Your Favorite Hamlet

As far as I know, Sir Ian’s version is not available on video.

So at work the other day, my CEO asked which Hamlet was my favorite.  At the time, in context, I assumed that he meant film version, as in, something that other people could then go watch.  Not a live production that, if you missed it, telling somebody that it was your favorite didn’t serve much purpose because they couldn’t go take advantage of that information.

I decided to ask the question on Twitter.  I had no idea I’d get the kind of response.  Taking out the people who pretended not to understand the question (answering with the names of cozy little villages, or “Q1”, etc..), I still got over 20 different Hamlets to choose from.  Not all of them are available on video, but that’s been changing lately with live broadcasts of many.

For the record I’d not even heard several of these names, but was happy to discover them.  Some performances are even on YouTube in full!

One Vote

Papaa Essiedu (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2016)

Oscar Isaac (The Public Theatre, 2017)

Andrew Scott (Almeida Theatre, 2017)

Campbell Scott (2000)

Adrian Lester (2002 directed by Peter Brook)

Tom Hiddleston (2017, as directed by Kenneth Branagh)

Richard Chamberlain (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1970)

Ruth Negga  (coming in late 2018)

Two Votes

Derek Jacobi (1980)

Mark Rylance (1989).

Coming in Second, with Four Votes

Kenneth Branagh (1996) comes in with 4 votes,

Our Winner, with Six Votes is …

David Tennant (RSC 2009)!

Did you get to vote?  Who is your pick?  For the record, I told me CEO Branagh was my choice because as I said I was limiting myself to film versions I thought he might have a chance of seeing if he wanted to. I wasn’t going to give it to Mel Gibson or Ethan Hawke, the other two that leaped immediately to mind.  At the time I didn’t even think of Tennant, but on reflection I think I’d still keep my choice as Branagh. I found Tennant’s a little too … hyper?  OCD?  Can’t remember the words I used at the time.  But then we start to get into a debate about whether we’re talking about the movie as a whole, or about the character.  It’s probably true that Tennant’s Hamlet character was better than Branagh’s, but I like Branagh’s movie better as a whole.

(No love for Kevin Kline (1990), I notice.  I wonder if people simply never saw it?)


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Book Review : Macdeath by Cindy Brown

I’m always torn when people offer to send me books for possible review.  If it’s not an audiobook or ebook, it goes on the bottom of the “get to when neither of those is available” list. That’s just the way my schedule works. As such, it takes me forever. Such is the case with Cindy Brown’s Macdeath, which I’ve had so long I can’t remember when I got my copy.  But I’m happy to say I finished it!

Book one of a series, Macdeath introduces us to Ivy Meadows, a struggling actress / part-time detective (thanks to her Uncle Bob, a full-time detective). Ivy’s been cast as one of the witches in Macbeth, and we all know that the Scottish play is cursed.  Sure enough, somebody winds up dead. Now Ivy can’t seem to stop investigating whodunnit, despite the pleas and flat-out demands of her coworkers, the police, and her detective uncle.

Maybe if I was a backstage theatre geek I would have liked this one more, since that’s where most of the action takes place. I just couldn’t get into any of the characters. None of them are around long enough or described deeply enough to care about. Which, granted, is part of the point of a murder mystery because you need to keep guessing about who the murderer is.  But without that, I was stuck in the head of our narrator, and as a 50yr old husband and father with stuff on my to-do list, I felt exactly as comfortable with that as I would have hanging out in real life with a 20something struggling actress :).  Oh, your costume is too tight in the crotch?  You’re not sure if you have enough money to get your car out of the parking lot?  The struggle is real, people.

There’s plenty of twists to the story, a couple of dead ends, and a reasonably satisfying ending (as these things go).  A cast of characters has been introduced, and there’s obvious room for a series.

Know what it reminded me of?  Once upon a time, there was a golden age of television where it seems like everything was a detective show.  Magnum P.I., Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Remington Steele, Hart to Hart, Miami Vice, Charlie’s Angels, Simon and Simon …  This book reminded me a great deal of those.  Imagine a Charlie’s Angels episode where one of the girls has to go undercover in a production of Macbeth.  You get a very brief glimpse at the cast of characters, she runs around trying to uncover clues even though everybody tells her not to (because she can’t blow her cover), and all the while she still has to remember her lines and go perform when her cue comes.  Then when their allotted hour of tv time is up the bad guy is revealed, the day is saved, and everything wraps up nicely until next week.

