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.


Shakespeare Storm Quiz

Storm still.

If I scheduled it properly and my software behaved, you should be reading this while I’m sitting up in New England under about a foot of snow.

How often does Shakespeare make a storm of some sort a major plot point?

  • The Tempest, duh.
  • Twelfth Night needs to deposit Viola in Illyria to get started, so a shipwreck seems as good a reason as any. But does the description of how they went down count as a storm, or was it just bad luck at sea?
  • Poor Antonio’s ships in The Merchant of Venice.  Or am I misremembering that? Do we get much of an explanation about how all of his ships go down? I think I’ve always just assumed a storm but not sure my evidence.
  • Macbeth opens with thunder and lightning.  And then there’s Macduff’s description of the night before he arrives at Macbeth’s castle, where it all hits the fan.
  • King Lear on the heath.  I didn’t realize the power of stage directions until I went back and looked and saw how many scenes say, “Storm still.”  That is a huge storm.

What did I miss?



A Shakespeare Framework

A coworker challenged me to participate in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writer’s Month.  If you’re not familiar, this contest challenges writers to create a complete fifty thousand word novel in just thirty days. Technically November is past, but there’s no reason why you can’t attempt the challenge any month you like.

I’m not scared of word count. Most of the time you need me to cut words out.  What I can’t do is stream of consciousness for that long. I can’t just start writing and assume that a novel will plop out at the end.  I’m a computer programmer by trade, and you can’t just open up a text editor not knowing whether you’re going to end up with an ecommerce site or a mobile videogame.

What we do is start with a framework.  Just like a building has a floor, four walls and a roof, the same logic is true of software projects. A video game has backgrounds, sprites, controls, a scoreboard. An ecommerce site has navigation, a shopping cart, buy buttons.

So naturally before I’d attempt a novel I’d ask whether there’s a framework I can start with.  See where I’m going with this?  Whether it’s The Lion King, Forbidden Planet or West Side Story, there’s clear precedent for taking the minimal plot elements of a Shakespeare play and then rebuilding your own story. I immediately thought of doing something along the lines of The Tempest, although I’ll have to make it a point to stay out of Forbidden Planet territory.

What I was wondering, though, is whether we can make a framework out of all the plays. Everybody does Hamlet or King Lear or Romeo and Juliet. Could you use, say, Coriolanus as your starting point?  What would that look like?

Pick a play, and break it down to the minimal plot skeleton. Hamlet, Disney taught us, is any story where the uncle figure kills the king and the son has to take his rightful place on the throne. Romeo and Juliet has been reduced to “two groups of people don’t like each other, until one from each side falls in love.”

Pick a harder one. What’s the framework for A Midsummer Night’s Dream?


A Three Hour Shakespeare, A Three Hour Shakespeare

Tis now the very witching time of night, plus about three hours.

What is Shakespeare’s fascination with three hours?  I was at Romeo and Juliet this weekend and this stood out to me:

Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?

Because I thought, “Hmm, that’s interesting, because clearly they’ve been married more than three hours so it’s like she’s using that as just a generic term for some length of time. Kind of like how Hamlet does it, doesn’t he?” Actually I was off on that one:

how cheerfully my mother looks, and father died within these two hours.

But then I thought about that one about, “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late,” from Merry Wives of Windsor.  I got to wondering just how often he used this expression. Turns out, quite a lot. Some of them could even be literal (such as “the length of time after supper and before bed time”) but surely not all of them.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Ten o’clock: within these three hours ’twill be
time enough to go home.


Within these three hours, Tullus,
Alone I fought in your Corioli walls,
And made what work I pleased:


I have read three hours then: mine eyes are weak:

Henry VI Part 1

More than three hours the fight continued;
Where valiant Talbot above human thought
Enacted wonders with his sword and lance:

Love’s Labour’s Lost

And then, to sleep but three hours in the night,
And not be seen to wink of all the day—

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

what dances shall we have,
To wear away this long age of three hours
Between our after-supper and bed-time?

Romeo and Juliet (again)

Now must I to the monument alone;
Within three hours will fair Juliet wake:

The Tempest

My father
Is hard at study; pray now, rest yourself;
He’s safe for these three hours.

