I missed it because my mom was sick, so it’s been two years off. I was looking forward to a return with The Tempest, my favorite, which I’ve started referring to as “our family play” because my children know it so well. I don’t take the kids to many productions – they went to Romeo and Juliet a few years back, and of course, they’d be coming to The Tempest.

We started out unfortunately on a poor note, as we arrived to discover there were no chairs for us. This is a free, outdoor production where you claim your space by putting down your blanket, bring a picnic, what have you. But you can normally rent chairs, which we’ve always done – it’s an easy way to contribute money to the cause. This year they changed that, requiring that you get chairs in advance, and due to a poorly designed mobile website I didn’t get that memo. So, after finding no help among the volunteers to remedy the situation, I spent the whole production trying to figure out how to get comfortable on the ground. I probably would have ended up with a more charitable review if that all hadn’t happened.

Stuff I Loved

Loved the opening. The whole cast comes out, just stands there. Breathing. Calm. Tranquility. Get the audience settled down and paying attention. Prospero, in the center, raises his staff over his head and slams it onto the ground. BOOM, storm. Chaos. Waves. Thunder. Screaming. Actors, including a not yet introduced Ariel, circling the stage like a tornado. And then, when the time is right? Prospero lifts his staff, and the storm is over. Nice.

Along those same lines, loved the special effects. You can only do so much with an outside production like this, and it being such a magic heavy show doesn’t help. But they did a great job with the simple stuff – a hand gesture from Prospero would immediately freeze a character in his tracks, or kill the lights, or summon thunder – but also with some more prop-oriented symbolic ideas, like Ariel attaching a red ribbon to Ferdinand and tugging him toward Miranda.

Ariel magically guides Ferdinand toward Miranda.

Love love loved their Caliban. Best part of the show for me. When he’s introduced he comes running at Prospero to attack, and we see that he is tied down by one leg. He looks like a vicious dog. And he’s got no cower in him, let me tell you. Standing there at the length of his rope, hopping on one foot, he’s swinging his arms and hurling sand and casting his own curses in Prospero’s direction. Great stuff. Later, after he meets up with Stephano and Trinculo, he balances the drunken comedy with a very believable “Guys, you’re not really getting me – if you don’t focus on the mission and kill Prospero when you have the chance it is going to go *very bad for us*.” Despite showing almost no fear in the opening scene, he’s got plenty of fear.

A truly great Caliban. I wish his “Be not afeard” moment got the attention it deserved.

Loved the comedy. I’m not generally a huge fan of the “play it over the top so the audience gets it” kind of stuff, but I understand the necessity for it. Miranda was a big hit, really playing up the “man crazy” aspect of the teenage girl who suddenly realizes just how many people there are in this brave new world. Later when Stephano and Trinculo arrive they just knock it out of the park. I could watch the Stephano/Trinculo/Caliban show like a tv series.

Ok, Stephano and Trinculo went a little Three Stooges at times, but I still loved them.

Stuff I Didn’t Love

Unfortunately, what I saw as a very uneven Prospero. Personally, I like a bit of a scary Prospero who runs his island the way he wants it, and takes no back talk. After all, this is a father who has done nothing but protect his daughter (and plot his revenge!) for twelve years. He doesn’t have time to relax. What I got was a father getting walked on by his daughter (during the first “pluck my garment from me” moment, she just walks away, leaving him to chase her). He then starts crying while explaining their back story. Huh?

I’m trying to read this in the context of “the father of the bride who cries at the wedding.” Prospero knows how this story plays out. He knows that every interaction with his daughter is part of this last chapter. He’s sad. I can kind of get behind that. Not usually how I see it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong.

But when he’s not crying he’s screaming at everybody. He screams the “Our revels now are ended” bit? I don’t think I understood what they were going for, there. I tried to explain it to my wife and kids something like this: “This is like his wedding present to Miranda and Ferdinand. He’s bringing out all the stops, he’s literally summoned down the goddesses for their blessing. He’s showing the full power of his art, and he’s happy to be in the moment. But then he’s broken from that trance by the realization that he still has to deal with everything else that’s going on, and he’s angry about it.” That could be complete BS from what the director/actor intended, but it’s how I figured to read it.

Prospero breaks his staff.

Other Things

Lot of stuff just kind of ends up in the middle. Like Ariel. Ariel here is a dancer. He ballets his way around the various scenes. <shrug> Ok, I guess? I didn’t get any connection. I told the kids on the walk back to the car, “Ariel’s got this great opportunity to play with the relationship to Prospero. Do they love each other? Or is it resent? Why does he keep asking, and complaining?” I’ve seen productions where the minute Prospero says you’re free, Ariel’s gone without turning his head, and ones where he goes give a last look back. I don’t feel like any attention was paid to Ariel’s freedom here, he just kind of left.

The music. Parts were good — somehow they made the “Caliban ban ban” song a real toe tapper. But in the beginning, with the “Full fathom five” bits? Their version of Ariel working with the other spirits on the island involved some singing women coming through the back of the stage who looked exactly like the women who hop down off the Grecian urn in Disney’s animated Hercules movie. Once I had that image in my head I couldn’t shake it, unfortunately.

Ariel’s helper spirits entrance Miranda.

The rest of the cast? If a scene didn’t involve Prospero, Caliban or Miranda, it just didn’t rise to the same level. They aren’t the stars, true. Their scenes are mostly about plot. But I don’t know if it was the delivery, or the blocking, or just the sound system, but my family spent most of this time “We’re lost, what’s happening?” Antonio in particular I felt was miscast. Maybe it’s because I recognized him from previous clown roles, but I was trying to sell him to my kids as, “Ok, this guy’s a real bastard, he’s trying to get Sebastian to kill the king and he doesn’t think twice about killing the only witness,” and I just wasn’t feeling it.


Overall? It’s Shakespeare under the stars, it’s The Tempest, and I don’t care if I had to stand through the whole thing, I’m going to watch it and I’m going to look for parts I love. If I was still in my bachelor days I’d probably go back and see it three times, looking for different things every time. Go see these things, I’m sure your town or one near you has similar. The world is made a better place by hearing Shakespeare spoken into the universe. I look forward to seeing what I can be a part of next year.

Among His Private Friends

When I started this site way back in 2005 I really had no idea what I was doing. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, and basically you started a blog as a way to brain dump ideas you had on a topic in the hopes that other people might want to read them and engage in conversation. I don’t know that I knew more about Shakespeare than your average Joe, I just knew that I found the topic more interesting and wanted to talk about it more than my friends and family did. So I started a blog to talk about Shakespeare.

Then a funny thing happened. People who actually did know about the subject – a lot, as it turns out – joined the conversation. One of my new friends was Dr. Carl Atkins, who sent me a copy of his book Shakespeare’s Sonnets : With 300 Years of Commentary. Looking back now I admit that I had no idea what I was doing and understood very little of it :), but it’s been a reference ever since, both when I pull it down from the shelf, and when Carl pops up in the comments on sonnet threads and quotes his research to answer our questions.

Among His Private Friends

Well Carl’s working on a new book and site now called Among His Private Friends which aim to put you the reader in the role of one of Shakespeare’s “private friends”, passing the sonnets around among yourselves and learning the story they tell from the inside. In the author’s own words, the goal of this one is not to be a definitive reference but rather a fun read, the way Shakespeare may have intended.

The site is still a work in progress. Hardcore sonnet fans who are always interested in a new angle, should definitely check it out and send Carl some feedback! His book is due out in October.

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!