That’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason why they made so many of those shows, and some of them did very well (Murder She Wrote went for 12 seasons!)  But the strength of each of those shows was in the main character, and finding an audience that connected with that character.   Just because I’m not the audience for Ivy Meadows doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

P.S. Just one more thing before I go?  We all know that Shakespeare was a master of the dirty double entendre, whether Hamlet’s putting his head in Ophelia’s lap or Mercutio’s got his hands upon the very prick of noon.  I’ve got people regularly telling me that Shakespeare itself is a euphemism for something (as is “will”, come to think of it).  The author chose to have one of her characters named … are you ready for this?  Detective Pinkstaff.  Yikes.  Every time that character was in the scene I couldn’t take him seriously, not because he was a bad character, but because he was a walking phallic joke.  At least she didn’t make him the love interest.




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Prince of Cats of Denmark

You never know where you’ll find a Shakespeare story.

I listen to podcasts at work.  Everybody has their own personal style for what they like – educational, informative, short, long, etc…  I’ve found that I’m a big fan of the NPR “shows” more than the news. Stuff like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, for example.

When you listen to those shows long enough you start to find your favorite guests and realize that you can follow them to other podcasts. Such is the case with Paula Poundstone. I remember watching her do standup years ago, and now I enjoy opportunities to listen to her take on the world around her.  Not so much with the technology. Lots of cats.

I recently discovered that she’s got a new podcast along with Adam Felber (also a Wait, Wait regular) called Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone. It’s fun. Adam asks Paula for her advice on a topic, then they bring in an expert to discuss whether that was good advice.  It’s fun and educational.

Anyway, this isn’t a big advertisement for their podcast.  I was listening to an episode about cats and Adam mentioned that his cat was named, “Horatio.”  I wondered if that was a Hamlet reference.  So why not ask? He’s on Twitter, as is Paula.

I asked, “@adamfelber is your cat named Horatio a Hamlet reference?  Just heard it mentioned on @paulapoundstone’s new podcast and had to ask.”

And back came the reply! Actually several, which I’ll paste together here.

Brooklyn, 1997.  As I was having breakfast in the tiny yard behind our ground floor apartment, three newborn kittens and their mom poked their heads through a hole in the fence and tumbled in…

They hung around and over the next couple of weeks we got to know them. One of them seemed really conflicted and unsure whether to trust us humans or not, so we started calling him Hamlet.

Naturally, the one who seemed outright hostile became Laertes. The mom cat was Gertrude…

…and the sweet, friendly, reliable kitten became Horatio.

(We subsequently met Claudius and learned that Hamlet was in fact Ophelia!)

We took Horatio in soon after that, and he lived with us happily for the next 20 years – like his namesake, the only apparent survivor of that troubled family.

Alas, Horatio has passed on to that undiscovered country from which no feline returns, sung to his rest by flights of mousey angels.  But Adam posted a picture! Can cats be good boys?  He looks like he was a good boy. I love that “really conflicted” (in a cat, no less) makes some people think, “We should name him Hamlet.”

I have no pictures of cats on file, so please enjoy young Sir Ian.

This story is posted with Adam’s permission. I thought it would be a fun reminder that if you think you see a Shakespeare reference in the wild, go chase it down!  You might be right. And you might get introduced to some fun new people.  Thanks, Adam!  Go check out his new show.

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Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Titus

This morning in the car we heard an NPR story about the most popular musicals to perform in high school.  My daughter found the list on her phone and asked me to guess some. I said, “Well it’s musicals so I won’t bother guessing any Shakespeare.”

“That’s the other list,” she told me. Suddenly I was interested.

Alas it’s not “Most Popular Shakespeare” but I love that some Shakespeare made it to the top overall list!

How do you think other Shakespeare plays ranked?  Which play would be next on the list and just didn’t make the cut?  A tragedy or a comedy?  Maybe Comedy of Errors, because it’s easy to produce?

Also, I must be out of the loop because I don’t recognize several of these, at all.  Almost, Maine?  Though if somebody tells me that Radium Girls is about Marie Curie (and women in science in general) then I’ll be very pleased.  I am assuming that somewhere along the line 12 Angry Men turned into 12 Angry Jurors so that they could more easily cast female roles?

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So, Anybody Want To Pre-Read My Book?

A funny thing happened the other day while discussing with my daughter.   I discovered a book I’d written on the subject and completely forgotten about.

For years I’ve daydreamed about writing my own “intro to Shakespeare,” a fantasy that has evolved over time.  My hard drives are littered with half-hearted starts that never went anywhere because I always talked myself out of it. Either I didn’t have the audience, the audience I wanted was already saturated, or I just plain wasn’t qualified.  Finding excuses not to do something is easy.

But at some point, I sat at the keyboard long enough and wrote a complete-ish guide to The Tempest. It only goes about 17 PDF pages and is maybe 5000 words. But it has an introduction, a conclusion, and some actual structure in the middle.  It’s even got pictures 🙂

Now I’m trying to decide what to do with it.  I don’t expect that, by itself, I can just say “Here world, enjoy!” But I also know that I don’t need 50,000 words to throw something out on Amazon that people might find worth reading.