How thou hast met us here, who three hours since
Were wreck’d upon this shore;

What is this maid with whom thou wast at play?
Your eld’st acquaintance cannot be three hours:

Twelfth Night

Ay, madam, well; for I was bred and born
Not three hours travel from this very place.



Reddit’s Favorite Shakespeare

Hello /r/Shakespeare!Anybody that knows me knows that when I see a post titled 1000 Most Mentioned Books on Reddit (or, really, anywhere), the first thing I’m going to do is search it to see where Shakespeare shows up.  Any guesses?

I’d love to say more about who made the list and why and how, but there doesn’t seem much to go on. The post, on Medium, was made by BookAdvice.  Have to look more into that, see what other cool lists they have.  All we know about the methodology is, from the summary, “Sorted based on the number of upvotes and the number of different users linking to them in post and comments.”  I suppose that’s got a certain chronological bias — a book that came out last year couldn’t possibly compete with those that have been around since before Reddit.  But it does say “most mentioned” and not “best” or “most loved” or anything like that, so I suppose it’s accurate to say that a book that has existed for ten years will typically be mentioned more than a book that’s only existed for one.

Much of the list is highly predictable, if you know anything about Reddit.  Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy all rank in the top ten.  I’m pleasantly surprised to see To Kill A Mockingbird in there, and The Count of Monte Cristo (though not so pleasantly Catcher in the Rye.  Really, reddit?)  Thrilled to see J.K. Rowling’s name not appear until well after the 250 mark.  Not that her work is bad, just that I’m tired of seeing such brand new books always top the lists of “all time classics”.

Ok, you want the data?  Drum roll, please. Presented in reverse order, from least to most mentioned, we have …

905. The Taming of the Shrew

754. The Tempest

674. Merchant of Venice

625. King Lear

578. Much Ado About Nothing

568. Othello

371. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (*)

295. Macbeth

237. Romeo and Juliet

and the most mentioned work of William Shakespeare on Reddit is……

144. Hamlet

What do we think, any surprises?  Surely not the great tragedies, I think those became self-fulfilling long long ago.  Is Romeo and Juliet popular because it’s so good, or is it considered so good because it’s popular?  Little surprised about Othello, that one doesn’t usually get much love, and I’m kind of wondering if they took the time to rule out references to the board game.

When I first made this list, searching for the word “Shakespeare”, I was surprised to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream not make the list.  I had to go back and double check.  It’s because they’ve got it listed by, and I’m not kidding, SparkNotes.  I wondered if there were many on the list marked this way, but it turns out that’s the only one.  Glad I checked, I almost missed it!

Anything you think should be on the list that’s not there?  Hey, wait … where’s Twelfth Night?




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Weather As Plot Device

Lear and his Fool on the heathI’m trying to think of plays where the weather plays an important role.  Sure there’s The Tempest, but we get the storm at the beginning and then…nothing.

Macbeth seems to be all about the weather.  So fair and foul a day I have not seen!

King Lear is probably the ultimate example.  If you haven’t seen Act 3 Scene 1 live yet, your Shakespeare life is not complete.  The wind is blowing, the rain is pouring down. Kent staggers in at one level, battling against the wind, hanging on to the scaffolding so he doesn’t blow away.  Enter a gentleman below, also buffeted by the wind.  “Where’s the king?”  first thing Kent asks, only to learn that he’s out in this storm.  “But who is with him?”  “None but the fool.”  Shivers.  Goosebumps. That’s one of my favorite moments in the play.

Hey, here’s a question — the stage direction I read for this scene says “Storm still.”  Does that mean the storm is still continuing, or that there is a lull in the storm, an actual still moment?

What else?  Any of the comedies do something similar to work weather into the plot?


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Review : Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Loyal readers know I’ve got a soft spot for The Tempest.  I worry that I sound like a broken record saying that. So even though my book review queue is backed up well beyond my ability to ever get through it, I said sure, go ahead and send me Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey.

