Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stratford Announces 2011 Season

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has announced its 2011 season -- and, lo and behold, it includes Titus Andronicus! We've just been chatting about how it's important to see the play performed, and here we are. There's something magical about Stratford; it always seems to provide exactly what I want.

Other Shakespeare plays on the schedule are Twelfth Night, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard III.

Meanwhile, I can still look forward to the shows this season. I'm going in mid-July, and in one weekend I'll see As You Like It, The Tempest and The Winter's Tale. During another trip in August, I'll see Two Gentlemen of Verona. In between, you'll find me wandering the outdoor art fair, eating in the town's gourmet restaurants, shopping in the quirky stores, and walking along the River Avon. Every time I think about it, I practically drool.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why I Cry at "King Lear"

I spent last week at Mini University, a grown-up summer camp (for nerds) at Indiana University. I took three classes each day, with topics ranging from Mars exploration to the future of book publishing.

One class focused on the cognitive science of theater. Why do we cry when Cordelia is hanged, when we know perfectly well that it's a performance? The answer, said professor Amy Cook, may be related to neurons in the brain called mirror neurons, which fire when we perform an action but also when we see it performed. So, seeing a play might trigger our own related experiences.

Cook compared this experience to Hamlet's staging of the play within the play; Hamlet says that "the purpose of playing ... was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature." Shakespeare couldn't have known about mirror neurons, but he certainly understood the connection we feel to the experiences and characters on the stage.

For more on this topic, read Cook's essay, "Staging Nothing: Hamlet and Cognitive Science," originally published in SubStance and recently reprinted in Harold Bloom's Hamlet edition of the Modern Critical Interpretations series.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

By popular vote, this week's play is The Taming of the Shrew, which had an eleven-vote lead over Merchant of Venice. I'm not surprised that Shrew won, but I am surprised that three people voted for King John (although maybe you just want to get it over with?).

As usual, my thoughts will be posted at noon on Sunday (July 4), and that will kick off our discussion. I have a feeling we're going to be chatting about Kate's final speech quite a bit, and I'm looking forward to it!

Discussion: Titus Andronicus

The play: Titus Andronicus

The plot tweet: Tragedy / gore fest: Characters are burned alive, dismembered, raped, beheaded, stabbed, and served in meat pies at dinner. Really, Will?

My favorite line: "Let my deeds be witness of my worth." (Aaron)


This is the first time I've read Titus, and I'm not sure how to respond to the play. I'm not alone; critics have struggled with this play for centuries, sometimes even trying to remove it from the Shakespeare canon. T.S. Eliot called it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written."

Modern critics have sometimes attempted to justify the play, pointing to the "mastery of multiple entrances and exits" in the opening scene and the bizarre, dream-like way that characters' metaphors are fulfilled by the action. Critic Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, claims the play is "the radical -- the root -- of Shakespearean tragedy, the dreamscape or nightmare world laid out for all to see, not disguised by a retreat into metaphor." Despite these attempts to establish the play's merit, as editor Jonathan Bate writes in the introduction to the Arden edition, "nearly all scholars suppose that [Titus] is a very early work, a piece of crude and embarrassing juvenilia."

Harold Bloom reads the play a bit differently, claiming that it is a deliberate parody of Marlowe's work and should be played as a farce. In writing the play, Bloom says, Shakespeare exorcised the ghost of Marlowe and emerged from his competitor's shadow: "Titus Andronicus performed an essential function for Shakespeare, but cannot do very much for the rest of us."

As usual, I'm inclined to agree with dear Harold, but I have my doubts. I need to see the play performed -- perhaps both straight-up and as a farce -- before I decide. As critics have pointed out, this play comes across better in performance than in reading; Lavinia, for example, almost disappears for readers after she loses her tongue, but she remains a constant presence on the stage.

One thing I do like about this play is the scene-stealing Aaron the Moor. Like Iago, he is so deliciously, remorselessly, defiantly evil -- for no apparent reason other than that it gives him pleasure. In the midst of the play's stomach-churning violence, at least we have one character we can love to hate.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

So far, we've had three happy weeks of light-hearted comedy: the antics of Bottom, the wit of Rosalind and the slapstick chaos of the Dromios. We can't avoid it anymore: It's time for a tragedy. Because we're attempting a loose (very loose) chronological order, this week's reading assignment is Titus Andronicus.

I'm pretty excited about this one. I've neither read the play nor seen it performed, which is pretty unusual for me, so I'm coming to it with a clean mental slate.

As always, I'll post my thoughts at noon next Sunday, June 27, and I can't wait to hear your thoughts!

