Oh Yes, My Precious, Very Nice

Who’s got a new Shakespeare present? This guy!

For Valentine’s Day this year (I know, I’m late with the post) my wife completely surprised me with a Shakespeare present. I’m very excited about this, because usually I have some clue. Either she or the kids hints around, asking for a reminder about what Shakespeare merchandise I already have. This time she went entirely on her own, and was very excited for me to unwrap it.

It’s actually a very comfortable t-shirt. I’m not terribly comfortable in t-shirts that accentuate how much I don’t go to the gym, if you know what I’m saying. But I like the material for this one. Different than the usual “I hope that’s extra big because you know it’s going to shrink in the fryer” cotton blend that makes the above problem that much worse.

If you can’t tell from the above, the shirt’s artwork is made from the text of Shakespeare’s work. In this case, the sonnets. The text is very small, not the kind of thing that a stranger could come up and read on you. But we know what it is, and you can see it clearly when you look close. It is multiple copies of all the sonnets, all strung together.

I have several pieces of “art made from the text” merchandise that I have acquired over the years. One is a portrait of Shakespeare made from the text of the complete works. One is a “one page poster” of King Lear, and one of The Tempest. But those things are all on the walls of my house and only people that come to my house can enjoy them (my daughter’s friends, in particular, notice and comment on them, which is cool). But something wearable is my first chance to actually take the show on the road.

Nothing New Under The Sun

Ok, ready for the story? I’ve been doing this a long time, as loyal readers know. So when my wife asked, “Have you ever heard of this company?” I actually had. In fact, I’ve posted about them. And I got curious about why I didn’t already have their merchandise!

The company in question is called Litograph, and I wrote about them back in 2015!

I brought up the site and we started browsing through all of their other merchandise. My wife was actually quite annoyed that their search engine had failed for her, and she’d gotten me the sonnets because it was the only Shakespeare product she saw (they have lots of classic literature, not just Shakespeare). That’s ok, though, I still love it. I learned later that our bad @Bardfilm has their Hamlet shirt. My wife asks which one is my favorite, I tell her their Tempest shirt with Ariel and the storm.

Still, I was trying to remember why I hadn’t taken the opportunity to get myself a shirt, even when I was offering a discount! I scanned my emails and turned up the original conversation I had with them way back in 2015. First thought, I am nothing if not consistent:

Can I tell you something?  It’s 10:30pm on Sunday night and I’m here agonizing over your shirts.  Which play should I pick? I want the Tempest, but I’m disappointed that the cut of the t-shirt really loses the whole “Ariel around the ship” effect that you get in the poster. But I’m ok with that.  The Tempest shirt still has the best front/back combo.

Seven years, my favorite still hasn’t changed. But man, how picky am I?

Here’s the funny thing, though. That I had forgotten all about. I found a mistake. And I was not having it.

I sit here clicking each color, checking the back, trying to decide on a combination I like.
At some point I hit “Zoom” on the picture, trying to determine what the second color is, and I see it….the PROJECT GUTENBERG DISCLAIMER TEXT is right there in the middle of the image.
Deal breaker.  I don’t know what happened there, whether you know it’s there and it doesn’t bother you or you had no idea it’s in there, but there’s no way I could buy that. Knowing it’s there, and waiting for people to notice it, would drive me crazy.

Wow, I was a tough critic when I was younger! I get exactly what I was saying, though. I can tell you that my “love quote” Shakespeare pillow has a misquote on it. Heck, the bracelet I had custom-made for my wife, adorned with Shakespeare quotes, ended up with a typo. I don’t miss those things. So I completely understand why I didn’t buy a shirt at the time, I would never have been able to wear it without thinking the whole world could see the same mistake I could.

But! In fairness to the company, I will say that my wife and I have scanned my shirt as meticulously as our old eyes will allow, and we don’t see a similar mistake. I never did get a response to that email, but I like to think that over the last seven years maybe they took the opportunity to fix it…. but you know what? I’m still not going to take the chance ;). I hear the Hamlet shirt’s pretty good.