That’s where you come in. I’d like to send it to a few people who’d be willing to give some constructive criticism about what I might do with it – content to add, mistakes to correct, fine-tuning to …tune.  I do not need an academic redlining, believe me. I’ve already got 99 reasons to forget the whole idea.  I’m looking for supportive folks who’ll help me actually do something with this instead of giving me more reasons to forget the whole idea.

My real motivation for doing this is because both my girls want to be writers, and both of them suffer from terrible anxiety about letting the world see their work. I’m using this as an opportunity to throw something out there and show them that not only does the world not come to an end when other people read your stuff, but they might actually get some value out of it.

If you’re interested, please drop me a line at and I’ll send you the PDF. I’d like to get into an email correspondence with anybody that’s got feedback to offer, I’m not looking for just comments here on the blog post.

Thanks so much to everybody in advance!



Speed Reading Shakespeare

A couple of times recently I saw people asking for advice on how to read Shakespeare.  Normally this turns into people telling them that Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read. So what they should do is to go find a live production of the play they were thinking about reading and watch it instead.

I’ve always hated that response.  I don’t think that anybody in the history of that question has ever meant, “Hey, I’ve got a choice between seeing a live production of this play, or reading it, what should I do?”  If somebody wants to read Shakespeare, why are we trying to stop them? Either they are a student who has to, or are trying to learn more on their own.  I think we should be encouraging that, not trying to talk them out of it.

To that end, I’ve come up with a new recommendation that I’m going to start using. I call it Speed Reading Shakespeare. I can’t say I’ve taken it for a spin yet personally, but I look forward to doing so because I can’t see why it wouldn’t work.

Let’s pick a play as our example.  Shall we say A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Great. I’m going to assume that you have, or can get your hands on, a reasonably modern edition of the play. By that I mean it should have some degree of footnotes/glossary, modern spelling, and just in general be more approachable/readable than going straight to the First Folio.  That can be fun, too, but it’s not for beginners.

Ok, awesome.  Now go get a movie version of Dream.  Preferably several.  This is most likely easier than it sounds – a quick search tells me that there are two versions streaming on Amazon Prime right now (the 2016 BBC version, and the all-star 1968 Peter Hall version). But a little searching on Hulu, YouTube, and other streaming sources will no doubt reap benefits.

Is live performance better? No, not for this project.  First, there’s the real world limitation that maybe Dream isn’t playing someplace convenient for you. But more importantly, you can’t pause live theatre. If you are unfamiliar with the play, then you are guaranteed at points to say, “Wait, what did he just say? I’m lost.”  Sitting at home with the remote control, you’ve got that under control. 30-second rewind button to the rescue!

Here’s the fun part, though.  Ready for the magic?  Turn on the subtitles.

Would you look at that!  Now you’ve got your own personal production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream being read to you, all while sitting comfortably in your living room with your copy of the script, a bowl of popcorn and your Snuggie.

I’d love to say, “Just have the play open and follow along with the movie.”  There are a few reasons why this doesn’t work. First, you’re constantly taking your eyes off the screen to read, which breaks your ability to understand the flow of the story. Second, any production you see is going to edit. They’re going to change words, they’re going to give lines to other characters, they’re going to cut large sections. If, every time they do that, you have to spend a few seconds saying, “Wait, where are we?” you’re just going to get lost.

Watch the play this way. If you have the opportunity to see multiple productions, watch all of them.  You’ll discover immediately that you can spot where the productions differ (in terms of what they cut) because sometimes you’ll be saying “Wait, the first one said X Y Z and this one didn’t” or “I don’t remember the first one saying X Y Z like this one just did.”  If you get lost or confused, don’t be afraid to pause and rewind.

Now, after you’ve done this, now go read the play.  Suddenly it will all start to make sense because it’s not just words on the page. You’ll have sounds and images in your head to go with the words. If you’ve watched a few different interpretations you can even start to understand the characters. Maybe you think, “The Demetrius I saw in the first one delivered this speech much funnier than in the second one, in the second one he’s really kind of mean and I hate him.”

Wait, you’re perhaps asking, how is that speed reading Shakespeare?  Going through a couple of movies, reading it, then watching it again?  That’ll take hours. Days.

Well, yes.  Speed reading is not “Go through it once, very fast, and you’ll absorb everything.” Speed reading is about making multiple passes through the material. You then use each pass to better structure your understanding of the material. The next time through you’re “filling in the gaps” you missed the previous time.  The first time you watch the play you’re trying to follow the words but you’re mostly just getting the story – who are these people, and what are they doing? Watch it again and you know the people and the story, so you pay more attention to the words.