Discussion: As You Like It

The play: As You Like It

The plot tweet: Evil duke usurps throne and banishes whole court to Arden. Rosalind dresses as boy for no apparent reason, woos Orlando. Giant group wedding.

My favorite line: "Ay, now am I in Arden, the more fool I. When I was at home I was in a better place, but travelers must be content." (Touchstone)


I have a little crush on Harold Bloom, perhaps the most prominent contemporary Shakespeare critic, and I often read his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human when I'm thinking about a play. He offers high praise for As You Like It, and he writes that Rosalind is "the most remarkable and persuasive representation of a woman in all of Western literature," putting her on par with Hamlet and Falstaff.


I'll grant you, As You Like It has some of the most famous Bard quotes, and it offers plenty of fodder for criticism. Rosalind seems like a friendly gal, and Arden seems like a nice place to spend one's banishment. But, here's the thing: Try as I might, I just can't get excited about Rosalind or the play in general. I don't know why. I must be wrong, because dear old Harold (and apparently everyone else) is madly in love with this play.

What is it, exactly, that is so appealing about Rosalind? She's not the only female character to dress as a boy; she's not the only one who is smart and witty. She does direct her own fate, and the fate of several other lovers in the play, and Shakespeare must have liked her very much to feature her in the epilogue. But, to put her on the same level as great characters like Hamlet and Falstaff? That is far over-stating the case.

Am I the only one who feels this way? If you're head over heels for Rosalind, please do tell me why.

One thing that does interest me about this place is the subjectivity of perception. The characters all perceive the forest differently, based on what they want and expect to see. Rosalind discusses the many differing perspectives of the passage of time, and Touchstone describes how his perception of forest life differs based on his mood. And, of course, the play presents many different perceptions of what love should be and how lovers should behave. In Midsummer, we saw a group of characters who could not trust their eyes; here, similarly, we have a group of characters whose perceptions change based on their situations and moods.

When discussing this play, critics often talk about the idea of reinventing the self: Rosalind reinvents herself as a boy, for example, and the banished duke reinvents himself as a merry forester. And yet, at the end, Duke Senior returns to the court, and Rosalind returns to a more conventional female role as daughter and wife. In fact, the only characters who sustain their new invention of self are the villains -- the usurping duke and Orlando's older brother. So, just as I don't care much for Rosalind, I can't accept that self-invention is the main theme of this play. If so, that doesn't say much for our ability to change.

Reading the complete works of Shakespeare is a learning experience, and I know most people feel differently about this play. I am willing to be persuaded. So, tell me: What do you like about the play? What is so darn appealing about Rosalind? As she would say, "come, woo me, woo me."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Garfield Shakespeare Company: As You Like It

Every community needs a theater group like the Garfield Shakespeare Company: a small group of volunteer actors offering free shows in the park -- for no benefit other than the pleasure of soaking themselves in Shakespeare.

Community theater gets a bad rap, and I admit to being reluctant about last night's performance of "As You Like It." Yes, the acting was spotty, but there's real pleasure in watching an actor who's clearly destined for better things (i.e., paying work). Sure, the scenery consisted of plastic trees and painted bed-sheet backdrops, but Shakespeare's company worked with even less.

The company made good decisions (especially in terms of what to cut) and made good use of its limited resources, and overall the actors presented a solid performance. Anyway, when writing about free performances by volunteer actors, I'm inclined to overlook a few flaws.

I can say, without hesitation, that last night's play was infinitely better than the performance we saw last fall at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. -- which probably had a budget 1,000 times higher than last night's show. For that show, the director wanted to emphasize the theme of re-invention, and to compare the characters' self-fashioning to the growth and development of America as a nation.

Thus, every single scene was set in a different American time and place, gradually moving from the Pilgrims in Act I to the Wild West in Act III to the Roaring '20s in Act V. Every single scene had new scenery and new costumes, and the actors even spoke in different regional accents every time they appeared on stage. Even for a Shakespeare buff like me, it was impossible to follow. We spent the first half of every scene trying to figure out who the heck was on stage.

Having flown to Washington, D.C., specifically to see that play, you can imagine how irritated we were. For me, Shakespeare companies need to present the play without distracting from the original text. That doesn't mean every Bard production needs to be set in Elizabethan England; I've seen a good "Othello" set in post-colonial Africa and a hilarious "Comedy of Errors" styled as a 1950s sci-fi B-movie. As long as it makes sense -- and as long as it doesn't distract from the text -- those productions can open up new possibilities for interpretation. But, first and foremost, you have to respect the text.