I wish I could say I liked it, but I just can’t. First of all, it’s written in that “I want to sound Elizabethan” manner of speech which ends up being more grating than anything else. The author’s got a particular fondness for the word “mayhap”, to the point where it would sometimes appear multiple times on a single page of dialogue. Does she think that sounds like Shakespeare? I checked – that word does not appear in Shakespeare.

The story itself is interesting, starting with Miranda and Prospero’s attempt to catch Caliban.  So we get to see Caliban being taught language and learn what he knew about his mother, and how she died, and the role Setebos played in their lives.

It’s clear from the beginning that Prospero is the bad guy in this story. As a savage, Caliban had his freedom to roam the island.  But as soon as Prospero decides to civilize him, he is their servant, locked in his cell and only given limited amounts of freedom as a reward for good behavior. It only gets worse from there.  We also learn that Caliban would rather Ariel remain trapped in his tree. He’s there for a reason as far as Caliban is concerned and bad things will happen if Prospero frees him.  Prospero doesn’t care, invoking the name of Setebos to break Sycorax’s charm and create his own to bind Ariel to his service.

None of that would be a deal breaker for me.  I didn’t love the “if I say mayhap enough times I’ll sound like Shakespeare” approach to the dialogue, but it was a reasonable retelling of what happens in the story.  I should mention at this point that my daughter saw the book, recognized the characters, and asked if she could read it – before I was finished with it.  I had a bad feeling about that – this is, after all, spun like a romance novel – but I trust my kids, and told her that if it becomes inappropriate I expect her to tell me and give it back.

Fast forward a few days when she returns from school with a look of horror on her face, hands the book back shaking her head and saying, “I should not be reading that.”  She later tells me, “When you get to page two fifty it’s disgusting.”

I never made it to page two fifty because around page one seventy it becomes a Blue Lagoon story.  Everybody knows what I mean by that?  Fourteen-year-old Miranda gets to learn in great detail about her first period.  She has no idea what’s happening. Neither does her friend Caliban. Fine. I’ve actually argued in the past for sympathy for Caliban, because biology is a hell of a thing that you can’t always control, especially when you don’t know what’s happening.

Cut to the scene where Miranda’s taking a bath trying to get the blood off, while Caliban watches (without her knowledge).  Caliban who goes off into the forest and, to put it the way Ariel puts it after catching him, commits the sin of spilling his seed on the ground. Even better, Ariel then blackmails Caliban by threatening to tell Miranda and Prospero about it. So there’s now this ongoing sexualization of Miranda that’s entirely the invention of the author because there’s none of it in the original.

Yeah, I’m out.  I can’t go on to what I know must ultimately be sex scenes between them, and knowing that my daughter read it before me doesn’t help at all.

If nothing I said above bothers you, you might find that you like this one. But I just can’t.  The characters are too special to me, and you can’t do that to them. The Tempest for me is a fairy tale about a long lost princess stranded on an island with her sorcerer father, who meets a prince and falls in love and first sight, who takes her away to live happily ever after.  I know there’s more to it than that, and it can be looked at and interpreted many ways. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Be sure to check out the new Shakespeare Geek Merchandise page, new for 2017 on Amazon! All new designs!


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Is Caliban human?

Is Caliban human? The question comes through on my logs every now and then so we must have touched on the subject at some point.  I think that perhaps students are looking for help with their homework and just want a yes or no answer and maybe a citation, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Then was this island–
Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with
A human shape.

The very first description we have for Caliban is “not honored with a human shape.”  Does that mean not human?

EDIT:  November 1, 2017.  As the commenter rightly points out, that’s a misinterpretation of the passage.  It is the island that would be “without human shape” if it were not for Caliban, i.e. he was alone on the island. 

The word “whelp” would normally apply to animals, but Prospero’s not saying that Caliban is closer to a dog than a person. (When I drive to work each morning and inevitably call someone a jackass I don’t literally mean he’s a donkey. How can you give someone the finger if you have hooves?)

Normally we would say, “Is Caliban human? Of course Caliban is human. He’s got a mind and free will of his own and can communicate. He loves his mother Sycorax and worships her god, Setebos.” By our modern biological standards, it’s a no-brainer.  There’s no creature other than humans that can do any of that.

