An Interview With MC Lars

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.

Hey, I thought.  I know that name.

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!




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Venn Shakespeare


Venn vs Euler Diagram
Venn <-> Euler

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.


Tom Hanks Is Falstaff. Discuss.

Have you heard the news?

No, not that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson have been associated with The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ Simply Shakespeare event since 1990.

This year, Hanks and Wilson will actually be taking part in the production, something they’ve never done before.

Even better?  Tom Hanks is playing Falstaff.

How do we feel about this? Is that a good role for him?  Has Hanks ever played anything other than a purely lovable good guy Jimmy Stewart type?  Can he do Falstaff? I know the man’s got acting credits up one side and down the other, but I’m not sure that he’s ever performed Shakespeare. Is Falstaff the first role you want to attempt? Is it too much of a role to ask of anybody?



What If Claudius Was Innocent?

Here’s a thought that came to me over the weekend.  What if the “ghost of Hamlet’s father” really was an evil spirit that was just trying to cause trouble? What if Claudius didn’t really kill Hamlet’s father?  How would the play change?

Other than Claudius’ actual words (“a brother’s murder”), how much evidence is there that he admits to his crime?  If we snipped that bit out could he just as easily be dealing with guilt over the “crime” of marrying his brother’s wife?

More importantly, what does this do to the character of Hamlet?  We go through the entire play assuming that Hamlet is doing the right thing, and Claudius is the bad guy. What if it was reversed? What if we really didn’t know? Or, even better, what if we knew (somehow) that Claudius was innocent, and that Hamlet spends the play chasing the wrong guy?



Sir Patrick Brings The Shakespeare

Sir Patrick Stewart as Oberon

So you’re putting together the Motion Picture Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony, and you need a big name to host.  Why not geek cultural icon, Professor Xavier and Jean Luc Picard himself, Sir Patrick Stewart?  A match made in heaven.  Sir Patrick, who seems to always be in the mood for such sport, is game for the event.

And what does he do? He brings the Shakespeare.

I love it.  It’s a small thing (he ad-libs Puck’s “If we shadows have offended…”) that many people probably saw as a throwaway line. But we know better.  We know that over four hundred years ago, before CGI and special effects were a thing, Shakespeare was in the business of putting dreams on stage.


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The Ultimate Shakespeare Hoodie

So, I’ve got the chance on Amazon Merch to make hoodies. But before I just jump in and blindly start copying designs from t-shirts and then waiting 90 days of no sales before they get de-listed, I thought I’d do some market research. Let’s design the ultimate Shakespeare hoodie and I’ll see if I can’t make it!

First of all, do you wear hoodies?  (I’m going to get tired of saying hoodie in this post, I’m pretty sure.)  I’d definitely like to add one to my collection. Unlike t-shirts, where they’re cheap enough that I don’t mind buying half a dozen, I can’t wear t-shirts all year round. Plus I can’t really wear them to work. But a hooded sweatshirt is always something you can layer on top of regular clothes, weather and environment depending.

Do you like stuff on the front, or the back, or both?  Something smaller in the front, in the typical “pocket” spot?

What kind of image do you want?  A picture of Shakespeare?  Which one? Stylized or classic? Some other image, something iconic like a skull, a sword, a quill?

Or would you prefer words?  An actual Shakespeare quote, or something more “catch phrasey”?

I’d love to get a discussion going in the comments. What kind of Shakespeare hoodie do you wish existed?





Lear’s Shadow


A rehearsal room, dark. Enter JACK through the curtains, directly from outside as we see cars driving past.  He rolls a single, lit incandescent lamp to center, and opens the curtains. We see folding tables on which sit copies of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  JACK picks one up and starts swearing.

Enter a younger man, STEPHEN, on the phone and holding a neck brace. He’s clearly been looking for JACK and is relieved to find him.

Thus opens Lear’s Shadow, written and directed by Brian Elerding, which I had the pleasure of watching yesterday at Mr. Elerding’s invitation.

We quickly learn that something bad has happened, though what we do not yet know. Jack is bruised, Stephen is trying to get him back into the neck brace, so those are some obvious clues. More telling, however, is that Jack – our director – seems to have no real idea where or when he is. He doesn’t know what play they’re rehearsing (hence his anger at seeing Romeo and Juliet scripts) or why no one else has shown up for rehearsal.

Stephen’s job is to keep Jack talking until Rachel (who Stephen was speaking with on the phone) can bring the car around. They reminisce about other plays they’ve done together, before landing on King Lear.  Jack keeps re-realizing that the scripts are wrong, and doesn’t know the date. Stephen takes it upon himself to walk through the play with Jack.

For the next hour the two debate the finer details of Lear – what scenes and lines can be cut, how to deliver certain lines, where to “start” so you have “somewhere to go”.  If you love being a fly on the wall during conversations like this (as I do) you’re going to greatly enjoy this. I do not fancy myself an actor, never have, so I like to watch them work at their craft without trying to put myself in their place.