From that perspective, last night's performance of "As You Like It," humble as it was, was far better than its high-budget, high-profile counterpart (and I have a new theater crush, to boot).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Join Us on Facebook

Since we launched the Shakespeare in a Year Challenge this month, I've been working hard to get people involved: harassing my friends, chatting up Shakespeare fans on book-club websites, sending out news releases, making connections with other Bard bloggers -- basically, an endless stream of shameless Shakespeare promotion.

But the best way to get people involved, I've discovered, is our good friend Facebook, where I recently set up a Shakespeare In a Year group. If you're visiting from that group, welcome! On the other hand, if you're not already involved in the Facebook group, we'd love to see you there.

This website will continue to be the official home of the Shakespeare In a Year Challenge, but we're already having some great chats on Facebook, too. Come on over and join us!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another Great Cartoon

While we're on the subject of Shakespeare cartoons, here's another one of my favorites. Do you have any Bard-related comics to share?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Shakespeare Cartoon in New Yorker

We haven't addressed the whole "who wrote Shakespeare?" debate here because, quite frankly, the anti-Stratfordian line of argument just pisses me off. But, the current issue of the New Yorker has a clever little cartoon about the debate, and it's worth checking out. (I can't post it here for copyright reasons.) Aren't those New Yorker cartoons fantastic?

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Vortigern Forgery

Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article in its June issue about William-Henry Ireland, a deadbeat clerk who, in 1795, forged a variety of Shakespeare-related documents, including deeds, poems and an entirely new play, all in an attempt to impress his Bardophile father. The forgeries fooled even James Boswell, and the play was eventually performed -- though not to much critical acclaim. Check out the article and then answer me this: If you could claim authorship of one Shakespeare play, which one would you choose?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

Now that you've finished Comedy of Errors (you have, right?), your reading assignment for next week is As You Like It. Deadline: noon, next Sunday, June 20. And, if you live in Indianapolis, remember to stop by the Garfield Park Arts Center this coming weekend for a free performance.

Discussion: Comedy of Errors

The play: Comedy of Errors

The plot tweet: Two sets of twins, unknown to each other, wander around same town; chaos ensues. Dad escapes execution; Mom shows up; everyone feasts.

My favorite line:
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.


In the past few years, I've used Comedy of Errors as a measuring stick for Shakespeare theaters and festivals around the Midwest -- not because it's the best indicator of a theater company's ability, but merely because it seemed to be playing everywhere I went.

The funniest version, by far, was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and it starred one of my favorite comedic actors, Bruce Dow, as Dromio of Syracuse. The strangest version (although still quite funny), was with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company; it was set as a 1950s sci-fi B-movie, which naturally emphasized the more bizarre aspects of the play. I also saw a good version last year at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin (which, if you've never been there, is a fantastic open-air venue).

In the midst of this Comedy of Errors overkill, I broke one of my own Shakespeare rules: I saw the play without reading it first. So, as I read the play this week, many things were bumping around in my head, including different interpretations of the scenery, the characters and the overall tone. It's been difficult to sort out that "noise" and get a pure reading of the play.

Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and some aspects of it -- the ample fart jokes, for example -- make me wonder if he had it left over from an adolescent writing experiment. On the other hand, as critics have noted, the play gives us a preview of many themes Shakespeare will use throughout his career, such as storms/tempests and the search for self. The final act, a reconciliation and reunion orchestrated by Emilia/the Abbess, feels to me like an early attempt at the mastery achieved in The Winter's Tale.

This is one of the very few Shakespeare plays that sticks to the classical unities of time and place: The action takes place on the streets of one town, in one afternoon, and characters are constantly mentioning the time -- a countdown to Egeon's scheduled execution at sundown (which we never for a minute believe will actually take place). It's also one of the Bard's shortest plays, and even then there are some sections that feel like filler.

One criticism of the play is that the characters don't have much depth. Just compare the play's most rounded-out character, Antipholus of Syracuse, with Hamlet or Falstaff. Another frustration: To make the plot work, the characters have to be pretty stupid sometimes. When Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in town, he's told that a merchant from Syracuse is facing execution, but it never occurs to him to find out who the merchant is. And, although the whole point of his journey is to find his brother, he never considers his twin to be a potential cause for the mix-ups of the day. (Nor, for that matter, does Egeon, when Antipholus of Ephesus swears he doesn't recognize him.)

Once we get past some fairly stupid characters with a penchant for fart jokes, what's left? Well, to start, it's pretty darn funny. Indeed, staged well, it's the funniest Shakespeare play I've seen. That doesn't come across very well in the reading because so much of the humor is physical slapstick. Think of the possibilities of a simple stage direction like "He beats Dromio." (Right now, in my head, Bruce Dow is wearing a funny little cap and running madly around the stage, shrieking like a girl.)