But this is also a play with magic and fairies, witches and devils. So maybe our modern definitions don’t apply?

Is Caliban human?We’re told that Sycorax is a witch, and that she was banished here. Prospero goes one step more, telling Caliban that he is the offspring of his mother mating with the devil himself.

By modern standards, and by that I mean post Salem witch trials, we could interpret this to mean “Single woman gets pregnant, gets on the wrong side of a conservative society’s rules, and gets kicked out.”  By that logic Caliban is human.  A little wild, maybe, from growing up outside civilization (and civilized medicine), but basically human.  Personally I like this interpretation because it keeps the play universal.  Tell me what Caliban is like as a character because he’s human, and therefore at some level he is like all of us. If he’s not human, I can’t really learn anything from his plight because everything’s different. If he is, I can feel sympathy for him.

Did Shakespeare believe in witches?  It’s not known for certain, but it was certainly typical of the time. Whether the audience believes in witches or not, however, we have to suspend that belief because this play takes place in a universe where magic exists.  Prospero rescued Ariel from a tree, after he was imprisoned there Sycorax. So Sycorax did have powers (like Prospero), and therefore was an actual witch, so is it really that far fetched that she was impregnated by a devil?  And if that is the case in this universe, what exactly does that make Caliban?  Because “appearing human” would probably be closer than “actually human”.  If that’s the case then the play isn’t nearly the same to me.  I have no sympathy for Caliban if he’s just a walking, talking animal.

So, is Caliban human? I prefer to see it that way, but I think that Shakespeare probably didn’t. What does everybody else think?



Jaffrey, NH Gets All The Good Tempests

I’m kind of digging this trend of bringing live stage performance Shakespeare to the big screen.  I can’t possibly get to all the live show I’d like to, so it’s nice to have the option.

This is particularly true of RSC’s recent “digital” version of The Tempest that got all the great writeups for its use of special effects and virtual reality.  (Actually I heard that the performance gets lost in the glitz, but I’d like to see for myself!)

So when I heard that they’re taking the show on the road I was prepared to get in line for my tickets (like I did with Benedick Cumberbatch’s Hamlet).  But … there are no Massachusetts show times listed.  I would understand, if only other big cities like NY, DC, Chicago, etc.. were on the list. Fine.  But the closest city to me with a screening is Jaffrey, New Hampshire? I’ve lived in Massachusetts all my life, raised three children who have all had to do social studies / geography presentations on the New England states, and nobody’s ever so much as mentioned Jaffrey.

Seriously though, I suspect that the calendar is just not updated.  When you select Jaffrey it actually says “Here are other cities with showtimes” and lists several Massachusetts cities including Chestnut Hill and Revere (neither of which I am likely to get to), but when you click on them it goes back to the main list of theatres as if you experienced an error.  I’m hoping to see either Cambridge / Kendall Square on there (which would be walking distance for me), or Burlington, where I saw Benebatch Hamlet.



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Real-time Tempest?

Does The Tempest take place in real-time?

There are several references to “three hours”  –


If thou be’st Prospero,
Give us particulars of thy preservation;
How thou hast met us here, who three hours since
Were wreck’d upon this shore; where I have lost–
How sharp the point of this remembrance is!–
My dear son Ferdinand.

And then, shortly after:


What is this maid with whom thou wast at play?
Your eld’st acquaintance cannot be three hours:
Is she the goddess that hath sever’d us,
And brought us thus together?

Maybe that technically counts as one because it’s Alonso both times.  Earlier, though, Miranda had said this:


Alas, now, pray you,
Work not so hard: I would the lightning had
Burnt up those logs that you are enjoin’d to pile!
Pray, set it down and rest you: when this burns,
‘Twill weep for having wearied you. My father
Is hard at study; pray now, rest yourself;
He’s safe for these three hours.

She’s clearly not talking about the same window of time there.  Not only does it happen earlier in the play (when Alonso’s three hours won’t have passed yet), but she’s talking about her father being out of their hair for at least the next three hours.

Just one of those interesting things you spot from time to time. If Romeo and Juliet is “two hours’ traffic of the stage,” and a full text Hamlet is four hours, how long would The Tempest have been?

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