What A Puzzle Piece Of Work Is Man

Right before pandemic, in the summer of 2019, my family traveled to London and Stratford Upon Avon. For Christmas that year my wife and I both got each other the same gift – The World of Shakespeare 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle!

I love a good puzzle, but we’re very casual puzzlers. I have Facebook friends who are regularly posting their completed puzzles and what they’re working on next. Our kids have less and less interest these days so it’s become more a hobby for just my wife and I, when time permits. I’m happy to report that this past weekend we finally finished this one! We actually have an excuse – since we went to both London and Stratford on that trip, we got both a London and a Stratford puzzle … and we did London first 🙂

But we’re here to talk about the Shakespeare one, which has this cool “Where’s Waldo” element for any Shakespeare fan because there are dozens of Shakespeare references trapped inside, from bear-baiting to weird sisters. Each piece you’re looking at and thinking, “Ok, this might be a thatched roof, or Juliet’s gown, or a fairy’s wing?” There’s a document that lists all the references (with pictures so you know what’s what), but for real fun you’ll want to skip that until the end. That way you get to spot all the references yourself. The dude holding the skull might be obvious, but will you recognize all the other ones, too?

Great fun for everybody, even if there’s just one Shakespeare fan in the house. It’s great fun when somebody says, “I’ve got a guy with a sword stabbing another guy” and you get to say, “That’s Julius Caesar. Top right.” Or, “girl sitting in a boat.” “Miranda. Dead center. Next to the old guy.”

Anyway, on with the pictures!

The completed puzzle. After edges we focused on the blue of the river first to divide up into sections.
There’s the man himself!
Lighting on this picture of the globe is quite poor, I realize. Hopefully you can glimpse them performing Midsummer.
It wouldn’t be Shakespeare content without some iconic dude holding a skull.
Of course, the balcony’s almost as iconic as the skull.

I’d love to get another Shakespeare puzzle but I’m not sure how many there are to choose from! Plus, my wife will kill me.

By the way, if you’re into puzzles and don’t have a puzzle mat, seriously consider one. We got one for Christmas and it’s a game changer. Primarily it’s a big felt mat to do your puzzle on, but it also comes with this inflatable tootsie roll pillow thing. So if you need to move the puzzle you wrap the whole puzzle in progress around the pillow and wrap it up with these velcro straps. The friction of the felt keeps everything from moving around. So if, like us, you use the dining room table for puzzles and occasionally have to pick up and move the whole thing? Problem solved. The kit we got also came with organization drawers so you can break pieces out into different groups (in this case we put “people” in one, for example). Plus glue for when you’re done, because it has to go on the wall after all that effort.

Introducing Bardle – A Shakespeare Letter Game

“Wordles, wordles, wordles.”

Hamlet

People have already seen my new creation on Twitter and Facebook so I apologize to them for the old news, but for those who still get their Shakespeare Geek news straight from the blog I’m happy to announce Bardle!

Yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. Everybody else was creating Wordle clones (including Taylor Swift and Harry Potter), so I knew I had to make one. This is an obvious homage to the original Wordle, so all credit to the original creator. We also all know that the New York Times bought the original recently, so there’s a non-zero chance that they go on the hunt and some point and try to take down all these spinoff versions. But until then, the play’s the thing!

There’s a few important ways that this version is different from the regular game:

  1. All five letter character names are possible answers. This will pose a challenge sometimes for plays you may not have read.
  2. Some common theatrical terms associated with Shakespeare are valid as well. So at some point you’re likely to see words like stage or scene, to give a couple of obvious examples.
  3. Mostly, though, answers will be words that should have some obvious Shakespeare connection. It’s hard to explain until you get the hang of it. One tip is to think of the common scenes and quotes you know from Shakespeare, and ask yourself if there’s any five letter words there. Hamlet’s that one about the guy who talks to the skull … oh, wait, skull! All the world’s a stage … world! Stage! Get it? A midsummer what’s what?
  4. Lastly, the list of guessable words is made up *only* of words that Shakespeare used. This is throwing some people, who expect to use all their standard starter words. Nope. If the word doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s works, chances are you can’t use it.