Of course none of this is random, we’ve got a man who has lost his memory and has clearly had some tragedy befall him doing what amounts to a one man show about a man who has lost his memory upon which many tragedies fall. It’s a reminder that while King Lear may have been written five hundred years ago it could also have happened yesterday.

Though I’m watching this as a movie it reminds me of going to theatre back when I was a younger man. It’s a bare stage two man show, just dialogue, no real plot to speak of other than toward the ultimate answer to the “What happened?” question (which we may or may not receive).

If you believe that Shakespeare makes life better, even when it brings tears rather than laughter, then of course you’re going to like this. It’s very reminiscent of when Slings & Arrows did Lear, a connection the director and I already spoke of.  “There’s no way I wasn’t influenced by Slings & Arrows,” he wrote.  That’s intended as high praise.  I’m not saying “This is trying to be Slings & Arrows,” I’m saying, “I’d watch an entire season of this like I’d watch a season of Slings & Arrows.”




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Step Aside, Holinshed?

Maybe I should sit behind my computer 12 hours a day?

The New York Times this week has an interesting (?) story about a possible new source that Shakespeare may have consulted while writing. Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, who of course have a book coming out, used plagiarism detection software to spot similarities between Shakespeare’s work and “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels” by George North.

I guess my first reaction is….ok, yes? And? Perhaps that’s a bit on the defensive. You see the words “plagiarism” and “new source” and you immediately think that it’s going to be yet another authorship issue.  That’s not the case here. They’re simply saying that they’ve uncovered (so they believe) another publication that Shakespeare would have used as reference material.

If it turns out to be true, examples can be found in Richard III, Henry VI 2 and King Lear, among others.  Neat.

I think the authors’ case was severely undercut by the Times, however, with the inclusion of this paragraph:

Mr. McCarthy, 53, works behind three computer monitors on the dining room table of his home. Supported financially by his wife, a biotechnology executive, he spends 12 hours a day or more at his computer.

That makes him sound like a conspiracy theorist, doesn’t it? Pounding away at mysterious algorithms, looking for patterns, until they eventually uncover a world-shattering secret that will, of course, make him fabulously wealthy?

Assuming this is an accurate discovery, is it a big deal?  Shakespeare already had his sources – Holinshed, Ovid, etc… – so what would change if we added a source to that list?


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You Learned From Who That Ears Are What Now?

Reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and this odd sentence went flying past:

I knew from Shakespeare class that ears were sexual.

Ears, you say?

I’m sorry, what?  I love that I’ve been doing this for almost thirteen years now and I can still find new things to talk about.  I’ve definitely never heard the argument made that Shakespeare sexualized ears, nor can I immediately think of any examples where this might be the case.  (Checks Sonnet 130 just in case … eyes, lips, hair, cheeks….nope.)

All that comes to mind is, “Lend me your ears!” which makes me imagine an audience shouting back, “We’re using them right now, give us five minutes!”

But seriously folks.  Have I overlooked something obvious? What could the author possibly be talking about?




The Adventures Of Will And The Boys

Recently I spotted The Enchantress of Numbers, a novel about Ada Lovelace. If you’re unfamiliar with that name, she’s often credited as being the first computer programmer because of her relationship with Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine (often heralded as the first modern programmable computing device).  As a lifelong computer geek and now the father of two daughters, I’m always interested in the stories of women in science and engineering, so this was a no-brainer.

I would say that I don’t usually like historical fiction, because it’s exactly that, fiction. Where’s the pleasure in reading about stuff that didn’t happen to people that really did exist?  I started to say to someone, “It’s not like I’m seeking out Shakespeare historical fiction either…” but then I realized that I quite liked that Will television series that was on this past summer:

When Shakespeare, Kemp, Burbage and the other “moderately historically accurate” characters are on screen, I am enraptured. I could watch it all day.  I’ve been telling people it reminds me of the recent “Jobs” movie starring Michael Fassbender, which was basically two plus hours of a universe centered on Steve Jobs.  To the degree that this show will be a universe centered on Shakespeare and his circle, you won’t be able to tear me away from the television.

I’ve never actually read anything like that.  The only Shakespeare fiction I know is usually young adult stuff to introduce my kids to Shakespeare.  People travel through time to meet Shakespeare, or people discover a long lost Shakespeare manuscript. At least once I think I read something from Anne Hathaway’s point of view.  But never “Will and the boys.”

So I’m asking. Does anybody know of historic fiction that’s set around Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson and their fellows? Ideally something that’s not completely young adult, but I’ll take what I can get. Something that attempts some degree of historical timeline accuracy, but I’m totally ok with filling in the missing pieces.

I may turn out to hate it, who knows. But it dawned on me that I might also love it.  Anybody got something that fits the category?