Bet I Can Predict The Future

Which character was he supposed to be?

Finally, finally, my oldest gets to participate in a dedicated Shakespeare course this fall. I don’t have the title in front of me but it’s basically Shakespeare and Modern Film.  Given that my bestest online Shakespeare pal is a dude whose actual name is “Bard Film” I can’t wait until she gets homework.  (“Daddy, can I please do my own homework for once?”  “It’s ok sweetie, Bardfilm and I have got this.”)

Anyway, we had to order textbooks and I see they’ll be studying Othello, Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. Folger editions, for the curious.

Hmmm.  Anybody else seeing a pattern there?

I’m calling it right now – I’m going to have my daughter watch O, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man before school starts because I’ll bet you anything that’s what they’ll be doing in class. I never thought I’d say this but I’m glad Hamlet’s not among her required texts. If they had her watching Lion King I don’t think I could stand it.

 

 

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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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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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Shakespeare’s Dark Comedy

Over the centuries it’s been common practice to spin a happy ending on Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Romeo and Juliet live, King Lear and Cordelia live happily ever after.

What if you went the other way? The comedies are known for their happy endings.  Can you spin your favorite comedy and give it a dark ending?

Twelfth Night is the obvious choice, with Malvolio’s ominous, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”  How does he not show up at the wedding with an AR-15?

How about A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  The lovers wake up, the love potion has now worn off Demetrius, who sees Theseus and Egeus and immediately goes right back to the character he was in the first scene.  Seeing no change in anybody’s feelings on the matter and with Hermia refusing to budge, Theseus has her executed.  I was going to write that Lysander tries to protect her and gets executed for his trouble as well, but it’s more fun if he’s a coward who absolutely doesn’t do that. 🙂

Can we count The Tempest?  I know, not technically.  But it’s so easy to envision the entire play as the ravings of a poor old man alone on an island making up the whole thing.

Anybody else want to take a shot at going dark?

 

 

 

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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.

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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?

 

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As You Can Take It Or Leave It

Whenever we discuss Shakespeare’s best or greatest play, some folks will make the case for As You Like It.  Just yesterday on Facebook, in response to yesterday’s “The One Play” thread, one reader suggested that it is “at least as good as Hamlet.”

I don’t get it.

I don’t think it’s a bad play, necessarily.  But that’s not saying much, I’m not sure I’d say that any of them are bad.  But there are some that, if I never saw again, I think I’d probably be ok.  I’m not a Love’s Labour’s Lost fan, or All’s Well That Ends Well or Two Gentlemen of Verona.  There are other potential candidates, like Merry Wives of Windsor, that I’ve simply never seen live.

But other than general agreement that Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s strongest female leads?  As You Like It is right in that “It’s fine, I guess” category for me.  There’s no real conflict or drama, the plot is ridiculously convoluted, the ending entirely unbelievable.  The only real laugh out loud moments for me come during the exchanges between Jaques and Orlando.

Give me Twelfth Night any day if you want a strong female lead dressed up like a boy.  That one’s not afraid to play with some dark edges, like what they do to poor Malvolio.  His ending certainly isn’t happy.  Does anybody know WTF we’re supposed to take from a character whose last line is, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”? That’s the kind of thing somebody says before coming back with an automatic weapon.

So let’s have the alternate argument?  We’ll call it the Battle for Cross-Dressing Shakespeare.  I suppose we can go ahead and throw in Portia from if you really want to go down that path, but I don’t really think of her as the “female lead” in the same way as a Rosalind or Viola.  But, your call.

 

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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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If Music Be Whose Food Of Love?

If music be the food of love, play on.

Cleopatra doesn't look very hungry for the food of love.Everybody knows that quote, right?  Duke Orsino, opening line of Twelfth Night.

But check this out.  I was searching the text for music references tonight and a line popped up I’d never noticed before:

Give me some music; music, moody food
Of us that trade in love.

Recognize it?  That’s Cleopatra, from Antony and Cleopatra (duh), Act 2 Scene 5. Sounds almost identical, doesn’t it?  I love finding these obvious examples where Shakespeare had good luck with a particular turn of phrase and went back to it later.

It would be great if A&C was written first and we could say the most famous use of that line actually lifts it from the other, but that’s not the case – Twelfth Night is pretty safely several years prior to A&C.

 

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Why does Viola dress as a man?

Twelfth Night opens with a shipwreck, but if you blink you’ll miss it. There’s no actual stage direction that says “And now a shipwreck happens,” unlike The Tempest which starts in exactly this way.

Instead, the first cue about what’s happened comes as Viola, the Captain and sailors enter (Act 1 Scene 2) and Viola asks, “What country is this?” and fears that her brother has drowned:

[Enter VIOLA, a Captain, and Sailors]

Viola. What country, friends, is this?

Captain. This is Illyria, lady.

Viola. And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drown’d: what think you, sailors?

The Captain goes on to describe what he saw during the wreck, and gives Viola hope that her brother might indeed have survived (spoiler alert – he did!) But, still, that leaves Viola alone in a country unknown to her. The Captain tells her the story of the Lady Olivia and Duke Orsino. Viola wonders if she might become a servant for Olivia, but she is not seeing any visitors. So instead Viola decides that go into the service of Orsino, with the help of the Captain:

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke:
Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.

She never says “help me dress like a boy”, of course, but it can be inferred from the clues (“conceal me what I am”, “present me as an eunuch to him”).

Viola as Cesario
Image via Wikimedia Commons

But why is this her plan? Surely there must be easier ways to survive in Illyria. There are a few theories:

  • It’s a matter of safety. She’s an unaccompanied woman in an unknown country (even though she is with the Captain, he’s still just a hired hand, not exactly a family member). She’ll meet with less trouble if people think she’s a man. This is the logic that one of Shakespeare’s other cross-dressing heroines, Rosalind, uses in As You Like It:

Rosalind. Alas, what danger will it be to us,
Maids as we are, to travel forth so far!
Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.

Celia. I’ll put myself in poor and mean attire,
And with a kind of umber smirch my face;
The like do you; so shall we pass along,
And never stir assailants.

Rosalind. Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,
A boar spear in my hand; and- in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will-
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.

  • She needs money. Viola’s first thought is to go into the service of Olivia until she can get her own situation together:

Viola. O that I served that lady
And might not be delivered to the world,
Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
What my estate is!

  • The Captain’s description of the story between Orsino and Olivia has captivated Viola’s attention, and she wants to insert herself into the story. She believes that she will be of value to the Duke because she “can sing, and speak to him in many different sorts of music” and also “what else may hap to time,” so it’s quite possible that she’s already thinking about trying to play matchmaker.

 

 

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