Any questions or feedback, please let me know! I want it to be fun and not too difficult but I also very much want to keep the Shakespeare theme obvious.

Can A Computer Recite The Sonnets?

Here’s a challenge for the programmers out there. Once upon a time, when I was a younger man with “hacking” time on my hands, I would have already been all over this. Instead, now I’ll put it out into the universe in the hopes that someone else is in a position to take up the challenge.

A recent post on Reddit claimed to be a recitation of the sonnets over some video from one of the Halo computer games. The problem, it was just classic computer “text to speech (TTS)”. Which, you’ve probably experienced, is painful to listen to – no pacing, no inflection, no sense at all of what it’s reading. I suggested to the original poster that it was like listening to somebody read the dictionary.

But then I got an idea. Text to speech technology has actually gotten much better than it was in the old days. Machine learning has given the engine some degree of understanding of how words go together, and the whole point of punctuation. In fact, Amazon offers a cloud service known as Polly that is specifically all about “lifelike speech”.

So now I’m wondering, what would it take to tweak a TTS engine to make a reasonable recitation of the sonnets? Something that feels the iambic pentameter, and sounds like it’s actually reading poetry as it was intended to be read. Of course, it’s not going to be Alan Rickman’s quality, I get that. I’m just wondering if it can be better.

There are a couple of ways to go about this. One obvious one is to pick a sonnet, and then manually create a transcription of the text into the special codes that tell the TTS engine exactly what to do — emphasize this syllable over that one, pause longer here, make an “oo” sound here instead of an “oh”.

That by itself is maybe a couple of hours of work. A proof of concept, as they say in our biz. Tweak it, play it, go back and tweak it some more.

But then, can we learn from that? Can we bring machine learning into it? You’d probably need to do this for more than one sonnet, but I think you could train something fairly easily to look at those few, let’s say half a dozen, and extract the underlying patterns. Then turn it loose on the next couple and see what you get.

Like all machine learning, it would be an incremental exercise, constantly going back and throwing more training data at it until you start to be happy with the results. But how cool would it be if you had to train it on less (substantially less) than the entire 154, and before you were done it was reciting the remaining ones on its own?

Then, for the real fun, switch gears and throw some soliloquies at it and see how it does!

Who’s up for the challenge? The more I described it the more I wish I could tackle it myself. Maybe I’ll end up trying a manual transcription job anyway, just to kick it off and see where I get?

Ok, Anybody Out There Know How To Draw?

I had an idea for a new merchandise design – a very simple “All the World’s a Stage” font with a prominent display of the iconic tragedy/comedy theatre masks in some nice bright colors.

There’s about a zillion t-shirts out there that just show the quote, and maybe throw some clip art on it. I thought it would be fun to do something with actual original artwork. Something unique that someone else can’t easily rip off.

And, I thought, where better to get such artwork but an audience of Shakespeare geeks? I can’t draw. My visual skills are limited to taking other images and playing with them in photoshop until they get some interesting (eh) twist.

I’m wondering if there’s somebody out there who might be able to draw something like that for me? I’m putting it out there, it’s something I want to put on merchandise. I’m happy to send you a t-shirt (or coffee mug or tote bag or whatever you pick) as payment, if you like. And I’ll credit you accordingly, both in a specific blog post thank you as well as in the actual product description (to the extent I am able).

You know the image I’m talking about, right? Something like this…

But, you know, more interesting. The two should overlap a little. Definitely want the ribbon/string, it’ll give another element to color. The faces can have more personality, but should retain that minimalist, iconic representation so it’s more about the image as a whole and not about looking at the details of each individual mask. Personally I like big black outlines emphasizing the image, as if it could easily be represented as a pure line drawing – but that’s just my personal style, and like I said, I’m not the one drawing it. But it’s got to be something that really pops on merchandise and separates itself from background colors.

Any takers? I know I’m probably asking a lot but you never know unless you ask,maybe there’s some folks out there that love doing stuff exactly like this.

Thanks in advance! I look forward to seeing what you come up with! Maybe we can have a contest 🙂