One thing I did notice in the reading, which didn't come across well on stage, was how repulsive Luciana can be. She's not married, but when we first meet her she's lecturing her sister on the need to be subservient to her husband. In her next appearance, she's screeching at Dromio, calling him "thou drone, thou snail, thou slug, thou sot." In her next scene, she's lecturing Antipholus of Syracuse about how to behave toward his supposed wife. She continues in this vein throughout the play. What a shrill, insufferable know-it-all. Imagine what she'd be like if she weren't pretending to be the meek and mild single girl.

Did you get the same impression of Luciana? She's not mentioned much in the criticism I read, so I'm interested in hearing what other people think.

Another question for discussion: If Comedy of Errors is a "preview" of Shakespeare's later work, what parallels did you notice? When Antipholus of Ephesus says, "But with these nails I'll pluck out these false eyes," for example, does that ring any bells for you? We haven't read that play yet, but I'll give you an imaginary bonus point if you know what it is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Shakespeare vs. Zombies?

You've seen Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Now, in the same vein, we have Shakespeare Undead, by Lori Handeland.

The plot synopsis from Publishers Weekly, which calls the novel "rather clumsy": "Zombies have invaded 1592 London, and it's up to William Shakespeare, whose genius with a quill comes from his extended life as a vampire, to stop them." The book also gives Shakespeare a love interest, who is (of course) a zombie hunter.

I must admit, I like the idea of Shakespeare as a vampire, not only because I have an embarrassing weakness for vampire fiction but also because, if he's undead, I could still theoretically invite him to my next dinner party. On the other hand, I can't really picture the Bard as an action hero.

Plus, I still haven't recovered from the sheer awfulness of Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, which was recommended by a friend and which was, quite simply, the most terrible book I've ever read. So, for the time being, no classic literature/vampire mash-ups for me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Stratford Shakespeare Festival Opens New Season

Disney World may be the happiest place on earth, but my happy place is Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The season opened this weekend with plenty of fanfare and a preview performance of As You Like It. Other Shakespeare plays this season include The Tempest (starring Christopher Plummer), Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter's Tale, as well as Kiss Me, Kate, a musical adaptation of Taming of the Shrew.

For those of you in the Midwest, a trip to Stratford is easily accomplished in a long weekend. It's an eight-hour drive from Indy (depending on how long you spend at the border), so you can leave on Friday morning, have a leisurely dinner at one of the town's fantastic restaurants, and then catch the 8 p.m. show. You can see two more shows -- at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. -- on Saturday, and then head home Sunday (if you must).

I'm going to Stratford twice this summer, once by myself in July and once in August with several friends. Every time I bring someone new to Stratford, that person falls head over heels in love with the gourmet restaurants, funky shops, beautiful landscapes, and of course outstanding theater. Here, in the middle of rural Ontario, is a town that lives and breathes Shakespeare.

Plus, it's named Stratford, and it's on the river Avon, and it's just north of London. But in Canada. It's really sort of funny.

For more info on this summer's season, visit the festival's website or check out this article from the Canwest News Service.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Upcoming Show: As You Like It

My usual frenzy of summer Shakespeare trips is about to begin. First up: a free performance of As You Like It at the Garfield Park Arts Center. Care to join me? The show is at 7 p.m., June 18, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., June 19. Tickets are free, but reservations are required: (317) 327-7135.

Side note: This is the first of four times I'll be seeing As You Like It this summer. I'll also be seeing the Tempest three times. Last year, it was Comedy of Errors that I saw three times. Do the Shakespeare gods have some kind of pow-wow and agree on the same shows?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

This Week's Reading Assignment

Drum roll, please: Your reading assignment for next week is ... Comedy of Errors, one of the Bard's earliest plays, which came in second in last week's reader poll. Your deadline: noon on Sunday, June 13. Happy reading!

Discussion: A Midsummer Night's Dream

The play: A Midsummer Night's Dream

The plot tweet: Theseus marries his war-won bride; fairy royals fight over a child; four lovers get very mixed up. Puck causes trouble, but all ends well.

My favorite line: "If we shadows have offended, / think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumb'red here, / while these visions did appear."


Whenever I read or see Midsummer, I feel a bit overwhelmed: There is so much going on. Theseus and Hippolyta are planning their wedding (and thus creating the framing device of the play), the four Athenian lovers are running amok in the woods, the fairy king and queen are fighting, Puck is causing trouble, the "rude mechanicals" are rehearsing their play for the wedding ... Is there any other Shakespeare play with so many threads of plot? The effect, for me, is of chaos just barely contained.