I think, after going through this exercise, you’ll have a much better understanding of the play than if you (a) sat down and read the No Fear Shakespeare version, or (b) found a live production and suffered through that.  I’ve got a version of King Lear that I have to get around to watching, and I think I’ll try my subtitles trick. I’ve read Lear and seen multiple productions, but I’m curious whether that trick gives me deeper insight into the text. I’m betting it does.


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He Was A Good Fellow, That Robin

I recently talked myself into reading the biography of Robin Williams. It wasn’t a question of whether I’d enjoy it. I loved the man’s body of work. It was more a question of whether I was prepared for the inside story of his end.

But we’re not there yet, I’m less than half way through. I want to talk about his Shakespeare.  I think anybody that followed the man knew he had some Shakespeare in him. He attended Julliard, for starters, and was known to drop Shakespeare references throughout his improvisations:

He also, of course, played Osric in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

What I did not realize is that he *started* with Shakespeare. His Malvolio received rave reviews.  I did a little digging, and look what I found!

This image is from 1971. I only wish I could have found the complete review!  I did get a pointer to it, but it was behind a subscription paywall so I gave up on that idea.

But then! I found something even more exciting.  The book talks about a Western production of Taming of the Shrew that Williams was part of. I won’t say “starred in” because it looks like he played Tranio, not exactly a major role. And guess what?  There’s video! Unfortunately, there’s no audio so all you really get is Robin Williams in a cowboy hat standing around in the background.

I’m about halfway through the book now, well past Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poets’ Society, so I’m pretty sure I’m not going to see any more live Shakespeare credits. But I was very excited to learn about a few that I never knew!




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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.  Go have a seat over there… )

Not being terribly familiar with Richard III cover to cover (and wanting to change that, because I’ll be going to see it and 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 suppose I could google all these things but it’s more fun to get a discussion going.  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 then think that 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?

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Most Dysfunctional Marriages in Shakespeare

I love it when Shakespeare comes up at lunch.  We were talking about with a coworker who’d been in Midsummer, and I asked whether his production had been on the light and glitzy side, or touched on some of the darker bits.   This might be the play that kindergarten kids get to dress up as fairies, but it’s also the play where a husband drugs his wife and sends her off to be with an animal until he gets everything he wants.

Which led to this question. I’ve seen “Best Marriage in Shakespeare” done before (and we’ve done it here), and the Macbeths often win that one. They’re made for each other.

So how about the most dysfunctional? Define that however you like.

I am going to go ahead and disqualify Othello right off the bat. If you actually kill your wife during the course of the play then it’s just too easy.  And that goes for both Othello and Iago in that one. Claudius gets a pass because that was an accident.

Kate and Petruchio?  Whether or not you intrepret the play’s ending as happy doesn’t necessarily mean that their relationship is a healthy one. What about the Twelfth Night couples?  When you realize that the person you married isn’t the person you thought you were marrying, can you just roll with it and end up happy?




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Aglets Came Before Shakespeare

Mention the word “aglet” to children of a certain age (and their parents) and they’ll all point to the Phineas and Ferb episode that drilled the word into our heads forever:

If you have no idea, and don’t feel like clicking that, an aglet is the name of that hard little thing at the end of your shoelace that keeps it from fraying, allowing it to easily thread through the holes.

So why, I wondered, was there a post saved in my newsfeeds this morning entitled “This Post Will Change Your Life” and featuring a picture of aglets? I have several automatic services that search for Shakespeare references and save links so it’s not unusual to see random things in my newsfeed, but this was a new one.

I assume that it’s a throwaway reference that’s just noise, like how every time somebody mentions Gwynneth Paltrow they inevitably say “Academy Award-winning Shakespeare in Love actress” but I click anyway and see this:

Before the invention of buttons, they were used on the ends of the ribbons used to fasten clothing together. Sometimes they were formed into small figures. Shakespeare calls this type of figure an “aglet baby” in The Taming of the Shrew.

Wait, what?  Now I’m thinking this is a humor piece and that’s a joke, praising the eternal usefulness of the aglet.

But we check these things, and, would you look at that…


Nay, look you, sir, he tells you flatly what his
mind is: Why give him gold enough and marry him to
a puppet or an aglet-baby; or an old trot with ne’er
a tooth in her head, though she have as many diseases
as two and fifty horses: why, nothing comes amiss,
so money comes withal.

Learn something new every day.  In all the years I’ve been reading that play I never made the connection.  Now I can just picture kids in high school being forced to read Shakespeare, glossary in hand, and thinking, “Aglet baby?  That sounds like that thing on the end of your shoelace. THAT can’t be right.”

A G L E T! Aglet!
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