When I studied the play in college, my professor (the late Albert Wertheim) started the lecture by telling us to pay attention to eyes and visual imagery in the play. Hermia wails, "Oh, hell! To choose love by another's eyes," and Helena complains of Hermia's "blessed and attractive eyes." And, of course, the love potion used on Titania and the Athenian lovers is applied to the eyes. The message, it seems, is that -- at least in matters of love -- the senses are not to be trusted. As Theseus says, "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends."

In fact, what can the characters of Midsummer trust? Certainly not their emotions or the strength of their relationships. Even their own identities are changeable, as Puck's transformation of Bottom clearly demonstrates. The chaos creates ample opportunities for side-splitting humor, but it is tinged with darkness and an edge of unease. The chaos is controlled, but just barely -- we are so close to the abyss of tragedy. The play within the play, the story of Pyramus and Thisby, reminds us that the descent into tragedy requires only the simplest error.

I have seen Midsummer performed five times in recent years. The funniest, by far, was last summer's performance at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, where the four lovers ended up chasing each other around the stage in their underwear (and the play was set, rather oddly, in Athens, Georgia -- complete with thick Southern accents). By contrast, the darkest performance I've seen was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where the fairies were presented as a sort of leather-and-lace motorcycle gang.

For me, this is always the central question of the play: How do we interpret the fairies, and Puck in particular? Is he simply mischievous or actively malevolent? The character can be played either way successfully, and I never can decide on my own interpretation. If the play is about barely contained chaos, however, it seems clear that Puck is the embodiment of that chaos. By forcing Puck to correct his errors, Oberon is the normalizing force that prevents the slapstick comedy from veering into tragedy.

The play contains two other characters I find especially interesting. One is Hippolyta, whose characterization is vague and who speaks only a few lines. How does she feel about her future husband and forced marriage? We get the sense that she disapproves of Theseus' harsh judgment of Hermia in the play's first scene, but we know little more. I'd love to see a novelization of her side of the story.

The other character I enjoy is, of course, Bottom. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom suggests that Bottom is the comedic precursor for Falstaff, and I would agree with him if only I didn't detest Falstaff. Bottom is unquestionably ridiculous, but he is impervious to the chaos around him and utters some of the wisest lines in the play. If he were human, he'd be the crazy uncle that everyone rolls their eyes at but always invites to dinner.

What do you think of Bottom? And what are your overall impressions of the play? What's your favorite line? You know what I think -- now it's your turn. Post your comments, and let's get the discussion started!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Expanding Your Collection: Which Shakespeare to Buy?

Yesterday, a reader asked me to recommend a publisher or text for Shakespeare's plays. My short answer was, "I like the Arden series," but the real answer is: It depends.

Question one: Do you want a massive "Complete Works of Shakespeare" text, or do you prefer individual plays? The complete works typically include the sonnets and other poems, so you get a bit more for your money. But, logistically speaking, they're difficult to read and too heavy to pop into your purse. The paper tends to be thin, which doesn't work well for people who like to highlight, underline and make notes.

If you do want a complete Shakespeare tome, opt for the gold-standard Riverside Shakespeare ($100 from Amazon) or the cheaper Arden paperback ($26).

Looking for individual plays? Again, it's a matter of preference. In college, I used both the Signet Classic versions ($5) and the Arden versions (third series, $7-15), and I strongly prefer the Arden plays. For me, it's less about the supplementary material and more about the book's construction; the Arden plays have glossier paper that holds up better to my copious note-making. This is, incidentally, why I can't recommend the Norton Critical Editions; the bindings are terrible.

The Folger Shakespeare Library has also issued a series of the plays. I don't have any, but they're probably worth checking out (and they're a bit cheaper, too).

Don't have a single penny to spare? Try one of the free online Shakespeare collections, such as this one offered by MIT. I'd rather gouge my eyes out than try to read an entire play online, but it's not a bad option if you need, say, Venus and Adonis.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

20 Things You Never Knew About Shakespeare

What is Shakespeare's most over-rated play? How did he spend his money? Those and other questions are answered in this article from the Times of London. My favorite question: "Why are Shakespeare's jokes so bad?"

Meanwhile, how is your reading of Midsummer going? Last summer, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival did a version in which everyone spoke in heavy Southern accents. It was hilarious, but now those accents are banging around in my brain as I read the play. Very strange!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Day 1 of the Shakespeare in a Year Challenge

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines! The Shakespeare in a Year Challenge begins today with the play you selected, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Remember, you have until Sunday to read the play. At noon that day, I'll post some thoughts and questions to get the discussion started. I can't wait to read your comments and monitor the debates!

Thus begins our great Shakespearean adventure. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, "Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges -- something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"